09/17/2013 02:32 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

Humanizing Enemies: Iran's Post-Religious Intellectual Discourse

In Iran, the intellectual discourse is taking a new direction, noted most significantly by the fact that Mostafa Malekian, one of the highest-celebrated intellectuals in the country, is slowly gaining an intellectual following tantamount to Abdol Karim Soroush, often described as the 'Martin Luther of Islam.' This indicates momentum away from the primarily religious paradigm toward one concerned instead with the modern human condition.

Soroush's work served as a key part of the foundation regarding a growth in popularity of many Reformist ideas, including secularism, freedom, and civil society. Khatami administration was born out of this discourse, and the result had both domestic and international implications. During Khatami's presidency, Iran's foreign policy entered into a new phase, namely, moving from confrontation to conciliation. Similarly, Malekian offers a path toward erasing inevitable frictions in non-violent and constructive ways in the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-political society of Iran that its wide rifts might otherwise split society. This new discourse might spill over to interstate relations as well. Malekian's compelling work, which is highly respected by scholars in the field, has received a raft of recent, overwhelming attention from students and journalists alike. He is currently the most sought after lecturer at universities and research centers throughout Iran.

His thoughts are unprecedented in the tradition of modern Iranian intellectual heritage. A stalwart advocate of human beings, Malekian has devoted his life to decreasing the pain and suffering of others. His rhetoric cannot be contained within any existing genres--secular, religious, traditional, or even liberal do not quite serve as the right boxes in which to assign his beliefs. His approach is irreverent to other discourse, due in large part to his incredible reverence for life. Says Malekian:

I am not concerned with the tradition, nor for the modernity, nor for the culture and nor for any other abstract stuff of this kind. My foremost concern is with the humans of flesh and blood who are coming into this world, suffer, and then pass away. Our journey in life is to, first: Make human beings encounter the truth more and more so that they learn more truth; second, to suffer less and to feel less pain; and third, to develop our dispositions toward being good people. And to make these three targets happen, we are allowed to employ whatever is useful, be it religion or science, art or literature, and all other human achievements.(BBCPersian)

Malekian's exegesis represents a welcomed turning point in Iran and establishes a new philosophical genre: "Rationality and Spirituality." Unlike other religious intellectuals, Malekian feels that human spirituality can remain mutually exclusive from membership with organized religion, and that, perhaps more importantly, organized religion is not always the key to achieving spirituality.

Malekian sees a unique separation of modern humans from what might be termed more "traditional humanity." The evidential signs of this new modernity include autonomous rationality, a focus on the present, a lack of trust in former historical "truths," and a growing, urgent concern for this world -- for the current space we occupy -- rather than the eternal or whatever great beyond may be waiting for us. The main trait of modern humans is self determinism, which is derived solely from rationality. This characteristic enables us to break free from that which reigns over human life. For this reason, it's not possible for humans in our current, modern culture to accept traditional religious values any longer. Instead, Malekian argues, what humans need is spirituality, a practice he defines as "religion that has become rational."

In a former time, the traditional approach to religion called for followers to obey authority figures, to trust completely in a religious tenet's historical underpinnings, to dedicate their lives solely to "life" after death and the rich promises of that afterlife, to respond openly and unquestioningly to a comprehensive metaphysical system, and to hold specific entities sacred. Malekian argues that, as a result, traditional intellectuals as inherently anti-democratic, anti-modern, and anti-liberal.

"Religion," Malekian explains, "is beyond rationality and reasoning," and for this reason, he suggests, efforts to reconcile religious views with views on reason, i.e. what religious intellectuals like Soroush continue to pursue, are unsuccessful. Our world has already undergone the age of enlightenment, and Malekian posits that there is no going back. Not only is it impossible, Malekian questions why we would even want to. This type of regression would undermine many of modern humanity's achievements, without which we would not be where we are today.

According to Malekian, three key reasons make spirituality desirable for modern humans: (1) it is not rooted in text. This freedom and lack of boundaries from scripture means that the very best, most uplifting, generous, and healing parts of every major world religion can be incorporated seamlessly under the umbrella of spiritual belief. In turn, this provides a type of openness to each religion's sacred texts that was not previously accessible. (2) Metaphysical speculations reside at a minimum, with focus shifted instead to spirituality's "psychological testability in this world." (3) Ethical and practical values and ideals are honored over theoretical ones.

In our once more traditional world, Malekian feels that religion previously functioned as a way to highlight the deepest and most heartbreaking causes of human suffering alongside ways to recover from that suffering -- helping each other along toward inner peace, joy, and hope, as well as achieving unity (both with others and with a higher power) along the way. But Malekian promotes the idea that, now, spirituality can work toward that same goal, only without adherence to the strict, unbending guidelines found in so many traditional religious doctrines. Malekian's spirituality denotes joy, inner peace and hope that exist in harmony with rational thought and action. The consequence of these achievements comes in the form of compassionate action by the spiritual individual.

Compassionate action creates a rippling effect, paying forward kindness and forgiveness in circles with a larger and larger radius. This is true even for people who may have formerly committed transgressions against compassion, and in turn this type of system acts as a counterweight against vindictive behavior, vigilante justice, or punishment, working to quell violence while encouraging peaceful discourse, communication, and understanding. Says Malekian about this practice:

I am very interested in the topic of love, and it is something that has not been emphasized in Islamic theology. In Islam and Judaism the emphasis has been on justice. Law overcomes morality. Justice sometimes is compatible with violence, but love cannot be compatible with violence.

(Christian Encounters with Iran: Engaging Muslim Thinkers after the Revolution, Tavassoli, 2011, P. 164)

For Middle Eastern countries that are prone to conflict -- such as Iran -- philosophies rooted in love, compassion, and spirituality are particularly relevant, essential, and crucial today. Discord between polarized, warring factions pits different ethnic, religious, political, or socioeconomic classes against one another with little chance of cooperation or compromise from any side. With Malekian's philosophy, those lines would be erased as differing groups found commonalities in shared spiritual sentiments and compassionate daily living.

Malekian examines the world, and humanity, through two lenses: The first is through a justice perspective, which includes individuals who make their ethical decisions while guided by principles of equality, fairness, and impartiality. The second is through a care perspective, which emphasizes compassion and attachment, preserving human relationships and minimizing hurt even at the cost of justice or equal rights. Malekian advocates for all of humankind to adopt a care perspective due to the way it aligns itself with the tenets of spirituality and harmony.

The type of mindful compassionate living, this philosophy of care, is the reason Malekian advocates for individuals -- all individuals -- to unchain ourselves from conflict, not only in our personal and professional lives but extending more broadly into our social and political lives as well. Compassion allows us to extend beyond the self, to take on the viewpoint and the pain of others and wear them as if they were our own. Within the framework of conflict resolution, Malekian's discourse is a promising development toward avoiding conflict at all levels of Iranian society and facilitates tolerance, coexistence, reconciliation and humanization of enemies at a global level.

This piece was initially published on Lobe Log Foreign Policy with some revisions.