Two fashionably dressed women in modern style hijabs descend steps beneath a blue sky

Iranian women visit the International Book Fair in Tehran, Iran, 12 May 2023. Photo by Majid Asgaripour/WANA/Reuters


Secularism in Iran

Postcolonial intellectuals and Iran’s rulers agree that secularism is just Western imperialism in disguise. They are wrong

by Patrick Hassan & Hossein Dabbagh + BIO

Iranian women visit the International Book Fair in Tehran, Iran, 12 May 2023. Photo by Majid Asgaripour/WANA/Reuters

The latest waves of uprisings in Iran following the movement in defence of Iranian women’s freedoms are among the most significant since the Islamic Republic was established after the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. The regime’s resulting crackdown has led to mass arrests and prison sentences, as well as a string of executions. These uprisings are symptomatic of prolonged and multifaceted discontent with the Islamic Republic’s perceived governance. One of the oft-cited causes is growing dissatisfaction with principles of government grounded in a religious worldview, and its subsequent patterns of civil liberty violations. The most visible of these violations, which has served as a focal point for resistance, is the law of mandatory hijab for women.

Gathering reliable empirical data on religious belief in Iran is difficult – apostasy (at least from Islam) is illegal and punishable by death under the vaguely defined crime of Ifsad-e-filarz, or ‘corruption on Earth’. Nevertheless, some available evidence from 2020 suggests predominant opposition to mandatory hijab, to the extent that even some hijabi women have joined the protests to defend everyone’s equal right to liberty. More recent evidence from 2022 also suggests a significant favourable shift towards secularism broadly, with the majority in favour of a separation of religious and civil affairs. Some contemporary research has suggested that, ironically, Iranian theocracy has triggered these trends, which have naturally raised the question of the role of religion in Iranian society.

Although the popular Iranian resistance chant ‘Zan, Zendegi, Azadi’ (‘Woman, Life, Freedom’) speaks to the potential promise of secular change, a recurring criticism of calls for a secular Iran emanates from a suspicion that secularism is a thinly veiled imperialist or colonialist tool for subversion, dressed up in the language of freedom and human rights. Antisecularism as a form of anticolonialism was a consistent and fundamental theme of revolutionary discourse among clerical factions in the lead-up to the 1979 Iranian revolution. It remains so to the present day, and is even repeated by allegedly Left-leaning non-Iranian factions in Europe and North America impressed with postcolonial theory. Our aim is to, first, clearly reconstruct the anti-imperialist argument against a secular Iran in an attempt to understand the professed motivation of its proponents. We then argue that, on the contrary, the argument is feeble, at least as it is commonly deployed: secularism’s inherent merits can be (and routinely are) divorced from any alleged use of it as a colonial imposition.

Shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini gained power in 1979, a new constitution was instituted that sought to embody the religious principles derived from the Twelver Jaʿfarī school of Shia Islam. This constitution explicitly sets as its foundational principles ‘a system based on belief in … the One God … His exclusive sovereignty and right to legislate, and the necessity of submission to His commands’ and ‘Divine revelation and its fundamental role in setting forth the laws’ (Article 2). The constitution clearly expresses how ‘All civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria’ (Article 4), going on to proclaim the Twelver Jaʿfarī school of Islam as the official state religion (Article 12).

Clearly, this theocratic framework of governance is fundamentally at odds with secular approaches to the political domain. Secularism is the view that participants in public political discourse should never be in a position to assume that their interlocutors share the same religious assumptions and, as a result, the state ought to be neutral in matters of religious belief when determining public policy. Contrary to some persisting views, this does not amount to ‘state-enforced atheism’, but rather a disfavouring of religious privilege in civil matters and a favouring of impartiality and pluralism in an attempt to guarantee equal opportunities and respect for citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs, or lack of them. The corollary principle for the practical implementation of this position is that any appeal to religious reasons in public political discourse is insufficient to justify laws that would coerce citizens into certain kinds of behaviours. One of the most influential modern justifications for secularism was offered by John Locke in his Letter on Toleration (1689):

I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the Business of Civil Government from that of Religion, and to settle the just Bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the Controversies that will be always arising, between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side, a Concernment for the Interest of Men’s Souls, and on the other side, a Care of the Commonwealth.

Secularism seems reasonable because it is very rare for an entire nation to share belief in one source of law as an authority, let alone share the same interpretation of that law. Because there is no widespread informed agreement about which religion (if any) is the ‘correct’ one, our epistemic limitations dictate that it is prudent to avoid basing civil laws upon any of them, with an eye to protecting the civil rights of all citizens. In nations with significant religious diversity, this form of neutrality is all the more pressing.

