He is the preeminent living thinker of Iranian Religious Intellectualism which aims to reform Islam and associate the values of religion, pluralistic democracy, and tolerance. The movement is an extension of the works of philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, and Karl Popper, but it is also heavily influenced by Persian mysticism, often embodied by the 13th-century poetry of Rumi, of which Soroush is also a world expert. Known as the Islamic Martin Luther, Soroush was featured in Time Magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2005. 'Nobody studies modern liberal Islam without studying Soroush,' said Roy Mottahedeh, an Islamic-history professor at Harvard University, in that issue of Time.
Soroush welcomed the revolution and held several senior academic positions within the establishment, but his opposition to the concept of velayeteh faghih, or guardianship of the jurisprudent, which is the basis for the Supreme Leader's power, put him at loggerheads with the regime. In the 1990s, he increasingly became the target of attacks and finally left the country in 2000.
In the 1970s, he turned to the study of history and the philosophy of science at Chelsea College, London, after obtaining a doctorate in chemistry. He currently teaches at Georgetown University, but has also held posts at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia.
Soroush published his open letter to Khamenei on Thursday September 10.
Setting the tone early in his letter, Soroush writes to Khamenei, 'You said 'The regime's honor has been rended.' I had never heard such good news in my life.'
In a particularly harsh portion of his letter, Soroush charges, 'Treason and fraud were not enough, you turned to murder and crime. Treason and crime were not enough, you added the rape of prisoners to everything else. Murder and rape and fraud were still not enough, you added accusations of spying and dishonor to the lot.' Soroush mournfully says, 'You are now the prisoner of a closed regime that you yourself created long ago, in which neither criticism, nor opinions, nor science, nor information flourish.'
'The fading fear of the people and the vanishing legitimacy of the concept of Supreme Leadership are the greatest achievements of the revolt of honor over plunder,' Soroush writes towards the end of his correspondence. 'We will celebrate the disappearance of religious despotism. A moral society and a government beyond religion are the beacons of our Green nation.'
The following is a translation of the first part of Soroush's letter.
Celebration for the disappearance of religious despotism
The blood-stained wedding ended and the false groom left the bridal chamber.
The ballot boxes shook and the fiends danced in the darkness.
The victims stood watching in their white shrouds and the prisoners, their hands cut off, clapped.
And the world, one eye filled with rage, the other with hatred, bore off the groom.
The times wept and blood flowed from the republic's brow.
The Devil laughed and then the stars were extinguished and virtue fell into a slumber.
In this drought of virtue and justice, everyone has complaints against you, but I thank you. Not that I have no complaints. I do, and many, but I have set them before God. Your ears have become so full of the praises and caresses of sycophants that they have no room for the voices of those with grievances. But I thank you greatly. You said, 'The sanctity of the regime has been rended' and it has been disgraced. Believe me, in all my life I had never received such good news from anyone. My compliments to you for announcing the misery and affliction of religious despotism.
You were prepared to allow God to be shamed, to preserve yourself from shame.
I am joyous that finally the sighs of morning prayers have reached the celestial spheres and awakened the fires of divine vengeance. You were prepared to allow God to be shamed, to preserve yourself from shame. To have people turn their backs on piety and religion, but not turn their backs to your guardianship. That tradition and the path and truth be crumpled up, so that not a wrinkle would befall your leadership. But God did not want this. The pained hearts and muzzled mouths and spilled blood and cut hands did not want it and prevented it. The pure and the devout and the prophets did not want it. The deprived and the peacemakers and the oppressed and the righteous prevented it.
'The fairy hides her face as the fiend is about,' (NB Soroush is quoting a line from the beloved Hafez's ode number 64) this is the story of your republic of guardianship. Praise God that the veil of this fiend's false purity has been torn. His secrets have been disclosed, his hands opened, and his guilt placed before the sunlight. And the world has looked upon its naked form with anger and astonishment.
I know that you are passing through bitter and hard times. You have committed an offense, a severe offense. I explained this offense to you twelve years ago. I told you to choose freedom as your method. Forget that it is virtuous and just, choose it as a method of successful governance. Is this what you want? Why are you doing things backwards? Why do you send denouncers and spies among the people to look into their hearts and pull words from their mouths through trickery, and then report lies and truths to you? Leave the press, political parties, associations, critics, teachers, writers... alone. The people will express themselves in a thousand ways and cast open their windows to you and help you in organizing the country and the system. Don't strangle the press. The press is the breath of society. But you took dead ends and weaving paths. And now your are under the spell of nothingness and have become the prisoner of a closed regime that you yourself created long ago, in which neither criticism, nor opinions, nor science, nor information flourish. You think that by reading confidential bulletins or listening to subservient advisers, you will grasp the reality of what is going on. Both the election of Khatami and the green election of Mousavi must be obvious to you, otherwise disdain and the charms of despotism would not have chased away the knowledge and shrewdness within you. And now, to make up for that sin, which is due to ignorance and despotism, you are turning to even greater crimes. You are washing blood with blood in order to regain purity.
