Islamic Studies Muhammad Khatami
by
Nader Entessar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0127

Introduction

Muhammad Khatami was born on 14 October 1943 in the city of Ardakan in the Yazd Province in central Iran. He is a Shi’a cleric with a rank of Hojjatol Eslam (authority or proof of Islam), an honorific title applied to middle-ranking theologians in the Twelver Shi’ism. Known for his moderate and reformist views on religion and politics, Khatami served two terms as the president of the Islamic Republic from 1997 to 2005. Prior to his presidency, Khatami served the Islamic Republic in a number of capacities, including as a member of Parliament, or Majlis (1980–1982), two terms as the minister of culture and Islamic guidance (1982–1986 and 1989–1992), and as the head of the National Library of Iran (1992–1997). He is a graduate of Isfahan University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and earned his master’s degree in educational sciences from Tehran University. In addition, Khatami received seven years of theological training in Iran’s theological seminaries in the holy city of Qum to become a mujtahid, thus allowing him to interpret religious doctrines and issue religious rulings. In addition to his native Persian language, Khatami speaks Arabic, English, and German. He is also a member of the Central Council of the Association of Combatant Clerics, the main reformist clerical association in Iran.

General Overviews

Notwithstanding Khatami’s positions in the Islamic Republic, he was a candidate little known by the general voting population of Iran and was viewed as a safe candidate by the country’s establishment to run against the odds-on-favorite, Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, the speaker of Parliament. Khatami ran as a candidate of reform and promised individual freedom and rule of law. Khatami’s promise of inclusion (Iran for all Iranians) created an avalanche of support for his candidacy (Tazmini 2009), leading to an unprecedented voter turnout of 80 percent. Khatami was elected on the 2nd of Khordad 1376 in the Iranian calendar (23 May 1997), receiving 70 percent of the votes cast. The coalition that brought Khatami to power was composed of young voters, women, business leaders, and those who had grown tired of revolutionary excesses and wanted normalcy in their lives (Gheissari and Nasr 2006). This coalition became known as the “2nd of Khordad movement,” or the “reformist movement.” However, reform had not started with Khatami. In fact, the victory of the “reformist movement” marked the culmination of a century of popular struggle for democratic change in Iran (Ansari 2003, Azimi, 2008, Dabashi 2007, Keddie 2003). Khatami was elected president of Iran for a second term on 8 June 2001 with over 65 percent of the votes cast, and he finished his presidency on 3 August 2005.

  • Ansari, Ali M. Modern Iran since 1921: The Pahlavis and After. New York: Longman, 2003.

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    A readable overview of Iran’s political history during the 20th century. It highlights the struggle for power among the country’s contending forces and the popular response to the country’s autocratic governments.

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    • Azimi, Fakhreddin. The Quest for Democracy in Iran: A Century of Struggle against Authoritarian Rule. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

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      One of the most detailed scholarly treatments of the struggle for popular democracy in Iran, from the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to the early 21st century.

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      • Dabashi, Hamid. Iran: A People Interrupted. New York: New Press, 2007.

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        A critical history of Iran since the 1990s that evaluates the Iranian people’s democratic struggles against dictatorship and highlights key events through the collapse of the reform movement.

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        • Gheissari, Ali, and Vali Nasr. Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

          DOI: 10.1093/0195189671.001.0001E-mail Citation »

          This book examines Iran’s political history in the modern era and evaluates the prospects for establishing democracy in the country. The authors also evaluate various narratives and ideological debates on this topic.

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          • Keddie, Nikki R. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

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            A thorough analysis of modern Iranian history that seeks to establish continuity among the various protest movements against dictatorial rule in Iran.

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            • Tazmini, Ghoncheh. Khatami’s Iran: The Islamic Republic and the Turbulent Path to Reform. London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2009.

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              An even-handed treatment of Khatami’s rise to power and his presidency. The author analyzes the success and failures of Khatami’s presidency and places it in the context of factional groupings in Iran.

