Iran's former president Khatami's visit to Germany, Nov 15-20, was mostly headlined in the international news around the current nuclear crisis in his talks with German politicians. However, the visit was made upon the invitation of the KĂ¶rber Foundation. Following a reception at the Bergedorf Round Table in Berlin he gave an evening speech
... at the Berlin Institute of Advanced Studies on "Religion and Pluralism." At this event, which took place within the Institute's current project "Modernity and Islam," Khatami detailed his views on Islam's relationship with secularism. He said it is his firm conviction that secularism is a purely Western phenomenon and is not an option within the Islamic world. At the same time he reaffirmed his founding idea of the dialog of cultures, saying for example that he supports equal rights for men and women.
In Khatami's speech I see a repeated pattern common in the kind of thinking that largely led the reform movement intellectually 8 years ago. Khatami gives a very flashy high point in his speech on the equality of rights of men and women. But he comes short of the more fundamental issue of secularism. Why? Here's the crux of his reasoning:
Khatami pointed out that ethics must be the foundation of human thought and economic and political affairs [...] He said: "Of course we may assume many general and non-historical meanings for secularism, but turning a subject that is in all its existence a historical matter into a non-historical matter is a balatant mistake" [...] He explained: "Secularism is the experience of the Western culture and thought. Insisting on spreading it to places where the underlying intellectual background, and the political and social reasons for its appearance are lacking, is clearly a mistake, regardless of being desirable or not."This argument is based on the assumption that secularism is a historical artifact. Of course, in the sense that anything has a history, any social or political aspect of various human societies are historic artifacts. But that is not what we mean by "historic artifact." What is meant is, as Khatami singled out, that the particular experience is not transferrable to other human societies. This historic fatalism is at the core of the failure of the intellectual basis of the reform movement. It deprives its adherents of a most important source of progress: human experience.
There is of course no direct way of showing that history has its own destiny, since we are the ones making that history. There is in the same way no direct way of showing that it does not. But we may see, indirectly, that in coming up with an understanding of our human societies, we are able to assume that certain aspects of a human society are "universal" human experiences. This will then lead to consequences through arguments that base on that assumption with very far-reaching results. Respecting a code human rights is such a "universal" human experience. Secularism is another.
Here is the basis for separating the state and religion that applies universally to all human societies of today's dimensions: we must separate politics, which makes categorical decisions for all members of the society, from practices that cannot possibly be agreed upon by all those members without foregoing their chance of changing their mind. Prominent among all such practices is of course religion. This is closely linked to, say, the equality of rights of men and women, which Khatami apparantly advocates. Otherwise we cannot ensure a minimum of rights for all the members of the society, since the political power will use its own religious practice to set those right unequally for the members of the society it is ruling. Combined with Khatami's assertion that "ethics must be the foundation of economic and political affairs" the absence of secularism is a recipe for the deadliest kind of social order history has ever witnessed in various forms and names. Khatami repeatedly admited in his previous public speeches that even if all (or a close-to-all majority of) members of the society consider themselves muslims their individual "interpretations" of what they consider Islam will be different from and even in conflict with each other, yet he cannot see the logical link between this fact and secularism via human rights.