Effect of Internet Administered Mindfulness Training on Anxiety And Sleep Quality, Travis Usinger

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Objective: To examine the effects of a daily, 10-minute mindfulness meditation intervention administered online through Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) over a two-week period on the intensity of anxiety, perceived stress, and reported sleep quality in participants pre-screened for general anxiety symptoms.  Method: One hundred and forty-eight participants pre-screened for mild or greater general anxiety symptoms and mild or greater difficulty sleeping were recruited through MTurk.   Participants’ baseline levels of anxiety, perceived stress, and sleep quality were assessed.  They then were randomized to the mindfulness meditation intervention (n = 74) or wait list control group (n = 74).  Following the two-week intervention period, participants completed post-treatment questionnaires that assessed levels of anxiety, perceived stress and sleep quality.  Results: Participants in the meditation group had significantly decreased levels of general anxiety and perceived stress, and increased sleep quality in comparison to the wait-list control group, ps < .05.  Conclusions: Significant short-term benefits on anxiety, stress, and sleep quality resulted from a two-week, 10-minute-a-day mindfulness meditation training.  Further research is needed to examine the duration of these benefits and the mechanisms of action that account for them.


The prevalence of insomnia in people with anxiety disorders is higher than in the general population (Marcks & Weisberg, 2009).  People with insomnia typically worry about whether they will get enough sleep, which contributes to more sleep deprivation, increasing both insomnia and anxiety symptoms in a vicious cycle (Jansson & Linton, 2007).   Becoming immersed in rumination and worry can result in increased stress, arousal, and an inability to easily fall asleep or maintain sleep (Weise, Ong, Tesler, Kim, & Roth, 2013).  Helping people to more proactively and skillfully respond to their thoughts has been proposed as a potential pathway to help people become unstuck from this cycle of worry/anxiety and insomnia (Ong & Sholtes, 2010).  Mindfulness meditation represents one such approach.

Mindfulness meditation teaches people to respond to thoughts by observing and “letting go” of them rather than becoming caught up in them.  Mindfulness is formally defined as “a receptive attention to and awareness of present events and experience” (Brown & Ryan, 2003).  Mindfulness incorporates concentration, awareness, and compassion and can be practiced in a simple breathing meditation (Ong, Ulmer, & Manber, 2012).  It incorporates concentration by guiding focus to the breath, awareness by feeling what is happening in the present moment, and self-compassion as the practitioner lets go of judgments about the self when they get distracted and choose to gently return focus to the breath (Ong, et al., 2012).   Mindfulness has been researched through the 8-week intensive Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) intervention, which has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression (which is commonly co-morbid with anxiety) and increase sleep quality (Vøllestad, Sivertsen, & Nielsen, 2011).  The main disadvantage to MBSR is that it can be time-intensive and expensive, preventing many people who have busy schedules or financial constraints from registering for an MBSR course.  This study aims to examine the feasibility of using Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) as an online platform for recruitment in an intervention research study that will teach mindfulness meditation in substantially briefer sessions and overall duration than MBSR, without financial cost to the participant, and assess whether briefer training is feasible to deliver through this online platform and result in benefits for anxiety, worry, stress, and sleep symptoms.

Addressing the commonly co-morbid symptoms of anxiety and insomnia is important because daytime drowsiness and impairment are rated higher in people with decreased sleep, and driving while having inadequate sleep can be as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol (Connor, Whitlock, Norton, & Jackson, 2001).  Worry and anxiety can lead to poor sleep related choices, such as drinking alcohol in order to fall asleep at night and watching television in order to avoid the anxiety of not being able to fall asleep.  People with high trait worry were found to have a higher percentage of time awake while in bed (decreased sleep efficiency), higher heart rate while in bed, and a shorter reported sleep time than people with low trait worry (Weise, et al., 2013).  The current study used prescreening measures to target a population within MTurk that has mild or higher symptoms of anxiety and difficulty falling asleep – that is, targeting those with co-occurring anxiety and insomnia symptoms who may stand to benefit from a mindfulness intervention.

When participants diagnosed with an anxiety disorder completed MBSR, they reported higher quality and quantity of sleep, less symptoms of anxiety and depression, and less anxiety provoking worry and sleep disruptive thoughts (Vøllestad, et al., 2011).  However, as noted earlier, a downside to MBSR is the large time commitment, requiring 8 weeks of mindfulness training involving a minimum of 45 minutes per day of meditation.  Similar anxiety reducing, sleep enhancing results were found when MBSR was administered at a “low dose” of 20 minutes a day of meditation over an eight week period with an hour long weekly group meeting (Klatt, Buckworth, & Malarkey, 2008) and as an online version of MBSR that required 20 minutes a day of meditation (Boettcher, Åström, Påhlsson, Schenström, Andersson, & Carlbring, 2014).  A randomized, wait-list controlled study by Cavanagh and colleagues (2013) examined the efficacy of an online, 10-minute guided meditation freely accessed over a 2-week period to a general college population, and found reductions in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and perceived stress.  If such benefits are possible with a broader adult population that report symptoms of general anxiety and insomnia, as the current study assesses, it will be easier to offer mindfulness training to anxious people with busy schedules who may not feel ready to commit 45 minutes a day to mindfulness meditation, but who feel more willing to try mindfulness meditation if it requires only 10 minutes a day.

Amazon Mechanical Turk is the online platform that was used for recruitment in the current study because it provides access to a more diverse group of participants than typical university samples, and MTurk participants report levels of general anxiety symptoms that match those of the general population (Mason & Suri, 2012; Shapiro, Chandler, & Mueller, 2013).  Additional advantages to using MTurk for recruitment include rapid subject recruitment and a reduced barrier of entry for researchers. MTurk has successfully been used to conduct diverse behavioral research (e.g., Eriksson & Simpson, 2010; Suri & Watts, 2011), but to our knowledge, has not yet been used to conduct mindfulness intervention research.  The study by Mason and Suri (2012) also explained how the downsides of having potentially unreliable data can be remedied by including prescreening measures such as the MMPI-2, test-check measures, and only allowing participants who have a 95% or higher successful acceptance rate for previous projects completed through MTurk.

The current study assesses the feasibility of recruiting participants and administering a mindfulness intervention study online in MTurk.  We also examine the extent to which administering a brief mindfulness meditation intervention online to a population that has symptoms of anxiety and difficulty sleeping provides short-term benefits.  First, we will examine the feasibility of using MTurk to conduct brief, randomized mindfulness intervention studies.  Second, we will test the hypothesis that brief mindfulness meditation training, delivered as an online intervention in MTurk, will improve anxiety / worry, stress, and sleep quality symptoms compared to a wait-list control group.


Preliminary Study

To initially explore how many participants would meet our eligibility criteria for the presence of at least mild (or greater) anxiety symptoms, we ran a preliminary study that tested 100 workers from MTurk with the General Anxiety Disorder 7-item questionnaire (GAD-7) and Insomnia Severity Index (ISI).  Fifty-five out of the 100 workers who participated in this study indicated mild or higher symptoms of general anxiety and mild or greater difficulty falling asleep.  Participants were then asked to rank five terms from most effective to least effective for reducing anxiety to examine which term might be best to use to “market” our study on MTurk. These are: mindfulness exercise, meditation exercise, attention exercise, focused breathing exercise and awareness exercise.  Out of the group that had mild or greater anxiety (n = 64), most of the participants found the “meditation exercise” to be the most effective for reducing anxiety (51.6%, n = 33), followed by “focused breath exercise” (18.8%, n = 12), “mindfulness exercise” (12.5%, n = 8), “attention exercise”  (10.9%,  n = 7) and “awareness exercise” (6.2%, n = 4).  These preliminary findings guided how the brief mindfulness intervention was described to workers on MTurk, so that the presentation of the intervention was thought to be effective and appealing by our target population.


Participants were recruited using Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), a crowd-sourcing Internet marketplace that has “workers” who accept “Human Intelligence Tasks”, or HITs, that are put online by “requesters.”  The people who accept these HITs do any task that is possible online including surveys, memory tasks, transcription from audio to text, and translation from any number of languages.  Workers find these HITs by searching the MTurk website, learning about new HITs from community worker forums, and from being alerted by their selected requester when a new HIT is released. 

MTurk was programmed for the current study to automatically pre-screen potential participants (i.e., workers) to exclude anyone living outside of the United States, under the age of 18, and with a HIT approval rate of less than 95%.  To screen out workers living outside of the U.S., study-eligible workers had to have a U.S. bank account associated with their MTurk account to prove that they live in the United States.  Additionally, the latitude and longitude of the Geo-IP address of the computer used to complete the HIT was examined to determine and confirm their location in the U.S.  A 95% HIT approval rating means that 95% or more of the previous HITs the worker has completed on MTurk met the standards of the requester who provided the HIT (the worker adequately completed 95% of the MTurk jobs they took on in the past).  Participants also completed a brief questionnaire on their levels of anxiety and difficulty with sleep, in which only participants with mild or greater anxiety symptoms and difficulty falling asleep were allowed to continue to participate.

The HIT was described on MTurk as a “Two week study investigating the effects of brief mindfulness meditation.”   We emphasized that this was a “two week study” to attract participants who were interested in committing the necessary time to the study.  Once participants accessed the HIT through MTurk, they were given a link to the study’s Qualtrics site.  Qualtrics (an online survey platform) was used for the consent form, baseline and post-intervention questionnaires, and daily meditation training.  Participants were consented online by checking a box and clicking “continue” on an informed consent form on the Qualtrics survey platform.

Figure 1 presents detailed information about participant flow.  Out of the 367 potentially eligible participants, 116 were ineligible based on their score from the General Anxiety Disorder 7-item scale (they did not have at least mild anxiety), and 78 participants were eliminated because they did not meet the criteria for mild difficulty falling asleep. The 148 participants who were study-eligible following the pre-screen and baseline measures were randomized into a mindfulness meditation group (n = 74) or a wait-list control group (n = 74).  Table 1 presents the socio-demographics for the mindfulness meditation and control groups. 

Next, participants were shown their appropriate start dates for the remaining tasks of the study on the final Qualtrics survey page (3 days after finishing the baseline questionnaire for the meditation group, and 2 weeks and 3 days after finishing the baseline questionnaire for the wait-list control group) and also were reminded via email.  The control group was asked to continue with their regular routine for the two-week period that the mindfulness group received the intervention, at which point both groups completed the post-treatment questionnaires.  Following completion of the questionnaires, the control group was given the opportunity to download the same 10-minute mindfulness meditations to listen to on their own time as a benefit of study completion.

Daily Brief Online Mindfulness Meditation Intervention and Feedback

Participants randomized to the mindfulness meditation group were sent an email every day for two weeks with a link to an MTurk HIT that included a 10-minute audio recording of a guided mindfulness meditation and a short survey of feedback questions.  They were asked to listen to the meditation when they had free time in which they would not be interrupted by a different activity.  Participants were asked to do the meditation in any sitting position in which they are comfortable, but could remain alert.

The meditation recording was adapted from the two types of mindfulness meditation techniques used in MBSR: mindfulness of breathing and the body scan meditation (Kabat-Zinn, 1994).  These guided the participants’ attention to the sensation of their breath and to sensations within the body, respectively.  It included instructions to gently return their attention to the present moment sensation of the breath if they became distracted, and to feel compassion and non-judgment when they returned their attention.  An example of an instruction given during the recording is: “Focus on the sensations of breath entering and leaving the body. There is no need to think about the breath – just experience the sensations of it… When you notice your awareness is no longer on the breath… gently bring your awareness back to the sensations of breathing” (see Arch & Craske, 2006).  Full transcripts for the meditations can be found in Appendix A.


All measures were self-report questionnaires.  The baseline questionnaire started with a pre-screen including the GAD-7 and ISI that were used to distinguish participants who were eligible to continue (i.e., had mild or greater anxiety symptoms and sleep difficulties).  The baseline assessment then continued with the remaining questionnaires listed below.  The post-treatment questionnaire included all of the baseline questionnaires except for the MMPI-2 F(p) scale and Attention Check Questions.

Screening Measures

The Generalized Anxiety Disorder Assessment (GAD-7; Spitzer, Kroenke, Williams, & Löwe, 2006) and Difficulty Falling Asleep Questions from the Insomnia Severity Index (ISI; Bastien, Vallières, & Morin, 2001) were given after participants completed the informed consent form to determine eligibility to participate in the study.  The GAD-7 is a validated, seven-question measure for the presence and severity of general anxiety symptoms (Spitzer, et al, 2006).   Participants also completed two questions (satisfaction with current sleep pattern and current difficulty falling asleep) from the insomnia severity index (ISI) described in more detail below.  As noted, participants who reported at least mild or greater symptoms of general anxiety and difficulty falling asleep were considered eligible and were allowed to continue with the rest of the baseline questionnaires described below.

Data Integrity Checks

The Infrequency-Psychopathology Scale of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory II (MMPI-2; Arbisi & Ben-Porath, 1995) is a 27-item true/false scale of the MMPI-2 that was designed to measure malingering of symptoms of mental illness, or “faking bad” and has been shown to have good construct validity.  This scale was used to see if participants were faking psychological symptoms to complete the study in order to make money and not necessarily because they had anxiety or sleep difficulties and wished to participate in the research.  This was also used to check for attention to screen out any participants who were randomly answering questions without regard to content.

The True or False Attention Check Questions are four study-specific attention check questions designed to provide an additional means to rule out participants who were not paying attention to survey content.  The four questions were randomly dispersed throughout the 27-question MMPI-2 scale and were used to exclude participants who answer less than 3 out of 4 of the questions correctly.  The four questions included: “Many people experience stress sometime during their life” (correct response: True), “When I am experiencing sadness, I am happy” (Correct response: False), “When I am watching television, earthquakes occur because of my actions” (Correct response: False), and “When I’m thirsty I pour water on my feet” (Correct response: False).

Outcome Measures

The Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9; Kroenke & Spitzer, 2002) is a 9-item, well-validated questionnaire that measures depressive symptoms and includes questions about pleasure in doing activities, feelings of depression, difficulty sleeping, and trouble concentrating (Martin, Rief, Klaiberg, & Braehler, 2006).  The Anxiety and Preoccupation about Sleep Questionnaire (APSQ) is a 10-item questionnaire that has been shown to have factorial validity and internal consistency, and measures how much people worry about the quality and quantity of sleep that they get at night (Jansson-Fröjmark, Harvey, Lundh, Norell-Clarke, & Linton, 2011).  It also assesses the extent to which people worry about how their sleep affects their daily functioning.  The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ; Baer, Smith, Lykins, Button, Krietemeyer, Sauer, & Williams, 2008) is a 39-item self-report scale that is used to measure how mindful participants are in their daily life and activities.  The FFMQ has been shown to have construct validity by comparing the results of a group of regular meditators to people who do not meditate (Baer, et al., 2008).  We included this questionnaire in the current study to measure how well participants learn to incorporate the skills of mindfulness into their everyday life.  The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS; Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983) is a 10-item scale that measures how much stress people perceive in their daily life.   The PSS has been shown to have adequate reliability and construct validity.  The Insomnia Severity Index (ISI; Bastien, et al., 2001) is a 7-item questionnaire that measures severity of insomnia over the last two weeks, including how satisfied and worried participants are with their current sleep and how much they consider their sleep problem to interfere with their daily functioning.  It has been shown to be a reliable and valid measure for this purpose (Bastien, et al., 2001).

Mindfulness Intervention Feedback

The Mindfulness Meditation Feedback Questions were a study-specific set of questions that measures participants’ interest in learning meditation, their level of engagement in the daily meditation task, and their feedback on how effective they thought they were in learning mindfulness meditation (see Appendix B).  Subsets of the feedback questions were given to the meditation group at baseline, after each daily intervention, and in the post-treatment questionnaire.  At the end of the baseline survey, participants provided basic demographics information including gender, socioeconomic status, education, age, and location.

Statistical Analysis

Baseline comparisons of socio-demographic factors between the mindfulness meditation and waitlist control groups were assessed with t-tests for continuous variables (e.g. age), and chi-square tests were conducted for categorical variables (e.g. gender/sex).  Independent-samples t-tests were conducted to compare groups at baseline on each outcome variable (GAD-7, ISI, PHQ-9, PSS, and APSQ).  Univariate ANOVAs were conducted to compare the two groups on outcomes at post, controlling for baseline levels of each measure.  That is, the ANOVAs compared outcomes after two weeks of daily 10-minute guided meditation in the mindfulness meditation condition compared to the wait-list control condition that received no meditation instructions over the same two-week period.


Baseline Group Differences

No significant differences were found for the GAD-7 (t = .34, p = .74), ISI (t = -.10, p = .92), PHQ-9 (t = -.56, p = .58), PSS (t = -.30, p = .77), and the APSQ (t = -.17, p = .87) between the meditation group and wait-list control group at baseline (see Table 2).  As presented in Table 1, no significant demographic differences were found at baseline between meditation and wait-list control conditions.

Outcomes (ANOVAs)

Of the 74 participants in each condition, 66 completed the post-treatment questionnaire for the wait-list control and 40 successfully completed the meditations and post-treatment questionnaire in the meditation group (see Figure 1).  In order to be eligible for the post-treatment questionnaire in the meditation group, participants had to have successfully listened to 11 out of the 14 days of meditation recordings. 

At Post, there was a significant group difference for GAD-7 assessed symptoms of anxiety F(1, 104) = 12.09, p = .001, a significant group difference for PSS assessed symptoms of perceived stress F(1, 104) = 39.09, p < .001, a significant group difference for ISI assessed symptoms of insomnia F(1, 104) = 8.34, p = .005,  a significant group difference for PSS assessed symptoms of perceived stress F(1, 104) = 39.09, p < .001, and a significant group difference on APSQ assessed worry about sleep F(1, 104) = 11.57, p = .001.  Each of these group differences demonstrated lower symptom levels of anxiety, perceived stress, insomnia, and worry about sleep for the mindfulness group compared to the control group.  At Post, groups did not significantly differ on PHQ-9 assessed symptoms of depression F(1, 104) = .038, p = .84, or on FFMQ assessed mindfulness F(1, 104) = 2.21, p = .14. Table 2 presents a summary of the results.

Mindfulness Intervention Feedback

Within the mindfulness meditation group, feedback questions were given at Post to measure engagement and interest in the mindfulness meditation.  Out of the 40 participants who successfully completed the mindfulness meditation, participants responded as follows to the question: “How beneficial did you think this two week intervention was for you?” 7.5% (n = 3) said that the two weeks of meditation was not beneficial at all, 10.0% (n = 4) a little beneficial, 30% (n = 12) somewhat beneficial, 22.5% (n = 9) mostly beneficial and 30.0% (n = 12) very beneficial.  The second feedback question asked: “How frequently do you intend to continue practicing mindfulness meditation?”.  Of the 40 respondents, 7.5% (n = 3) said they would not continue their meditation practice, 27.5% (n = 11) said they would practice once a week, 27.5% (n = 11) said they would practice two to four times a week, 27.5% (n = 11) said they would practice at least once a day, and 10% (n = 4) said they would practice two or more times a day.   In summary, the majority of respondents in the meditation group indicated that the intervention was “somewhat beneficial” (2) to “very beneficial” (4), M = 2.57, SD = 1.24 and reported that they would continue their meditation practice between “once a week” (1) and “at least once a day” (3), M = 2.05, SD = 1.13.


This study sought to answer whether MTurk could be used for longitudinal intervention research and whether a brief mindfulness meditation given over two weeks would have at least short-term effects on anxiety and sleep quality.  To our knowledge, this was the first longitudinal mindfulness intervention study conducted on MTurk.  Overall, we found that MTurk as a recruitment platform for this study was successful in terms of cost and feasibility, addressing the study’s first goal.  We also found that the mindfulness meditation group significantly improved the primary outcomes of anxiety, insomnia, and perceived stress symptoms, addressing the study’s second aim.  The mindfulness meditation group did not lead to significant improvements in overall mindfulness skills, or depression symptoms, however.

There was a significant reduction in reported anxiety symptoms, sleep difficulties, and perceived stress in the mindfulness meditation group relative to the waitlist control group.  These results are consistent with the previous finding that mindfulness meditation interventions – albeit more intensive ones – reduce anxiety symptoms (Hoffman, Sawyer, Witt, & Oh, 2010) and improve insomnia symptoms (Vøllestad, et al., 2011).  They confirm the finding from another two-week mindfulness intervention (Cavanagh, et al., 2013) that brief mindfulness training can positively affect anxiety and perceived stress outcomes.  In addition to replicating these results, our study also found that symptoms of insomnia and levels of worry about sleep were significantly reduced.  This means that people with co-occurring insomnia and anxiety symptoms appear to benefit from only two weeks of brief mindfulness practice, administered exclusively through a remote online audio recording. The fact that this study has shown that 10 minutes per day of mindfulness meditation training can assist in reducing symptoms of anxiety and insomnia has important clinical implications.  For example, future research may want to compare the addition of mindfulness meditation to the traditional treatment of CBT-I, especially for cases of comorbid insomnia and anxiety.  One pilot study has found benefits of a combined CBT-I and mindfulness treatment (Ong & Sholtes, 2010), but to our knowledge a study that compares CBT-I by itself to CBT-I plus mindfulness training has not been attempted.  Adding the current brief mindfulness meditation training to the protocol of CBT-I is significantly more feasible than adding a full MBSR course training.

There was no significant difference between groups on the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire in this study.   The FFMQ questionnaire measures the implementation of mindfulness skills into daily life (e.g. “When I take a shower or bath, I stay alert to the sensations of water on my body”).  The questionnaire can be scored with five different sub-scales (observing, describing, acting with awareness, refraining from judging or reacting to the inner experience).  In the study, examining the effects of a 10-minute guided mindfulness meditation given to college students over a two-week period, Cavanagh et al. (2013) found a significant increase in FFMQ–measured mindfulness in the mindfulness meditation group.  This could be from the additional tips that were given the second week through email that “provided suggestions on ways in which mindfulness could be brought into participants' everyday life, e.g. mindful eating, mindful walking” (Cavanagh, et al., 2013).  In our study we did not provide information about how to incorporate mindfulness into everyday activities, which may explain why our mindfulness intervention did not significantly increase FFMQ scores. Another difference between the current study and the Cavanagh et al. (2013) study is that the unscreened sample of college students in the latter could have the ability to incorporate mindfulness skills into their daily life more readily than the anxiety and insomnia-symptomatic adult population from our study. Longer, more intensive MBSR programs have also been shown to increase levels of mindfulness in participants that have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder (Vøllestad, et al., 2011). If participants from our group practiced mindfulness for a longer duration or at greater intensity they may have shown an increase in FFMQ scored mindfulness, as is shown in MBSR programs that have targeted samples with anxiety disorders.

There also were no significant differences found in the levels of depression between groups.  This contrasts with the Cavanagh et al. (2013) findings in which participants who completed the 2-week online mindfulness meditation training reported reduced depression symptoms.  However, the depression measure used in the study by Cavanagh, et al. (2013) was the PHQ-4, which includes two depression based questions that are included in the PHQ-9, and two anxiety related questions that are included in the GAD-7.  Thus, it is not a “pure” depression measure.  The results of the current study could be different because the depression questionnaire used in this study (PHQ-9) focuses entirely on depression instead of combining the results from anxiety and depression.  It may be that the differences in depression over a two-week period were less significant in a group of participants that are pre-screened with anxiety symptoms because there was less room for improvement. 