You are washing blood with blood in order to regain purity.
Treason and fraud were not enough, you turned to murder and crime. Treason and crime were not enough, you added the rape of prisoners to everything else. Murder and rape and fraud were still not enough, you added accusations of spying and dishonor to the lot. You did not spare dervishes or clerics or writers or students. And in the end, you reward the killers and wrongdoers. Then you laugh in everyone's face and take a poor soldier to task for stealing an electric razor. (NB Soroush is referring to the student movement of July 1999 in Iran. Dormitories were raided, students beaten and arrested, and an unknown number of people killed. The death toll is generally considered to be at least four. The ensuing trial acquitted all police commanders and security officers, except for one soldier who was fined and imprisoned for stealing an electric razor from the student dorms, and a police officer who was jailed for assault.)
I was amazed by God's patience.
I knew that bereaved mothers and fathers were weeping behind closed doors and asking God, Save us from this place of oppression and send us succor. [...] The prisons were temples where worshippers genuflected day and night, and prayed -- and are still praying -- to God for the collapse of the guardianship.
As Jesus said on the cross, I asked 'Father, why have You forsaken us?'
When Neda Agha Soltan was martyred, her chest pierced by oppression's bullet, I wailed to God, Do You not hear the voice of the people? (NB Neda means voice in Farsi) As Jesus said on the cross, I asked 'Father, why have You forsaken us?' [...]
Until that day when I heard that forced admission, I mean those life-giving words, 'The sanctity of the regime has been rended.' It was as if the words had come from You, God. I knelt and thanked You. [...]
I want to tell you that the page has turned and the regime's fortunes have shifted. It has been disgraced. [...] Even God has turned His face and taken His light from you. Those acts you committed in secret places and behind curtains have been revealed. [...] Even the path of repentance has been closed to you. Religion will not intercede in your favor, you who have lost legitimacy. The green Iran will no longer be that black Iran of devastation. This movement's whiteness and greenness have taken precedence over the blackness of your tyranny. The earth and water and fire and clouds and winds... are aligned against you on God's orders.
For years, your cohorts and agents, under the umbrella of your protection and guardianship, savaged the people like hungry jackals
For years, your cohorts and agents, under the umbrella of your protection and guardianship, savaged the people like hungry jackals and took safety and justice away from them. [...] They took them prisoner, like an invaded tribe, trampled their rights, plundered their freedoms, broke their dignity, subjugated their thoughts, and turned their religion upside-down. They started producing sanctities as if in a factory and sold superstition as religion. They shoved their treasonous hands into the people's ballot boxes. They placed the universities under the supervision of the uneducated. They filled a house of woes called the Islamic Republic's radio-television with lies and insults and gave the nation lessons on how to despair and be slaves. They created fake and extravagant gatherings and sold lies to the world about how the people loved the regime of the Supreme Leader. In prisons and houses of death, they murdered, raped, committed injustices, assaulted, and tortured to an extent unseen even during the Mongol invasion. They trampled the law and encouraged the science of ignorance and fanaticism. They lifted up the benighted and pushed down the wise. They took joy from the young and dignity from elders. They created colorful ayatollahs and obtained heavy fatwas from them. [...] Their psychosis about imaginary enemies created daily crises. People were imprisoned and ridiculous confessions were placed in their mouths and horrendous punishments were meted out. [...]
[These acts] lit a blaze in the conscience of the people that burned the house of the guardianship. The post-election protest was neither a military exercise, nor sedition, nor the Zarrar Mosque -- a term you have coined in your mint and employ often. (NB The Zarrar Mosque, mentioned in the Koran, was built by religious hypocrites to tempt the true Muslims.) It was an outburst of honor over plunder. The people, with awakened consciences, defended their vote, their elected choice, their rights as citizens, and their freedom of thought in a calm and collected manner against those who would plunder their vote and rights and freedom. The thieves were up in arms, but we heard God's laughter. He was satisfied with us. He had heard our prayers and had disgraced the murderers and the wrongdoers. Taraneh Mousavi's death was the death knell of tyranny.
(End of part 1. For part 2 go here)