Jean Paul Sartre starts his essay 'The Republic of Silence' in a very provocative manner, saying, "We were never more free than under the German occupation." By this Sartre means that each gesture had the weight of a commitment during the Vichy period in France. I always repeat this phrase in relation to Iran. It sounds very paradoxical, but... we have never been more free than under the Islamic Republic. By this I mean that the day Iran is democratic, Iranian intellectuals will put less effort into struggling for the idea of democracy and for liberal values. In Iran today, the rise of hedonist and consumerist individualism, spurred by the pace of urbanisation and instrumental modernisation after the 1979 Revolution, was not accompanied by a wave of liberal measures. In the early days of the revolution liberals were attacked by Islamic as well as leftist groups as dangerous enemies and betrayers of the Revolution. The American hostage crisis sounded the death knell for the project of liberalism in Iran.

But in recent years, with the empowerment of Iranian civil society and the rise of a new generation of post-revolutionary intellectuals, liberal ideas have found a new vibrant life among many intellectuals and students. The ideas and sensibilities that comprise contemporary Iranian liberalism were more or less formulated by intellectuals such as Muhammad Ali Furughi a century ago. Furughi's writings and translations of that period were mainly discussions of the basic norms of constitutionality and pillars of modern thought. In his book Huquq-e Asasi Ya'ni Adab-e Mashrutiyat, published in Tehran in 1907, he articulated, in an Iranian context, the vital liberal concept of the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary. This remains one of the key concepts of Iranian liberalism today. For all those who support the idea of a referendum on and reform of the Iranian Constitution, the concept of 'separation of powers,' and not just 'separation of factions' (as we have today), is essential.

But there is more to this, because Iranian liberalism is perceived by its supporters in Iran today as a more critical project than it was in Furughi's time. For the generation of intellectuals and politicians in the 1920s and 1930s like Furughi, Taghizadeh, Jamalzadeh and others, liberalism was a technique of progress, something to be activated as a universally executable programme, irrespective of the local contours of culture. They regarded liberalism as a system of protocols that, when enacted by policy-makers, ensured the creation of institutions that enshrined the rule of law, and generated a rationally organised and governed public life. But the species of liberalism which has taken hold in Iran today, though it is complementary with the traditional wave of liberalism in Iran, is decidedly original.

Thanks to the recent discovery and translations of the schools of liberal thought dominant in the Anglo-American world, as found in the works of Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls and Karl Popper, and an appreciation of older traditions of liberalism (Kantian, Millian or Lockean), a new trend of liberalism has taken shape among the younger generation of Iranian intellectuals. Iranian liberals today do not deny that the liberties appropriate to a liberal society can be derived from a theory or stated in a system of principles, but their view of a liberal society is related to a view of humanity and truth as inherently unfinished, incomplete, and self-transforming. The principles of Iranian liberalism cannot be grounded in religious truth, because the very idea of free agency, as it is understood today by Iranian liberals, goes against any form of determinism (religious or historical).

In a country like Iran, where the logic of the theological-political is still absolute and where there is a single master-value, the principle goal of liberals is to fight for a pluralism of ethical values and modes of being. This is to say, the chief task of Iranian liberalism is to establish the proper balance between critical rationality and political decency. The lack of liberalism, symbolised by the rise of unreasonable and violent radicalism in the Iranian revolution (both on the left and the right), committed a huge injury to our commonsense ways of political thought and political action, and led to deep confusion about questions of moral responsibility and collective human solidarity.

The work of an intellectual requires living on the edge. This is even truer in a challenging country like Iran. Life is not easy when you have to live morally in the face of untruth. I believe one cannot be a friend of truth without living on the edge. But to do that one has to be gripped by the idea and the passion that life and thought are one. For me as an Iranian philosopher, thinking differently is a form of going beyond the challenges of my daily life in Iran. It's an opening up to the world which goes hand in hand with the act of being free. I think this internal dialogue with oneself — listening to one's inner voice, as Gandhi used to say — but also having an acute sense of the world, could be a quest not only to understand the meaning of our world, but also a ceaseless and restless activity of questioning the nature of the evil that one has to confront in political life.

In Iran we have grown accustomed to living with political evil but not thinking about it. The challenge here is to focus on the process of democratic consciousness-building which can provide continuity to the political structures of democracy by way of contrast with our authoritarian traditions. This is where philosophical thinking comes to our aid as a grammar of resistance to the tyranny of tradition. This does not mean that I consider the tremendous body of traditions in Iran as mere errors of the past. It means that our political and social traditions are acceptable as long as they enable us to think freely. We need to distinguish between a false sense of belonging and respect for a common space where the plurality of voices can be realised.

Thanks to western traditions of thought, I learned to think philosophically and politically, but I have refused systematically, during the past 30 years of my intellectual life, to abandon the Iranian question as the focal point of my philosophical and political thinking. An independent and critical thinker in Iran who takes responsibility for the marginal status thrust upon him is like an acrobat walking on a tightrope.

In terms of the rest of the world the thing to recognise is the fact that there are democratic pluralists in Iran fighting for democratic values and civil liberties. The process of democratization in Iran is a day-to-day challenge which is not only political, but also social and cultural. Democracy is not a place where you sit and relax for the rest of your life. It is about responsible civic participation and intellectual integrity.

Pascal used to say "We are usually convinced more easily by reasons we have found ourselves than by those which have occurred to others." This is very true of our situation in Iran. The actors in Iranian civil society need to find their own logics and practices of togetherness rather than those imposed on them. But this cannot be done without intellectual maturity.

I sincerely believe that finding a place for philosophical debates in the Iranian public sphere today is the highest level of political maturity. This is how our counterparts in the west or the east could be helpful. I have been trying to invite writers, philosophers and scholars from different parts of the world here in order to help them understand Iran but also to open up intellectual discussions with them on subjects that are of great interest to us. Iranian students are eager to know more about western cultures and are curious to discuss their views on religion, democracy, philosophy and culture with western intellectuals. What they ask for is not sympathy but empathy. They have an eagerness to learn from others and through this learning to become more mature. What remains most fundamentally true is that 'empathy' as opposed to 'apathy' is the most desirable, even the definitive, philosophical state in our struggle for political maturity.

Liberal ideas are new to a country like Iran. They are only 100 years old. To internalise them, Iranian civil society needs to know them better. This cannot be done by violence or by exporting ideas. We need to have more debates among us. Internationalism, liberalism, and democracy are powerful concepts and have indeed begun to dominate all of the debates within Iranian civil society. But we need to examine them together critically. This is where the concept of maturity links up with that of solidarity. Solidarity does not mean charity, it does not mean intervention and it cannot be reduced to altruism. Rather it is something which grows out of an understanding of common responsibility. As liberals it falls to all of us to help Iranian civil society to grow.

This is excerpted from an interview by Danny Postel. His book Reading 'Legitimation Crisis' in Tehran, with the full text of the interview, is forthcoming from Prickly Paradigm Press