Addressing this study’s first aim, the ease of recruitment and low cost appear to make MTurk a viable option for future research with brief longitudinal intervention designs.  The total dollar amount spent for the MTurk costs of this current study was $746.57, including paying workers in the mindfulness meditation and wait-list control groups, the 116 participants who completed the $.05 HIT who had been ineligible from the baseline questionnaire, and the 10% HIT administration fee that MTurk charges.  Participants in this study were paid approximately $2.00 an hour, which is higher than the median average wage on MTurk of $1.38 an hour (Horton & Chilton, 2010).

Study Limitations

Participants in the mindfulness meditation group who did not participate completely were dropped from the study at two points during the intervention.  The length of time participants took to complete a daily meditation HIT was examined to assess participation (if completed in less than 10 minutes, then they could not have listened to the 10-minute recorded meditation) and whether they completed the HIT for each day.  As presented in Figure 1, participants who failed to complete 11 out of the 14 total days of mindfulness meditation HITs were dropped from the study; that is, no further data were collected on them.  Thus, there was a significant difference in retention rates between the meditation group (54.1%) and the control group (89.2%), which is discussed in more detail below.  Retention rates were most likely affected by dropping non-compliant mindfulness meditation group participants because only 45 of the original 74 participants in that group were eligible to complete the post-treatment questionnaire, out of which 40 completed.  If we had allowed all participants in the mindfulness group to complete the Post questionnaires (not only completers), it is likely that at least some of the 29 participants who were dropped would have completed the post-treatment questionnaire, increasing the retention rate in the mindfulness meditation group and facilitating an intent-to-treat analysis.  On one hand, the fact that we discontinued data collection on participants with compromised daily HIT completion represents a limitation of this study, preventing the possibility of doing an intent-to-treat analysis.  On the other hand, the approach we took provides an analysis of the participants who participated more fully in the mindfulness meditation intervention, providing a good analysis of intervention completers.

There is the possibility of a placebo effect for the mindfulness meditation group in comparison to the wait-list control group.  That is, the mindfulness meditation condition could have created an expectation of treatment effects that could be the cause of the difference between groups for the changes in levels of anxiety, perceived stress, worry and insomnia symptoms.  Additional research is needed that uses an active control, where the participants believe that they are being taught meditation, but are actually taught a sham meditation practice.  Another option would be to compare the effects of meditation to another type of treatment such as listening to calming music or progressive muscle relaxation.


Acknowledging the limitations of the current study and that further research is needed, we have demonstrated that brief mindfulness meditation administered online in MTurk over a two-week period can reduce reported symptoms of anxiety, perceived stress, insomnia, and worry about sleep.  The current findings suggest that people who are too busy to commit to a complete MBSR program can practice mindfulness meditation affordably online over a brief period of time and still gain benefits.  This study also successfully used MTurk as a recruitment platform, demonstrating its potential for future studies to reduce costs and readily recruit adult participants.


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Ong, J. C., Ulmer, C. S., & Manber, R. (2012). Improving sleep with mindfulness and acceptance: A metacognitive model of insomnia. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 50(11), 651–660. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2012.08.001

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Suri, S., & Watts, D. J. (2011). Cooperation and contagion in web-based, networked public goods experiments. PLoS ONE, 6(3), e16836. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016836

Vøllestad, J., Sivertsen, B., & Nielsen, G. H. (2011). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for patients with anxiety disorders: evaluation in a randomized controlled trial. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 49(4), 281–288. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2011.01.007

Weise, S., Ong, J., Tesler, N. A., Kim, S., & Roth, W. T. (2013). Worried sleep: 24-h monitoring in high and low worriers. Biological Psychology, 94(1), 61–70. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2013.04.009

Table 1. Demographics for randomized participants





F value

P value


Gender (Female)












Age, in years


































Median Income





















Hispanic / Latina










Black / African American










Asian or Pacific Islander










Native American / Alaskan Native























Table 2. Means, standard deviation and between-subjects univariate analysis of variance for Meditation and Control groups

Measure & condition

Baseline questionnaire

M (SD)

Post questionnaire

M (SD)

F value

P value


GAD – 7 Meditation

11.92 (4.39)

6.02 (4.55)






GAD – 7 Control

12.22 (4.43)

8.99 (4.88)






ISI Meditation

13.4 (4.01)

10.15 (4.61)






ISI Control

13.31 (4.26)

12.18 (4.75)






PSS Meditation

41.12 (7.01)

37.25 (7.61)






PSS Control

40.7 (7.17)

44.15 (4.31)






APSQ Meditation

66.82 (17.64)

50.32 (24.02)






APSQ Control

66.13 (21.87)

62.04 (23.34)






FFMQ Meditation

127.58 (18.37)

120.3 (13.6)






FFMQ Control

120.75 (21.77)

117.94 (12.46)







Figure 1. Participant flow chart

Internet 1

Figure 2. Mean GAD-7 scores and error bars for the standard error of the mean. ** = p < .01

Internet Inter

Figure 3. Mean ISI scores and error bars for the standard error of the mean. ** = p < .01

Internet 4

Figure 4. Mean APSQ scores and error bars for the standard error of the mean. ** = p < .01

Internet 5

  Figure 5. Mean PSS scores and error bars for the standard error of the mean. *** = p < .001

Internet 6

Figure 6. Mean PHQ-9 scores and error bars for the standard error of the mean.

Internet 7

  Figure 7. Mean FFMQ scores and error bars for the standard error of the mean.

Internet 8

Appendix A

Mindful Breath Meditation Transcription

Hello this is Travis Usinger from the University of Colorado.

(Additional information in first meditation only)

Welcome to the two-week mindfulness meditation course for anxiety. Every day you will receive an email with a 10 minute guided mindfulness meditation. If you have any technical questions you can email me from the email address located below. Travis.Usinger@Colorado.edu.

(End of additional information from first meditation recording)

In mindfulness meditation we have a specific focus for our attention. Mindfulness is keeping your attention on a present moment sensation and returning our attention to that focus on the present moment sensation as we naturally become distracted.

Throughout this course the focus of our attention will be the sensation of the breath and a separate guided meditation for sensations in the body. We are training the mind to stop reacting to thoughts, and to allow ourselves to feel sensations and notice thoughts without having to do anything about them.

Some misconceptions about meditation are that we are clearing out the mind or removing thoughts when we are meditating. This is not true, mindfulness meditation is simply being aware of when you become distracted by thoughts, and choosing to gently return your focus to the intended point of focus.

Make sure you will have 10 minutes of uninterrupted time to focus on this meditation exercise. Pause this recording if you need to make any adjustments to prepare this time. If you have headphones or ear buds that you can connect to the device that you are listening to this from, that would be the ideal way to listen to this meditation.

Find a sitting position where you are comfortable, yet will stay alert and awake over the next 10 minutes. You can sit in a chair, with both feet flat on the ground and your knees uncrossed, or a seated position on the floor if that is comfortable for you.

As you sit we will begin the meditation practice by noticing what the contact with the chair or floor feels like. What area of your body is touching the chair or floor? Your legs, feet, and hip-bones. The pressure of gravity pulling you towards the floor.

Now bring your attention to your entire body. Getting a general sense of what it is like to be in your body right now.

My voice will guide you to the feelings of your breath. The sensation of the breath may feel strong to you, or very subtle. There is no need to try and control or change how you are breathing, just bring your attention to your natural breath with curiosity and acceptance.

Most people can feel the breath more strongly in the abdomen or chest area. Choose one area to focus on, and keep that as your focus throughout this meditation.

As you breathe, notice how your belly or chest rises on the inhale, and falls on the exhale.

Feel the sensation of expansion and contraction.

It is normal for your mind to wander while practicing mindfulness meditation. If this happens, you just return your attention to the point of focus with compassion and ease. You may have to repeat this same action of returning to the point of focus many times. Despite your mind wandering, if you return to the point of focus, you are practicing mindfulness meditation.

Notice the entire process of the breath. The inhale, slight pause, exhale, slight pause, and repeat. Become immersed in the sensations of the breath in the present moment.

Your body may be restless, but try to keep still as much as is possible. Adjust your body if you are in pain, but return back to stillness with a focus on the breath when you are in a comfortable position.

Continue to feel the sensations of the breath. Notice the warmth or coolness of the breath.

Your mind may tell you that you need to do something else, or think about something else. Instead gently return your attention to the breath.

Notice where one breath ends and the next begins.

Take notice of any areas in the chest or belly that feel tight, or open. Notice without trying to change or fix. Be curious to the sensations of the breath.

Notice when there is stillness and when there is movement with the breath. The stillness at the end of the exhale, the movement as the breath enters and leaves the belly or chest.

Continue to follow the sensations of the breath with 30 seconds of silence.

Take a few more breaths as we come to the end of the meditation.

Begin to actively move. Blinking the eyes, moving your fingers and hands and stretching your arms over your head. We are returning to an active mindset.

Thank you for listening to this guided mindfulness meditation. To receive credit for your participation, finish the questions below and we will continue our mindfulness training tomorrow.

Body Scan Meditation Transcription

If you notice thoughts that distract you from this meditation, this is normal. Return your focus to the sensations in the body. We will be feeling sensations like pins and needles, heaviness, lightness, heat, coolness, that naturally occur in the body. We will be feeling them without trying to change them. If you notice yourself thinking about what these sensations mean, return your attention back to simple sensations in the part of the body that I am guiding your attention to.

Find a comfortable sitting position where you will be able to stay alert and awake over the next 10 minutes. You can sit in a chair, with both feet flat on the ground and your knees uncrossed, or a seated position on the floor if that is comfortable for you.

As you sit we will begin the meditation practice by noticing what the contact with the chair or floor feels like. What area of your body is touching the chair or floor? Your legs, feet, and hip bones. The pressure of gravity pulling you towards the floor.

Now bring your attention to your entire body. Getting a general sense of what it is like to be in your body right now.

Guide your attention to the sensations in your head. Notice warmth and coolness. The feeling of your hair on your skin. The muscles and tension or ease in your face.

Slowly guide your attention down into your neck. Feeling any comfort or discomfort, without trying to fix anything. Be curious to the present moment sensation of what is happening in your body without trying to change it.

Slowly moving downward, feel your shoulders. Notice the heaviness or lightness.

Sink your attention to your left arm. Notice any tingling, temperature, or feelings of the skin against your clothing.

Feel your left hand. Without moving, feel the warmth or coolness in the hands and fingers.

If your mind becomes distracted with other thoughts just return your attention to the sensations in the body. It is completely normal to repeat this process multiple times during this meditation.

Focus on your right arm. Feel the weight, temperature, and any other sensations in this arm.

Continue to your right hand. Without moving, feel the warmth or coolness in the hands and fingers.

Remember to feel these sensations without trying to change what you are feeling. You may have feelings of pain or discomfort. If you need to move in order to become comfortable you can do that, but once you are comfortable, return to stillness in the body, feeling the sensations in the area that I am guiding you towards.

Back – scan up and down the length of your back. Moving your attention across this area to gather the senses of heat or coolness, heaviness or lightness, and comfort or discomfort. Be open and accepting of the sensations that you feel. Listening, without judging.



Feel the sensations of expansion and contraction of the breath. How the skin moves against your clothing. Feelings of warmth or coolness.


Left Leg

Left Foot - Tingling, heat, coolness

Right Leg

Right Foot

Scan through the entire body from head to toe. You can move your attention as fast or as slow through the different parts of your body as feels right. Moving your attention like a flashlight through the entire body. Illuminating the feelings and sensations. We will take about 30 seconds of silence as you continue to practice this scanning through your body at your own pace.

Take a few more breaths as we come to the end of the meditation.

Begin to actively move. Blinking the eyes, moving your fingers and hands and stretching your arms over your head. We are returning to an active mindset.

Thank you for listening to this guided mindfulness meditation. To receive credit for your participation, finish the questions below and we will continue our mindfulness training tomorrow.

Appendix B

Feedback Questions for Baseline

How did you find this study?


Have you heard about mindfulness before?


If yes, where?


How interested are you in learning meditation?

0 Not at all interested

1 A little interested

2 Somewhat interested

3 Mostly interested

4 Very interested

How likely do you believe you will be able to successfully learn meditation?

0 Not at all likely

1 A little likely

2 Somewhat likely

3 Mostly likely

4 Very likely

If you believe you won't be able to successfully learn meditation, why?


Feedback Questions for Daily Meditation

How often was your mind distracted during the meditation?

0 Not at all, completely focused

1 I was a little distracted

2 Somewhat distracted

3 I was mostly distracted

4 Completely distracted

Did you do any other activities during the meditation? (Please be truthful, you will be paid either way)


What activities did you do (if you weren't focused on the meditation)?


How effective did you think you were in doing the meditation?

0 Not at all

1 A little effective

2 Somewhat effective

3 Mostly effective

4 Completely effective

Feedback Questions for Post Questionnaire

How often did you practice mindfulness meditation during the last two weeks?

0 Not at all

1 One a week

2 Two to Four times a week

3 At least once a day

4 Two or more times a day

How beneficial did you think this two-week intervention was for you?

0 Not at all

1 A little beneficial

2 Somewhat beneficial

3 Mostly beneficial

4 Very beneficial

How frequently do you intend to continue practicing mindfulness meditation?

0 Not at all

1 One a week

2 Two to Four times a week

3 At least once a day

4 Two or more times a day


State-Led Homophobia and the Spread of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa, Andrew Ormsby

(Back to top)

I. Introduction

            In the last several years the international community has witnessed a near complete reversal of public opinion in terms of LGBT rights. In the United States alone the number of states allowing gay marriage has gone from zero to thirty-five in a matter of just ten years. Unfortunately, this trend is not present everywhere; as of late, homophobia has strongly entrenched itself in the region of Sub-Saharan Africa. In the last few years both Nigeria and Uganda have enacted harsh anti-gay laws, which include up to a 14-year prison sentence and life imprisonment, respectively, for homosexual acts. While many modern actors within African states have embraced and contributed to this homophobic state rhetoric, there is reason to believe that the homophobic character of various African states (what I term the existence of a homophobic state structure) descended from European influence.

            In my research, I focus on the role of British penal codes in outlawing homosexuality to explain the implementation of homophobic state structures. I use this to see how colonial state structures have expanded and link this development to factors that make the marginalization of men who have sex with men (MSM), and the spread of HIV within that group possible. For this study I focus on the MSM population instead of the whole homosexual community because the disease is primarily perpetuated through homosexual acts between men (only rarely do sexual interactions between lesbians spread the infection).

            Examining the issue through the lens of a homophobic structural framework, I come to the conclusion that colonial sodomy laws set up an infrastructure enabling the persecution of the MSM community that still manifests itself in Sub-Saharan countries. This structural problem has allowed for the existence of several factors that have all contributed to the persecution of homosexuals and the resulting epidemic of HIV within the MSM community, which has an HIV rate greater than three-fold the general population in some places. The proliferation of HIV in the MSM population in many ways can be attributed to a combination of a lack of MSM health funding, a misrepresentation of homosexuals in U.S. based, abstinence-only educational programs, the development of myths within the MSM community, and a fear of persecution by the government held by MSM. To put these ideas into an applicable narrative, I conclude the analysis with case studies in both South Africa and Uganda. These two examples bring together many of the problems examined previously in the paper to show how they culminate into very different African societies.

II. Colonial Roots of Homophobia

            During the European colonization of Africa, two powerful countries dominated the continent: Britain and France (Fig. 1). Looking at a map of former British colonies it is striking how many of them now have anti-gay laws. Almost every single former British colony from Egypt to Uganda to Zimbabwe now has strict legislation outlawing the practice of homosexuality. In contrast, homosexuality remains legal in most former French colonies in Africa. In all, there are 38 out of 54 countries in Africa (Making Love a Crime, 2013) that ban the practice of homosexuality (Fig. 2). Since land areas of Sub-Saharan Africa swapped colonial rulers depending on the time period in history, political alignment of the sovereign African states after independence is generally characterized by being either Francophone or Anglophone. This can be used as a reasonable gauge of whether African states have historically had a greater French or English influence through the colonial period. Currently, 17 of the 18 Anglophone African countries outlaw homosexuality (Cowell, 2010). Of the 16 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that don’t have laws outlawing homosexuality, 13 are considered Francophone countries (Making Love a Crime, 2013).


Fig. 1. The colonial rule of 1955 in Sub-Saharan Africa. John Hargrove; "Migration, Mines and Mores: The HIV Epidemic in Southern Africa"; South African Journal of Science 104 (2008): 53-61.Scielo. South African Journal of Science, 2008.

Homophobia 2

Fig. 2. Gay rights in Africa based on the presence or absence of discriminatory laws; “Tutu Won’t Worship ‘Homophobic God’” BBC News, BBC, 26 July 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.

            Historically, British sodomy laws in the 1800s brought over some of the first recorded legislation in these areas to stigmatize the homosexual community. The British enacted sodomy laws in India and moved the same laws into African colonies because they wanted to secure their citizens from the “harmful” influences of the natives. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code sentenced the condemned to life in prison for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal.” Legislation of this kind by the British government made the native community subordinate to the UK because of their supposed savage behavior. The laws put in place a structured sexual norm that was not in place prior to their arrival. It painted rigid heterosexuality as the trademark of a civilized Westerner, and looked at the colonial natives as savages lusting to have sex with anything and everything. Making homosexuals appear as “others” or unnatural ignores the fact that there is well-documented evidence that widespread homosexuality was present in many African cultures prior to the arrival of Europeans, and that it was an accepted, even integral, aspect of those communities (Epprecht 2002, 2006; Roscoe and Murray 2001; Brody and Potter 2003). This “othering” of the colony’s populations legitimized the bombardment of English culture onto the existing colonial societies over which the British arbitrarily declared ownership.

            Persecution was possible from misconceptions stemming from the sodomy laws and attitudes inherited from previous colonial rulers. Phrasing in the legislation lumped homosexuality into a broad class of sexual acts, which did not specify if the situation was consensual or nonconsensual and it also made no differentiation between sex among adults or between an adult and a minor. (This Alien Legacy, 2008). Leaving the language of the law vague in this regard made it possible to conflate homosexuality and pedophilia or bestiality, further placing homosexuals as a lawless class of individuals opposed to the laws of refined society. It painted a picture of homosexuals as animals not just attracted to others of the same sex but anything that gave them pleasure.

            The British sodomy laws laid the foundation for further persecution of the homosexual community following de-colonization, as the former colonies could place their anger and frustration of adjusting to modern globalization on the homosexual “savages” who were preventing their society from becoming “civilized” (This Alien Legacy, 2008). Homosexuals became a type of scapegoat for an area of the world with far too many problems on their hands (Hoad, 2009). Whereas the existing laws in British colonies gave those governments an easy target when trouble arose, former French colonial areas largely did not have laws making gays legitimate targets.

            Former French colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa differed from British colonies in two important ways. First, France de-criminalized homosexual acts in the 1700s because of the Napoleonic Penal Code that allowed people to do as they pleased in the privacy of their homes, which prevented sodomy laws from being largely enacted in French colonies (Sanders, 2009). Sodomy laws were enacted in a few French colonies, which lie in the present day areas of Benin, Cameroon, and Senegal, as a means of social control over those populations (This Alien Legacy, 2008). Second, whereas Britain ruled many of its colonies indirectly, France played a very intimate role in the development of its colonies. France has likely continued to influence these areas as far as legislation towards the homosexual community is concerned. The liberalization of sexual practices has made France one of the most progressive countries in the world, which may have translated into the lack of anti-LGBT legislation in their former colonies. Britain largely did not intervene into the affairs of its colonies other than to enact legislation and decide on leadership, so it may have had a more difficult time influencing the area’s view on homosexuality in recent years. While the historical structuring of African colonies surely set the homophobic framework in place, it is important to consider that discrimination towards homosexuals continues to worsen in many areas of Africa even as the rest of the world has been on a more liberal path. Therefore, there must be a modern phenomenon that has fueled homophobia in the region. 

III. Current Situation and Risk Factors

            The spread of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa has long been labeled as a heterosexual epidemic. While this may be the case, there is a growing body of research that shows that the population of MSM in African countries has a disproportionate rate of infection compared to the heterosexual population. The lack of information on the number of HIV-positive MSM individuals, and the degree to which HIV prevention programs have been able to reach them has been a major limiting factor in this study. However, research from both South Africa (where homosexual activity is legal) and Kenya (where anti-homosexual legislation is not enforced) has given some insight into the rate of infection in the MSM population, and the risk factors that make the MSM community more susceptible to the spread of HIV. This information can be used as a relative gauge of the infection rates and other phenomenon happening inside other countries with similar regional epidemiology.

            In some studies the rate of HIV has been as high as 50% in the MSM population (Mayer et. al., 2013). Some of the most reliable data collected has come from Kenya through the Kenyan National AIDS Council, which places the amount of HIV-positive MSM at 43% (MSM, HIV, and the Road, 2008). Other reports from Kenya, specifically in the Mombasa region, have placed the statistic at 43% (Sanders et al. 2007). Studies from South Africa have placed the infection rate between 12.6% and 47.2% depending on the population and geographical region (Baral et al. 2011; Lane et al. 2011; Rispel et al. 2011). The World Bank estimates the 2013 HIV rate in the total South African population to be 17.9% (Prevalence of HIV, 2014). Even at the low end these estimates suggest that the HIV rate in the MSM population is much higher than the average in the country (Fig 3). What is more, while the percent of HIV-positive individuals in the general population has been decreasing in most places in Africa (including South Africa), recent HIV progress reports have suggested that infection rates among MSM has increased in recent years (Global Report, 2013). Previously UNAIDS, a joint United Nations program, estimated the rate of HIV in the MSM population in other African countries such as Ghana to be 30% and Kenya to be 25% (UNAIDS Action, 2009). This makes it likely that African countries with similar HIV rates have substantial HIV-positive MSM populations that continue to perpetuate the spread of the disease.

Homophobia 3

Fig. 3. Comparison of the HIV rates in the MSM vs. the general adult population; Chris Beyrer, et. al.;"Global Epidemiology of HIV Infection in Men Who Have Sex with Men"; The Lancet 380.9839 (2012): 367-77. Print.

            Many risk factors predispose the MSM community to a higher rate of HIV. Researchers such as Dr. Kenneth H. Mayer and Dr. Darrell P. Wheeler published some of these in the Journal of Acquired Immunodeficiency Disorders, stating:

Their sources of increased vulnerability to HIV are diverse, increased efficiency of HIV transmission via unprotected anal intercourse, sexual role versatility, asymptomatic sexually transmitted infections, and behavioral factors that may be associated with condomless sex with multiple partners. Societal stigmatization of homosexual behavior and gender non-conformity may result in internalized negative feelings that lead to depression, other affective disorders, and substance use, which in turn are associated with increased risk-taking behaviors.

The question that reasonably follows is: Why would the MSM population specifically partake in risky behavior when it leads to such an undesirable result? 

IV. A State-Centered Approach

            The state structure of many Sub-Saharan countries provides a venue to create stigmatization and persecution of the MSM community. Through legislation and governmental rhetoric, a framework for a sexual hierarchy can become an integral aspect of society, which pushes MSM into a deviant underground where they are exposed to risky behavior. State-sponsored homophobia legitimizes stigmatization of the homosexual community as it allows discrimination to become a legal norm in society. MSM can be particularly marginalized in this regard when they are tested positive for HIV because they feel a sort of “double stigmatization” (National AIDS Control, 2008). Many of these legislative structures put in place by the British during colonial rule continue to label MSM as “others,” which allows the community to legally discriminate against homosexuals based on sexual orientation.

            This is particularly important for MSM seeking healthcare services because they may feel afraid to be open about their sexual practices with healthcare providers who see their behavior as illegitimate. This denies many MSM involved in a community inherently more at risk to infections to both get tested for HIV and to find the proper resources to become educated about safe sex practices. There has been documented evidence that gay individuals distrust their doctors and refuse to seek healthcare treatment because they fear being persecuted or believe in myths about being monitored by the government. A study from South Africa found that 30% of MSM interviewed felt that their doctors made them feel uncomfortable about their sexual orientation, 37% thought their doctors asked questions that made it feel like heterosexuality was the only option, and 45% felt that their doctor would not uphold confidentiality when it came to their sexual behavior (Wells, 2006).

