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What is Secularism?
Sam Ghandchi
May 27, 2008


Although majority of Iranian people have come to the conclusion that Iran needs secularism, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what various different people mean by secularism. For example, tendencies like the


Melli-Mazhabi parties (that is the Shi'a religious political parties), or the return to Shariati

Shariati was Reactionary

ideology, or those who support holding state offices by those who have roles in the organization of Shi'a religion in Iran. On the other side, those who think secularism means that a religious person can only have the right to do political activity in a nonreligious organization, and they consider the existence of religious political groups to be contrary to secularism, and they call for the separation of religion and politics, and not just the separation of religion and state.

I oppose both views noted above. Although like the latter group, I also prefer that religious people not to create religious-political groups, and for political activity, to participate in political organizations that have political platforms of their choice, and not religious-political organizations. Nonetheless, in my opinion one cannot consider the existence of religious-political organizations to be against secularism and to ban them in the constitution. Of course, I should note that specific religious or nonreligious parties and organizations that threaten the future Iranian democratic regime will be liquidated and banned, the same way after the fall of Hitler, Nazi ideology; and in Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Communist ideology, were such threats of return of the old system, and the parties carrying those ideologies were liquidated and banned at the time of freedom.

I do not believe that anybody should be banned from holding an office just because of being religious. But being religious, is different from having a position in the organization of Shi'a religion in Iran. And the latter means gaining from khoms, zakAt, religious donations, and the religious endowed properties such as AstAne Ghodse Razavi of Mashhad, which are important sources of income for the Shi'a organization, and the state should tax those incomes of the Shi'a organization. And the authorities in the religious organization who gain from these revenues, as long as they are holding positions and benefiting from these sources, they should not be allowed to hold any state office in judicial, legislative, or executive branches of the government, and this is the discussion of my following paper.

Dilemma of Separation of Religion and Politics

The issue of separation of "state and religion" is different from separation of "religion and politics". I am not for the latter. I think it can make the religious people reactionary. And as far as separation of state and religion, one needs to see what needs to be part of the future constitution and what does not need to be part of it. The American model versus the European model. Let me explicate on some of the differences between various constitutions in this regard.

Let me first close the discussion about separation of politics and religion, which I oppose. I think the issue of politics and religion is pretty simple. If one makes a political party that is communist, liberal, atheist, futurist, or nationalist, what difference does it make if instead, a political party is religious. These are all ideologies. Of course people define the word ideology differently, but I think definitely even comprehensive liberal systems of the time of enlightenment, such as the Kantian philosophy, can easily be called an ideology.

Then why should an organization be stopped from participating in politics, because of accepting a comprehensive system, whether the comprehensive system is a religion or atheism or secular humanism or whatever? And if an organization is stopped from political activity because of being religious, then the same should apply to organizations of all ideologies and not just those marked as religions.

At the same time, I should emphasize that the ministers of a religion or any other ideology, as long as they hold a position in their ideological organization, they should be blocked from the State office. But this is not separation of religion and politics. It is separation of religion and state. This is what was in the New York Constitution of 1777:

The Constitution of New York: April 20, 1777

"XXXIX. And whereas the ministers of the gospel are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function; therefore, no minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall, at any time hereafter, under any presence or description whatever, be eligible to, or capable of holding, any civil or military office or place within this State. "

It is true that some religions or ideologies, such as the Baha'i Faith, ask their followers to be apolitical and not to participate in politics. Thus when they associate in their free association, they will not be involved in the political affairs. I think even the ones who can be called the ministers of such ideologies, for example the UHJ members of the Baha'i Faith, although they do not call themselves ministers, and say they do not have a clergy, nonetheless they should be blocked from holding office in the State.

In fact, a formula like separation of politics and religion may allow such individuals easy access to state office (civil or military), and I think that is a bigger problem, and is contrary to separation of state and religion, but is ironically the consequence of separation of politics and religion. In other words, a religious organization by misusing the catchphrase of separation of religion and politics, deviously gets its religious functionaries to enter the state.

