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Rifts And Challenges Weaken Religious Reformism In Iran


Two pivotal developments are casting significant doubt on the viability of religious reformist movements in Iran, that have tried to present a more liberal view of Shia Islam.

Firstly, the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement, which operates independently of religious affiliations, renders religious reformism largely irrelevant. Secondly, the impending sham elections scheduled for March 1, have divided reformists on whether to engage or boycott, further undermining their cohesion and leadership.

For over two decades, Abdulkarim Soroush has been a leading advocate for modern interpretations of Shia sacred texts. Meanwhile, as an ex-political prisoner and disciple of the late Hossein Ali Montazeri, Mohsen Kadivar has emerged as a prominent figure in religious traditionalism. Montazeri, once Khomeini’s designated successor, was sidelined by the security establishment. Now, Soroush and Kadivar find themselves engaged in a religious and political rivalry, each vying to position themselves as an alternative to secular figures like Prince Reza Pahlavi.

Religious reformist Abdolkarim Soroush

The dispute between Soroush and Kadivar, stemming from theoretical disagreements over the interpretation of religious texts, has escalated. Kadivar has excommunicated Soroush and Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, while Soroush has called for Kadivar’s public repentance. However, amidst these theological debates, many Iranians, particularly those actively opposed to the regime, have shifted their focus away from such issues. Nevertheless, Soroush and Kadivar persist in their efforts to sway politically motivated believers within Iran, despite residing on the East Coast of America.

This ongoing debate holds significant importance for observers of Iranian politics and society. It sheds light on the fate of the reformist project of the 1990s, which aimed not only to challenge the authority of Shia clergy in interpreting texts but also to introduce political and social reforms. Initially viewed as a promising alternative to religious authoritarianism, reformism gained momentum, leading to significant political shifts, such as Mohammad Khatami’s election victory in 1997. However, subsequent events, including the Green Movement’s defeat in 2009, marked the decline of religious reformism, paving the way for other political movements.

Reformist cleric Mohsen Kadivar during a religious gathering in the US.

Internationally, Mohammad Khatami’s presidency was initially welcomed by Western governments and the UN, who saw him as a moderate seeking dialogue and cooperation. During this time, figures like Soroush gained attention in Western academia for their efforts to reinterpret Islam. Books and academic dissertations were written and published about his project on the ‘de-shariatization’ of Islam and the negation of totalitarian Islamism through the channel of new religious interpretations.

However, the regime’s suppression of the reformist-led Green Movement in 2009, was the end of the religious reform movement, and after that, its ideologues were sidelined by the opposition constitutionalist or secular republican movements. Instead of supporting the secular, libertarian, and nationalist discourse of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, the religious reformists opposed women leaders and constitutionalists, and as a result mostly isolated themselves. Even before recent protests, Western governments, academia and think tanks had concluded that the engine of reformism and religious moderation had broken down and could no longer be an alternative discourse for the Islamist expansionism. For this reason, for a decade, the technocrat lobby of the Islamic Republic gradually took the place of the pioneers of religious reformism in Western academia, think tanks, and media.

Domestically, during Hassan Rouhani’s administration, hopes for de-escalation with the West diminished, polarizing Iranian society between pro-Khamenei factions and those advocating for regime change. Figures like Soroush and Kadivar found themselves increasingly marginalized within this landscape, as the political discourse shifted away from religious reformism.

As the social credibility and access to power of reformists has waned, internal strife has intensified among different factions. The current tension between Soroush, Shabestari, and Kadivar underscores the decline of alternative religious discourses in the face of the government’s totalitarianism. This rift becomes especially apparent on the eve of the upcoming elections, where reformers’ attempts to participate are met with skepticism, reflecting the disillusionment of a population weary of political Islam and religious reformism.