             The state structure also makes it more difficult for MSM to ask for help when being victimized. Helen Wells’s study out of South Africa found that in 87% of cited cases, the single most prevalent reason for persecution was homophobia resulting in both physical and sexual abuse. Sexual victimization accelerates the proliferation of HIV since the abused subject can both spread the infection or contract the infection from the attacker. This is particularly devastating for MSM who have no course of legal action to dissuade future abuse. Wells’s survey found that even in a country where homosexuality is legal, there was still a strong mistrust of legal authorities by MSM. When asked in interviews why they did not go to the police about past abuse, 75% of individuals said that the police would not take them seriously, 74% claimed the police could not do anything, 68% said the police would not understand, 68% said that they were afraid of abuse from the police, and 42% said that the abuse happens so often that they are used to it (Wells, 2006).

            Other structural factors related to stigmatization include “low education, unemployment, and poverty” (Mayer et. al. 2013). UNAIDS commented on this phenomenon saying, “In addition, people with marginalized sexual or gender identities or behaviours sometimes lack the ability or desire to protect themselves from infection, due to structural factors including self- stigmatization, discrimination and lack of access to information and services” (UNAIDS Action, 2009). Without a proper education about safe sex practices many MSM do not know the measures they should take to be as safe as possible (Smith, 2009). It has been well established that less educated parts of areas such as South Africa and Kenya know less about the importance of condom use and the right kinds of lubricants to use during anal sex (Wagenaar 2012; Rebe et. al., 2014). Using water based lubricants instead of oil-based is essential for anal sex because oil based lubricants have shown to degrade condoms during sexual intercourse and increase the likelihood of condom breakage (Rebe et. al., 2014).

            A large percentage of MSM also participate in unprotected anal intercourse (UAI) because of a lack of educational resources or the economic means to buy condoms and lubricants. South African studies published recently found that “Receptive UAI is approximately 16 times more likely to result in HIV transmission than unprotected vaginal intercourse due to the fact that the anal mucosa is thinner than vaginal mucosa and does not self-lubricate before or during intercourse” (Rebe et. al., 2014). Heightened susceptibility to infection for anal sex is therefore particularly dangerous for areas of low education and poor economic means such as rural areas that possess neither the knowledge to practice safe sex or the ability to purchase resources essential to reduce their chances of HIV contraction. UNAIDS reports, “According to surveys, men who have sex with men often have extremely limited access to condoms, water-based lubricants, HIV education and support for sexual risk reduction” (Global Report, 2013). Clearly structural factors play a large role in the spread of HIV within the MSM population. 

V. Lack of Funding

            A lack of funding for HIV prevention agencies that help the MSM community has been cited as a significant hindrance for the reduction of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa (Global Report, 2013). The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) reported in 2006 “The U.S. federal government provided less than $2 million in funding for fighting AIDS among men who have sex with men in Africa” (Johnson, 2007). Around the same period the U.S. government pledged over $3 billion to broadly fighting AIDS in Africa (United States, 2006).

            Funding research that investigates issues in the African MSM community has also been an issue. IGLHRC reported that National Institute of Health (NIH) personnel previously advised applicants for grants “to cleanse their proposals of terms like ‘transgender,’ ‘prostitutes,’ ‘needle exchange,’ ‘abortion,’ ‘condom effectiveness,’ and ‘men who have sex with men’ to increase the likelihood of funding” (Johnson, 2007). The lack of funding on African MSM issues has not just been limited to the U.S. though; it represents an international and domestic (relative to the spending within African countries) funding problem (Fig. 4). 

Homophobia 4

Fig. 4. International and domestic spending rates on HIV reduction programs targeted for MSM; Global Report UNAIDS: Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic 2013. Publication no. 978-92-9253-032-7. N.p.: UNAIDS, 2013. Print.

            International spending on MSM HIV prevention programs are dwarfed by the funds provided for more general AIDS programs. This is particularly evident for the Sub-Saharan region of Africa, which receives the least funding for MSM programs of any region in the world (Global Report, 2013). This is particularly striking because Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest global load of HIV in heterosexual relationships and therefore likely has the largest number of HIV-positive MSM. Since global funding is the main source of capital used to combat HIV in the region, this means the MSM community is at a substantial disadvantage. On top of this, global funds channeled into specific countries are not given directly to the people in need, but are instead generally given to governments to use as domestic spending.

            Unfortunately, local African governments and many AIDS advocacy organizations have interpreted the limited research on HIV in the MSM population as a reason to withhold services to the homosexual section of the population. As UNAIDS commented in their 2013 report, “Without data on the HIV epidemic among MSM populations, governments cannot assess the need for prevention and treatment programs…governments interpret the lack of information about HIV among MSM to mean a lack of need for MSM-specific HIV programs” (Global Report, 2013). AmFAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, reports a backwards funding structure when it comes to MSM issues “Because donor countries and other organizations…primarily fund HIV/AIDS efforts through national governments, MSM programs rarely receive adequate resources, while governments without any MSM programs continue to be awarded substantial AIDS funding” (MSM, HIV, and the Road, 2008). This presents a significant problem for foreign donors wishing to help gay Africans. Even with the appropriate funds to combat the ongoing spread of HIV in the MSM population, most of the money can never be put to an appropriate use because it is channeled through a state-structure that does not recognize the legal status of the gay community. As a result the MSM population gets neither legal protection, healthcare coverage, nor the economic means to battle an HIV epidemic.

VI. Religious Interest Group’s Impact on the Conversation

            Religious groups have had a long lasting and influential effect on the population of Sub-Saharan Africa. It is hard to think of any Western custom that has changed the cultural landscape of Africa more than Western religion. In the words of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, “When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.” Over the last hundred years there has been a flood of people and money from the West to Africa as a result of missionary causes. Whereas in the early 1900s Christians were the minority in Sub-Saharan Africa, they now make up the majority (Fig. 5). Africa is now home to about one fifth of the world’s Christians (Lugo and Cooperman, 2010). 

Homophobia 5

Fig. 5. The religious makeup of the Sub-Saharan African population from 1990-2010; Luis Lugo and Alan Cooperman; "Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa"; Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS. N.p., 15 Apr. 2010. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.

            Many people from Christian missionary organizations have had an active voice in the realm of LGTB rights. In recent years Sub-Saharan Africa has seen a flood of both Evangelicals and Pentecostals from the United States, who have used the existing homophobic state structure in many African nations to pursue political agendas that they started in the U.S. (Fisher, 2013). Many of these groups and individuals have set up intimate relationships between religious organizations and domestic law, which influences public attitudes in African countries. In many cases laws inspired, or even directed, by U.S. Christian groups have justified the need for homophobic legislation because of the supposed threat of homosexuality to African culture even though, arguably, the biggest change to cultural practices has come from the introduction of Western religion.

            Recent legislation has been introduced into both Nigeria and Uganda with the help of U.S. Christian organizations outlawing homosexuality. In 2011 the President of Family Watch International, Sharon Slater, made a speech at the Nigerian Bar Association saying:

Ample research shows [that] when sexual relations occur outside of marriage—it doesn’t matter if they are heterosexual, homosexual, premarital or extramarital—the evidence shows that as sexual relations stray from marriage the family unit disintegrates, children are hurt, economies decline, and nations are weakened.

Slater exemplifies the mentality taken by many U.S. religious organizations in places like Nigeria and Uganda. Her speech in many ways mirrors the tactics taken by other Christian organizations in Africa to gain a foothold in politics. She gives herself authority in the beginning of the speech by declaring herself and her message “African” saying, “Our family is part African, and because of this we care deeply about what is happening to the family in Africa.” She follows with a message taken directly from the politically fueled debate happening within the United States without addressing any problems that are specifically related to Africa. She addresses the decline of marriage and the family unit as if it is a major problem in Nigeria even when this has not been a trend in recent years. In addition, she imports an idea of family values from the West and assumes that the same value system must be essential to the economic and political growth of African states. Partially as a response to this type of rhetoric from U.S. evangelicals, Nigeria enacted legislation with a possible 14 year prison sentence, and Uganda enacted a law with up to life imprisonment for either homosexual acts or knowing about the gay acts of others (Jennings, 2014). Especially in Nigeria, violence and killings have become commonplace in the country after the anti-gay law’s enactment in 2014 (Nossiter, 2014).

VII. Social Stigma/Education

            Christian based educational programs have played a role in the spread of HIV in the MSM community by promoting rigid prevention strategies that only acknowledge heterosexual sex practices. In the 1990s the dominant HIV health policy was embedded in the acronym ABC, which stood for abstinence, be faithful, and correct, consistent condom use. This later changed during the Bush administration, when over three billion dollars were allocated to the prevention of HIV, of which one third had to be spent on abstinence based programs (Johnson, 2007). This requirement shifted the sex education programs in Sub-Sahara away from condom use, and gave authority to religiously based programs, such as United Families International, that advocated abstinence until marriage as the only way to stop the spread of HIV. In many ways this changed the meaning of “C” from condom use to “Celibacy” (Dowden 345). The problems stemming from this approach have been manifold. Not only have these programs largely failed to stop individuals from abstaining from sex, but they have also failed to recognize the existence of other types of sexuality (Johnson, 2007). MSM cannot legally marry in most countries in Africa, and therefore can only obey the guidelines set by abstinence programs by either ignoring their sexuality and marrying someone of the opposite sex, or by staying abstinent for life.

            The latter option is a highly unlikely scenario to expect of anyone. The first is technically possible except that MSM individuals married to women often have other sexual relationships with men that they keep secret from the rest of society. In fact, research has found that the overlap of heterosexual and homosexual relationships may be extremely high in the MSM population. Through a study in South Africa it was found that 98.9% of MSM had previously had sexual encounters with women, and 85% of MSM were found to have a current female partner rather than a male one (Dunkle et. al., 2013). This suggests that cultural norms have pushed many MSM into heterosexual relationships, and has forced those individuals to express their true sexual identities underground.

            By declaring a faithful heterosexual marriage as the panacea of HIV, abstinence-only programs have contributed to this culturally stigmatizing norm in many places in Africa. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) put this idea into words:

It reinforces a hierarchy of sexuality in which intercourse between an HIV-negative man and his HIV-negative wife in a monogamous relationship for the purpose of procreation is the only “safe sex.” Everything else—heterosexual sex using contraceptives, heterosexual sero-discordant sex, pre- and extra-marital sex, heterosexual anal and oral sex, and sex between people of the same sex—becomes defined as “dirty,” “risky,” and “deadly.”

By providing a one-size-fits-all strategy, abstinence programs have labeled homosexuals as “others.” Since they don’t give any course of action for safe sex for MSM, many individuals simply satisfy their natural urges while in hiding with a portion of the population already highly susceptible to infection. Furthermore, abstinence programs have, in many cases, strategically disregarded or even rejected condom use as a prevention method (Epstein, 2005). This creates a doubly troubling situation where MSM are both given incentives through norms to satisfy their sexual drives in secrecy, while also abandoning condoms.

            After the introduction of abstinence-only programs, many countries that had made significant gains in HIV prevention began to regress (Epstein, 2005). This trend has continued for some countries that embraced the abstinence-only educational systems the most, such as Uganda. In the 1990s, Uganda made some of the most significant gains in HIV prevention due to their aggressive implementation of ABC programs. However, after receiving a large share of the foreign aid funds from the Bush administration, they quickly adopted the mantra of the more religiously based programs. To this day, Uganda has a hard time reducing HIV. The overall rate of infection in the country has steadily increased from 6.9% to 7.2% of the population between 2009 and 2012 (Prevalence of HIV, 2014).

            Many educational problems teach messages highly demeaning to the MSM population. Anti-homosexual rhetoric has been well documented in many schools throughout Africa, which has added to a general stigma against MSM (Making Love a Crime, 2013). Myths have also been perpetuated in the educational system, which has created a generally inhospitable and even hostile attitude towards MSM. This is likely to push MSM further underground with risky sexual behavior.

VIII. Myths

            Related to problems in the educational system, myths have been perpetuated about and within the MSM community. From an early age, many individuals have been taught the meaning of being African. Unfortunately being “African” does not include a variety of sexual orientations. Instead a strictly masculine ideal has been imposed on men that likely originated from colonial influence. These teachings demonstrate that homosexual or hypo-masculine men must be abnormal. This leads to further misconceptions, such as relating homosexuality to practices like pedophilia or bestiality. These myths make discussions about safe sex for MSM impossible for children in the educational system because it conveys that homosexuality is contrary to African culture and is therefore wrong (Making Love a Crime, 2013). With a lack of education about safe anal sex, MSM do not have the proper tools to protect themselves from HIV. This is consistent with the fact that condom use for MSM has been extremely low. One study estimated that only around a fourth of MSM consistently used condoms with sexual partners (National AIDS Control, 2008). Other educational information relevant to MSM such as the need for both the use of water-based lubricants and condoms to prevent HIV has been completely absent (Rebe et. al., 2014). The existence of an educational system built on myths of false African ideals clearly contributed to the lack of teaching resources for MSM.

            Myths have also been perpetuated within the MSM community, which has hurt its ability to find health resources to battle its HIV epidemic. The homophobic state structures of many African countries have likely made MSM believe that their governments are targeting them. Convinced that their government’s HIV programs are somehow “out to get them,” MSM will be unlikely to get tested or seek treatment for infection.  One study out of South Africa found that the majority of the MSM population believed in one conspiracy theory or another related to HIV programs (Tun et. al. 2011). The study unveiled that 51% of people believed “A lot of information about AIDS is being held back from the general public,” 25.5% thought “HIV was invented in a laboratory (in other words, it is a man-made virus),” 21% said “People are being experimented on with new HIV treatments in South Africa, but are not being told,” 20% thought “People who take the new medicines for HIV are human guinea pigs (experimental subjects),” and 17.6% believed “Researchers use black people as guinea pigs in HIV research studies.” The study also found a strong correlation between a belief in one of the conspiracy theories and choosing not to get tested for HIV. In fact, individuals with at least one of the conspiracy beliefs were 2.4 times less likely to get tested. This phenomenon is likely even more pronounced in areas of Sub-Saharan Africa with more oppressive systems towards MSM. The widespread belief in myths suggests a shortfall in the ability of the government to ensure the security and safety of its citizens. Furthermore, a government that has publicly denounced and made homosexual practices illegal has an inability to set up programs for the better education of MSM. Myths and fear within the MSM community are likely to result, and as those individuals are afraid to seek out medical resources, their load of HIV will continue to increase. 

IX. Victimization of Sexual Violence

            A critical distinction to realize while considering the spread of HIV within the MSM community is to discuss both the role of consensual and nonconsensual same-sex practices. Since the laws in many African countries make acts of homosexuality illegal, gay sexual victimization can be put in the same category as consensual gay sex acts. This creates two problems. First, men who have been victimized by male sexual violence may have no legal avenue to protect themselves because they are also a part of an illegal sexual practice. This can be exceptionally difficult for MSM because, as part of a homosexual community, they are more likely to experience sexual victimization such as rape from another man. One study found that “MSM were over seven times more likely than other men to report male-on-male sexual violence victimization, and about three times more likely to report perpetration of such violence” (Dunkle et. al., 2013). If MSM feel that they cannot go to the authorities to protect them from sexual violence, the victimization against the group will continue to get worse. The perpetrators will never be deterred because they know that they will not be prosecuted. This allows for the greater transmission of HIV in the MSM population both because there is a higher rate of HIV within the population (both on the perpetrator and victim’s side), and because the victims cannot regulate their sexual activity to protect themselves and others.

            Second, making no distinction whether a sexual act is consensual or non-consensual creates a stronger stigma in society against MSM, as many believe that individuals participating in homosexual activity are wrong regardless if they are sexually victimized or not. This perpetuates myths about MSM as sexual predators and also serves to legitimize the acts of true rapists whose victims are instead the ones faulted for participating in a gay lifestyle. Furthermore, myths of MSM as “sluts” can be spread when they are perceived as engaging in indiscriminate sexual activity, even though part of this can be attributed to sexual victimization. These stigmas can also make HIV prevention strategies through abstinence-based programs difficult because MSM exposed to sexual violence cannot stay abstinent. These factors only serve to drive the MSM population further underground.

X. HIV in Kenyan Prisons

            The spread of HIV has been especially pronounced in the prison populations of Sub-Saharan Africa. Inside Kenya, where the subject has most extensively been researched, it was found that the rate of HIV inside male prisons was twice the national average (KENYA, 2007). This is important in the study of HIV in the MSM population because the higher rate results from same-sex sexual activity within the jail cells. Prison HIV transmission has been accounted for by consensual and non-consensual male sex practices, and the refusal of authorities to provide the prison inmates with condoms. In response to criticism about the lack of protective measures taken inside their institutions, the chief of the Kenya Prisons Service AIDS Control Unit, Mary Chepkong'a, said, “We know homosexuality exists in the prisons, but our hands are tied because of the illegal nature of sodomy under our laws" (KENYA, 2007). Other officials within the prison system have voiced similar reasoning for a lack of condom distribution, and as a consequence the problem has only gotten worse (Madawo, 2011; Amon, 2010). Again a problem with both the illegal status of homosexuality and abstinence-only programs has resulted in higher rates of HIV in the MSM population. 

XI. South Africa: The duality of LGBT Rights and Homophobia

            In the Sub-Saharan region of Africa, South Africa appears to be a unique case because while the constitution instituted after apartheid in 1996 guarantees the rights of homosexuals in the country (gay marriage was legalized in 2006), there remains widespread persecution of the gay community. In addition, while there is a much higher rate of HIV in the MSM community, the existence of a state that acknowledges the rights of homosexuals seems to go against the argument outlined earlier, which stated that greater homophobic state structures lead to greater MSM HIV rates. Important to understanding this phenomenon is that while gay rights may be specific in the region to South Africa, underlying attitudes of the state and citizens show a similar story to many other African countries. At the heart of this issue lie both a state structure set up to allow persecution, and an ability to legitimize the ensuing discrimination by labeling certain people or conditions as “un-African.”

            As with other African states, South Africa’s homophobia can be traced back to European influence. The country has had a history of European domination starting with its discovery by the Portuguese in 1497, colonization by the Dutch in 1652, and later ownership by the English in 1806 (South Africa: History, 2014). With Dutch rule came the imposition of anti-sodomy laws similar to ones seen in British colonies, and the legalization of discrimination of gays by the state. After 1938, South Africa became an independent nation under the control of a white minority with a system of apartheid that made the repression of the black population a norm of South African society (South Africa Profile, 2013). The regime enacted particularly harsh treatment on the homosexual community such as forced sex changes designed as gay “cures,” which further reinforced a system of repression and control (McGreal, 2000). After the downfall of apartheid, leaders, such as Nelson Mandela and others, pushed for a constitution that would guarantee rights for everyone including homosexuals. Unfortunately, even with the official protection under the law the marginalization of the MSM population continues in the country. As the New York Times commented, “the new constitution could not erase deeply held biases and even hatred toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. If anything, the extension of formal legal protections exacerbated some people’s worst homophobic inclinations” (Carter, 2013).

            With the abusive nature of apartheid, many of South Africa’s local inhabitants became disillusioned with anything labeled as colonial imperialism or “un-African.” As a consequence, anything seen as unacceptable became “un-African.” With this attitude, many South Africans (and many other African nations) have deemed both homosexuality and HIV an import from the West. This became a double stigmatization for HIV-positive MSM, who were seen as foreign to African society. This perception generated mistrust and stigma, which was evident in a 2013 study that found that 61% of South Africans believed “homosexuality should not be accepted by society” (The Global Devide, 2013). Stuck in the middle, gay South Africans have a difficult time finding where they fit into society because while there are official laws to protect them, they are not necessarily enforced and as a consequence, the persecution continues. An Al Jazeera journalist studying the region put this eloquently when he commented, “the myth of what it means to be ‘African’ overrides the constitutional rights of gay people. In the face of disenfranchisement, there is a selective abstraction in how the gay community fits into the larger paradigm that is post-Apartheid South Africa” (Essa, 2014).

            Particularly debilitating for MSM in South Africa has been the combination of being marginalized because of their HIV statuses and the population’s general susceptibility to the infection. This burden became exceptionally pronounced for South Africa’s MSM population in the 1990s when the rhetoric of the country’s leadership fueled one of the worst HIV epidemics in the world. During the rule of apartheid, HIV was not a serious concern on the national agenda, but during the 1990s as the infection rate started to take off, the government chose to deny the problem instead of address it. The president at the time, Thabo Mbeki, declared that there was no link between HIV and AIDS. Instead he said that it was a conspiracy by the US government to force South Africa to buy US pharmaceutical drugs (Dowden, 2009). Myths were also perpetuated by other leaders such as Jacob Zuma, the Deputy President and later President of South Africa, who admitted to sleeping with an HIV-positive woman, but claimed to be protected from the infection because he showered after sexual relations (Dowden, 2009). Others such as the minister of health “urged people to eat beetroot and garlic to ward off AIDS” (Dowden, 2009). These conspiracy theories spread by the government not only enabled the perpetuation of myths within local communities of South Africa, but also built upon a general mistrust of the government stemming from apartheid.

            At the same time that these misconceptions transitioned into the beliefs of the local population, the rate of new HIV infections spread like an uncontrollable storm. In 1990, the rate of HIV in South Africa was 0.1% of the adult population. By 1998 it was 10.8%, and by 2003 it was 16.6% (Prevalence of HIV, 2014). The myths spread by the rhetoric of the leaderships both impeded the introduction of HIV prevention strategies and solidified misconceptions about HIV-positive individuals who were stigmatized in their communities. While the discrimination against heterosexual HIV-positive individuals became commonplace during this period, the MSM population became even more marginalized because of their disproportional HIV rate compared to the rest of the population. As stated previously, the rate of HIV-positive MSM in South Africa varies by location, but most estimates claim the infection rate to be around 40% compared to 16.9% in the general adult population (Mayer et. al., 2013; Baral et al. 2011; Lane et al. 2011; Rispel et al. 2011). MSM suffer from both being more susceptible to the infection (causing a higher rate of HIV-positive cases), and also from residing in a state that is highly homophobic in its attitudes. 

            In recent years there have been high rates of violence against homosexuals, including a high number of homicides. Ensuing police interventions and investigations have been reported to be lackluster (Combating Violence, 2013). South Africa has seen one of the highest rates of both sexual abuse and “corrective rapes” against gay individuals in the world (Carter, 2013). As a result, the MSM and homosexual community has been reluctant to go to the authorities for support for fear that they will either not help or believe the police to be part of the problem (Wells, 2006). This has manifested itself in widespread conspiracy theories within the MSM population about government persecution that has made the population much less likely to seek out healthcare facilities for both sex education and HIV treatment (Tun et. al. 2011). From this structure, a cycle perpetuates itself whereby homophobic sentiments against MSM drive the community further underground where HIV spreads more easily and myths (both within the homosexual and heterosexual populations) are legitimated by higher HIV rates. This further exacerbates the HIV epidemic by making MSM less likely to seek out healthcare facilities because of increased MSM persecution. 

            A combination of factors including the remnants of the repressive apartheid regime, myths spread by the South African Leadership about HIV, and an “un-African” homosexual stigma have all contributed to the persecution of the MSM community. These all play into an ongoing framework explaining the high rates of HIV-positive MSM and the inability to combat the spread of the disease within the MSM population. By examining the relationship between official LGBT rights in the region and continued gay persecution, it is important to see that an unofficial homophobic state structure remains in the country. It can continue to exist through both the attitudes of leaders and citizens of South Africa, and the inability of the bureaucracy to enforce or protect the homosexual population from marginalization and violence.

