In an age when democrats have been successful at opening up so many societies, one of the great disappointments has been the collapse of the Iranian reform movement after the vibrant social and intellectual movements of the late 1990s. At that time, Iranian publications were full of stimulating discussion about the relationship between politics and religion. Respected and learned clerics weighed in with reasoned analyses of why governments should be secular, arguing that government is at its essence a human matter, not a divine one, and that, therefore, just government must be based on the consent of the governed irrespective of religious belief.
There is no better way to appreciate the depth of the clerical reformers' commitment to democracy than to read their own words. Mir-Hosseini, a social anthropologist and specialist in Islamic law, and Tapper, emeritus professor of anthropology, University of London, have done a magnificent job of presenting lengthy essays by one of the most exciting clerical reformers, Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari. The editors provide an excellent introduction that explains for the non-specialist the history of the Iranian revolution—a popular revolution that was taken over bit by bit by clerical fascists who were only a small part of the original movement. The editors' notes before each Eshkevari essay constitute in themselves by far the best history of the clerical reform movement, explaining its social character, its intellectual development, and its role in Iran's political evolution. The Eshkevari essays are quite accessible to the non-specialist, though to be sure the lengthy piece, "Islamic Democratic Government," is densely written, delving deep into theological issues. But it is well worth the effort. The author has a first-class mind and a refreshing honesty about some of the most controversial issues, such as his frank acknowledgment that Islam is not a religion of peace alone. Easier to follow are Eshkevari's autobiographical essays, his long interview with a prominent reformist journalist, and his speech at a controversial Berlin conference, which make up the rest of the volume.
Eshkevari was arrested in 2000 and convicted of "waging armed war against God" for which he was sentenced to death. After a domestic and international outcry, the sentence was converted to seven years in jail. He was released in 2005, but he now largely stays out of politics, researching quietly. The silencing of stimulating minds like his has been a great loss for Iran and the entire Muslim world.