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              Primary Works

              As a political philosopher, Khatami has sought to infuse Western and Islamic political thought in his writings, particularly in dealing with the concepts of power, justice, legitimacy, and rights. Khatami has published many books that reflect his philosophical outlook on these topics. Khatami’s personal website provides updates on the former Iranian president’s speeches and writings. Khatami 1997 and Khatami 1998 are rather hopeful about the prospects of liberty and democratic development in Iran and see Islam, especially “true and pluralistic Islam” (Khatami 1993), as a vehicle for achieving these goals. Moreover, Khatami 2000c and Khatami 2001a view the existence of competitive political parties and civil society as the foundation of a robust democratic system that can guarantee Iran’s long-term security and sociopolitical and economic development. Khatami 2000d praises the country’s youth and women for being in the forefront of defending freedom and guarding the country against the forces of reaction. However, Khatami 2000a and Khatami 2000b warn about authoritarian tendencies and antidemocratic forces that would seek to monopolize power and prevent the establishment of an open society in Iran. In foreign policy, Khatami 2001b sees dialogue and understanding among the world’s major civilizations as the best hope for maintaining peace and security in the world.

              • Khatami, Mohammad. Bim-e Mowj. Tehran: Simay-e Javan Institute, 1993.

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                Differentiates among three types of Islam: reactionary, eclectic, and true Islam. Khatami supports the third category because he argues that only true Islam promotes the dignity of individuals and their happiness.

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                • Khatami, Mohammad. Hope and Challenge: The Iranian President Speaks. Translated by translated by Alidad Mafinezam. Binghamton, NY: Institute of Global Cultural Studies, Binghamton University, 1997.

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                  An English translation of many of the important philosophical speeches by Khatami that exemplify his optimism for dialogue among different cultural and religious traditions.

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                  • Khatami, Mohammad. Islam, Liberty and Development. Binghamton, NY: Institute of Global Cultural Studies, Binghamton University, 1998.

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                    A series of essays reflecting Khatami’s views on the centrality of the struggle for freedom and justice to the Islamic system of values.

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                    • Khatami, Mohammad. Ayeen va Andisheh dar Dam-e Khodkamegi. Tehran: Tarh-e No, 2000a.

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                      Here Khatami laments the persistence of authoritarian tendencies in political discourse and institutional order in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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                      • Khatami, Mohammad. Eslam, Rohaniyat va Enqelab-e Eslami. Tehran: Tarh-e No, 2000b.

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                        In this book, Khatami provides a historical perspective on the role of the clergy in Iran’s political opposition movements and the clergy’s role in guiding the Iranian revolution of 1978–1979.

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                        • Khatami, Mohammad. Toseay-e Siyasi, Toseay-e Eqtesadi va Amniyat. Tehran: Tarh-e No, 2000c.

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                          A selection of Khatami’s speeches on the interconnection between political development, economic development, and national security. Khatami emphasizes that, without political development (democracy), the country’s economic growth and security will be imperiled.

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                          • Khatami, Mohammad. Zanan va Javanan. Tehran: Tarh-e No, 2000d.

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                            Khatami examines the critical role played by Iranian women and youth in the reform movement and evaluates their potential as agents of change in the Islamic Republic.

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                            • Khatami, Mohammad. Ahzab va Shoraha. Tehran: Tarh-e No, 2001a.

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                              Khatami seeks to demonstrate the importance of independent political parties and groups for maintenance of democracy in Iran. The author especially emphasizes the role political parties can play as articulators of interests of different individuals and groups.

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                              • Khatami, Mohammad. Goftegooye Tamadonha. Tehran: Tarhe No, 2001b.

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                                Khatami rejects the Huntingtonian concept of “clash of civilizations.” Instead, he offers a passionate defense of the desirability of dialogue among the major civilizations of the world.

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                                • Official Website of Sayyid Mohammad Khatami.

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                                  Includes information about his biography and political statements, and commentaries about his views on sociocultural and political developments in Iran.