XII. Uganda: A Case Study

            On February 24, 2014 Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, signed into law a bill outlawing homosexuality. The law sets a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for acts of “aggravated homosexuality,” which include gay sex between consenting adults, gay sex with an HIV-positive individual (including if they don’t know they are HIV-positive), sex with children, and sex with animals (Dixon, 2014). Museveni justified the homophobic piece of legislation by declaring that homosexuality was a result of Western imperialism, and further implied that it was un-African through comments that labeled gays as “disgusting” (Dixon, 2014).

            Uganda’s law creates a clear social stigma against MSM by sending a state-approved message that a homosexual orientation and lifestyle is wrong. By uniformly making any homosexual act illegal, the law discourages education on safe same-sex sexual practices. It also correlates homosexual acts with other non-related offenses such as pedophilia and bestiality, which allows the propagation of myths and false ideas about homosexuality within the educational systems of the country. Furthermore, the law sets a harsh punishment for HIV-positive MSM who will likely fear seeking out health facilities to get tested or treated because they can be put in prison for life for their sexual orientation. Various organizations such as Amnesty International strongly opposed the bill since its introduction in Uganda, declaring that it will only worsen the already prominent HIV epidemic in the MSM population who will be forced to hide their sexual activity from society to an even greater degree than before (Uganda: ‘Anti-Homosexuality,’ 2009).

            While the anti-gay legislation is the most recent example of homophobia in the country, it is just a piece of the larger state-sponsored homophobia that has occurred in recent years, which has amalgamated into a widespread persecution of MSM in Uganda. As a former British colony, Uganda had the same penal codes outlawing homosexuality as other British colonies, and the country has built on that state structure since the colonial period. As previously examined, Uganda’s recent increase in homophobic rhetoric took place at the same time that they received increased revenue to fund HIV prevention programs. The increased revenue generated by the Bush administration for abstinence-only programs gave an incentive for the Ugandan government to establish a sexual hierarchy into their HIV reduction strategies to receive a greater share of the $1 billion earmarked for abstinence-only programs (Epstein, 2005). This hierarchy set heterosexual marriages as the only way to effectively battle the HIV epidemic, and therefore placed homosexual relationships as a threat to the Christian-based marital structure. Abstinence-based educational programs that followed labeled homosexuality as wrong and unsafe, which created a misconception that all sex in a marital framework was “safe” from infection (Johnson, 2007). These educational practices allowed children to be taught from a young age to discriminate against homosexuality.

            Meanwhile, as the public perception of homosexuality became more negative in Africa, it was becoming more positive in the United States. As some of the most conservative religious groups in the U.S. found less support for homophobic behavior at home, they turned to an area with a more receptive audience. Over the last several years there has been a massive flow of evangelicals and other conservative Christian organizations into regions of Africa including Uganda (Fisher, 2013). During this time, state-sanctioned homophobic acts have become more severe. On October 2010, a Ugandan newspaper called Rolling Stone published an article with the names and pictures of 100 gay individuals in the country, and titled the article “Hang Them” (Gettleman, 2011). David Kato, a prominent Ugandan LGBT activist and a person of interest in the publication, was subsequently beaten to death in the street. State authorities labeled the death as a robbery.

            It was also during this time that several American religious figures started pronouncing the evils of homosexuality in the country. In 2009, missionaries Scott Lively and Don Schmierer both toured across Uganda preaching about the gay’s “dark agenda,” and are credited with inspiring the introduction of the 2009 anti-homosexuality bill that was introduced in 2014 (Gettleman, 2010). Though they later distanced themselves from the bill’s proposed death penalty for homosexual acts, they are seen as a contributing force for the language and introduction of the bill into the Ugandan legislature (Gettleman, 2010). During several year time-span over which the bill was debated, the maximum penalty was reduced from the death penalty to life imprisonment for homosexual acts. Now that it has been implemented, the bill stands as the state’s legalization of discrimination of homosexuals. If in fact homophobia does contribute to the spread of HIV in the MSM community, Uganda could have an even more difficult time fighting the infection in the coming years.

XIII. Conclusion

            During my investigation I have found that the existing state structure in many Sub-Saharan African countries has contributed to the continued stigmatization and marginalization of MSM, which could account for the high levels of HIV in the group. While it is impossible to know the MSM HIV rate of countries with anti-gay laws, it is fair to hypothesize that the substantially higher levels of infection, compared to the general population, recorded in South Africa and Kenya also apply to other African countries. Some of the biggest reasons for the continued spread of HIV in the African MSM population have been the lack of safe same-sex educational programs and a reluctance of many to get tested for the infection or receive treatment. Educational resources have been denied to MSM in many African countries because of the influence of abstinence-only programs. Many MSM also find it difficult or impossible to seek out health facilities to get tested or treated for HIV from fear of persecution attributed to their sexual orientation. In accordance with this, high rates of HIV within the MSM community can be explained by both heighted transmission of the infection from anal sex and a tremendous amount of persecution from the state as well as socially held beliefs of citizens.

            One logical model would predict that the greater the degree of state-sponsored homophobia, the easier it is to legitimize homophobic ideals within the social environment of the state. The more homophobic attitudes persist within the country, the more MSM feel pressured to practice their sexuality underground. This induces two undesirable phenomena. First, it makes MSM less receptive to health initiatives that attempt to reduce HIV because they cannot openly discuss their sexual activity. Second, it promotes the spread of HIV because many MSM do not know their HIV status, have several sexual partners, and will use unsafe sexual practices. These phenomena promote a general prediction that the more homophobic a state structure becomes, the more prevalent HIV epidemics in MSM populations will be and the more difficult they will be to counter in the future. This provides a useful model not only for African states, but also for other countries with highly homophobic state structures.

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Wagenaar, Bradley H., Patrick S. Sullivan, and Rob Stephenson. "HIV Knowledge and Associated Factors among Internet-Using Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSM) in South Africa and the United States." Ed. Javier R. Lama. PLoS ONE 7.3 (2012): E32915. Print.

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In a Precarious Place: Climate Change, Sociopolitical Change and Taos County Ranchers, Sonja Brinker

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Place 1

El Irrigador by Floyd Archuleta 


This thesis discusses how climate shifts and sociopolitical change are impacting small-scale ranchers in Taos County, New Mexico.  I collected data using participant observation, semi-structured interviews with ranchers and community members, and a review of the existing literature. The viability of ranching is threatened by a combination of factors including: a warming, drier climate, commercial development, a changing labor market, an aging population of ranchers, top-down land management policies imposed by the U.S. Forest Service, and the historic loss of land grants during the 19th century.  Small-scale ranchers are in a socially, economically, and environmentally precarious position.  There is a need for additional research on the resilience of small-scale ranching in the face of climate change and other factors. 

36 Swimming Pools

The discussion about water is becoming urgent.  One man stands up to face the audience and states, “We’re concerned because 16 of our wells have gone dry already in the Lower Des Montes area… climate has changed.  We know that it’s changed. And we’re in a drought stage, you know that too. It’s happening around us.”[i]

I am at the Lower Des Montes Neighborhood Association meeting in the cafeteria of a local elementary school in Taos, New Mexico.  About twenty people sit around long cafeteria tables; the majority are Hispanic, male, and over forty, sporting blue jeans or Carhartts, work boots, and a mix of camouflage hunting caps and ten-gallon cowboy hats.  On one side of the room sits a middle-aged Anglo attorney in a blue suit, thumbing through a stack of files piled half a foot deep.  It is six o’clock on a Wednesday evening and people from Lower Des Montes and Arroyo Seco (communities northeast of Taos) have gathered in the school to discuss a pending proposal from two Illinois developers to build a 36-home subdivision, “Beausoleil,” on a 400-acre lot in Lower Des Montes.  Each home will have a private, 30,000-gallon swimming pool.  While the project has already received preliminary permission from the Taos County Planning and Zoning Commission and the state engineer, the purpose of this meeting is for members of the community to gather and express their concerns about the subdivision to an attorney, a neutral third party, so that he can communicate their concerns to the developers with the hope of delaying the final approval of the development to allow time for negotiation.

With sixteen wells in the Lower Des Montes neighborhood already dried up and the 2012-2013 drought still taking a toll on Northern New Mexico, the idea of building 36 private swimming pools in the area does not sit well with Des Montes community members.  Richard, the president of the Lower Des Montes neighborhood association, says the pools are being used as a “marketing tool” to pitch the subdivisions as luxury homes, many of which would be vacation homes to future buyers.  As one person at the meeting pointed out, one private 30,000-gallon swimming pool is equivalent in size to the community water tank for the entire neighborhood of Arroyo Seco. To local community members, the proposed subdivision represents a disturbing conception of the Taos landscape and way of life.  One audience member stands up from the table and declares, “We’re in the middle of a major drought and yet we’re trying to use swimming pools as a selling tool to attract people that maybe we don’t want. Do we want people here who want swimming pools and who have no idea of how fragile this community is? I don’t think we do.”[ii]

Most residents of Lower Des Montes get their water from wells and irrigate any farmland they have from an acequia (community water ditch).  The average depth of the existing wells in the area is 296 feet. However, the proposed wells for the subdivision are between 450 and 500 feet, costing $30,000 each.  Many attendees of the meeting, who have already seen their wells dry up, are now drilling second or even third wells at greater depths. One man, whose property borders the potential building site, is on his third well.  He explains, “My well went dry and so I drilled at 460-something feet, and two years later that went dry.  Then I drilled another 700-something foot well and I didn’t hit water. I had to go to the other side of my property and drill 800 feet before I got any water.”[iii]  Personal testimonies like these leave community members asking about the effect of 36 new 400 to 500-foot wells on existing wells, especially those that are “upstream,” or at lesser depths. 

The attorney responded to this concern by stating, “I leave it to the scientists. Their studies have been accepted by the State Engineer’s Office.”[iv] And they have been.  According to the impact study conducted for the development and accepted by the state engineer, the test wells drilled by scientists did not affect surrounding wells due to a new technology that prevents water from being drawn from upstream.  However, these findings also indicate that there is only enough water to sustain the community for fifty years, which Richard thinks is probably an overestimate.  He asks the audience, “You believe them?  You really believe them?”  Regardless of technological innovation, tapping wells to fill recreational pools is in stark contrast to the northern New Mexican proverb that, “el agua es vida,” or  “water is life.”[v]

Wells are not the only concern that Des Montes community members have about the development.  Traffic, water rights, and the impact of the development on acequias were also brought up at the meeting.  A member of a local acequia association attending the meeting noted that:

We get a lot of our water from snowpack and springs and whatnot.  Ditches are real important in my opinion and what we’ve seen as a ditch association is in drought years, less snow. Look at last year, we almost ran out of water.  We have the best river in Taos County, but what’s happening is [we have] a lot of farm acreage that is now being developed so there is less irrigation going around, and the acequias’ contribution to the aquifer is going down.  So pretty soon there’s going to be very few acres being irrigated, and our aquifers, regardless of where we live, are going to keep going down and down.[vi]

Acequias act within the northern New Mexican landscape similarly to arteries within the body.  Acequia ditches capture water from a major water source, in this case the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and disperse the water over the land via a network of small ditches, delivering water to land that would otherwise not receive it.  Water from acequia ditches not only irrigates the soil, but also effectively helps fill aquifers, as any water not absorbed by plants continues to seep down into the earth.  However, if the role of acequias is reduced within communities due to the development of agricultural land or pools, for example, there is a lack of incentive to maintain the acequia ditches, potentially leading to their demise.  Without acequias, lands in the lower watershed will lack irrigation, and the aquifers will suffer. 

Of all the potential consequences of the subdivision, though, the overwhelming concern was adding swimming pools to a high desert environment that is already experiencing drought.  Another audience member articulated this concern in his statement to the neighborhood association board: 

Given the situation we’re in now with this drought, with the prognosis of this whole climate change, and that we could be in for a long drought, water is a really, really precious, finite, resource here.  I just can’t understand in this community, in this environment, why someone would use swimming pools as a marketing tool.  To me, it’s why I’m here. Because I don’t think in this part of this world, that swimming pools are something that a lot of folks really need. It’s taking a very sparse resource and it’s wasting it. My own feeling is that what we ought to be doing as a community is looking at ways that we can conserve water.  Because my gut feeling is, ten years from now, we could be in real trouble.[vii]

The meeting concluded with a show of hands of those against the swimming pools.  Everyone’s hand went up.  The members of the various neighborhood and acequia associations agreed to form a group to review the development’s covenants and draft a statement to the Taos County Commissioner’s office with the concerns and recommendations of the Lower Des Montes community in regards to Beausoleil.  They also requested that the meeting of the County Commissioner for the final approval of the project be delayed until March. 

As I left the cafeteria and was walking back to my car, one of the men from the meeting asked me, “What is a young person such as yourself doing at a meeting like this?”  His tone expressed something between disbelief and suspicion.  Feeling conscious of being an Anglo outsider to the community, I told him that I was a student doing some research on how climate change and other factors are impacting the ranchers of Taos County communities.  “Well, it sure’d be nice to get some more young blood in here,” he said.  

The Lower Des Montes Neighborhood Association meeting is emblematic of a crusade that many longtime residents of the Taos area find themselves fighting today—a battle to protect not only the sacred land and water of Taos County, but also a set of values associated with the Hispanic culture that has characterized northern New Mexico for centuries.  At the forefront of this battle are ranchers who breed and raise livestock, one of Taos County’s most historic and land-dependent sectors of the population.  The threats that the Beausoleil subdivision pose to Lower Des Montes are largely the same as those that face ranchers in general in Taos County: water stress in a changing climate, a population composed increasingly of non-native, affluent Anglos and fewer native Hispanics, the imposition of top-down, technocratic regulations in a bureaucratic society, and a lack of understanding and respect by outsiders for local traditional entities such as acequias and small-scale agriculture.  All of these factors contribute to a precarious or even threatened way of life for the longtime ranchers of Taos County.


            From an anthropological perspective, how does one study “a changing way of life?”  This thesis analyzes a changing way of life for one particular sector of the Taos County population—ranchers—in the face of both climate and sociopolitical change.  The term “sociopolitical change” in this thesis refers to the types of changes experienced by ranchers in response to both demographic change and top-down decisions made by government agencies, primarily the U.S. Forest Service, regarding land management.  Ranching was introduced to northern New Mexico with the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, making it one of the longest practiced trades in the area (not counting those of Native Americans, whose existence long precedes the Spanish in New Mexico).  Ranching lends itself to this study for both its historical roots in northern New Mexico and for the complex relationships it entails between different entities.  Ranching extends beyond the relationship between people and animals; it is the relationship between people and the environment, between people and their familial and cultural heritage, and, more so now than ever, between people and the state and federal government. Indeed, ranching in Taos County is a part of a web, suspended within historical, environmental, social, economic, and political threads, making ranchers’ decisions to continue or not continue their work complex and irreducible to climate or sociopolitical change alone. 

This thesis therefore seeks to understand how the conditions, culture, and viability of ranching in Taos County are changing in the twenty-first century in response to climate shifts and sociopolitical change, acknowledging that these changes are often interrelated and bound in regional history.  Additionally, this thesis addresses some of the current actions being generated by local northern New Mexicans, particularly ranchers and agriculturalists, in response to environmental and sociopolitical change. Such movements vary from the reemphasis of traditional connections to the land through farming, to lawsuits filed against the U.S. Forest Service.

I developed this research project with the intention of contributing to a much-needed bottom-up understanding of how the culture, conditions, and viability of traditional ranching fare in what one interviewee called “a changing Taos.”  Northern New Mexico is a region that has always intrigued me for its obvious beauty, and for its historical and cultural depth.  I frequently visited Taos growing up due to an acre of land in Arroyo Seco that my parents purchased in the early 1980s.  As a child, Taos to me was a forested playground, a place where out-of-towners apparently came to enjoy themselves in the outdoors.  But when I was older, I began to notice the subtleties of the Taos landscape, complicating my understanding of an area that has mobile home communities hidden behind art galleries and ski rental shops, old trucks loaded with hay bales cruising the streets, and Catholic adobe churches dotting the neighborhoods. 

As I began learning about the hardships experienced in the region, including poverty rates significantly higher than New Mexico’s average, I began to wonder what lay below the surface of Taos County.  What was this place like before the ski industry moved in, before Anglos like my parents decided they wanted a chunk of the land?  My incomplete understanding of the Taos area, of its history, and of the people who have traditionally lived there is what led me to do this research. This thesis attempts to gain an understanding of the people, lifestyles, and culture of Taos County, and how external pressures are contributing to what is a changing Taos.

I collected data for this thesis using a literature review, participant observation, and interviews with ranchers and community members of Taos County.  To understand the larger climatological and sociopolitical context in which ranching is situated today, I  

analyzed trends in climate, demographics, economics, and U.S. Forest Service policy for their impact on small-scale ranchers. I used the most recent comprehensive climate analysis, which examines climate change of the Rio Hondo watershed in terms of stream flow, temperature, precipitation, snowpack, and drought severity, utilizing records that go back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.[viii]  Supplemental climate data were gathered from newspaper articles, as well as from the United States Drought Monitor, a database managed by the National Drought Mitigation Center that releases weekly reports on state and regional drought conditions. 

Demographic data were collected from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Northern New Mexican Economic Development Initiative, and from other demographic studies conducted in Taos County.  Sociopolitical data, or more specifically, data relating to the impact that Forest Service policies have on northern New Mexican ranchers were largely obtained from the USDA report Social, Cultural, and Economic Aspects of Livestock Ranching on the Santa Fe and Carson National Forests.[ix]  This report proved to be the most recent study of the U.S. Forest Service’s management of Taos County’s local forest, the Carson National Forest (CNF).  Information was also gathered from local newspaper articles and presentations given at the Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association meeting.

When evaluated in isolation from one another, climatological and sociopolitical trends in northern New Mexico do not provide an understanding of the implications of these trends on small-scale ranchers, nor do they adequately encompass the complex factors acting upon the communities of Taos County.  Thus, to supplement the information provided by a literature review, I spent approximately two and a half weeks in Arroyo Seco, Taos, engaging in participant observation and conducting interviews with local ranchers and community members around the county.  During this time, I attended local neighborhood association meetings, went onsite with a land conservation crew to do fire hazard reduction work, helped load hay bales and feed the cattle of a local rancher, visited the properties of the ranchers that I met, and attended the annual Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association meeting.  I recorded notes from participant observation in a field notebook, which I referenced alongside voice recordings of select conversations and interviews with individuals who agreed to participate in the research.

I conducted eleven semi-structured interviews with local ranchers and community members of Taos County.  Eight interviews were with ranchers, and the remaining ones were with a journalist from The Taos News, the Taos County extension agent, and an expert in northern New Mexican agriculture.  All ranchers were over the age of forty and male, and the majority of them were Hispanic.  Half of the ranchers interviewed were veterans, having served in the Vietnam War.  Most ranchers raised cattle, although a couple kept either sheep or lamas in addition to cattle. The exact number of cattle per rancher was not collected (I learned this is an offensive question, equivalent to, “how much money do you have in your bank account?”).  However, the average number of cattle kept by ranchers in Taos County is between 30 to 45 head per rancher. All ranchers interviewed have been ranching for a minimum of twenty years, and in most cases, their entire lives.

The setting of each interview varied.  In some cases, I visited the interviewee’s house or workplace.  In others, I asked questions while in the car with a rancher on the way to feed his cattle. I asked questions pertaining to how the experience of ranching in Taos County has changed over the years.  Many times, I simply listened as the person told me his story.  My use of a voice recorder during the interviews was also situational.  Some interviews took place in a quiet setting that was conducive to recording; however, many conversations took place outside where it would have been difficult to record.

To recruit participants from the community to interview, I began by sending out emails to community organizations and experts involved in the fields of agriculture and land and water conservation.  One of the first emails I sent was to the El Salto FireWise Community, a neighborhood group that conducts fire hazard reduction work in Arroyo Seco.  Two people from this community involved in ranching and conservation work responded to my email, agreeing to be interviewed.  After I made these initial contacts, my recruitment followed the “snowball” method, in which initial contacts are asked to help identify other individuals in the community with “similar characteristics or from the same subgroup of the population” who may be willing to participate in an interview.[x]  This method proved particularly effective, and I was able to obtain the majority of my subsequent interviews by referral. 

Taos County: The Setting

Taos County is culturally distinctive in that it is one of the longest continuously occupied areas in the country, making it a place where the relationship between people’s work and the land can be evaluated over the course of centuries. Human occupation of Taos Valley began with the ancestors of the Taos Pueblo Indians, whose presence in the valley reaches back to almost 1000 years ago.  The Taos Pueblo, which is still occupied and used today, was built sometime between 1000 and 1450 A.D.  Beginning in the sixteenth century, Taos also became home to Spanish and Anglo settlers.  In 1540, Capitan Hernando Alvarado, a member of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition, first stepped foot in the Taos valley, marking the beginning of Spanish presence in the area.  In 1615, Don Juan de Oñate, the first Governor of what is now New Mexico, established Taos as an official village under the Spanish crown.  However, it was not long before Pueblo forces drove the Spanish from northern New Mexico for twelve years in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.[xi]  The descendants of the Spanish and Puebloan people who occupied northern New Mexico during the Spanish Colonial period compose the Hispanic families of northern New Mexico today.  As clarified by McSweeny and Raish, “the terms ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Hispano’ are used to refer to residents of the southwestern United States who are descended from Spaniards who settled in the region prior to the U.S. annexation.”[xii]

Taos County has a current population of 32,779 people, with 60 percent of the population living in rural areas.[xiii]  Taos County is often referred to in literature as “land-based,” and while the county is ranked near the bottom of New Mexico counties in terms of total number of livestock, ranching is part of a cultural heritage, especially for the many Hispanic families that have been ranching for generations.[xiv]  Taos County contains 637 farms, with a total of 456,932 acres, and an average farm size of 717 acres.[xv] In 2011, Taos County produced 11,000 tons of alfalfa and 1,000 tons of hay, the two primary crops of the county.[xvi]  Additionally, the county listed a total of 500 head of sheep and lambs (second to last of all 33 counties in number of sheep), and 6,700 head of cattle and calves (18th in the state in number).[xvii]

From these numbers it is clear that today’s agriculture and ranching operations in Taos County are modest, with the majority of farms being classified as small-scale farms, or those with annual sales of less than $10,000.[xviii]  According to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, the average net farm income for Taos County in 2011 was negative $521, meaning that farmers and ranchers are operating in a financial deficit.[xix]  This statistic sets Taos County financially apart from other New Mexican counties that practice large-scale agriculture, such as Curry County, whose average net farm income is $137,119.[xx] Aside from generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales, agribusiness farmers and ranchers are largely protected by crop insurance in the case that they lose their fields or animals to drought and other environmental disasters.[xxi]  In contrast, one small-scale Hispanic rancher explained that “it wouldn’t make sense for me to insure my animals and hay crop because I would be spending more money than I’d be making.  And then there’s all this paperwork and rules where you have to file the claim within a certain amount of time of the drought, which is sometimes hard to do.”[xxii]  Thus, the kind of ranching found in Taos County encompasses an element of economic fragility not found in commercial agribusiness.