In my opinion prohibiting the religious people from gathering in a religious political organization is wrong, and it can push them into a reactionary position in the realm of politics, or it can get them to enter the state in indirect ways. At the same time, I think in the public opinion, one should discourage people from participating in religious-political groups and should encourage people to join a political party with a political platform of their liking, because political parties are made for political goals and not religious organization.

Finally it is true that the existence of an "Islamic Party" or "Christian Party" means the efforts of such party to eradicate the separation of religion and state. And if there is such a danger from any specific ideology, the constitution should mention that about the parties of such ideologies. For example, in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, Communist ideology had such a role and in Germany, after the fall of Hitler's fascism, Nazi ideology represented such danger of return, and in Iran, Islamic Republic Party and similar organization pose a similar situation.

What is Separation of "Religion and State"?

I brought the example of New York to show how different states of the U.S. were, with regards to the separation of state and religion, before what ended up to be the US Constitution For example North Carolina Constitution of 1776 was also very strong in stopping clergy from holding state office:

Constitution of North Carolina : December 18, 1776

"XXXI. That no clergyman, or preacher of the gospels of any denomination, shall be capable of being a member of either the Senate, House of Commons, or Council of State, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral function."

In contrast, if one looks at the South Carolina Constitution, at the time, it even advocates a *state* religion, i.e. Protestantism is specifically noted as their state religion, and even election of clergy as part of a state election process. Here is what it says:

Constitution of South Carolina - March 19, 1778

"XXXVIII. That all persons and religious societies who acknowledge that there is one God, and a future state of rewards and punishments, and that God is publicly to be worshipped, shall be freely tolerated. The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed, and is hereby constituted and declared to be, the established religion of this State. That all denominations of Christian Protestants in this State, demeaning themselves peaceably and faithfully, shall enjoy equal religious and civil privileges. To accomplish this desirable purpose without injury to the religious property of those societies of Christians which are by law already incorporated for the purpose of religious worship, and to put it fully into the power of every other society of Christian Protestants, either already formed or hereafter to be formed, to obtain the like incorporation, it is hereby constituted, appointed, and declared that the respective societies of the Church of England that are already formed in this State for the purpose of religious worship shall still continue incorporate and hold the religious property now in their possession. And that whenever fifteen or more male persons, not under twenty-one years of age, professing the Christian Protestant religion, and agreeing to unite themselves in a society for the purposes of religious worship, they shall, (on complying with the terms hereinafter mentioned,) be, and be constituted a church, and be esteemed and regarded in law as of the established religion of the State, and on a petition to the legislature shall be entitled to be incorporated and to enjoy equal privileges. That every society of Christians .. subscribed in a book [to] the following five articles.. shall entitle them to be incorporated and esteemed as a church of the established religion of this State:

1. That there is one eternal God, and a future state of rewards and punishments.
2. That God is publicly to be worshipped.
3. That the Christian religion is the true religion
4. That the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are of divine inspiration, and are the rule of faith and practice.
5. That it is lawful and the duty of every man being thereunto called by those that govern, to bear witness to the truth

Finally I should note that Pennsylvania had more impact on US Constitution. I need to note that today all the constitutions of these states are different and these texts are from the time of American Revolution. The Pennsylvania constitution in its original form, advocates religious work for building human virtues, and its wordings are very similar to the Islamic statements of advocating virtues and preventing the vices:

Constitution of Pennsylvania - September 28, 1776

"SECT. 45. Laws for the encouragement of virtue, and prevention of vice and immorality, shall be made and constantly kept in force, and provision shall be made for their due execution: And all religious societies or bodies of men heretofore united or incorporated for the advancement of religion or learning, or for other pious and charitable purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the enjoyment of the privileges, immunities and estates which they were accustomed to enjoy, or could of right have enjoyed, under the laws and former constitution of this state. "

Of course, in the U.S., the people were just trying to prevent the religious persecution they had experienced in Europe and the country itself was not cutting from a religious state. Although religious persecutions in New England and activities such as witch-hunts are known in those states. But basically the American state system, even before the revolution, was a secular system; whereas in the case of Iran, it is cutting from a Medieval religious theocratic state, and thus attention to separation of religion and state is very important.