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                                  Dialogue among Civilizations

                                  The philosophical and theoretical foundations of the term dialogue among civilizations predated Khatami’s presidency. Among contemporary Iranian thinkers, philosophers such as Dariush Shayegan and Javad Tabatabi had written about this concept before Khatami’s accession to power. However, Khatami was among the first political leaders who promoted this concept, making it into a centerpiece of his presidency and advancing it tirelessly in various international settings. Although he did not formally articulate it as such, Khatami sought to provide a sustained response to the prediction of Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington of a “clash of civilizations” (Huntington 1998). The thrust of Khatami’s argument was that global diversity should not be viewed as a threat, but rather as an opportunity to promote cooperation and the establishment of a pacific world order, and that morality and culture must prevail over power politics (Khatami 2000). Khatami’s strong belief in the emancipatory power of cultural dialogue remained consistent throughout his public career (Afrasiabi 2006–2007). Khatami also established the Foundation for Dialogue among Civilisations and the Baran Foundation to promote dialogue among civilizations by sponsoring conferences, symposia, and workshops. It was due to Khatami’s persistent effort that the United Nations declared 2001 as the UN Year of Dialogue among Civilizations (see Khatami 2000). However, as noted in Mirbagheri 2007, the appeal of the dialogue of civilizations could not be sustained in the absence of substantive and meaningful dialogue between Islamic and Western cultures.

                                  • Afrasiabi, Keveh L. “Mohammad Khatami on the Dialogue among Civilizations.” UN Chronicle 43.4 (December 2006–February 2007): 69–70.

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                                    An interview with Khatami, focusing on the challenges that exist in harmonizing relations between the Muslim World and the West.

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                                    • Baran Foundation.

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                                      The Baran Foundation focuses mostly on Iran and Khatami’s activities in promoting his thoughts through dialogue. The website contains many articles on the idea of reform and its implications for today’s Iran. The articles consist of statements and brief commentaries by Khatami himself.

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                                      • Foundation for Dialogue among Civilisations.

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                                        This website provides detailed information about the activities of the foundation and contains links to important documents. The documents consist of proceedings of the conferences held under the auspices of the Foundation for Dialogue among Civilisations. Examples include documents on “Extremism and Tolerance” and “Religion, Democracy and Extremism.”

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                                        • Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

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                                          Perhaps Huntington’s most controversial book, in which he divides the world into contending civilizations that are bound to clash with each other and threaten world order.

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                                          • Khatami, Mohammad. Address by H. E. Mr. Mohammad Khatami, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Round Table: Dialogue among Civilizations, UN, New York, 5 September 2000.

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                                            This is the English-translation of Khatami’s speech at the UN-sponsored Conference of Dialogue among Civilizations.

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                                            • Mirbagheri, Farid. “Narrowing the Gap or Camouflaging the Divide: An Analysis of Mohammad Khatami’s ‘Dialogue of Civilisations.’” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 34.3 (December 2007): 305–316.

                                              DOI: 10.1080/13530190701388325E-mail Citation »

                                              Analyzes Khatami’s approach to the dialogue among civilizations and examines philosophical arguments he advanced in support of it.

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                                              Critical Assessment of Khatami’s Presidency