Secularism can itself become oppressive if it assumes that the outcome of secular legislation is ‘sacred’

However, it might be argued that the type of ‘neutrality’ that secularism depends upon is a myth. The way we define and conceptualise neutrality is almost always rooted in the structure of the context we live in. The alleged implication is that ‘neutrality’ is not itself neutral. So secularism might be ‘neutral’ based upon one particular type of power structure (ie, the one dominant in the West) but not necessarily those prevalent elsewhere. The anthropologist Saba Mahmood, for example, argued that political secularism’s legal framework is not neutral because an intrinsic part of the nation-state’s structure is shaped by its unique historical norms and values.

This is a fair point to make. The ideal version of pure neutrality does not exist anywhere. Human beings are all situated in particular contexts; hence our value systems for navigating the world are by default contextual. However, this does not entail that we cannot rise from particular contexts and imagine other value systems, nor that some level of neutrality is not achievable. Seeking this level of neutrality towards citizens’ diverse religious beliefs is important because, without it, oppression is an inevitable result. No doubt that secularism can itself become oppressive if it operates under the dubious assumption that the outcome of secular legislation – ie, its contents – is ‘sacred’, and so must be accepted without critical analysis. Under such circumstances, secularism would not respect impartiality and pluralism. Ironically, an example of this is the prohibition on wearing the hijab in public spaces in Iran under the Kashf-e hijab initiative, enforced during the early Pahlavi dynasty from 1936-1941. But, crucially, what explains why such policies ought to be condemned is precisely that they fail to protect beliefs of conscience – of which religious belief is merely one among others – in a tolerant society that achieves an appropriate degree of state neutrality.

The tension between the principles of secularism and the principles of the Islamic Republic is quite deliberate. Properly understanding the function of religion in contemporary Iranian governance requires acknowledging how the notion of an ‘Islamic Republic’ was, and still is, championed as an explicit and allegedly superior alternative to secular governance.

We noted earlier that one of the most pervasive objections to a secular Iran – made by both the current regime and various non-Iranian factions in the Western world – is anchored in an anti-imperialist and postcolonial framework. Some versions of the objection hold, additionally, that secularism is fundamentally antireligious in nature (and therefore anti-Islamic). Combined with a further claim that Islamic ideals are (or ought to be) at the fundamental kernel of Iranian cultural identity, secularism is considered to be anti-Iranian, and a means by which foreign powers have aimed to homogenise the interests and evaluative outlook of Iranians in a way that more closely aligns with their own, thus facilitating a greater sphere of influence and an easier extraction of resources.

This objection has its origins at least partially in dissatisfaction with the rapid state-enforced modernisation instituted by the preceding Pahlavi dynasty (1925-79), where its secularism was concurrent with increased Anglo-American influence in Iranian state affairs and industry, including a CIA-backed coup to oust the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and reinstall the Shah in 1953. But narratives of this kind are not unique to the Iranian sphere – they have found wide acceptance in the Muslim world more broadly. As it emerged in the European context, secularism was a product of widespread debate within those societies, provoked by socioeconomic changes and the concurrent challenges of guaranteeing civil obedience in light of increasingly fracturing religious authorities. But in the Muslim world, modern secularism was typically installed from the top down, first by the colonial powers and then the postcolonial state. As in the case of Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Turkey (arguably similar to Pahlavi Iran), these states were secular autocracies, often installed or heavily supported by Western governments, and they sought to ‘modernise’ their nations in ways felt by many to be too quick. Subsequently, as the contemporary scholar of Islamic studies Muhammad Khalid Masud has noted: ‘Muslim thinkers found it very difficult to understand new ideas like secularism in isolation from Christian (Western colonial) supremacy.’

It must be granted, then, that there is at least some historical association between secularism and imperialism, even if it is not a causal association. The pertinent issue, however, and one we wish to dispute, is whether this association is inherent or inevitable.

The broader narrative of colonial exploitation was intellectualised in the wider Muslim world by Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism (1978), which sought to elucidate the ways in which ‘the West’ routinely depicts ‘the East’ in essentially simplistic and contemptuous ways. This in turn, Said argued, makes studies of, for example, Middle Eastern societies intrinsically political in nature and supportive of existing colonial power structures. In Iran specifically, the narrative was intellectualised by the likes of Jalāl Āl-e-Ahmad in his Occidentosis: A Plague from the West (1962), and Dariush Shayegan in his Asia v the West (1978). Āl-e-Ahmad deployed the now-notorious phrase ‘West-toxification’ or ‘West-struck-ness’ (in Persian, ‘Gharbzadegi’) to describe Iran’s unfortunate dependence on Western materials and conceptual apparatus that prohibits an ‘authentic’ Iranian identity.