Another factor that prevents small-scale ranchers in Taos County from more fully entering the marketplace is the high cost and time invested in obtaining USDA certification on their meat, which requires ranchers to transport any animals they want to sell to meat auction sites across the state (where additional fees are paid for processing) or to Texas. Furthermore, while Taos ranchers have always traditionally raised grass-fed beef without hormones and pesticides, many are unable to enter the organic marketplace due to the stringent stipulations required for organic certification, including the completion of a three-year, bureaucratic process and a large fee.  While these requirements are easily met by large-scale farm and ranch operations, they are unrealistic for individuals who mostly take care of their animals by themselves. Ironically, this results in ranchers being unable to tap into a market that they have been a part of for decades.

Indeed, while many of the interviewed ranchers reported that their grandparents and great-great-grandparents were full-time ranchers before New Mexico became a state, they assured me that nobody in Taos County is a full-time rancher anymore.  Rather, ranchers described ranching as a hobby, “a way of life,” or something they continue to do despite the fact that “it doesn’t really make you any sort of money.”[xxiii]  In fact, the 2006 Economic Profile Statistics for Taos County report 66 percent of the working population are in the service sector (tourism, education, health, utilities, etc.), 14 percent are employed in the local government, and zero percent are employed in the agricultural, forestry, fishing, and hunting sectors.[xxiv] This data marks a decrease from the 4.4 percent employed in the agricultural, fishing, hunting sectors reported in the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau.[xxv]  From these statistics, it is apparent that ranchers, as well as other kinds of agriculturalists, are increasingly making a living through other means of employment, so that ranching in Taos County is an activity that holds more social and cultural capital than it does economic remuneration.  A schoolteacher that I spoke to explained, however, that occupational changes began long before 2000 in Taos County.  He believes that World War II was a turning point in which unprecedented numbers of people made the transition from subsistence-level agriculture towards what was perceived as a more modern lifestyle:

Until World War II, people were still land-based, and they were still able to figure it out. But then WWII came and we got exposed to the world ourselves, and so then our values changed. At the same time, we were noticing people coming over here to Taos and they could afford generators, lights, and all that stuff, so people started to consider themselves poor and wanting these other things. And their subsistence lifestyles were then seen as characteristic of poverty and they wanted better for their kids. Now, my grandparents were some of those people. My grandmother was a teacher, and my grandfather was a construction worker… and my grandmother would wear on her sleeve that she was educated, that she was using her mind to make money as opposed to her body and so then that was then imparted to my mom.  My grandmother almost got a master’s degree and my mom did get a master’s degree. So my mom always wanted me to be an engineer.[xxvi] 

Another area in which Taos County has experienced dramatic demographic change is population.  In the last six decades, the population of Taos County has increased by 92 percent.[xxvii] The demographics of “in-migrants” to Taos County indicate that the majority are “older, Anglo, and wealthy people looking for ‘lifestyle amenities,’” while the “out-migrants” are primarily “younger, Hispanic, and moderately poor people.”[xxviii]  This trend has had several demographic consequences, all of which have an impact on the viability of ranching and acequia communities in Taos County. 

First of all, the percentage of Hispanics in Taos County has decreased sharply over time, despite the growing percentage of Hispanics and Latinos seen in the rest of the state of New Mexico.  While 69 percent of Taos County was reported as Hispanic in 1980, Hispanics made up only 56 percent of the population by 2010.[xxix]  Because ranching and the maintenance of acequias in Taos County are traditionally Hispanic activities, this trend implies a decreasing Hispanic population in small-scale ranching and the care of acequias.  Carlos, a middle-aged Hispanic rancher explained that “northern New Mexico is a Hispanic thing, we’re different than Cubans, than Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and everybody else.  We have different roots, different cultures, and different things.  There’s no other place in the planet like it.  And now it’s very different, Sonja, very, very different.  Up where I live [Arroyo Seco], we’re in the minority now, and we were the majority.”[xxx]

Secondly, Taos County has experienced significant aging over time.  From 1960 to 2010, the median age increased from 19.6 years to 45.2 years, more than doubling the median age of the county.[xxxi]  In comparison, the State of New Mexico had a median age of 36.7 in 2010.[xxxii]  The average age of Taos County’s principal farm operators is 59.4 years old, and the Northern New Mexico Regional Economic Development Initiative reports that “a new generation of farmers is lacking.”[xxxiii]  Indeed, many of the ranchers I interviewed were either close to retirement age or retired already.  The concern over the lack of youth involvement in ranching and agricultural activity was a sentiment shared in interviews.  Carlos is the only one of his siblings still ranching, despite his family’s 400-year tradition in this occupation.  He commented that:

My grandfather said, ‘I want to you to carry on the tradition.’  And I says to myself, this guy is crazy, my grandfather, because I was too young.  I was interested in some other stuff and it was a lot of work.  I went off to the military. I came back. And then my mom pretty much pushed me more to carry on the tradition…The only thing is that, like my grandfather said, the new generation that has come in don’t give a damn.  That’s probably the only word of English he knew, that ‘they don’t give a damn.’  I was talking to somebody the other day in church, and… the guy said, ‘you know what, [Carlos], those pews are all full now, but it’s older people and once they die this church is going to be empty.’ And these acequias, so on and so forth, nobody cares about them.

Times are changing. Ranching has become more technical…very few people understand or appreciate the thing that we don’t see that we breathe and the water that we drink and the land that brings what you eat.  See, people don’t have a concept—they think that there’s a magic person behind Albertson’s or Wal-Mart or so on. There’s a big detachment and it’s a point that people should be taught in school.[xxxiv]

Carlos raises an important question.  Is the appreciation and respect for the water and land something that can be instilled in young people through teaching in school, or is it attained through physical interaction and familiarity with the environment?  Furthermore, to what extent is the appreciation and desire to interact with the natural elements transmitted generationally? In conversation with Richard about his 98-year old Hispanic father, it is apparent that ranching sheds some light on these questions.  Richard described his father’s love and mastery of agriculture, and the impact his father had on his own connection with the land:

I don’t think there’s anybody in the whole world that loves water like my dad. He loves water.  He can’t see a little trickle going without making it go to where something’s going to grow. That’s how he irrigated all his life.  He’s 98 years old…I see myself a lot like him I think. Because to him, to me, [the joy] is when you have a bare field, and then you [help] something [grow] out of that field. And you wanna be there to see it grow, then you want to get that water to every single piece.

My dad is like the best irrigator in the world. Because when you look at that field, you’ll see all green. All green. Not one [brown] spot. Now when we irrigate, you’ll see spots here and there. But he will take the time to make the water get to where he [wants it] to go. And I think the reward is just seeing something grow. The green…It’s actually fun. To me, this is fun. The cows are fun. It’s nice to be out in the mountains and just go for a ride, and check on ‘em and break the ice, or whatever. But to me that’s a blast. And that’s probably ‘my spa.’[xxxv]

Richard’s description of his father illustrates that in addition to requiring love for the natural environment, ranching requires a level of mastery of regionally adapted agricultural techniques that are only attained through working the land. 

While some Hispanic youth may express an interest in continuing the ranching traditions of their families, one of the reasons for their missing participation in agricultural practices may be economic pressure to seek employment and higher education in more urban areas in an increasingly cash-based economy.  Although Taos County’s poverty rates have dropped over the years (from 38 percent of the individuals living below the poverty line in 1969 to 23.9 percent in 2012), Taos County continues to experience high unemployment rates compared to the rest of the state.[xxxvi]  The years from 2008 to 2011 show the highest unemployment rates Taos County has seen in the past decade: the unemployment rate reached 9.4 percent in 2011, a level slightly higher than that of the U.S. in 2011, which never rose above 9.1 percent.[xxxvii]

The experiences of the locals interviewed reinforce these statistics.  Of all the ranchers interviewed who had adult children, only one had a child still living in northern New Mexico, and she does not ranch.  One rancher’s son moved to Colorado to work with Comcast; another said that he does not know if any of his eight young children will decide to stay involved in ranching.  In one particularly poignant interview, a rancher responded to my question of “what do you see as the future of Taos ranching?” as follows:

That’s a tough one. I lost my son about two years ago. He was 22 years old. But he would have kept it going. I know he would have kept it. And my brother’s son, I think he will keep it going. My daughters, not so much. One of my daughters has a 12 year old and a 9 year old so they spend the summer with me, and this winter too. They love going with me to feed the animals. You know, they’re in the back of the truck throwing the hay off and irrigating. They love it. I mean they talk to their mom and say how much they love it. So I’m really, really hoping that [sigh]…You know, these boys, they’re straight A students but you know, I don’t really see them doing ranch work probably because even though as much as I want them to [pause] they’re too smart. What do we do?  Its not really that you’re gonna get rich. You might be property rich but you’re not money rich. But you let go, you sell one acre, you’ll never get it back, ever.  So it’s just a blessing to have it and work it because that’s where our interests lie.  We do whatever we can for the environment and put water back into the ecosystem. I believe in that.[xxxviii]

Another rancher shared a similar story of being hopeful, but unsure about whether his grandchildren will continue ranching or not.  He shared that, “I have my granddaughter…she comes here and she likes it. She rides horses with me.  She goes with me. I say, you go to school, you get educated, number one.  Don’t go marry a bum, and [you can ranch].  That’s the agreement we’ve got, I don’t know if she’ll stick to it or not.”[xxxix] 

This last statement brings up another demographic shift occurring in Taos County that may also be contributing to a declining participation in agriculture: an upward trend in educational attainment.  While only 63 percent of the Taos County population had a high school degree or higher in 1980, the portion of Taos County’s population holding a high school degree or higher rose to 88 percent by 2010.[xl]  One rancher proudly reported that his daughter completed nursing school and is now a NICU nurse in an Albuquerque hospital.[xli] While the success of their children was unquestionably a great source of pride for ranchers, it is clear that the greater prevalence of educational opportunities available now compared to the century makes agriculture only one of many occupations accessible to today’s youth. Additionally, as established earlier, even if youth did show an interest in agriculture, the small scale in which it is practiced today in Taos County would likely require them to have an additional or primary job as well.

Of equal concern to ranchers as the out-migration of Hispanic youth from Taos County is the influx of affluent, non-native people into the area who lack an appreciation for the land and the water. As seen in the Lower Des Montes Neighborhood Association meeting, outsiders who do not respect Taos County’s water scarcity are a significant threat to acequia communities and the longtime ranchers and agriculturalists that depend on them.  For example, a woman named Linda who had the potential to irrigate her land with an acequia ditch was unable to do so because a neighbor who had moved in a few years earlier had unknowingly built her house in a manner that obstructed the ditch, preventing water from reaching Linda’s property.[xlii] Newcomers may also be unfamiliar with having neighbors who keep livestock.  One rancher I spoke to is trying to continue the traditions of his grandfather, once the biggest sheep herder of northern New Mexico, by keeping a small herd of sheep on his residential property in Arroyo Seco.  However, he expressed the difficulty of keeping sheep with the arrival of new neighbors from out of town:

I’m probably the only one left in Taos [who keeps sheep]…When my parents divided the property, they gave some [land] to my sister, to [all my siblings].  And they sold it. So then people moved in, and they bring their dogs... They killed my sheep, their dogs. They don’t contain them. I train my dogs from the time they’re puppies to be with the sheep, but the neighbors’ dogs aren’t trained.  I say, you can’t let them in my property…But people sometimes can’t understand the reasons.[xliii] 

Aside from the physical threat to acequias and livestock that new residents and development can cause, ranchers also face the consequences of increased property taxes that result from the arrival of upscale housing and establishments, producing enough financial strain for a rancher to reduce or sell off his livestock altogether.  One rancher told me about his experiences with the rising cost of land in Taos County: “I tried to do the whole thing where I ranch on a leased piece of land but it’s too expensive.  If I couldn’t have my cattle on [my friend’s] land, I would just sell them all.  I couldn’t do it.”[xliv]  The rise of property values is indicative of the increasing cost of living in Taos County as well.  In 1965, an acre of land in Rio Hondo (northwest of the town of Taos) was valued at $1,000; by 1997, the land value was $40,000 per acre or more.[xlv]

Perhaps most disturbing to the local community members and ranchers of Taos County is not a loss of monetary return, or the growing Anglo population, but a fear that current and future generations are lacking querencia, a sense of place.  Querencia is a derivative of the Spanish verb “aquerenciarse,” which means to become fond of or attached to a place.[xlvi]  I was introduced to the concept of querencia by Martin, a rancher and one of the most respected soil and water conservationists in Taos.  He explained that querencia is “your placement on the earth, the cornerstone of your existence, in harmony with the land and the water.”[xlvii]  While not easily translatable into English, querencia is described in the literature as:

The place where you want to be, the place where you know how to go about the tasks of daily life, the place where you feel you belong.  It is yours because you care about it…querencia goes beyond the promise of monetary return.  It implies a reciprocal, symbiotic relationship.  It belongs to both the human and the animal realm, defining a special relationship that crosses the boundary between man and animal, encompassing both.”[xlviii] 

Querencia seems to be at the heart of the local community members and ranchers of Taos County. It is a set of values instilled within families, and the responsibility that northern New Mexicans feel towards the land, water, and animals that sustain them.  Although he does not mention the word itself, one rancher captured the essence of querencia as he told me “what northern New Mexico is all about”:

We were raised to be respectful to mother earth. Very respectful…that’s in summary how sacred the land and the water is in how we were raised and how we were brought up. And that’s the reason we’re so protective, Sonja, for the land and the water.”[xlix] 

Considering the momentous demographic and economic changes and influx of commercial interests taking place in Taos County (such as the development of private swimming pools), it is understandable that local communities are concerned for the protection of both their physical environment and their ideologies. 

A Valley of Sheep

I sat across from Carlos at a Chinese food restaurant.  We had just finished switching soups with one another after he realized that the soup he ordered was not the one he intended to get. “Say it again,” Carlos instructed me.  I had just managed to mispronounce the name of Carlos’ grandfather, Juan de Dios, once one of the largest sheepherders and property owners of northern New Mexico.  Embarrassed, I repeated his name making sure to clearly pronounce each syllable.  “That’s better,” he said. This was not the first time I had encountered this name.  I had seen “Juan de Dios” printed in little white letters on one of the street signs leading up to the road to my parents’ property in Arroyo Seco, but had never paid it much attention before.  Now, I found myself sitting across from Juan de Dios’ grandson, eating hot and sour soup.  Carlos wore a beautiful black cowboy hat, jeans, and cowboy boots.  I was referred to him by a journalist from The Taos News, who told me Carlos was the person to speak to about the history of ranching in Taos and changes over the years in response to politics and other pressures. 

Carlos is an example of the generational depth and cultural heritage of ranching found in Taos County.  He is a proud descendent of one of the original Spanish settler families that arrived in northern New Mexico during the early Spanish Colonial period in the 1600s.  Carlos was born and raised in Taos and is the only one of his siblings to carry on his family’s 400-year tradition of ranching in northern New Mexico.  He undoubtedly takes the continuation of Juan de Dios’ legacy very seriously and keeps the same animals that he was raised with growing up. Yet, Carlos is also a former court judge, a Vietnam War veteran, and is now the grandfather of several grandchildren.  He owns a bail bonds firm in town, and is seemingly involved with all water and land-related issues in Taos County. 

Upon settling in northern New Mexico, the King of Spain issued a large land grant in northern New Mexico in the name of Carlos’ family ancestors, which was passed down generationally, eventually landing in the hands of Juan de Dios.  Land grants were a method used by the Spanish, and later, the Mexican government, to promote settlement of the New Mexican territory, or Territorio de Nuevo Mexico.  Grants were issued at both the individual and communal levels, establishing residential and ranching settlements. 

Carlos described how his ancestors came to be in charge of a Spanish land grant:

The king of Spain gave land grants to people who were of Spanish descent.  They were all blond and blue-eyed. That’s how my family was, very light complected.  You had to have that gene to qualify for those land grants.  That’s how my great-great-grandfather came in having ownership of 60,000 acres…through my mom’s side there were fifteen kids, two died, all descendants through Spanish blood. They controlled Arroyo Seco.[l]

Within land grant settlements, particularly the communal grants, people established little villages whose farmers and ranchers could treat the land grant’s grazing pastures and timberlands as common lands.[li]  A communal system of collaborative grazing and farming practices emerged in which settlers were able to survive in relatively small and isolated plots of land in what was, at times, a severe climate.  The surrounding high mountain pastures and forests of the Taos area were vitally important to the survival of ranchers’ livestock, providing fertile grazing grounds that ranchers could access communally throughout the year, especially when the lower elevations of Taos Valley experienced drought.  As described by McSweeny and Raish, “community stocks were individually owned but cooperatively grazed.”[lii]  Livestock did the work of plowing, threshing, transportation, and fertilizing lands.  They were herded to mountain pastures in the spring and summer, and brought back to the village lands in the fall to fertilize and graze upon the harvested fields. 

Carlos’ ancestors are examples of some of the settlers who practiced this kind of subsistence-level ranching in the Taos area.  He remembered that:

My great grandparents had sheep and they used to graze them up at [what is now] the ski valley, and livestock, cows as well.  Having so many kids, they were the laborers. [They] had kids to sustain the operation.  Juan de Dios was probably the biggest sheepherder of northern New Mexico at one time.  He used to own a bunch of acreage all around the ski valley and Arroyo Seco.  So I still have sheep today.  I have cows. I have horses.  I have everything that I was raised with.[liii]

While most early ranchers kept a combination of sheep, cattle, and horses, sheep were dominant in New Mexico, differentiating the territory from Texas and California, where cattle comprised the majority of livestock.  As one rancher stated, “this valley was nothing but sheep.”[liv] It is not entirely clear why sheep were emphasized in New Mexico as opposed to cattle; however, one possible reason why sheep proliferated in northern New Mexico during the Spanish Colonial period is that under Spanish law, every livestock animal that wandered into farmland or acequia ditches was punishable for a fine of two reales.[lv]  Since sheep require constant supervision by a sheepherder, sheep would have been prevented from trespassing on farmland.  Cattle, in contrast, roamed unsupervised for weeks at a time until their owner rounded them up to sell or slaughter, making them more likely to graze in prohibited areas.

The sheep to cattle ratio fluctuated over the Colonial period in New Mexico. A provincial livestock census from 1779 indicates 69,366 sheep and 7,676 cattle, a ten to one ratio.[lvi]  During Mexican occupation (1821-1848), the wool market expanded across the Southwest and sheep numbers in New Mexico continued to increase, reaching 240,000 head by 1827.[lvii]  In contrast, cattle numbers declined to 5,000. 

Ranchers’ descriptions of their ancestors confirm the importance that sheep had in Taos. Richard, a rancher with deep roots in Taos, explained his ancestors’ sheepherding practices, which included multiple-week long cattle drives across the territory:

Ever since the 1800s, the settlers came in and my greatgreatgrandparents lived in Arroyo Seco in a puesela, like a fort for protection from whatever Indians were there.  They started farming and ranching then, and never gave up.  [My greatgrandfather] used to graze sheep, probably around 3,500 sheep, in Arroyo Seco. He owned a lot of property in Arroyo Seco and Tres Piedras and he’d walk them all the way to Chama [a town just south of the Colorado border]…They used to walk the sheep from here and it would take weeks.  That was before there were fences and all that, of course.[lviii]

At that time, ranching was a full-time occupation.  As one rancher told me:

Years ago, they used to make a living out of [ranching], they had to, to survive…going into the town of Taos was like going to Santa Fe now; they only used to do it for getting sugar, coffee, you know, the bare essentials.  Everything else they grew themselves in gardens and sheep or whatever else.[lix]

Many of the ranchers that I spoke to emphasized how early ranchers had skill, knowledge, and deep relationships with the animals and land that enabled them to survive in northern New Mexico. According to Carlos, Hispanic ranchers were, and remain, “the best stewards of the land there is.”[lx]  The concept of querencia, a sense of place, relates to land stewardship.  As noted earlier, querencia extends beyond the human realm— animals too, have their own sense of place.  In the same way that humans become acclimated to their environment, northern New Mexican ranchers believe that their livestock have a sense of where they are supposed to be as well.  Early ranchers of northern New Mexico used to release their livestock into the mountain forests, following them to locations that the livestock chose.  An interviewee in McSweeny and Raish noted, “Years back, there were no fences. The cattle went up and came back down on their own; they had their querencias.[lxi]  Another interviewee captured the concept of querencia when applied to livestock:

Management cannot be mechanical and superimposed on cattle…because cattle, being closer to nature than humans, know better where to graze, how to graze, how to congregate…So obviously, they select areas where they move to during the day, at night, and different months as the season changes.  They have a heightened sense of awareness of how to co-exist with the grasses, the forest, and the elements.  Cattle know if they are feeling ill and know the kinds of herbs with which to treat themselves… Animals have a brain too!  They have intelligence and know better how to survive.  We are not a cow![lxii]

The open forests and mountain pasturelands allowed livestock to seek out water and hidden pastureland, essentially preventing the overgrazing of one particular area without the need for human intervention in the form of fences.  Part of honoring querencia is acknowledging that animals have a bank of knowledge about their environment acquired over the years.[lxiii]  Many ranchers believe that when livestock are given the opportunity to find their querencia, the herd is able to pass on information about their environment to the younger animals.  For example, young cattle learn from the mother cows about how and where to graze, making the herd increasingly more knowledgeable about their environment over time.  The expertise of a well-acclimated herd allows ranchers to learn grazing practices from their animals, as opposed to the other way around.

The Loss of Communal Lands

Continuing our conversation about land grants, I sat across from Carlos in his office where he handles bail bonds.  “Everything changed with the loss of the land grants,” he said.    After hearing about the storybook-like origins of ranching in northern New Mexico, with people and animals living in harmony with one another off of the land, I was now about to learn how the lives of ranchers changed in Taos, and how Carlos’ family lost nearly all of their land with the transfer of the New Mexican territory to the United States:

After New Mexico became part of the U.S., things were very different.  After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. government came in and they took land, and then the federal government gave [the Indians] their share…now we have 2,000 acres left [of 60,000 acres] where you’re staying up in Pawasuki [Arroyo Seco]… so that’s why we fight so much for what’s left…and that’s why I fight to keep Juan de Dios’ memory alive.[lxiv]

After the United States fought Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846 for control of what is now the Southwestern United States, land ownership and use patterns changed dramatically in New Mexico.  The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was the peace treaty signed between the U.S. and Mexico in 1848, ending the war, and establishing the U.S. as the new landowner of the New Mexican territory.  Part of the treaty was intended to protect the property rights of former Mexican landowners during the land transfer.  However, there were many stipulations put in place that sabotaged this protection, resulting in the loss of the majority of Hispanic lands, including those in Carlos’s family.

In an effort to protect their land, Hispanic landowners faced a number of obstacles.  First, Hispanic land owners’ property rights were not valid in the U.S. until they appealed to both the Surveyor General to the Congress, and after 1891, to the Court of Private Land Claims.[lxv]  The Court of Private Land Claims was created by President William Henry Harrison to “adjust” Spanish and Mexican land grants, which were viewed as having a negative impact on the property values of Anglo settlers.  In his State of the Union address, President Harrison said:

The unsettled state of the titles to large bodies of lands in the Territories of New Mexico and Arizona has greatly retarded the development of those Territories. Provision should be made by law for the prompt trial and final adjustment before a judicial tribunal or commission, of all claims based upon Mexican grants. It is not just to an intelligent and enterprising people that their peace should be disturbed and their prosperity retarded by these old contentions…These disputes retard the prosperity and disturb the peace of large and important communities.[lxvi]

To complete an appeal to the Surveyor General to the Congress and the Court of Private Land Claims, landowners had to hire an attorney, file an official claim, and collect all required documents. The legal expenses accrued in this procedure were often equivalent to one-third to one-half of the value of the land involved.  As a result, most landholders sold a portion of their land, ironically, for money to apply to keep as much of their property as they could.  Even when landowners did file a claim, the Surveyor General and the Court of Private Land Claims had the right to reject claims for a variety of reasons, resulting in only 24 percent of land claims in New Mexico being recognized by the U.S. government, compared to the 73 percent of claims recognized in California.  Additionally, land was lost due to the fact that Hispanic landowners simply could not afford to pay property taxes on their land under the American tax system.

