Charles Kurzman’s recent essay in the Chronicle Review, “Social Science on Trial: Reading Weber in Tehran” (, seems to confirm much of what we already suspect about non-Western fundamentalist regimes. Namely, that religious government and civil society are incompatible. Saeed Hajjarian, political scientist and “leading strategist in the Iranian reform movement,” was coerced in a recent show trial to “admit” that key principles of Max Weber’s theory of government were not applicable to modern Iran. Kurzman links this recent episode to a longer history of Iranian “crackdowns” on social science for its influence on the reform movement and for its role in secularizing government and social life in Iran, where social science is increasingly the study of choice among university students: “In 1976 there were about 27,000 social-science students in Iran; now there are more than half a million.”

This episode re-stages the contest between religion and social science, especially in non-Western contexts where “social science,” the language of reformist anti-fundamentalists and proponents of a free public sphere, stands in stark contrast to “religion.” Social science and “the West” are intimately linked. Studying Weber—studying society—as Iranian authorities correctly point out, plugs one into the secular equation that recalculates “religion-as-faith” (non-rational, metaphysical) to “religion-as-ideology” (false consciousness, discourse). It’s this recalculation that is widely accepted as the hallmark of secularization, and justification for the relegation of faith to the private sphere, where it is decreasingly a part of public life and politics (a phenomenon well underway in Iran, according to Kurzman: “private expressions of religiosity have begun to replace official events like state-run Friday prayers, where attendance has declined by a third since the 1979 revolution”).

Kurzman, a sociologist, concludes that “The Iranian government’s goal, it seems, is to undermine not only the institutions of civil society, but the very idea of it.” Of course this is true, but there’s a larger issue here than simply the persecution of science by religion. Even from Iranian social scientists and reformers, there is dissent from the necessary equation of civil society with the principles of social scientific rationality. Kurzman notes that upon Jurgen Habermas’s visit to Iran, students took a critical view, asking: “Must a society rid itself of religiosity…in order to develop a ‘rational’ public discourse? Are Western notions of religious tolerance unique to Christianity? Can traditional Islamic institutions, such as study circles and charitable foundations, contribute to the formation of a robust public sphere?” These are deeply felt concerns about the compatibility of religion with Enlightenment democratic values. They express the worry that the study of society in a conceptual language not native undermines religion with a theory of the “public sphere” bound to conception of “reason” that cannot brook faith or other “non-rational” modes of being in the world. For non-fundamentalist critics, this conception of reason (and thus of civil society) is highly historically contextual to the West.

As the Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy has written in his essay “The Politics of Secularization and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance” (Alternatives 13: 2 [1988]: 177-94), that very idea of secularism is tied to a European genealogy of social science. Western secularism’s credo:

“One can have religion in one’s private life; one can be a good Hindu or a good Muslim within one’s home or at one’s place of worship. But when one enters public life, one is expected to leave one’s faith behind. … Implicit in this ideology is the belief that managing the public realm is a science which is essentially universal and that religion, to the extent it is opposed to the Baconian world-image, is an open or potential threat to any modern polity” (180).

Nandy, a fierce critic of both this Western concept of secularism and of religious zealotry, sees secularism as a hegemonic language, one also responsible for an “imperialisation” of scientific categories that have come to define, describe, and proscribe our lives (e.g., “IQ” for something like intelligence, “proletariat” for an oppressed people, “primitive” for oral culture, “development” for something like social change, and the like). This is a history of scientific language and classification that Ian Hacking describes as “making up people” ( and that Michel Foucault has described as the roots of “biopolitics.”

One of secularism’s chief “conceits,” argues William Connolly in Why I Am not a Secularist (U Minnesota P, 1999), is that of a “single, authoritative basis of public reason and/or public ethics that governs all reasonable citizens regardless of ‘personal’ or ‘private’ faith.” It is a “conceit” because it is not a reality but a fiction that (supposedly) allows for the negotiation of competing understandings the world. But as critics of secularism point out, it can be a poor fiction: the idea that secularism allows for faith even in the private realm assumes that faith can be shed as we leave for the office or the market or the library, and that faith has nothing to offer public life other than bigotry and zealotry.

But as Connolly and Nandy both point out, “dogma” and zealotry result from attempts to occupy the center: they are the result of being relegated to the margins. For both critics, there are other ways of thinking about civic life than through the language of social science. Nandy, for instance, locates two meanings of secularism—the European one with which we’re all familiar, and another one, native to the Southeast Asian societies he studies, which contains an implicit notion of the necessity of accommodation, in public life, of diverse metaphysical understandings. In this view, science and religion co-exist because they both offer viable interpretations of the world (because science itself is a kind of metaphysics). For Connolly, this means “refashioning secularism” to “temper or disperse religious intolerance while honoring the desire of a variety of believers and nonbelievers to represent their faiths in public life.”

We see this competition for the center in Iran, and its “constipating” (Connolly) effects—that is, its tendency to force people and their passions into rigidly defined domains that disallow vital experience and expression. Moreover, we might rethink this particular contest in Iran not through the eyes of the secularist, but rather as expressing some other, deeper contest. The tempting secular conclusion to “social science on trial” would confirm that that civil society (and therefore the study of it) can’t function where religion is present, and vice versa. In this view, the popularity of social science in Iranian universities is a validation of the secular principles of scientific rationalism. It is a question of either/or—either secularism or religion. The same can be said about the government’s persecution of social scientists. Can we instead read the Iranian interest in social science as a reaction against religious fundamentalism? In other words, might the turn to social science in the context of Iran be understood as a polemic, an expression of discontent, rather than a de facto affirmation of Western secular values? If so, we might preserve the possibility that science and religion, far from having exclusive claims to a positive reality, are the languages by which we have come to understand the contest for the center of public life.