Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Religion, Secularism and Democracy

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Religion, Secularism and Democracy

Article excerpt

EHSAN NARAGHI, founder of the Teheran Institute of Social Research and currently an adviser to UNESCO, is an Iranian sociologist and historian. His published works include L'Orient et la crise de l'Occident (Paris, 1977) and Des palais du chah aux prisons de la revolution (Paris, 1991). This article has been extracted from his latest book Enseignement et changements sociaux en Iran du |7.sup.e~ au |20.sup.e~ siecle, Islam et laicite, lecons d'une experience seculaire (Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, Paris, 1992).

BEFORE the revolution of 1906, Iran's public secular schools were the symbol and crucible of democratic thought. The aim of the revolutionaries at that time was to increase the number of these schools, for they knew that democracy could not take root in Iranian soil without them. But an entrenched landowning system resisted the expansion of secular schooling in the rural areas where most Iranians lived. Economically, politically, and administratively, Iran's rural majority remained under the thumb of major land holders. With positions in parliament and power in the countryside, even after the revolution, this class successfully opposed the spread of modern education on its turf.

In 1911, there were 125 public secular schools in Teheran, with some 10,500 students. There were about the same number of pupils in secular education in the provinces. This represented a mere two per cent of school-age children. The secular school system advocated by the new regime therefore did not develop. When Reza Shah Pahlavi (1878-1944) came to power in 1925, he introduced his authoritarian regime without great difficulty. While he allowed secular schooling to develop to some extent during his reign, the schools were purged of democratic leavening and became institutions whose main purpose was to train state functionaries.

The same approach prevailed under his son, Mohammad Reza Shah (1919-1980). The main idea was to provide young people with degrees, not to educate them as citizens. As a result, while secular education had more than eight million students enrolled on the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it provided no bulwark against the growing influence of religion.

The growth of secular schooling opened up a socio-cultural abyss. Economic development, the Shah's hobby horse, took no account of cultural values or social relations. A form of secularism that was hostile to participation in political life and to culture was bound to pave the way for an Islamic revolution, which would declare itself able to fill the void by a return to values anchored in Iranian society.

Under Reza Shah, traditional schools of religious instruction, the madrasas, had shrunk in number, but around ten thousand students were enrolled in them. They offered the only training for the clergy in Iran. All religious ceremonies and practices came under the jurisdiction of the marjataqlid, or guides, who were taught in the traditional teaching establishments. They continued to exert an undoubted influence, albeit reduced, throughout the reign of the Pahlavis--from 1925 until 1979.


Religious and secular currents coexisted in the school system for years. It was only in 1963, with the expulsion of the ayatollah Khomeyni (c. 1900-1989) and his exile in Iraq, that the confrontation between the regime and the mullahs became overt. The police intervened brutally in the school where Khomeyni taught and arrested him.

Mohammad Reza Shah's regime prided itself on its economic and social achievements; in its eyes, the old days were finished and their legacy was negligible. Meanwhile, the religious bodies, under pressure from the bazaris, or traditional merchants, were developing an "anti-modernist" mentality that was notably hostile to the regime. The bazaris did not fit well into Iran's new economy, where a certain form of private industrialization was favoured by state protectionism. In particular, the export of traditional Iranian staple products was slipping out of their hands. …

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