One of the most devastating aspects of the treaty was that the Surveyor General and the court did not honor communal land grants, such as the common pastures and forests that provided northern New Mexican Hispanic ranchers with grazing land and firewood for decades. Communal land ownership conflicted with the United States’ legal emphasis on private land ownership.  Much of the communal land became part of “the public domain” and eventually would become the Carson National Forest (CNF).[lxvii]  In Taos County alone, the Carson National Forest acquired entire or large majorities of individual and communal land grants, so that confirmed Spanish and Mexican land grants now comprise approximately 22 percent of the forest’s 1.5 million acres, “with additional land coming from claimed but unconfirmed grants.”[lxviii] Francisco, a local high school biology teacher and agriculturalist who conducted his master’s thesis on the decline of farming in Taos, stated: “Full-time ranching and farming came to an end in Taos with the loss of communal lands.  It all comes down to that.”[lxix]

After the land was taken from Hispanic communities, political corruption ensued and much of the land was stripped of resources by large timbering operations, such as the Santa Fe Ring, a group of powerful attorneys and land speculators who then sold it to the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which manage it today.[lxx] 

Francisco explained what happened after the Hispanic land grants were lost:

I’ll tell you right now, first the land grants were taken from the people, then the railroad came. Those things happened simultaneously. The land grants were taken to get the logs to build the railroad ties [for] the second railroad across the United States.

The Santa Fe Ring used the United States property laws, and the United States tax laws, and took over the land grants, which were communally owned properties. And they logged them. And the way they logged them is they made flumes [man-made water channels].  They took the streams out and put them in flumes, and they started milling them up in the upper watersheds, bringing those logs down the flumes, and putting them in the rivers. And then they would dam the rivers, and they would fill that dam up with railroad ties, and then they would dynamite the dam, and the railroad ties would go down stream, and they would pick ‘em up in Albuquerque to build the railroad. So simultaneously, they stole the land, cut down the trees, impaired the upper streams, impaired the rivers, and then they turned around and sold all the lands after they raped it, sold it to the federal government for 12 cents an acre, and now they’re public lands: Forest Service and the BLM.[lxxi]

I was able to see the scars of some of these operations myself as I accompanied a land conservation team up into the Taos Canyon to do fire-hazard reduction work.  Along the steep slope of the forest, every hundred feet or so lay a vertical rift, leading down to the road.  As Martin, the head of the conservation crew, pointed out to me, “you can see where timbering folks used to slide logs down the mountain side, probably with horses or whatever, which would have been the most practical thing to do at the time.  But those are the scars of that, and now they act like arteries out of the forest in which water and snow runoff will hemorrhage, instead of settling in the forest floor to be absorbed by the trees.”[lxxii] 

In a short period of time, land that was freely accessible to ranchers became federal land that was only accessible by permit.  Beginning in the 1920s and continuing through the twentieth century, the Forest Service focused on overgrazing. One of the ways the Forest Service addressed land conditions was by initiating a series of top-down range improvement programs that entailed unprecedented limits on grazing activity in the forests.  In 1925, the Forest Service began authorizing 10-year grazing permits in national forests, “furthering private sector profit on national public lands.”[lxxiii]  After applying for a grazing permit, ranchers would receive a grazing allotment with a specific plot of land on which they could temporarily graze their cattle. This permit-based grazing system undermined the traditional querencia grazing system practiced by Hispanic ranchers, preventing livestock from being able to fully explore and become accustomed to their environment. Instead of being able to follow livestock to their preferred grazing location, ranchers now had to physically transport and lead their herds to a specific, oftentimes fenced, grazing allotment.

Despite the challenges presented by the loss of communal grazing lands, the high demand for meat and wool during World War I and World War II kept many Taos County sheepherders in business through the 1940s.[lxxiv] However, after World War II ended, prices for livestock and wool plummeted.  One rancher commented that “you gradually got the influx of all these other kind of fabrics, synthetics and all that, and wool wasn’t barely worth anything anymore.”[lxxv]  Beginning in the 1950s, the Forest Service also enforced special restrictions on the number of sheep and goats permitted in the Carson National Forest.[lxxvi]  Many permit-holders were told by the Forest Service that they could no longer herd both sheep and cows and that they would need to choose between the two.[lxxvii] 

Carlos explained to me that even though his ancestors always successfully grazed sheep and cattle together, ranchers had no choice but to change their practices, many of them choosing to give up sheep herding:

Juan de Dios used to graze up at the ski valley, both sheep and cattle, and they were compatible. And then after New Mexico became a state, the government came in and said you can have one or the other, you can’t have both because they said there was not enough grazing to sustain them. I’ve seen pictures of when they had both, and I was a small kid, and they were grazing side-by-side. But they started cutting them down and [ranchers] didn’t have the means to defend themselves—Very passive people, not a form of education. But they knew business. So they sold the sheep and then they grazed cattle until they died.[lxxviii]

Low prices for animal products combined with stringent reductions in the number and type of livestock permitted in the Carson National Forest from the 1950s gave many ranchers no choice but to reduce their livestock herds, some by much as sixty percent.[lxxix]  Between the years 1940 and 1970, the number of individuals with grazing rights in the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests dropped from 2,200 to less than 1,000.[lxxx] By 1980, limited sheep and no goats were allowed to graze in the Carson National Forest, and the number of grazing permits for other kinds of livestock continued to decline as well.[lxxxi]  The restrictions on grazing lands, low meat prices, and herd reductions made it increasingly difficult for Hispanic ranchers to maintain a subsistence-based living, pushing many into wage-work.

Local ranchers saw many of the U.S. Forest Service initiatives as invasive, punitive, and misinformed.  The U.S. Forest Service maintains control over grazing in the Carson National Forest today, and many ranchers’ feelings towards the agency have not changed.

Leroy, who has been ranching in Taos County since he was a little boy and who spent thirty-one years working with the Forest Service, explained to me how land management interventions by government agencies have mostly failed, and have marginalized small-scale ranchers in the process:

You’re getting people here that don’t understand the forest saying that they’re overgrazing the land. In fact, we get a lot of forest fires because the day they took the sheep out…the noxious weeds and everything else also came back…Imagine if a sheep can browse up to the trees here and everything else, and from there, kind of keep it cleaner. It helped with the fires.

And then another thing about having a healthy forest is a forest that has maybe a hundred and fifty, a hundred and eighty trees per acre.  Now you’ve got three, four, five hundred trees per acre. It’s so dense there’s a not even animal in some places. They stopped the timber industry…the forest service doesn’t have a timber industry anymore. Clinton shut that down in ‘91, ‘92.  It’s just groups that are in Washington, in government, that lean to the extremist environmentalism.  We’re all environmentalists, I mean, but these people are extremists, and they won’t meet you in the middle. It’s our way or nothing. There’s no, there’s no mediation, and that’s what’s hurt the land and everything else. And that’s part of the cycle that we’re having.  So, the government has a lot of blame in it, the Forest Service, the management. They take these people that come out from other areas, and they try to change everything by the book instead of what’s in the ground. And they don’t respect the cultures. Instead of seeing how we would work, how it has worked in the past, how is it that we can improve it, they’re just shutting it down and saying no, it’s just this way.[lxxxii]

Since Leroy had been a former long-time employee of the U.S. Forest Service, his words are particularly telling of the dire state of land management in Taos County, especially regarding ranching.

Martin, the land conservationist whose fire hazard reduction crew I shadowed, also spoke about how forest management policies have resulted in an unhealthy Carson National Forest. He stated that:

The Rocky Mountains in general suffer from overcrowded forest.  Here in Taos, some parts of the forests are so dense, that winter snowfall isn’t even reaching the forest floor. Then, when you have a warm climate on top of that, most of it is just lost to evaporation before ever reaching tree roots.  That leads to a very unhealthy watershed, which of course ends up hurting the acequias down below.”[lxxxiii]

The extensive logging that took place in National Forests in the early part of the 20th century triggered a concern by environmentalists regarding over-logging and the timber industry’s impact on endangered species (such as the Spotted Owl).  In response, the Clinton administration banned road building and logging in vast areas of National Forests across the county.[lxxxiv]  However, as discussed by a speaker from the Forest Service at the New Mexico Stockmen’s Association meeting:

We originally thought that the timbering industry was the main threat to endangered species like the Spotted Owl.  However, after the timber industry stopped and we’re starting to see really dense forests and more and more unprecedented high-heat, crown fires in our forests, people started to realize that these kinds of fires present more of a threat to endangered species than does logging. And the reason for those high-heat, intense fires is an overly-crowded forest. So we’ve got a lot of work to do in New Mexico in terms of forest thinning.[lxxxv]

Having seen land management policies evolve in Taos County over the years, Carlos also viewed the Forest Service land management as top-down, misinformed, and devastating to both the land and the ranchers of Taos County:

The Forest Service tried to void the [grazing permits] … Rangers that come in, people that are incompetent, they come in with a badge in forestry and they say ‘[Carlos], blah, blah, blah, I want to withdraw your permits’…We have to go through the congressional delegation to tell [the Forest Service] to get rid of these folks…they have no sensitivity. At least be respectful, I says, be respectful…you’ve never had your boots on the ground, and now you’re coming and telling me what to do. So, I wrote to the regional forester and then they finally said, ‘can we sit down and have mediation?’ We went though mediation like a school with a supervisor and a mediator.[lxxxvi] 

Carlos said the Forest Service Ranger mandated that, according to the Forest Service Annual Operating Instructions, he cut his grazing area in the forest by fifteen percent and move his cattle to an area where there was “no food, very little water.”  When Carlos refused to do so, the Forest Ranger threatened to revoke his permits altogether and impound his cattle, resulting in a lawsuit between Carlos and the Forest Service that is still in process today.

In response to my question about the reasons behind Forest Service permit restrictions, Carlos responded:

It’s outside pressure from environmentalists, people who have no knowledge of northern New Mexico. There was a lot of grazing that existed before New Mexico became a state, and there’s, you know, forest guardians, environmentalists, then there are the people affiliated with NEPA, with the environmental studies and so on so forth and they’re the ones who give us a hard time…environmentalists came in and said this place is overgrazed and so on so forth and never did an environmental study…they use drought as a factor…the USDA, the Forest Service just wanted some form of negative document to be able to say [stop]. That’s pretty much exploitation, you know?  They don’t know that we are probably the best guardians, the best stewards of the land there is.[lxxxvii]

In fact, a study by attorney Mike Scarborough found that:

Studies requested and paid for by the Forest Service made it clear that increases in forest fires have always been during times when there was less grazing. Even though the Forest Service bought and paid for those reports that prove grazing reduces the number of forest fires and even though the number of forest fires keep increasing, the Forest Service continues to ignore the information and continues to reduce grazing.[lxxxviii]

Ranchers shared that the government and environmentalists use the word “drought” and “overgrazing” as trigger words to influence land management policies.  One farmer that I spoke with explained that the word “drought” has taken on political connotations due to its frequent use in top-down political and environmental initiatives.  He said that he prefers the word “water stress,” which is less politically charged.[lxxxix] 

Ranchers also shared similar sentiments with regards to government agencies and environmental groups taking longtime Hispanic ranchers seriously as land stewards.  Despite their 400-year experience with the land and animals in Taos, one rancher described how agencies like the Forest Service overlook the local decisions and actions taken by ranchers to protect their land:

It’s like the Forest Service doesn’t trust ranchers to do the right thing, but they don’t realize that a lot of times, we’re the ones who self-elect to do what’s best for the land.  Like this past summer, when everyone was cutting back their cattle stocks in the drought, much of that was self-elected.  Ranchers knew that it wasn’t economically or environmentally feasible to keep their numbers high.[xc]

Martin, the soil and water conservationist, also shared his dedication to and respect for the land as a rancher:

People ask how ranchers and farming are responding to the drought, but weather is just one factor.  People forget about the land and how we treat the land.  When ranchers graze their cattle on the land for extended amounts of time and the cattle eat all of what is on it, then the land is left very exposed.  When you have a lot of rain it can be okay, but when you have a bad drought like we did this past year, it literally bakes and kills the soil and you lose that protection of the top mantle.  The rains in July helped replenish some of the grasses but when you have prolonged drought you need a protective covering on the land. You never want bare soil. 

If there were to be a two-year drought with no water, which we haven’t experienced yet, if my cattle were in danger of ruining the land, I would sell my cattle.  The land is the most important part and I would sell my cattle before I let anything happen to the land.[xci]

In addition to being overlooked as stewards of the land, Hispanic ranchers also expressed a disappointment that their historical contributions to the land are generally unrecognized on a historical and political level.  For example, Leroy, who is also a commissioner of the Finado Francisco Martinez acequia said:

A lot of people don’t recognize that the acequia associations are actually the oldest form of government there is in this country.  The management and governance that goes into running an acequia, it’s collaboration and reciprocity.  There’s four ditches in Taos that have been running since before 1776 when the United States became a country.  But the history books don’t teach that…I’ll give you a copy of our bylaws and you can see how formal it is.[xcii] 

In response to historical amnesia and the challenges presented to ranchers by the Forest Service and other groups, Carlos is one rancher in Taos County who has made it his mission to protect his family’s traditions and past, and to advocate on behalf of Hispanic ranchers like himself:

[The Forest Service] has reduced the permits, simply because people don’t defend themselves.  They were people who were too passive. And the kids, the younger generation, don’t want to pick up anything. So like me, see my grandmother taught me to fight, fight, fight, so that’s the reason why I still stand my ground in a civilized fashion…I’m probably the only one who can graze in three different allotments in Northern New Mexico [because of that].

Juan de Dios is a saint.  I’m a devil and he was a saint because I do a lot of fighting and all kinds of stuff, which is okay. You fight for what you feel is social justice.[xciii]

While most ranchers today in Taos County maintain grazing permits on the Carson National Forest today, those who are descendants of land grantees, like Carlos, clearly feel aggrieved at having to pay the government to access land that is part of their cultural and ancestral heritage.  It is not surprising that many ranchers and scholars argue that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was effectively never implemented in that it failed to protect those that it was intended to protect, namely the property rights of former Mexican citizens.[xciv]  Meyer asserts that not only were Hispanic people’s access to land and water violated by the U.S. government, but that the livelihoods of rural Hispanic communities that depended on these precious resources were violated as well.  Additionally, because the grazing restrictions put in place by the Forest Service are ill-suited to the needs of small-scale ranchers, there has been a decrease in the number of overall permit-holders.  At the same time, mostly non-Hispanic ranchers are consolidating land permits and increasing the size of their livestock herds.[xcv]  For many of the Hispanic ranchers, the Forest Service has proven favorable to large-scale ranching, and ignorant and insensitive to the Hispanic traditions and culture of the region.

Although there have been initiatives to re-evaluate the property rights in the original treaty, none of them have resulted in substantive reform as far as northern New Mexican land grant heirs and activists are concerned.  As stated by Shadow and Rodriquez-Shadow, “land grants continue to serve as charters of local identity, reminders of historical injustices, and potent symbols and catalysts of ethnic mobilization for those descendants of the original settlers who remain attached to the land and committed to preserving this tradition.”[xcvi]

A Land of Sagebrush

When I pulled up to the gate, I thought I must be in the wrong place.  Sagebrush was the only living thing inhabiting the land for as far as I could see.  I checked the mile marker again.  This was it. I hesitantly continued up the dirt road and was relieved to finally cross a cattle guard and see llamas feeding in the distance.  This was the ranch after all.  The landscape was severe, miles upon miles of exposed dirt, sprinkled with snow and shrubs.  I began to wonder how any animals could survive out here.  I was on my way to meet Frank on his 4,000-acre ranch in Tres Piedras, an area west of the Rio Grande set on the Taos Plateau.  Frank is a retired geologist who serves on the board of the Taos Soil and Water Conservation District and ranches as a hobby.  My purpose for the visit was to get a first-hand account of the impact that the harsh 2012-2013 drought had on ranchers, especially those with grazing land west of the Rio Grande, which lacks access to the acequia irrigation of the eastern side of the county. 

I finally spotted Frank’s red pickup truck and pulled up to meet him.  Frank was accompanied by Sarah and Daniel, friends who help out on the ranch as well.  Daniel had just come back from elk hunting and was wearing camouflage pants and a cowboy hat.  After I introduced my research project and myself to the group, Frank told me that, “For the past three years, we’ve gotten four inches of precipitation annually.  We’re supposed to get eight inches annually but we’ve only gotten half.  In 2000 we got nothing, almost no rain at all.” Gazing out upon his land, Frank told me that most of the native grasses died in the 2013 drought, a continuation of the extremely dry conditions of 2012.  Unlike pastures on the eastern side of the county that have access to irrigation via acequias, the vegetation on Frank’s land is completely dependent on rainfall.  In this kind of dry land ranching, every inch of precipitation that falls counts, and every inch of grass that grows counts.  Frank explained, “This year, we got 24 inches after July 5, but before that, nothing.”[xcvii]  The 24 inches was due in part to the week of September 10, 2013, in which areas of New Mexico and Colorado experienced excessive rain, culminating in a historic “100-year” flood for Colorado, and bringing up to 10 inches of rain to New Mexico.  Commenting on the post-July rains, Frank said, “It helped some of the grasses grow back, but for the most part, it was too late.  It was just too dry…most of the rain just ran off the land because the top soil has been blown off, so the water just floods down toward the west.” The only bit of native grass left growing on Frank’s land is blue grama, growing an inch or two high, with the rest of the landscape dominated by sagebrush, a drought resilient shrub that is largely inedible by livestock.  Frank commented, “sagebrush doesn’t let native grasslands grow because it sucks up all the water.  We’ve plowed most of the sagebrush off the grazing land, and we’re trying to restore a lot of the grassland…I planted some winter grasses down on the west side of the land and they have done pretty good; they’re more resilient to drought.” 

Traditionally, ranchers bring their cattle up to feed on the grazing allotments in the high country of the Carson National Forest when the forage on their own pastures is scarce. Due to the high desert environment of the Taos region, the mountain forests provide much-needed lush pastureland for ranchers, especially in times of drought. For ranchers who do not have access to irrigated pastures in Taos Valley, such as Frank, forest grazing is even more critical.  However, in response to the dry conditions of 2013, the Forest Service decided to delay summer access to the grazing allotments in the Carson National Forest, putting ranchers in a difficult position.[xcviii]  For Frank, the combination of not being able to access the mountain pastures and the death of native grasses on his own land left him no choice but to sell off two-thirds of his cattle during the 2013 summer, reducing his stock from 90 to 30 head of cattle.  “It was just too expensive,” he said.

Additionally, while Frank’s land used to produce enough native grasses for him to purchase hay or alfalfa for his livestock only in the winter, the demise of native grasses has forced him to feed his animals year-round with purchased feed for the past three years.  This may have been a financially feasible endeavor in the past, when hay prices were low; however, hay prices have more than tripled over the years due to the hardship of the drought.  Daniel remarked, “You used to be able to buy hay for three dollars a bale, and now it is about ten to eleven dollars per bale...that combined with costs for fencing, diesel, and everything else makes ranching really expensive these days. That’s why water is more valuable than oil.  Water is life.”[xcix] 

I asked Frank if he had experienced other changes in the landscape over the year in Tres Piedras.  “We used to have a lot of piñon trees, but the bark beetle got most of them.  We’ve been trying to take care of the dead ones since then and clear them out.  And now we get dust storms. One of them came all the way from Questa [north of Taos] to here.  I’ve never seen it that bad before.”  Frank observed that the bark beetle thrives when there is drought because the piñon trees do not produce as much sap as they normally are able to, allowing the beetle to penetrate the bark and weaken the tree with pathogens.  He also described the process of “pedestaling” in which the wind blows topsoil off the land except for the soil secured in the roots of sagebrush and larger plants.  Frank kicked the ground: “Then when it rains, like it did in September, it all just washes away and you get erosion. See how the soil is uneven?”  According to Daniel, they had deliberately covered some of the exposed soil with hay because “the worst thing you can have is bare dirt.”[c]  Indeed, Frank and Daniel attributed dust storms to the low density of native grasses in the area, especially on the property bordering Frank’s land, which belongs to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

Daniel described a fire that occurred in 2010 on the BLM land that threatened Frank’s property:

The Bureau of Land Management doesn’t allow any plowing to be done of land without an archaeological survey, which is really expensive, so all the land bordering this land is all sagebrush because it is owned by BLM.  Three years ago a fire started and went through BLM land, burned down the fence bordering [Frank’s] land, and got onto our property.  But no one can touch the BLM land. The land between sagebrush is just dirt, there’s nothing covering the land so it lends itself to dust bowls and fires.  Grasslands would reduce the fire risk and would make the land into usable grazing land, but, no one can touch it.[ci]

I concluded my visit by asking Frank what he sees as the future of ranching in Taos County.  He replied, “Well, there are barely any full-time ranchers in Taos.  And if you look at the average age of ranchers, it’s in the sixties…and some people have already sold off all their cattle, it’s just too expensive.”  Frank’s friend, Sarah, who lives in Arroyo Seco gave her opinion: “It is really tough to ranch through drought, and if the drought continues, well, I guess people stop ranching.”[cii]

The threats posed to Frank’s ranch embody the challenges faced by most ranchers in Taos County in the current dry conditions: severe water stress, reduced grass and hay yields, fire hazard, restricted grazing allotments in the Carson National Forest, and high costs for feed (although this is a benefit for those who grow and sell their own hay or alfalfa).  Given the duration people have been ranching in the region of Taos County and across New Mexico, these climatological challenges have been encountered and overcome by ranchers in the past.  For example, the New Mexico Historical Review of January 1944 writes about the drought conditions New Mexican ranchers endured in 1917: “drought, which was ever a portentous factor in New Mexico’s wartime food problems, affected another of the state’s vital enterprises—stock raising.  It is true that, in spite of the weather, livestock increased in 1917; mules, horses, hogs, and cattle all were more numerous.”[ciii]  Enrique, a descendent of a long line of Spanish ranchers in northern New Mexico, reinforces this idea of ranchers’ resiliency to drought.  He explained, “we as ranchers have always adapted alongside drought and changes in climate.  When the environment changes, we change, and that’s how we get by.”[civ] 

Ranching and Climate Change

Hispanic agricultural practices, such as the use of acequias, have been resilient to climate fluctuations in history and in studies.  In her study of acequia resilience, Miller writes that “acequias and acequia systems in Taos were found to be robust to drought.”[cv]  Yet she goes on to say, “Although [acequias] have been shown to be robust to drought and climate change in the past, [climate projections] suggest that droughts may be more severe in the 21st century than they were in the 20th century, and that additional safeguards need to be put into place to protect acequia systems.”[cvi]

Indeed, climatological literature indicates that the kinds of climate variations seen in northern New Mexico today are unprecedented.  Climate conditions are rapidly changing in response to rising global temperatures.  Sean, a journalist from The Taos News, told me, “I think what’s really got ranchers shaking in their boots now is the idea that this might be a drought that doesn’t have a close end in sight, and I think they’re starting to realize that.”[cvii] According to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.  In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983-2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1,400 years.[cviii]  Jonathon Overpeck, a contributor to multiple IPCC assessments, says that “[the Southwest] can get about 50 percent more warming than the IPCC thought in this part of the world, and that means the snow and runoff impacts will be substantially larger than anyone else is suggesting.”[cix]  Since 1960, New Mexico in particular has experienced an increase of 2°F in the warm season and about 3°F in the cold season.[cx]  This is twice the global trend, which averaged an increase of 1°F over the 20th century.[cxi] The warming of New Mexico has and will continue to put stress on water supplies in the state by increasing the evaporative loss from summer and winter precipitation, as well as from streams and soil.[cxii]  A warming climate is also associated with more extreme weather events, including severe drought, and ironically, floods. 