This philosophy – which (ironically) took strong influence from an eclectic mix of traditions in mostly European philosophy, particularly the ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Frantz Fanon and Karl Marx – was embraced by many of the factions and figures driving the 1979 revolution. In 1971, for instance, an exiled Khomeini expressed explicit concerns about the pervasive influence of imperialist culture in Muslim communities, asserting that it overshadowed the teachings of the Quran and led the youth to serve foreign interests.

One initial concern about this narrative surrounds the legitimacy of the sharp ‘East v West’ dichotomy central to it. The Islamic Republic thrives on this dichotomy. Indeed, it is its entire ideological foundation. One issue is that it is ambiguous who or what ‘the West’ is supposed to be in this context. It is evident that ‘the West’ is considered more than a mere geographical designation. But is it a specific socioeconomic system (ie, capitalism)? A level of development in science and technology? A confederacy of states with shared political interests? A moral framework? At times, Khomeini equated ‘the West’ with colonialism, but at other times he emphasised its essential nature as one of decadence or a lack of morality. This point is important because, without a credible definition of ‘the West’ (and ‘the East’, for that matter), the narrative threatens to make superficial any political analysis involving it. This is evident, for instance, in the fact that many Muslim-majority countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, and other countries with histories of colonial subjection, such as Japan, have moved beyond the dichotomy, adopting some typically ‘Western’ values without sacrificing their own cultural identity.

In 1979, tens of thousands of women marched in Tehran for six days to protest Khomeini’s religious dress code

The ‘East v West’ dichotomy leant upon by the Islamic Republic can also perpetuate the same mistake that Said diagnosed in colonial frameworks, namely: oversimplifying and essentialising entire cultures. The dichotomy is clumsy insofar as it postulates a fantasy of homogeneity, obscuring the wide range of political factions within Iran. The Islamic Republic is just as committed to this fantasy as any European orientalist. In the preamble of its constitution, praise is poured upon ‘the awakened conscience of the nation, under the leadership of Imam Khomeini’, which came to form a ‘united movement of the people’ towards a ‘genuinely Islamic and ideological line in its struggles’. This account, however, is historically revisionary insofar as it depends upon a fictitious narrative over the object of unification in pre-revolutionary Iranian society.

While dissatisfaction with the policies of the Pahlavi dynasty was clearly widespread, ideas about what form of government was to replace them was not a unified affair but fragmented, with diverse factions – communists, merchants, students, workers, educated women and secular nationalists – not necessarily in harmony with clerical aims. Moreover, it is not true that all factions responsible for the revolution supported the substantive policies of the theocracy that emerged. As early as 8 March 1979 – a matter of weeks after the conclusion of the revolution – tens of thousands of women marched in the streets of Tehran for six days to protest Khomeini’s announcement that women in Iran ought to adhere to religious dress code (ie, the hijab or chador). The history, even recent history, of religion in political affairs in Iran is more complicated, and pluralist, than the Iranian government admits. In this respect, Islamists and postcolonial scholars who champion the ‘anti-imperialist’ narrative are in many ways in agreement, and as such suffer from the same conceptual problems.

The narrative presented so far functions as part of the justification for rejecting calls for a secular Iran. Assuming the challenges addressed above can be reasonably met, the argument can be charitably reconstructed as follows: first, imperialism ought to be resisted where it is found because it is intrinsically wrong; second, the idea of a secular Iran has its origins in, and continues to foster the cause of, Western imperialism; and so, third, the idea of a secular Iran ought to be resisted.

The first claim may be justified on a number of grounds: perhaps, for example, imperialism is intrinsically wrong because it is a form of oppression, and necessarily undermines the value of national self-determination and causes individual or cultural harm, or perhaps because it is expressive of objectionable cultural chauvinism. We can grant this claim’s truth for our current purposes, for the second claim is especially vulnerable to a host of criticisms that ultimately render the argument implausible.

It is crucial that the claim mentions not only that secular Iran is an idea with origins in Western imperialism, but also one that continues to propagate its aims. If it was merely the former, the argument would be patently invalid insofar as it would fallaciously assume that the current function and value of something can be determined solely by reference to what it originally emerged to do. Even if we grant that secularism in the Iranian context was originally a subversive tool of Western imperialism, this itself would not establish that secularism continues to be such, and that there aren’t independent reasons speaking in its favour now.

It is patronising to say Iranians are incapable of deliberating their values outside of a religious framework

The second part of the premise, which claims that calls for a secular Iran continue to foster the cause of Western imperialism, seems unfounded. In order to avoid being a mere speculation about the motives of secularists, it would have to be shown not only that (a) a secular Iran would be in the interests of imperialist powers; but, crucially, that (b) calls for a secular Iran are exclusively a causal product of imperialist powers. The fact is that, as we have noted earlier, there is a large portion of Iranians within the country calling for a separation of state and religious authorities. To ignore these Iranians, or to implausibly brush them aside as products of false consciousness and brainwashing by Western media would be, ironically, to silence them in ways that ‘anti-imperialists’ typically find to be criterial of colonial subjection.

