[Following the introduction below by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, we are posting excerpts from a dialogue between Akbar Ganji and Charles Taylor. The interview took place over two days in April of 2007, at Northwestern University. It was translated by Ahmad Sadri, transcribed by Morteza Dehghani and will appear at the end of a Persian translation of Taylor’s Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited, for which Taylor has written a new foreword for his Iranian readers. Readers can download the full English transcript of the dialogue here. For more background on Akbar Ganji see his website.—ed.]
Akbar Ganji is Iran’s preeminent political dissident. A heroic figure to the democratic movement in Iran, he has been likened to Gandhi and Mandela. The London-based human rights organization, Article 19, has described Ganji as the “Iranian Vaclav Havel.” He has been the recipient of over a dozen human rights, press freedom and pro-democracy awards.
Ganji was born into a religious family in 1960, in a poor district of south Tehran. Like many young Iranians of his generation, he was a fierce critic of the US-backed monarchy and an enthusiastic supporter of Ayatullah Khomeini and Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the early 1980s he became a member of the new government’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and was subsequently employed in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. But like many revolutionaries, Ganji became increasingly disillusioned with the path his country’s revolution was taking, and his thinking underwent a gradual metamorphosis. He channeled his growing frustration with the post-revolutionary status quo into journalism. By the late 1990s he had emerged as Iran’s leading investigative reporter, having produced a body of writing critical of the regime’s suppression of human rights and crackdown on dissent.
Ganji published these reports in a variety of pro-democracy newspapers (such as Sobh-e Emrooz, Khordad, and Fath), most of which were shut down in the conservative clerical crackdown on Iran’s reform movement. He became a household name after the publication of two best-selling books, Tarik khaneye Ashbah (Dungeon of Ghosts, 1999) and Alijenob Sorkhpoosh va Alijenob-e Khakestari (The Red Eminence and the Grey Eminences, 2000). The former has been described by the Washington Post as “the Iranian equivalent of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.” His books exposed the dark side of authoritarian clerical rule, focusing on the nefarious role of senior religious leaders in the serial murders of Iranian writers and intellectuals. In these books Ganji also exposed the attempt by clerical hardliners to suffocate the free debate and expression which blossomed in the first term of Muhammad Khatami’s reformist presidency (1997-2001). These widely-reads books seriously damaged the reputation of former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani and contributed to the defeat of the conservatives in the parliamentary elections of February 2000.
In April of 2000, Ganji was arrested upon his return to Iran from an academic conference in Berlin. In January of 2001, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail and to five years internal exile (upon appeal he was given a six-year sentence and banned for life from working as a journalist). His six-year prison sentence—which he served out in full—ended in March of 2006. Following in the footsteps of Mandela, Havel and Martin Luther King, Jr., Ganji took to writing from his prison cell. His political manifestos and open letters were smuggled out of jail and published on the internet, sparking an intense debate among Iranians about the future of their country.
In 2005, his last year in prison, Ganji went on a hunger strike that lasted from May to August. His hunger strike mobilized the international human rights community, including eight former Nobel Peace laureates. Thousands of intellectuals and human rights activists around the world spoke out on his behalf. It is generally believed that the global support generated for Ganji during this period spared his life.
In June of 2006 Ganji left Iran. He has been writing and giving talks in Europe and North America, raising awareness about the struggle for democracy in his country, and also advocating against a U.S. military attack on Iran. A handful of these writings were published in April of 2008 under the title The Road to Democracy in Iran (MIT Press). It is the sole volume of Ganji’s voluminous writings in English translation. Despite repeated invitations he has refused to meet with any member of the Bush Administration, on the principle that the struggle for democracy in Iran must be waged from within the country, without foreign governmental support. His interlocutors have consisted exclusively of human rights groups, civil society organizations, journalists, members of the Iranian diaspora community and Western intellectuals. To date he has met and engaged in dialogue with Jürgen Habermas, Robert Bellah, David Held, Ronald Dworkin, Noam Chomsky, Seyla Benhabib, Michael Sandel, Nancy Fraser, Martha Nussbaum, Marshall Berman, Alasdair MacIntrye, the late Richard Rorty and Charles Taylor.
His interest in meeting with these figures has been twofold. First, he would like to introduce the ideas of leading Western thinkers to an Iranian readership, which has a huge appetite for intellectual engagement and dialogue with the West. His second goal is to update and inform his Western interlocutors about the struggle for democracy inside Iran.
Akbar Ganji: Your book Varieties of Religion Today combines discussions of philosophy of religion and sociology of religion. Do you agree with this? Do you agree that this book combines these two different forms of discourse? If it is so, which one of these two discourses is dominant? Is it philosophy of religion or sociology of religion?