Numerous reports, including those most recently produced by the IPCC, indicate that winter precipitation is likely to severely diminish over the twenty-first century across the Southwestern United States, including New Mexico.[cxiii]  The result of decreased winter precipitation (coupled with a warming climate) in New Mexico includes reduced snowpack, earlier spring melting, and an increasing snowline elevation.[cxiv]  Perhaps most significant is a report from the State Engineer’s Office that includes a climate projection indicating that there may be no snowpack north of Santa Fe by the end of the twenty-first century.[cxv]  This is a particularly ominous projection, as snowpack in northern New Mexico is critical for the health of the state’s reservoirs, streams, and acequias, as well the people, animals, and plants that depend on them for survival.

Based on information gathered in the interviews, local ranchers are already witnessing symptoms of reduced snowpack and changing seasonality in Taos County.  Emilio, who comes from a Hispanic ranching family and who grew up in Arroyo Seco, said the last big snowfall he saw in Taos was during the winter of 1987.  He described the winters that he remembers growing up with: 

Before they made the big snowplows like they have now, we used to get two big planks of wood and mount them on the front of our truck in an upside-down V-shape to plow the snow away from the driveway before we could get to the house.  Now, I plow for the neighborhood as a second job and I bought my snowplow on a short-term loan with a balloon payment.  But then it stopped snowing season after season and no one really needed their driveways plowed. And in there, one of those same years, my son was badly assaulted.  Then on top of it I had this balloon payment that I had to pay off. It really hurt. I’ll never take out a loan like that again.[cxvi] 

Emilio went on to describe how the condition of his land in Arroyo Seco had changed in response to dry conditions: “I used to be able to dig down about half a foot and hit water.  Now, the other week I was working on putting in a new fence for my dog and the ground is so hard that I can barely even dig down. I had to soak the ground over night to be able to dig a hole.”  Daniel, Frank’s friend, also reminisced about the old snowfalls in Taos:

I used to work at the ski area with my brother under Ernie Blake [the founder of Taos Ski Valley] when we were kids. I used to pick up trash on the ski area and down the road and in return we would get a ski pass for $10 a year. And then I joined the Air Force for four years and when I got back I was given a job again.  We used to see snows 2-3 feet easy.  We would get snow on Halloween, at least a couple feet, and now we barely get snow on Christmas.  My dad used to help Ernie Blake cut the ski area.  He told us he hoped that we would get to see the big snowfalls that they had back in the day sometime in our lifetime.  The last big snow I saw was probably like 1987 or 1988.  We haven’t had anything like that since.[cxvii]

Leroy, the retired U.S. Forest Service employee whose ancestors began herding sheep in the Taos area in the early 1800s, provides an additional account of changing climate.  He recounted his memories and observations of the weather patterns:

I’ve seen the changes in the pattern of drought and all that stuff… we used to walk up to the other side of Llano Quemado [a town southwest of Taos] to the old county schools, and at that time you’d see these snow drifts and the county, they wouldn’t sweep the snows... I remember as a kid walking up the snow banks and they were hard.  But it always seemed that it always rained more and it always snowed more. Sometimes you look at the old records and it doesn’t show that much [of a difference], and I used to argue with my dad, we used to talk about that. But the droughts have really taken a toll in a lot of farmers and ranchers, and the water especially. This drought that we’re in now, I saw it coming in 1989 [because] there was less snow pack.[cxviii]

Leroy went on to describe how he has seen summer precipitation patterns change in northern New Mexico, too:

We used to herd our sheep up in the Pecos, what is now the Pecos Wilderness… I was there 1956 through ‘67, ‘68. So every summer, what it consisted of is staying up there with the sheep, herding sheep all summer at 12,000-foot elevation. And during those times, I remember, with the rains, we were always wet. And then the grass was really high, so in the mornings, you were always wet with the dew. It would rain so much that we were always covered. But you don’t see it as much with the rains now… The monsoons used to come in early, the first of July or whatever, and they used to stay and just rain and rain and rain. But you don’t see that anymore.

Snowfall and summer precipitation have a significant impact on ranchers.  When there is a healthy snowpack in the mountains that slowly melts throughout the spring, there is a steady supply of water feeding the acequias throughout the summer months until the monsoon rains begin.  Alternatively, when there is a meager winter snowpack, combined with warm winter and spring temperatures, the snow that does exist melts quickly and the rate of evaporation increases, resulting in early-season water stress.  This trend accelerates when the start of the summer monsoon season is delayed.

Leroy continued his account of how the climate patterns over the past couple of decades have worsened, culminating in the especially hard 2012-2013 year that caused him to cut his cattle stock by almost half:

From 1996, we had a little more snow, so what [ranchers] planted came up and then the next year, it was a little less.  But there was always still a runoff.  We used to irrigate all summer long.  You’d be able to get through two cuts of hay in this area [in the summer], and then it went down to about one and half, and then it started to where [it got worse]… but you still had at least a little bit of runoff.  And then in ‘02 [2002], I thought we hit bottom. ‘02 was really, really bad…I said well, I don’t think we can see another one like this. And then this year [2012-2013] we got this one. We didn’t have a single drop of runoff.  And we depend on runoff. It snowed, but last summer, we had very, very little rain, come fall nothing. So the first snows that we got last year in December, you would get snow, but it was so dry that when you would sweep it, underneath the dirt was dry as could be. Dry as this table.

And then in the spring we just had the hot winds. What really has been the killer are the winds.  Sometimes you get some good snowpack but then you get the winds that just evaporate everything. The moisture disappears.  Then, in the summer [of 2013], the moisture that we got never helped us with the crops that we had because it came late July so by the time it came, a lot of these grasses were already dead, or they just grew a little. They didn’t have that head start in the spring. So last year was really, really bad.

My brother and I, we cut down to 22 head of cattle. We used to run 35, 40.  But we had to cut because of less hay coming in. It just got to the point that [we couldn’t do it]. Years before we would bring in 24, 25, 26 hundred [bales of hay] just for us.  The last few years cut it down to about 17, 18 hundred [bales].  This year, we barely brought in 800. We went to other fields, cutting with other people, getting hay here and there.[cxix]

Because of his reduced hay and alfalfa yields, Leroy said this is one of the first years that he will be entering into the spring season without a surplus feed reserve leftover from the year before.   This may cause Leroy to have to reduce his cattle stock again, because, as he declared, “As soon as the cattle don’t maintain themselves financially, they’re gone.”

Daniel, who is part of the El Salto Acequia Association, also explained how he has struggled in recent years to produce the hay yields that he used to:

Five, six years ago, I was producing three to six hundred bales, filling up three trucks with three trailers, twice a year.  Back then you could barely sell it off for two to three dollars per bale because there was so much of it.  This past year, I only got one cut [of hay], giving me somewhere between one and two hundred bales.  The hay prices now are up to about ten to twelve dollars a bale.  So if you think about it, feeding 45 sheep each day, which might go through like six bales, costs about 75 dollars a day.  Now you can probably make more money selling hay than anything.”[cxx] 

Daniel attributed his low hay yields to the little water available to him to irrigate his fields in the recent drought years, especially combined with other external pressures on acequias:

My land up in El Salto is on an acequia.  We used to be able to irrigate for 4-5 days and now you can barely irrigate for 24 hours, which doesn’t do you much good.  The [water] rights go back to the 1800s and they gave priority to livestock.  But now that not many people have animals, the water goes towards people’s land, keeping their grass green and things like that irrigated.  And since the land is generational there are a lot more people on the acequia system and the lots with the most people and biggest acreage get the most water.  More people are moving into the area and everyone wants water.  I have to attend meetings every five days and show up to make sure that I can irrigate my land.  If I don’t show up, I don’t get water.

As noted by many interviewees, the year of 2013 in New Mexico was full of extreme and unprecedented climate events both in Taos County and across the state of New Mexico.  Exceptionally dry conditions carrying over from 2012 resulted in Taos County being named a natural disaster area by the Farm Service Administration (FSA) as early as January 2013.[cxxi]  A warm, windy, and dry spring led the rest of the state into drought as well.  By June 2013, almost the entire state of New Mexico was classified as being in either extreme or exceptional drought by the U.S. Drought Monitor.[cxxii]  In Taos County, water levels in the rivers, such as the Rio Grande del Rancho, were so low in June that some acequias were not able to function as they normally do, prompting acequia associations to negotiate a water sharing agreement with one another that had not been done since the 1930s.  The associations decided that, instead of having the low-flowing water enter into all of the ditches at the same time, which resulted in a mere trickle in each ditch, the associations would consolidate the water and distribute it on a rotational basis to each ditch.  Leroy, the commissioners of the Finado Francisco Martinez acequia, had this to say about the decision:

We started distributing the water April 15, and normally we would be able to irrigate three people at once. But [because of the low river level] we were only able to irrigate one person at a time…it got to the point this summer where, it had never been done since the 1930s, but we had sharing between the ditches. Everybody had only a trickle and nobody could do nothing with it so we made an agreement where the ditches in Ranchos [southeast Taos] would get it for four days, the whole river, our ditch would get it for four days and the ones down the river with secondary rights were getting it for three days. And still you really couldn’t do that much with it…the ones that benefited the most were the ones with gardens and all that stuff and they were able to at least irrigate their gardens. But people like myself who have big fields, I tried that three times and you couldn’t really do much. When you’re flood irrigating you need a lot of water to really push the water so that it can soak your ground and move it on, and we just didn’t have that this year.[cxxiii]

One farmer’s acequia ditch stopped running in June altogether.  He explained that, “Our acequia has been going dry in June for the past two years now…we think that might happen again in the [2014] year, or it might get worse.”[cxxiv]

Taos County was not the only region to experience emergency drought conditions.  On July 1, 2013, Navajo President Ben Shelley declared a state of emergency in response to the limited amount of drinking water available on the Navajo Nation, which spans the Arizona-New Mexico border.[cxxv]  According to Shelley, some areas of the reservation have seen only about one-third of normal precipitation for the 2013 year, limiting the water supplies in the stock ponds and drinking wells.[cxxvi]  The declaration of a state of emergency resulted in emergency funding to be provided to tribal chapters for temporary supplies, as well as an appeal to President Obama for additional assistance.[cxxvii] 

New Mexico’s extreme drought conditions were headlined in Julie Cart’s article in The Los Angeles Times entitled “New Mexico is the Driest of the Dry.” It stated that that:

Officials in Colorado say the state’s southeastern plains are experiencing Dust Bowl conditions, and the entire western U.S. has been beset by more frequent and ferocious wildfires…But nowhere is it worse than in New Mexico.  In this parched state, the question is no longer how much worse it can get but whether it will ever get better—and ominously, whether collapsing ecosystems can recover even if it does.[cxxviii] 

The article went on to talk about how the past three years have been New Mexico’s driest and warmest since 1895 (the first year New Mexico began keeping climate records). According to Cart, this ominous trend is causing many ranchers, farmers, and land managers to treat the drought as a condition that may be here to stay.  Indeed, following the emergency declaration by the Navajo, drought conditions continued to worsen across New Mexico until mid-July, when the arrival of monsoon rains improved some New Mexican counties’ drought severity classification.[cxxix] 

However, Taos County failed to receive any substantial monsoon rains during this time, resulting in the entirety of the county being classified as in “exceptional drought” by August.[cxxx]  According to the executive director of the Farm Services Administration of New Mexico, Lawrence Rael, some Taos County ranchers sold off 60 to 80 percent or more of their cattle in the spring and summer of 2013 for lack of grass and water. [cxxxi] Given that most ranchers in Taos County conduct small-scale ranching, owning somewhere around 30 to 60 head of cattle, a sell-off of that degree can take several years to recover from, says Rael, and that is if ranchers choose to not “give up entirely.”[cxxxii]

Finally, in late August and early September, substantial and even remarkable precipitation came to northern New Mexico.  As mentioned earlier, during the week of September 10, New Mexico and Colorado received unusual amounts of rain, resulting in a flood associated with 10 inches of rain that fell in northern New Mexico that week.[cxxxiii]  The precipitation that correlated with this flood and additional monsoon rains resulted in another improvement in the drought conditions of most New Mexican counties, including Taos.[cxxxiv] However, as noted by Leroy and Frank, much of the precipitation that came was too late to have a positive impact, forcing many ranchers to either buy feed or reduce their livestock.

The September moisture helped to suppress drought conditions and bolster New Mexico’s water supplies until December 2013, when precipitation stopped altogether in most places.  As precipitation dwindled throughout the winter, New Mexico’s drought conditions worsened.  On February 4, 2014, north-central New Mexico received precipitation that broke a 43-day dry spell between the months of December and February, the longest winter dry spell ever recorded for this region.[cxxxv]  In a piece entitled “New Mexico in Its Worst Drought Since 1880s” in The Albuquerque Journal writer John Fleck spoke to climate scientists about what is thought to be the worst drought since the nineteenth century across the state of New Mexico.[cxxxvi]  One such scientist, Connie Woodhouse, found that a drought of this duration had not occurred in New Mexico since the dry spell of 1873 to 1883 when the Rio Grande endured four dry years, broken by one average year, followed by an additional six years of drought.  According to Woodhouse, the Rio Grande River is one of the best indicators of drought in New Mexico since it is the sum of winter snowfall in the mountains, and the lifeline for plants, animals, and humans across the Rio Grande Valley.  The Rio Grande flow rate gauge at Otowi in north-central New Mexico indicates that only the years 2005 and 2008 were wetter than average since the start of the twenty-first century.  Projections forecast 2014 as the sixth consecutive year in which New Mexico’s Rio Grande will run drier-than-average, making this the longest duration of low flow rates since the 1880s.

There are various discussions in existing literature about what is causing New Mexico’s prolonged drought, and what it means for the future of New Mexico.  According to Cart’s article, Chuck Jones, a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque and member of the Governor’s Drought Task Force, viewed the past three years of extreme drought as not necessarily indicative of a new climate pattern for the state; rather, Jones believed the dry spell could be just an aberration.[cxxxvii]  Similarly, Connie Woodhouse believed New Mexico’s current prolonged drought may be just a repetition of the 1870s-1880s drought.[cxxxviii]  For example, Historic Rio Grande flow rates show that there was a severe drought in the nineteenth century around 1870. When examining the reasons, some climate scientists attribute the drought to the “Pacific Decadal Oscillation” in which a stretch of abnormally cold water pools in the northern Pacific Ocean where it can remain for decades, inhibiting the formation of storms that normally bring winter precipitation to the Southwest.[cxxxix] A similar pattern also occurs in the Atlantic, the “Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation” which is thought to be responsible for causing serious drought when it coincides with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.  Some climatologists think that these two oceanic conditions are fueling the current multi-year drought in the Southwest similarly to how they fueled prolonged drought conditions in the 1870s, as well as possibly during the Dust Bowl and the drought of the 1950.       

However, there is a group of scientists looking at the health of New Mexico’s Chihuahuan desert that see a longer-term trend:

Federal scientists are grimly watching a rare ecological phenomenon unfold here, a catastrophic alteration known as ‘state change’—the collapse of the vast Chihuahuan Desert grasslands ecosystem and its transformation into a sandy, scrub desert affording little forage for wildlife or livestock.[cxl]

As experts from the USDA and other scientists surveyed the New Mexican landscape, they noted that the 10,000-year-old, 140,000 square-mile desert is changing as native grasses, such as black grama, are in collapse, being outcompeted and replaced by drought-tolerant shrubs.[cxli]  While some scientists blame drought and cattle grazing for contributing to the changing landscape, they cited “an altered climate” as being the strongest driver of the landscape-wide changes occurring across the West.  Brandon Bestelmeyer, researcher for the Department of Agriculture, conceived of these state changes as not only climate change related, but also as “catastrophic” and potentially “irreversible.”[cxlii]   Bestelmeyer fears that if grasslands and vegetation continue to die off, desertification will accelerate and the Chihuahuan desert will expand, leaving a stripped landscape incapable of transporting water to restore aquifers or of supporting cattle and people.

If New Mexico’s Chihuahuan desert is, in fact, in collapse, this will have a devastating impact on Taos County’s grasslands, and therefore, its ranchers.  The far northern reaches of the Chihuahuan desert extend into Taos, and the health of its grasslands is critical.[cxliii]  As seen in the case of Frank, the health of the grasslands is essential in terms of the ability of livestock to survive off of the land without supplemental feeding.  Poor grassland health also contributes to dust storms and soil erosion.

The perspectives on climate change by ranchers that I interviewed varied from person-to-person.  Some ranchers, such as Leroy, who have seen recurrent cycles of drought throughout the decades, viewed climate as cyclical:

I really don’t believe in the global warming thing. I more believe it is just cycles of patterns. La Niña, El Niño has a big effect.  I think it’s cycles of the earth that we go through in a period of time. A lot of people don’t realize. Because in the early ‘50s, it was really dry, I remember part of the ‘60s, when we were raised seeing the sandstorms over this area. And along the roads here, you would get nothing but fine dirt like you had run it through a screen. Real, real fine.  And around here there was nothing else and you could see the outside of the gorge bridge and the sagebrush over there, you could see what you see in the movies in Iraq and Phoenix with the dust and all that.  So the droughts have been there like every 10 years.  But to me, I do see that we used to get a lot more snow. More drifts, and now, it’s different. But I don’t know how much as far as records and science will show you.[cxliv]

Other ranchers, such as Richard, who had in the past viewed climate as cyclical, now are beginning to view the climate as perhaps changing permanently:

Some ranchers, they depend on the farmer’s almanac. There are a lot of people that do that. But I don’t think it’s accurate. Not anymore. I don’t think…I guess some people would think that way, huh, that it’s just that cycle that happens to hit us but when you have record breaking temperatures, and record breaking drought, whatever it is…it gets you to wonder if the glaciers have ever melted like that before…[cxlv]

And for Francisco, the discussions about water and climate change in New Mexico have grown stale.  Francisco, the president of an acequia association, expressed his frustration in dealing with government officials and land developers during the current times of water stress:

All this water policy stuff, the adjudications and all that to me is like building a house, and we just put a roof on it. But this house doesn’t have a foundation.  Because we have appropriated water, we have commodified water, we have quantified water in volumes that don’t exist. So they’re trying to make up for all of this water equation shenanigans by mining ground water. And it’s only going to be a matter of time till we dry this whole place up. And I’m tired of telling ‘em. It’s like screaming at a wall…and then they get all arrogant with me, like they know more, like they have more experience in these matters or more important, better information.[cxlvi]

The future of the 2014-year irrigation and planting conditions are what one speaker at the Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association described as “a waiting game, where you just pray for snow, and pray for rain.”[cxlvii]  Toward the end of our discussion, Leroy gave an unprompted summary of the conditions of ranching in Taos County.  His stream of consciousness lends critical insight into the complexity with which climate is acting with other factors to shape what the future of ranching looks like in Taos County:

After the 2013 year of wind, drought, dead alfalfa, soil erosion, there’s a lot of fields that are gonna need a lot of work. We’re gonna have to re-seed, re-plant, re-plow a lot of fields because there’s nothing there. So it’s a lot of cost and for a lot of people, it’s just been tradition that they’ve done this. A lot of people might have one acre or a couple acres and they cut the hay and sell it, make a little money from it.  Years ago, they used to make a living out of that, they had to. Now, like I said, it’s been kinda like a tradition, and really there’s not much money to it.

Everybody up to 2002, had five, ten head of cattle maybe.  They had a little land, like I do at the bottom down there, where they used to keep them. But after ‘02, a lot of people, they sold out. And then the younger generations are moving to Albuquerque or somewhere else. All my kids live in Albuquerque and Belen, because of work. And it’s not that you’re gonna make a living [on ranching] nowadays. If you’re gonna make it, you’ve gotta be a big time farmer rancher, a hundred cattle or above. And that requires that you have a lot of land also. So, it’s kinda whether you’re gonna be in it for the duration. To us, it’s just a tradition. Right now I could just cut the cows and it doesn’t affect my salary because I already have my retirement and everything else.  But what I’m trying to say is, a lot of people that sold their cattle then, [in 2002], they have never come back. So every time you have something like this, you’re losing people. So right now, there’s more horses in this valley than there is cattle. The sheep are nearly gone.[cxlviii]

The different perceptions of climate change by Leroy and other interviewees are filtered through cultural and social norms specific to Taos: the Spanish acequia culture, regionally-adapted grazing practices, and querencia, a way of thinking about one’s position in the environment, as well as their personal experiences.  Yet, the realities of climate change, whether cyclical or permanent, are one more element in a perfect storm that can push ranchers over the edge.

One Man’s “War”

In the midst of a changing way of life for ranchers and many others in Taos County, there is one man who is waging what he calls “a war” against the effects of climate change and cultural degradation, while empowering local youth in the process.  Francisco, the high school biology teacher mentioned earlier, is focusing on student retention. Most of his students are Hispanic and, for many of them, this is their “last chance” at graduating.  Francisco is enthusiastic about getting youth connected to agriculture and to their cultural heritage.  Over the past twenty years, he has created what he calls “a small army of student farmers.” 

I met with Francisco in his classroom to learn more about his current projects with students.  His classroom, the same one in which his grandmother taught, was no typical science classroom. Scattered around the room were buckets of seed, maize, and gardening tools.  In the backyard of the classroom was a “grow dome,” a spherical greenhouse in which his students grow various fruits and vegetables.  Certainly, Francisco is an exceptional teacher.  He has the qualities of a motivational speaker, expressing himself with an eloquence and confidence that demands attention.  He explained one of his current projects that engages students with the land and their ancestral foods:

Of course every kid wants money, but if they want money, they’re gonna go deal drugs, or they’re gonna go get a regular job. They’re not gonna think agriculture is a money making opportunity. At first. But they are gonna see it as a way to get interested, to participate, to be creative.

We built an horno [a traditional mud brick oven] this year, and we’re making chicos [dry roasted corn kernels]. And every Northern New Mexican I know eats chicos for the holidays. You know we all eat posole, we all eat tamales, so that’s how I do it, I get ‘em through their cultural foods…. And they don’t realize that there’s a lot of knowledge that goes into it. You know, you can’t just have chicos. You have to have an horno, you can’t just build an horno.  There’s how you mix mud. You can’t just mix mud. You gotta know what kind of soil you’re getting.  So there’s this whole body of knowledge that once students make chicos, then I can instill in them a pride over what they’ve done. [I tell them] you know where to get the soil in the mountains, you know how to mix the mud, you know how make the bricks, you know how to build an horno, you know how to grow the corn, you know how to harvest it … you know how to do all this stuff.  So every time you have chicos, someone had to do all that, and now you know how to do it too.[cxlix]

Francisco is also introducing his students to the innovative work that he is doing in seed banking.  Seed banking is a traditional method of farming in which seeds are salvaged from successful crops for use in the following growing season. Francisco plants a series of crops, often in water-stressed environments, and saves the seeds of the individual plants that survive.  This process produces seeds that are the result of Darwinian selection and can be used to plant next season’s crop.  Through his work, Francisco has evolved garbanzo bean seeds that, when planted, successfully produce beans without ever being watered.  He told me:

I drive myself nuts every year trying to save all my seeds, but if something happens, I’ve got the seed for this whole county. I could. I have five gallons of sweet corn right there and that’s just the start. I’ve got a seed bunker in my house. So you know, I’ve been doing this in a very small way. If we could do this in a large way, hey, there’s gonna be no problem… and I could get hit by a bus on the way home and my students will know what to do… So as far as I’m concerned, we’ve already won.