                                              Khatami’s presidency marked one of the most significant periods in the life of the Islamic Republic. Although Khatami’s goal was not to transform the Islamic Republic, his presidency was marked by a totally unfamiliar discourse in revolutionary Iran among those at the apex of power in the Islamic Republic. While Khatami failed to change the record of human rights abuses in the country (Afshari 2001), he nevertheless introduced a new vocabulary into the country’s political discourse and set in motion forces that have continued to challenge the authoritarian tendencies of the Islamic Republic. Emphasizing the rule of law (Arjomand 2000) and creating political space in which civil society and individual creativity could blossom were Khatami’s main, albeit fleeting, contributions to Iran’s post-revolutionary politics. That said, Khatami’s experience with reform clearly exposed the limits of change in the Islamic Republic. As noted in Amuzegar 2004, Arjomand 2009b, and Chaichian 2003, structural and constitutional impediments in Iran’s theocratic system and Khatami’s inability, or unwillingness, to confront his adversaries head-on and push for the implementation of his promised reforms ultimately led to disillusionment among the electorate and the demise of the reform movement as envisioned by Khatami. Of course, persistent factionalism and power struggles in the Islamic Republic, as described in Brumberg 2001 and Arjomand 2009a, have always served as an impediment to implementing structural reform in post-revolutionary Iran. In his defense, President Khatami published a forty-seven-page letter in which he acknowledged the frustrations of his old supporters with the pace of reform, but he also defended his record and reformist agenda. In bluntly blaming the conservative Guardian Council for blocking many of his legislative proposals, Khatami also stated that change and reform are inevitable in Iran and would come about gradually over the course of his presidency and beyond. Indeed, Khatami’s significance goes beyond what he did in office. In fact, he served as the harbinger of an intellectual movement that has continued to evolve in Iran today. The Green Movement would not have come about without the sociopolitical foundation laid by Khatami’s reform movement. The robust Muslim and secular reformers found in Iran today were invariably influenced by the relative openness of the political space that was established during Khatami’s presidency (Majd 2008 and Majd 2010).

                                              • Afshari, Reza. Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

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                                                This is the most exhaustive treatment of human rights abuses in post-revolutionary Iran. It is copiously researched and meticulously documented.

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                                                • Amuzegar, Jahangir. “Khatami: A Folk Hero in Search of Relevance.” Middle East Policy 11.2 (2004): 75–93.

                                                  DOI: 10.1111/j.1061-1924.2004.00154.xE-mail Citation »

                                                  This article by a veteran Iran watcher examines the main reasons for President Khatami’s fading popularity and the disillusionment among youth who supported him.

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                                                  • Arjomand, Said Amir. “Civil Society and the Rule of Law in the Constitutional Politics of Iran under Khatami.” Social Research 67.2 (2000): 288–301.

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                                                    This essay examines the promotion of the rule of law and civil society during Khatami’s first term as president. The author argues that Khatami’s advocacy of these was certainly a major challenge to political and social orthodoxy in the Islamic Republic.

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                                                    • Arjomand, Said Amir. After Khomeini: Iran under His Successors. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009a.

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                                                      This book begins by explaining the making of the political order in Iran after the 1979 revolution and examines the impact of the emergence of a dual leadership after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. The book also explains the emergence of hard-line and reformist factions in Iranian politics.

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                                                      • Arjomand, Said Amir. “Has Iran’s Islamic Revolution Ended?” Radical History Review 105 (Fall 2009b): 132–138.

                                                        DOI: 10.1215/01636545-2009-009E-mail Citation »

                                                        Examines three components of the Islamic Republic: theocratic, republican, and populist. The author argues that Khatami failed to realize or strengthen the republican heritage of the regime. Available online by subscription.

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                                                        • Brumberg, Daniel. Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

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                                                          An analytical political history of the Islamic Republic with a focus on impediments to reform and the challenges reformists encounter in their struggle to change Iran from within.

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                                                          • Chaichian, Mohammad. “Structural Impediments of the Civil Society Project in Iran: National and Global Dimensions.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 44.1 (2003): 19–50.

                                                            DOI: 10.1177/002071520304400102E-mail Citation »

                                                            Using Antonio Gramsci’s framework for studying civil society, the author explains how internal and external structural impediments in Iran served as obstacles to establishing a robust civil society.

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                                                            • Majd, Hooman. The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

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                                                              A jargon-free and highly readable book about the intricacies of power in Iran, with an emphasis on the reform movement. The book is especially useful for those with little or no knowledge of Iran today.

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                                                              • Majd, Hooman. The Ayatollahs’ Challenge: An Iranian Challenge. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010.

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                                                                Based on the author’s extensive interviews with many individuals in Iran, this highly readable book focuses on the reemergence of reformism in the Green Movement that has continued to challenge the political order in Iran since the disputed presidential election of 2009.

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