As I have noted before, the Islamism for Iran is more like Communism for Russia and the Eastern Block, after the fall of the Soviet Union, or like Fascism for Germany, Japan, and Italy after the fall of the Axis in WWII. So measures in this respect, with regards to Islamic, are needed in the Constitution, but that does not mean separation of religion and politics. In fact, that is the most specific way of formulation of separation of state and religion, which one can see in the New York Constitution of 1777 that I noted above.

The Constitution of New York : April 20, 1777

What could those measures be? I think basically it all goes to the things noted in the First Amendment of US Constitution. The First Amendment, just like all other parts of Bill of Rights, is about things the state can *not* do, in contrast with Constitution, which is about what the state *can* do. Authors like Galbraith

Power, Democracy, and Iran

have noted that if First Amendment was being written today, maybe it would have had a lot of exceptions in the U.S., for mass communications and freedom of association.

Freedom of Association

And I would add that in case of Iran, we may have exceptions for freedom of association for the Islamists, if we were writing something like First Amendment for Iran today. Now the section on freedom of association has been written, when the fear had been only a tyrannical state. Maybe for a case like Iran, where one religion controls 95% of the population, the fear of tyranny from Shi'a religion should as much be a cause for alarm, and the need in the Constitution, to limit the freedom of association of political parties with the ideology of Shi'a. This is like limiting the power of monarchy in the Constitutional Movement and is not an antidemocratic measure, although it is limited to one particular ideology. Even the constitution of New York speaks only of Christian clergy as the danger of undermining separation of religion and state in the state, and not the organization of any other religion. If I was writing about Vietnam, I would call for legal restrictions on the Communist Party and would consider it a democratic measure. This is similar to the legal provisions in prohibiting the Nazis in the post-WWII France.

At the end I should note that my discussion is not about the terms "State", "Government", and "Cabinet" which have different meanings. All throughout this paper, I have used the term state. My discussion has been to note that separation of "religion and state" is different from separation of "religion and politics". The former is about separation of two social and economic institutions, with powerful financial interests involved. In fact the term separation of State and Church in Europe was about the financial foundations of these two institutions. Whereas the separation of "religion and politics" is about separating two realms of human activity, and in the West this has not been much of an issue of discussion, and only the Baha'i religion in Iran has been advocating this position a lot, which I think is a wrong approach as I have discussed throughout this paper.

Shi'a clergy commanded Iran's judicial branch before the emergence of the Islamic Republic. And in some historical periods of Iran's history, such as the ten years prior to the coup of Reza Khan, and also during the 1941-1953 period, the Shi'a clergy had a strong presence in the legislative branch of Iranian state. It is time to end the presence of Iranian clergy in judicial, legislative, and executive branches of Iranian state. The role of Shi'a Islam in Iran is like the role of Communism in former Russia, China, and Vietnam, and the role of Nazism in Hitler's Germany, and Shi'a religious political parties are trying to save some parts of the state power of Shi'a clergy, in Iran's future state, after the fall of Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI).

I think the future Constitution of Iran should clearly state that Shi'a clergy, as long as being in the organization of Shi'a religion, should be banned from taking any position in the judicial, executive, or legislative branches of government. Shi'a clergy should pay tax on the khoms, zakAt, donations, and the religious real estate income of AstAne Ghodse Razavi of Mashhad. And they should not be allowed to have a parallel state in Iran to kill their opponents. The Shi'a clergy should just work on religious issues and if in the religious sphere, they issue murder fatwas for anyone for heresy or if they issue stoning fatwas for adultery, those members of clergy should be taken to the courts of law and should be punished for their crime accordingly.

Iranian people after two decades of experiencing the atrocities of Islamic Republic have learned that full secularism and ending the mixing of religion and state is only possible by forming a secular republic in Iran to open the way for the progress of Iran and Iranians to the 21st Century.

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