Charles Taylor: I think it’s neither and I think we have to add a third discourse, which is history. And I think that in the end there’s a single discourse, which is the only adequate one. Just as sociology without history can’t really get to the really important issues, so at the same time, if you don’t have a deep consideration of the philosophical issues, you can’t do good historical sociology. I mean, for instance, if you want to talk about religion, the development of religion, and let me say in parenthesis that I’m just claiming in that book (Varieties of Religion Today) and in my big book (A Secular Age) to be talking about religion in the West as it’s developed in the last 500 years. And so if you look at that, then you have to, if you are trying to develop a theory of the development of secularization, which means many things. But the two things it does mean is a change in the position of religion in society and also it means, to some degree, sometimes, a retreat of religion of belief and practice.
Now people sometimes confuse these two and it makes for confusion about what we mean by it. Now both these kinds of secularization have happened in the West. The first, the change of the position of religion has been general in the West. But the second, the retreat of religion has happened very, very differently. I mean virtually not at all in the United States. But in Sweden or East Germany very significant retreat has occurred and everything in between. Now you can’t come to grips with this kind of movement without a certain understanding of human motivation, of what is the human motivation in religion.
What motivates human beings in their religious life? Now I think that this motivation is very different in different times and periods. And we might miss this point because a lot of very powerful religions today, Islam, Christianity etc., are very close to each other in many respects in their driving motivations. But if you look wider at Hinduism, Buddhism, earlier forms of religion, you realize that there is just an immense difference. So that’s why I say that you can’t write a general history of secularization. Even writing one about the whole West is maybe too ambitious. But the philosophical element is essential if you take the mainline secularization theory of let’s say a post-war sociology.
People like Peter Berger in his earlier writings or today, someone like Steve Bruce is still continuing, they have a very simple story that the more modernity progresses—you know, things like industrialization, the development of the modern state, social mobility and all these markers—the more they develop, the more religion declines. Now this assumes, they never discuss it, but this assumes that the motivation to religious life in human beings is very shallow and not very profound, so that religious life is tied to certain sociological forms that existed earlier. And when these sociological forms are destabilized by modernity, religion disappears as well. But I disagree with that. That’s the philosophical point that needs to be at the core of your historical and sociological study. If you have a different view, you’ll have a very different theory of the whole development [of secularization]. And I mean to talk about how I see this movement in the West, the mainline theory—I mean the theory I’m attacking—thinks there is a linear movement of secularization as modernity advances. As one progresses the other progresses. A simple functional relationship.
Now according to my underlying theory, you’d expect something different. You would expect that certain developments of modernity would in fact destabilize earlier forms of religious life. I mean for instance the idea of a monarchy embedded in the cosmos connected to God, the kind of picture of the French monarchy, that’s not going to survive certain changes in society that come with modernity. But if the human relation to religion and to God is not as shallow as the mainstream theory thinks, then what would happen in many cases is religion would be recomposed in new forms that meet the new situation. And that is in fact what I would argue has happened in the West. So this is a much more adequate theory to understand this historical and sociological reality, but what it required is a deep understanding of the place of religion in human life. So I would claim that there’s a single discourse and it’s made up of elements that look as though they are drawn from three disciplines, but in fact they cohere together as a single discourse. The three discourses would be philosophy, history and sociology. You can’t do sociology without history, history without sociology, and you can’t do either without a proper philosophical understanding of human motivation. So the whole thing hangs together from those three sources.[…]
Akbar Ganji: You state that we should have a historical point of view, but when we look at history we realize that in all of these historical cases that all of the democratic states are secular in that religion and state are separated. Empirically speaking, when we look at democracies we see in all of these cases there is a separation of religion and state. This could have three meanings. Number one is that the state does not derive its legitimacy from religion. The second one is that the state does not implement religious law. The third one is that clergy do not have a particular right or not even a particular right to rule. All democratic states share these three attributes…Since you have stated that that first principle lingers on as the other two have waned, what examples could you give in which a modern democratic state derives its legitimacy from divine sources such as from God?
Charles Taylor: …[C]onsider John Locke. Locke believes that we should follow the natural law and the natural law dictates that the only legitimate authority is created by a social contract. But, where does natural law come from? He is very clear. God has created human beings in the state of nature where natural law holds. It is God’s will, according to Locke that we have a social contract. So you get the founders of the American Republic who wrote a “Declaration of Independence” in which they said that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their CREATOR, with certain unalienable Rights.” So there are two ways in which legitimate democratic rule can derive from God. One is that the actual formula of democratic rule is God-given. And the other is that certain people, certain clergy, have a mandate directly from God to order the society. And in a certain sense, Western history is a struggle between these two understandings of God-derived authority.[…]
Akbar Ganji: You have said in this book that we live in a post-Durkheimian world. And it has several attributes. The first one is that religious affiliations have nothing to do with our national identity. The second one is that the varieties of religious convictions have fractured and multiplied. The third one is that the religious life of a person depends on his own religious experience. It doesn’t depend on the church or a clerical order. The fourth one is that religious convictions are not transmitted from one generation to the next generation, but each generation has its own religious convictions that may be different from the convictions of their fathers and mothers. My question is how are these four related to one another and what is specific about this post-Durkheimian world that William James could not have understood or did not understand?