Perhaps the anti-imperialist’s point is rather that since secularism emerged from, and developed within, a European context (ie, its specific socioeconomic, cultural and religious system), it is best suited to that context, and unsuitable or even harmful when implemented elsewhere. However, there are at least two fatal problems with this relativistic formulation of the argument. The first is that it is unacceptably ahistorical. There are many examples of secularism outside of ‘Western’ societies prior to colonisation – eg, in the philosophical milieu and political structures of India and in numerous Chinese dynasties – and secularism also has its own history within Islamic contexts. Thus, claiming that secularism is exclusively suited to Europe or ‘the West’ is false, and cannot rescue the argument. The second reason this relativism fails is that it is itself patronising, essentialist and even racist to propose that Iranians are inherently incapable of deliberating about their values, beliefs and practices outside of a religious framework.

One of the most significant problems with the anti-imperialist argument under consideration is in how it obscures, and can even justify, the problems that secularism was designed to resolve. One of the specific problems of theocratic governance, identified by Locke, is its systematic failure to guarantee the civil liberties of a religiously diverse citizenry. This is historically apparent, but vividly clear in the Islamic Republic. Its constitution recognises only three religious minorities: Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians (Article 13). But this selection is morally arbitrary. Despite the Islamic Republic’s dubious official claim in 2011 that Iran is 99.4 per cent Muslim, Iran is a multi-religious society, which, in addition to the above, has significant adherents to the Baháʼí Faith, Mandaeism, Yarsanism and even to other branches of Islam, namely Sunni Islam. Tehran even has a very small community of Sikhs, as well as atheists, and deists associated with no religion.

Far from being ‘anti-religious’, secularism is a requirement for the guarantee of religious freedom

Members of these religious minorities face discrimination on a variety of fronts. Baháʼís are routinely denied university education, evicted from their homes, arbitrarily arrested and detained, and imprisoned, all on the basis of their religious beliefs. In 1991, a leaked government document on ‘the Baháʼí question’, signed by the supreme leader Ali Khamenei, postulated the benefits of eradicating this religious community in more subtle ways, such as: enrolling them in schools with especially strict Islamic ideology, destroying their cultural roots outside of Iran, denying them employment in influent positions, and so on.

The Islamic Republic’s discrimination of citizens based on their religious views also extends to other Muslim sects. As for the religious minorities that are recognised as genuine in the Islamic Republic’s constitution, they do not share the same civil rights and liberties as their Shia compatriots. Article 3 commits the government to the goal of ‘the expansion and strengthening of Islamic brotherhood’, and this manifests in ways inimical to the equal civil status of Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews. For example, senior government posts are exclusively reserved for Shia male Muslims, and members of all minority religious groups are barred from being elected president. Members of religious minorities are also required to abide by Islamic codes of conduct, for example in the wearing of hijab, and adherence to norms surrounding Islamic festivals such as Ramadan.

As well as having independent reasons for thinking these forms of discrimination are unjust, these policies are also internally inconsistent with other goals allegedly championed by the Islamic Republic’s constitution. Article 3 states a commitment to ‘the participation of the entire people in determining their political, economic, social, and cultural destiny’. But this clearly is not (and cannot be) achieved if Islamic (or any religious) rules of governance are implemented in a multireligious society, where vast swathes of the population are effectively excluded from the public sphere. To claim that the plethora of forms of religious discrimination in Iran merely canvassed here are coincidental to the fact that Iran is currently a theocracy would be painfully naive. It is evident that far from being ‘anti-religious’, secularism is a requirement for the guarantee of religious freedom.

It seems that the argument against Iranian secularism based upon the tired narrative of ‘anti-imperialism’ is weak, and embodies many of the same problems that genuine imperialism is (rightly) accused of, namely: ignoring Indigenous voices; oversimplifying and essentialising the Other; and the denial of fundamental civil liberties. Those who recite the narrative that the Islamic Republic is a beacon of heroically defiant resistance to Western imperialism not only ignore its own foreign policy, but ignore the plight of Indigenous communities in Iran, offering a shallow apology for rampant oppression. The transparent poverty of this anti-imperialist argument will also likely undermine wider attention to genuine concerns over the continued compromising of nations’ sovereignty in ways that are appropriately described as ‘imperialist’. Those trapped in the hypnotic pull of Gharbzadegi must shake off their deep paranoia about secularism, and recognise the juvenility of its lurking assumption that opposition to Western imperialism is a sufficient condition of legitimate governance.