Intellectuals have played a crucial role in the formation of modern Iran and the establishment of its political, social, and cultural institutions. A century and a half ago, Iranian intellectuals looked at the modern world and asked how the processes of modernization can take root in Iran. Since then, four generation of Iranian intellectual have played a pivotal role in support of or in rebellion against modern values in the Iranian political landscape. They have influenced in one way or another all major events and processes, including the Constitution Revolution, the formation of Iran's communist Tudeh party, the rise of liberalism, the nationalist movement, political Islam, and the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Today, a fourth generation of Iranian intellectuals has assumed a new cultural and social role in the new Iran.
Radio Farda: Let's start with the responsibilities of the intellectuals in today's world. How do you define, generally, the role of intellectuals?
Ramin Jahanbegloo: I believe that in all societies, both Western and Eastern, the intellectual represents the conscience of society. Intellectuals have both a political and a cultural role in modern societies. These intellectuals have been highly critical; at times they have stood by the masses, and at other times, they have raised their voices against popular sentiments. Today's intellectual is burdened with his/her own ethnic and cultural responsibilities as well as a global responsibility to keep up with a variety of issues ranging from AIDS to global warming.
Radio Farda: What are the main differences between the different generations of Iranian intellectuals and what are their primary concerns?
Jahanbegloo: In my book "Moje Chaharom" I have proposed four categories of intellectual generations. The first generation consists of people like Abd al-Rahim Talebof, Fath-'Ali Akhoundzadeh [two pioneers of modernity in late 19th and early 20th centuries], and others who date back to the years before the Constitution Revolution . These intellectuals were highly influenced by the ideas of modernism and progress, and they were the main engine behind the Constitution Revolution.
The second generation lived during the reign of Reza Shah [king of Iran, 1925-41] and they are essentially the product of the defeat of the revolution. This group includes prominent figures such as Sadegh Hedayat [a leftist and the leading fiction writer of modern Iran], Mohamad Ali Jamalzadeh [founder of the European-style, Persian short-story genre], Bozorg Alavi [novelist], Hassan Taghizadeh [writer], and many others, including politicians like Mohammad Ali Foroughi Davar [1877-1943], who sided with Reza Shah and the monarchy. In contrast intellectuals such as Hedayat stayed away from the power structure.
The third generation was essentially an antimodernist. The paradigmatic examples are Jalal Al-e-Ahmad [anti-Western writer and social and political critic] and Ali Shariati [religious intellectual who strongly inspired the religious student movement against Mohammad Reza Shah], who were staunch opponents of the modern values and opposed both Reza Shah and his son, Mohammad Reza Shah. These intellectuals preached a return to indigenous values. I believe that the significance of this third generation lies in the fact that it essentially formed the foundation of the Islamic Revolution.
And finally the fourth generation started its social life after the revolution. This is a much younger generation that believes in the ideas of democracy and pluralism, and their ideals are not of a utopian nature.
Radio Farda: Where is the position of Ramin Jahanbegloo in these categories?
Jahanbegloo: Well, many intellectuals who are active in Iran now, including me, belong to the fourth generation. The fourth generation is very attached to democracy and pluralism and has a global view. In the past 10 years, these intellectuals have been heavily concerned with the issue of tradition and modernity. They seek a dialogue with the modern world rather than secluding themselves from it. You rarely see these features among the religious or Marxist intellectuals of the third generation. Iranian intellectuals cannot ignore the world around them and still call themselves intellectual. Thus we can call this fourth group the generation of dialogue.
Radio Farda: It seems that in your book you see a unique status and mission for the fourth generation in the process of progress and democratization in Iran. Why is that and what are the most important characteristics of this generation of intellectuals?
Jahanbegloo: The fourth generation is distinct from former ones for several reasons. First this is a democratically minded generation that cares about democratic values. This generation has a political approach toward these values and, importantly, it is heavily colored by the active presence of women. The other distinct feature of this generation is its belief in modernity. This modernity is not an imitation one, but rather is based on discourse. If in the past many thought they can become modern by imitating the Western way of life, today's intellectuals know that the real route to modernity is by understanding the modern world in the West and channeling this thought process into social, cultural, and political institutions.
Radio Farda: One of the main issues in today's intellectual discourse in Iran centers around the differences between religious and secular intellectuals and the dialogue between these two groups. What are the main differences and do you think these two groups can agree on a common platform?
Jahanbegloo: This is a good question. I believe that religious intellectuals have undergone a real transformation in the past 50 years. If you compare Abdolkarim Soroush [Islamic philosopher who became a staunch critic of the Islamic republic] with Ali Shariati, it is obvious that Soroush leans much more toward liberal principles, while Shariati was inclined toward a history-based Marxist view and wanted to create a historical philosophy. One of the points of contention between religious and secular intellectuals lies in the fact that the secularists consider the term "religious intellectual" a paradox in itself. They ask how one can follow both his/her intellectuality and his/her religion at the same time. One can be an intellectual and, at the same time, believe in religion, but the religious intellectual is pursuing a specific and absolute form of truth. On the other hand, intellectuality is seeking the truth without following a predefined absolute interpretation of the "truth."
The second point of distinction is in the concept of democracy. Most religious intellectuals believe in "religious democracy," which in my view is again a paradox. It is hard to mold religion and democracy. In religious thinking, you are bound by spiritual-political logic, where as in secular thinking you are beyond this limit. These issues are being actively discussed in today's Iran. A common platform that can bring these two groups at the table is the issue of pluralism -- if they can accept a critical dialogue without resorting to violence. Expanding such a dialogue across society in a peaceful manner would be a lofty goal. In the past 30 years, Iranian society has rarely seen a respectful relationship between these two groups, but this is changing now. This respect for each other's opinions and views will pave the way to reach a common platform.
Radio Farda: Do you think this respect exists within the group of religious intellectuals -- namely between conservatives and progressive groups?
Jahanbegloo: They certainly have their differences. Conservative religious intellectuals are more anti-Western and, in some ways, follow Al-e-Ahmad's line of thinking about the West. However, I believe Iranian society has dislodged itself from those ideas. The youth does not pay much attention to Al-e-Ahmad's thoughts.
Radio Farda: What you call "Al-e-Ahmad's Syndrome"?
Jahanbegloo: Yes. Today this syndrome is seen only among conservative religious intellectuals, whom I can hardly call intellectuals. But they cannot make this discourse popular again. Iranians need to get into dialogue with the modern world. They cannot afford being on the margin of the modernization process, in particular intellectuals. The reformists have understood this and that is why we see that they travel more, write and publish in English, and attend conferences. This is what brings them a lot closer to the secular intellectuals. We had a strong tendency toward violence among the revolutionary intellectuals of the past. Today, the youth rejects violence and values tolerance and dialogue. This is extremely important.