Charles Taylor: Well he understood lots but I think it’s the third one that I don’t quite agree with the formulation. See, a lot of religious life now is driven or determined by people’s sense of their own spiritual affinities. But the spiritual affinity can be with a larger church, a larger church or a clergy. That’s my case. Or it can be with a very small organization of friends, or it can be with a meditation group. So in other words, people don’t say anymore—I mean people never said this but in a sense unconsciously—I’m a Pole so I’ve got to be a Catholic. They are spiritually moved by something. It can be the Dali Lama, it can Pope John Paul etc. They move into that. This kind of following your own religious instinct has been totally legitimated in Western society. I would say that the big change occurred in the 1960s or there about, in which what was previously an elite ethic of authenticity, everybody following their own sense, became a mass cultural phenomenon. You can’t exaggerate this development and it’s a big change, almost a cataclysmic cultural change. But you see, that’s again something in the West. It certainly influences a small stratum of highly educated and mobile people working in the globalized economy, even if they come from India or, you know, they’re to some extent influenced by that. But as a mass phenomenon, it’s a Western phenomenon.[…]
Akbar Ganji: How do you account for Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalism?
Charles Taylor: I suppose there are different causes but one thing is relatively the same—it crops up again and again. I was saying earlier in my general theory of secularization that modern developments destabilize early forms of religion and that religion has to be recomposed, reformed. Well now there is a certain way of carrying out this reform which is based on a sense of threat. Somebody is depriving us of our traditional religion so we have to rally. And one way of rallying is to say, well, we’ll reach back to the origins and we’ll reproduce this kind of salafist movement. And then there is a terrible pathos here because they never do reproduce it because you can’t. I mean, for instance, take Protestant fundamentalism in this country. The first movement to take on the name and which gave this name wide currency was a Protestant movement that went back very strongly to the Protestant idea that the Bible was the ultimate source of truth. But then they found the challenge was from various kinds of modern science to the Bible, the Bible’s account of creation etc. So the response was to claim that the Bible was all literally true. But this was something new in Christian history, because it required, having made very clearly the distinction between literal truth, literal scientific truth, and metaphorical truth. Now this distinction was only made totally sharp with the arrival of modern Western science.[…]
Akbar Ganji: Well you have talked about Catholic modernity in your writings. What is Catholic modernity?
Charles Taylor: The thing is that’s really another use of the word modernity. It’s not that it’s a particular form of modernity. It is how Catholics should understand their roll and position within modernity. And there it was an attempt to, in a certain sense, to relativize modernity. With the fundamental notion that Christianity is something—and you could say this of Islam as well—Christianity is a religion which has lived in a host of different cultures and will live in more cultures and always has to find a way of recreating an authentic version of itself within these cultures. And the idea was that we Catholics look on our relation to Western modernity in that light. This is one culture among many which humans have had and will have, and we have to fight away from the tendency which we have to think of this, or the version that’s been created in modernity, as vastly superior to everything else in history. Or also, greatly inferior because we’ve lost—you know, some people think we’ve lost the age of faith in the middle ages. That instead of looking at it as absolute, as one or the other, we look at it as having to function and recreate the faith in a different way in this civilization, but which is not necessarily superior to the way in which it operated in other parts. And we have to have had the sense of belonging to the transnational and transtemporal.
Akbar Ganji: Can you imagine Islamic modernity?
Charles Taylor: Of course. I mean I can imagine several because there are very different Islamic societies. I mean it would be one that was in real dialog and interchange with the modernity in which it set, via in India or in Europe. Unless we ruin the situation, which we’re capable of doing, we will see develop in the west a Western Islam, which is working its sense of what Islam is in this Western context. And I already know several people that are engaged in that, whether they define it that way or not, they’re engaged in that project. I mean we could wreck this enterprise. If the terrible conflict that I described earlier in which you have Muslims from outside the West that are dying to attack the West and Westerners that reply with this mindless anti-Islamic thing we have been seeing recently, we could crush the space in which this kind of European or Western Islam could grow. But it’s to be hoped that an Islamic modernity will happen, because that’s the normal development.