Seed banking, Francisco explained, is a practical answer to today’s climate conditions.  Seeds adapted to water stress and poor conditions will become increasingly important.  As far as Francisco was aware, he was the only one in the Taos area conducting extensive seed banking. Seed banking can also be applied to ranching in the production of crops like alfalfa.  By developing more resilient alfalfa seed, the impact of water stress could be lessened.  However, since Francisco is not a rancher, a new initiative is needed to begin a seed banking project geared specifically towards ranching.

Francisco asserted that it is individuals, not government, who are going to have to solve today’s problems, and he is equipping his students with the knowledge and skills to be creators in their communities.  Francisco’s hope is that students will walk away from his class with more than just the technical skill to participate in the agricultural traditions of northern New Mexico; he hopes students also will leave with a sense of pride in their cultural heritage and in themselves.  Francisco concluded with this statement: “I’ll be doing this research for the rest of my life, and you know, maybe eventually someday somebody will notice and it’ll mean something.”[cl] 

There are other initiatives in northern New Mexico to create new generations of sustainable ranchers and foster agricultural interest amongst New Mexico’s youth.  The Quivira Coalition is a nonprofit organization based in Santa Fe that works to build “economic and ecological resilience on western working landscapes.”[cli]  Through their New Agrarian Program, the Quivira Coalition partners with young people who have an interest and commitment in ranching and environmental stewardship, offering them hands-on apprenticeships.  Interestingly, half of the recent applicants for apprenticeships over the past couple of years have been women, according to Virginie Pointeau, the program director.  Apprenticeships like these offer youth an affordable opportunity to be trained in agriculture and food production by local ranchers who are also dedicated land stewards. 

To financially assist existing ranchers in Taos County, Carlos created a local program to alleviate the costs ranchers face in transporting livestock they want to sell to USDA certification sites.  As noted earlier, in order for ranchers to sell their meat products on the commercial market, they have to certify every animal they butcher.  Since USDA certification sites are often far away, Carlos, in collaboration with the Taos County Economic Development Corporation, established the Mobile Matanza, a mobile USDA certification trailer that offers affordable, local USDA processing.  This has allowed local ranchers to locally certify their meat products so that they can conveniently sell them to Taos buyers and restaurants.


The frequency with which current literature cites climate change as a primary threat to the viability of agriculture in the southwest led me to expect that my research in Taos County would simply give me further insight into the details of how climate threatens small-scale ranchers.  The interviews conducted indeed confirmed that the impact of climate change and prolonged drought on Taos ranching is acute, forcing many ranchers to critically examine their futures.  However, the interviews also revealed an unexpected set of contemporary pressures acting on ranching that extend beyond climate.  People’s stories demonstrated that the viability of ranching is strongly impacted by factors such as the commercial development of the Taos area, a shift from labor on family farms to jobs in urban careers, the loss of local youth to emigration, and top-down actions taken by national government agencies in regards to land-management.  These stories emphasize that there are forces besides climate change that present major threats to ranching.

The modern-day challenges reported by ranchers in their everyday lives are coupled with the scars of historical injustice that have undermined Hispanic ranchers and their communities since the nineteenth century.  The reduction of ranching from a full-time occupation to a part-time avocation is largely attributable to the loss of Hispanic common lands to the government when New Mexico became a state.  These losses led to ranchers being a historically economically disenfranchised population.  The U.S. government’s appropriation of land grants not only exploited Hispanic landowners, but also disrupted a unique sociopolitical system based on collaboration and reciprocity.  The result was a dramatic shift in the foundations upon which traditional ranching was established and practiced.  The loss of common lands signaled the transition of ranchers from landowners to permit-holders and the beginning of top-down land management policies that treated Hispanic ranchers less favorably than their Anglo counterparts.  Thus, even in an ideal drought-free environment, the future of ranching is imperiled by a set of adverse social, economic, and historic conditions.  This finding raises the question: how much longer will ranchers be able to survive within the confines of these difficult pre-existing conditions, in what is also a changing climate?

Many of the ranchers interviewed saw the future of ranching in Taos County as uncertain in the face of climate and sociopolitical change.  Years of extreme water stress, such as 2012-2013 already forced some ranchers to surrender their livestock in what was an increasingly impossible environmental and economic climate.  If New Mexico is indeed experiencing a climatological “state change,” as suggested by some studies, ranching will only become more difficult.  The current year is expected to produce another dry and warm growing season, which, if combined with stringent grazing restrictions in the Carson National Forest, will present a situation in which ranchers may need to make additional cuts to their livestock herds.  With rising property taxes, decreasing ground water supplies, and an aging population of agriculturalists, Hispanic ranching communities are in a precarious position.

Additional studies are needed to investigate the resilience of small-scale ranching in the face of evolving climate patterns.  Further study of the demographics of ranching will also better reveal youth’s role in the future of ranching and agriculture in the twenty-first century.  The contribution of this thesis is the light it sheds on the often-obscured individual perspectives and experiences that inform us about this future.  Indeed, this study is an example of cultural anthropology’s ability to capture stories that do not frequently appear in mainstream media, or that are overshadowed by dominant economic, historical, and political discourse.  Indeed, the perspectives of the ranchers and community members featured here are those that are often neglected by political and corporate sectors: perspectives of people who are rural, members of minority groups, are retired or veterans, and who are historically marginalized.  This study demonstrates that the values embedded within these perspectives—collaboration, reciprocity, and environmental respect—are relevant to today’s greatest concerns over climate change and inequities in power and culture.

In the face of both past and future hardship, there was a common thread that emerged throughout the interviews: hope.  Despite the numerous changes occurring around them, ranchers expressed a humble sense of being in a place they felt they belonged and in which they were able to interact daily with the land and the animals about which they care so deeply.  This sense of place, querencia, gave ranchers a purpose with which they conduct their work, raise their children, and is evident in the responsibility they feel in continuing traditions of land stewardship. 

Ranchers’ hopes for the future were not about regaining control over lost land, rather, that whoever is in charge of the land share the same level of respect for the land and the water that they do.  Many ranchers simply communicated a desire to be treated with respect in regards to their culture and history, and that Forest Service and political figures acknowledge local ranchers as dedicated land stewards.  As expressed by Leroy, Taos ranchers want the opportunity to be able to collaborate with outsiders of the community in the co-creation of solutions to today’s problems.  Many ranchers and community members were eager to share their experience and expertise with those who were genuinely interested in engaging in a reciprocal exchange of knowledge. Ranchers hoped for a more productive relationship with the Forest Service in which rangers will be willing to “get their boots on the ground,” and supplement their scientific research with local knowledge.  However, this will require agencies to trust and respect local ranchers, and to honor the history and cultural traditions of the area.  For now, ranching remains a threatened “way of life.”  Yet, in the words of Carlos, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

[i]  Richard, Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[ii] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[iii] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[iv] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[v] Richard, personal communication, January 8, 2014

[vi] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[vii] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[viii] Miller 2013

[ix] McSweeny and Raish 2012

[x] Mayagoitia et al. 2001:54

[xi] Rodríguez 2006

[xii] McSweeny and Raish 2012:2

[xiii] U.S. Census Bureau 2013

[xiv] Logan 2013

[xv] New Mexico Departure of Agriculture 2011:65

[xvi] New Mexico Departure of Agriculture 2011:65

[xvii] New Mexico Departure of Agriculture 2011:65

[xviii] Northern New Mexico Rural Economic Development Initiative 2010

[xix] New Mexico Departure of Agriculture 2011:65

[xx] New Mexico Department of Agriculture 2011:57

[xxi] Abramsky 2013

[xxii]John, personal communication, January 2, 2014

[xxiii] Daniel, personal communication, December 27, 2014

[xxiv] In Mayagoitia et al. 2012:52

[xxv] In Cox 2010:97

[xxvi] Personal communication, January 9, 2014

[xxvii] Mayagoitia et al. 2012:52

[xxviii] Mayagoitia et al. 2012:52–53

[xxix] Miller 2013:73

[xxx] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[xxxi] Miller 2013:72

[xxxii] Miller 2013:72

[xxxiii] Northern New Mexico Regional Economic Development Initiative 2010:36

[xxxiv] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[xxxv] Personal Communication, January 8, 2014

[xxxvi] Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) 2003 in Miller 2013:73

[xxxvii] Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014; Miller 2013:75

[xxxviii] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[xxxix] Personal communication, January 6, 2014

[xl] U.S. Census Bureau 2011 and BBER 2003 in Miller 2013:78

[xli] Personal communication, December 27, 2014

[xlii] Personal communication, December 31, 2014

[xliii] Personal communication, January 6, 2014

[xliv] Personal communication, December 27, 2013

[xlv] Rodriguez 1986 in Miller 2013:67

[xlvi] McSweeny and Raish 2012:14

[xlvii] Personal communication, January 10, 2014

[xlviii] McSweeney and Raish 2012:14

[xlix] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[l] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[li] McSweeney and Raish 2012

[lii] McSweeny and Raish 2012:3

[liii] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[liv] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[lv] Simmons 2001

[lvi] Simmons 2001:119

[lvii] Simmons 2001:120; McSweeney and Raish 2012:3

[lviii] Personal communication, January 6, 2014

[lix] Personal communication, December 31, 2014

[lx] Personal communication, January 6, 2014

[lxi] McSweeny and Raish 2012:15

[lxii] McSweeny and Raish 2012:15

[lxiii] McSweeny and Raish 2012

[lxiv] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[lxv] McSweeney and Raish 2012:4

[lxvi] Valdez and Scarborough 2011:57

[lxvii] McSweeny 2012:4

[lxviii] deBuys 1985 and Hurst 1972 in McSweeney and Raish 2012:5

[lxix] Francisco, personal communication, January 9, 2014

[lxx] Personal communication, January 9, 2014

[lxxi] Francisco, personal communication, January 9, 2014

[lxxii] Martin, personal communication, December 28, 2014

[lxxiii] Baker 1996:140

[lxxiv] Frank, personal communication, December 27, 2014

[lxxv] Personal communication, December 27, 2014

[lxxvi] McSweeny and Raish 2012

[lxxvii] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[lxxviii] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[lxxix] deBuys 1985 in McSweeney and Raish 2012:5

[lxxx] deBuys 1985 in McSweeny and Raish 2012:5

[lxxxi] McSweeney and Raish 2012:5

[lxxxii] Leroy, personal communication, January 8, 2014

[lxxxiii] Martin, personal communication, December 31, 2013

[lxxxiv] Boxall 2011

[lxxxv] Presenter at the NMSA meeting, personal communication, January 11, 2013

[lxxxvi] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[lxxxvii] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[lxxxviii] Scarborough 2011:37 (see Touchan, Ramzi, Thomas Swetman, Henri D. Grissino-Mayer, Effects of Livestock Grazing on Pre-Settlement Fire Regimes in New Mexico, 1995.)

[lxxxix] Personal communication, January 9, 2014

[xc] Personal communication, January 4, 2014

[xci] Personal communication, December 28, 2014

[xcii] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[xciii] Personal communication, January 6, 2014

[xciv] Meyer and Brescia 1998 in McSweeny and Raish 2012

[xcv] McSweeny and Raish 2012

[xcvi] Shadow and Rodriguez-Shadow 1997: 174

[xcvii] Frank, personal communication, December 27, 2013

[xcviii] Logan 2013

[xcix] Daniel, personal communication, December 27, 2013

[c] Daniel, personal communication, December 27, 2013

[ci] Daniel, personal communication, December 27, 2013

[cii] Sarah, personal communication, December 27, 2013

[ciii] New Mexico Historical Review January 1944:30

[civ] Enrique, personal communication, January 1, 2014

[cv] Miller 2013:61

[cvi] Miller 2013:63

[cvii] Sean, personal communication, January 3, 2014

[cviii] IPCC 2013:3

[cix] Overpeck in deBuys 2011:28

[cx] Gutzler and Van Alst 2010:1

[cxi] Gutzler and Van Alst 2010:1

[cxii] D’Antonio 2006

[cxiii] Gutzler and Van Alst 2010

[cxiv] Gutzler and Van Alst 2010

[cxv] Gutzler and Van Alst 2010:2

[cxvi] Martin, personal communication, December 31, 2014

[cxvii] Daniel, personal communication, December 27, 2013

[cxviii] Leroy, personal communication, January 8, 2014

[cxix] Leroy, personal communication, January 8, 2014

[cxx] Daniel, personal communication, January 5, 2014

[cxxi] Logan 2013

[cxxii] U.S. Drought Monitor weekly comparisons June 2013

[cxxiii] Leroy, personal communication, January 8, 2014

[cxxiv] Personal communication, January 9, 2014

[cxxv] Ahtone 2013

[cxxvi] Associated Press 2013

[cxxvii] ICTMN Staff 2013

[cxxviii] Cart August 6, 2013

[cxxix] Improvements in drought severity classification are referred to by the U.S. Drought Monitor   as a category improvement. For example, if a county’s drought conditions drop from extreme drought to severe drought, this is a “category-1 improvement.” (see figures A-D in appendix)

[cxxx] U.S. Drought Monitor Weekly Comparisons 2013

[cxxxi] Logan 2013

[cxxxii] Logan 2013

[cxxxiii] U.S. Drought Monitor Weekly Comparisons 2013

[cxxxiv] U.S. Drought Monitor Weekly Comparisons 2013 (See footnote 126 for explanation of “category-1” improvement

[cxxxv] Contreras 2014

[cxxxvi] Fleck February 17, 2014

[cxxxvii] Cart August 6, 2013

[cxxxviii] Fleck February 17, 2014

[cxxxix] Fleck February 17, 2014

[cxl] Cart August 6, 2013

[cxli] Cart August 6, 2013

[cxlii] Cart August 6, 2013

[cxliii] Rodriguez 2004

[cxliv] Personal communication, January 3, 2014

[cxlv] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[cxlvi] Personal communication, January 9, 2014

[cxlvii] Speaker at the Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association, Personal communication, January 11, 2014

[cxlviii] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[cxlix] Francisco, personal communication, January 9, 2014

[cl] Francisco, personal communication, January 9, 2014

[cli] Pointeau 2014:17

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1995   Effects of Livestock Grazing on Pre-Settlement Fire Regimes in New Mexico. http://tree.ltrr.arizona.edu/~tswetnam/tws-pdf/livestockgrazing.pdf, accessed March 28, 2014.

Scarborough, Mike
 2011   Trespassers on Our Own Land: Structured as an Oral History of the Juan P. Valdez Family and of the Land Grants of Northern New Mexico. Indianapolis, IN: Dog Ear Pub.

Shadow, Robert D., and Maria J. Rodriguez-Shadow

1997   Rancheros, Land, and Ethnicity on the Northern Borderlands: Works on Social and Agrarian History in the Last Decade. Latin American Research Review 32(1): 171–198.

Simmons, Marc

2001   Spanish Pathways: Readings in the History of Hispanic New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

U.S. Census Bureau

2013   Taos County, New Mexico QuickLinks from the US Census Bureau. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/35/35055lk.html, accessed March 10, 2014.

U.S. Drought Monitor

2013   U.S. Drought Monitor Weekly Comparison. United States Drought Monitor. http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/MapsAndData/WeeklyComparison.aspx, accessed February 14, 2014.


2013   Carson National Forest. http://www.fs.usda.gov/carson, accessed March 27, 2014.

Valdez, Juan P, and Scarborough

2011   Trespassers on Our Own Land: Structured as an Oral History of the Juan P. Valdez Family and of the Land Grants of Northern New Mexico. Indianapolis, IN: Dog Ear Pub.

Wartime Food Problems, 1917-1918
1944   New Mexico Historical Review, January: 22–54.


2006   CERRO, NEW MEXICO - Climate Summary. Western Regional Climate Center. http://www.wrcc.dri.edu/cgi-bin/cliMAIN.pl?nmcerr, accessed February 9, 2014.


Geography of Taos County

Sharing a border with Colorado, Taos County is situated on the eastern portion of an altiplano, just before the land lifts to form the southern Rocky Mountains.[i]  Running north-south and cradling around the East is the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range.  Based in the desert-like Rio Grande Valley, the Sangre de Cristos culminate in the 13,161-foot alpine tundra of Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico.  Between these two extremes lie “as many as nine or ten discrete ecological zones, depending on how one classifies them.”[ii]  The west is composed of the flat Taos Plateau, separated from the mountainous east by the Rio Grande Gorge, which bisects the county.

Taos County is a semi-arid climate, dominated by Piñon, Juniper, and shrub land.[iii] In Cerro (northwest of the town of Taos) there is a Western Regional Climate Center (WRCC) station that collects temperature and precipitation data for Taos County going back to 1932.  According to WRCC records, the county’s mean temperature (1932 to 2006) is 64°F in the summer, and 24°F in the winter.[iv]  The mean annual precipitation for the county is 12.68 inches, with a mean annual snowfall of 58.1 inches.[v] 

Eight water tributaries run down from the Sangre de Cristos into the Taos Valley, where they eventually drain westward into the Rio Grande River.  Each of the tributaries stem from a high lake or spring in the mountains, descends an alpine canyon into the valley, and finally, is channeled into an acequia arroyo where it provides irrigation to agricultural land.[vi]  The acequia ditches make ranching and farming viable in the Taos Valley by delivering water to areas in the lower watershed that otherwise would not receive any irrigation.

[i] Rodriguez 2004

[ii] deBuys 1985:6

[iii] Miller 2013

[iv] WRCC 2006

[v] WRCC 2006

[vi] Rodriguez 2004

Place 2

Taos Valley Water Tributaries Source: Ernie Jaskolski, New Mexico Genealogical Society

Also essential to ranching in Taos County are the surrounding mountain woodlands, or what became the Carson National Forest (CNF) upon New Mexico being absorbed by the U.S. in 1848 with signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  The CNF totals 1.5 million acres and is managed under the United States Forest Service in which it is designated for mixed uses such as recreation, grazing, and resource extraction.[i]


[i] U.S. Forest Service 2013

U.S. Drought Monitor Images

Figure A

Place 3

Figure B

Figure C

Place 5

Place 6

Figure D

Place 7

Figures A-D: Drought Monitor Weekly Comparisons between A) June 25, 2013; B) September 10, 2013; and C) September 17, 2013; D) August, 2013

Source: U.S. Drought Monitor Weekly Comparisons

Summary of Amy Miller’s Climate Change Analysis of the Arroyo Hondo Watershed, Taos County New Mexico

This section contains the findings of a climate analysis conducted by Amy Miller in 2013 as part of her study “Assessing Change and Resilience in a Northern New Mexico Acequia Irrigation Community,” in which she did a thorough analysis of the Rio Hondo watershed in Taos County and how its acequias have responded to changes in land use, climate, and demographics over time.[i]  The Rio Hondo watershed is one of the major tributaries that feed into the Rio Grande from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  The tributary runs East-West and is located northwest of the town of Taos. As part of her study of how changes in climate have impacted Rio Hondo acequias, Miller did a data analysis of climate trends of the following: the Rio Hondo stream flow since 1935 using a USGS Water Information System Web Interface, temperature for the years 1895 to 2011 using the PRISM climate mapping system, precipitation (also using the PRISM database), and snowpack using the SNOTEL (SNOwpack TELemetry) site managed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) located in the Taos Ski Valley.  Below are the findings of each climate study.


 Stream flow of the Rio Hondo:

Stream flow data were collected from the USGS Water Information System Web Interface at Valdez, NM (northeast of Taos).  Miller used the Mann-Kendall trend test in her analysis of all the trends in the climate data, a test chosen specifically for its accuracy in working with hydrological data, which commonly contains outliers, skewed data and may follow an irregular distribution. In compiling annual stream flow averages for the Rio Hondo from year 1935 to 2009, Miller revealed great variance in flow, with the lowest flow rate occurring in 2002 and the highest in 1942. The data revealed an overall downward trend in annual average flow of the Rio Hondo; however, “the Mann-Kendall trend test showed that this trend is not significant at the 95% confidence level.”[ii] The same lack of confidence is true for the downward trend in seasonal flow rates, such as those from May through September, which are also statistically insignificant according to the Mann-Kendall trend. 

Place 8


Miller collected precipitation data with the PRISM mapping system located at Valdez, NM “which uses actual point measurements of precipitation and temperature, a digital elevation model, and expert knowledge to create a continuous grid of monthly and yearly climate parameters.”[i]  Available PRISM data runs from the year of 1896 to 2011. Precipitation trends in New Mexico and in Taos County are variable and do not reveal a clear trend.  The year of least precipitation ever recorded in Valdez was in 1956 with 7.07 inches and the year of highest precipitation was 1986 with 20.25 inches.  While the overall precipitation across all calendar years indicates a total increase of 13.4 inches, the Mann-Kendall trend ruled this trend statistically insignificant. 

Place 9


Miller also employed the PRISM climate mapping system to conduct a historical temperature analysis of the Rio Hondo watershed from years 1985 to 2011.  Monthly maximum and minimum temperatures for both the warm and cold seasons were downloaded and incorporated into a grid cell that considers the longitude and latitude of Valdez, where the PRISM site is located.  Unlike the irregular precipitation and stream flow trends of the Rio Hondo, temperature of the Rio Hondo demonstrates a regular upward trend for all seasons, meaning that the climate in Valdez has warmed over the previous centuries. The first half of the 21st century hold the warmest years, with the warmest peak seen in the 1950s, correlating with the low precipitation rates seen in 1956. According to the Mann-Kendall trend test, the accuracy of the temperature trends is as follows: the maximum temperature trends for both the warm and cold season prove significant at over the 95% confidence level, the minimum temperature trend for the warm season is significant at the 90% confidence level, and the minimum temperature trend for the cold season is statistically insignificant.

Place 10

Place 11


The Taos Ski Valley contains a SNOTEL (SNOwpack TELemetry) site monitored by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that collects data on snow water equivalency (SWE).  As stated by Miller, snow water equivalency is “the amount of water contained in snowpack and is the depth of liquid water that would result from melting snow.”[i]  The NRCS site is located at 11,507 feet near Wheeler Peak, the highest peak in the state of New Mexico, and records SWE measurements for the first of every month from January to May.  Miller downloaded SWE measurements for the months of February, March and April going back to 1974; the months of January and May only extended back to 1989, too short of a time period to achieve the 30 years of data mandated to complete an official climate change assessment in climate statistics.

Miller’s SWE measurements for the months of February, March, and April since 1974 indicate consistently low snowpack between the years of 2000 and 2005, with the lowest snowpack ever measured occurring in 2006. The highest SWE was recorded in 1979.  While all the months of February, March, and April reveal a slight downward trend in their SWE measurements from 1974 to 2012, Miller was able to detect stronger downward trends for SWE during April as opposed to the months of February and March.  However, none of these trends were deemed statistically significant by the Mann-Kendall trend test. 

[i] Miller 2013:56

[i] Miller 2013:53

[i] Miller 2013 (all information cited in this summarization can be found in pages 47-63 of Miller)

[ii] Miller 2013:52

Place 12


The final component of Miller’s climate analysis is that of drought severity, measured by the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI).  The PDSI “attempts to measure the duration and intensity of the long-term drought-inducing circulation patterns;” thus, the PDSI of a given day is a result of both the current drought conditions, and also the cumulative drought patterns of the prior months.[i]  The PDSI, available from year 1895 to 2011, is calculated monthly and its values generally range between six (extreme wet conditions) and negative six (extreme drought), as can be see in figure 1.0 below.  There are a few important characteristics of the PDSI statistic to keep in mind upon analyzing them: first, the PDSI treats all precipitation as rain, limiting its accuracy in high elevations where lots of precipitation falls as snow.  Second, the PDSI is based on meteorological drought, not hydrological drought, meaning that it considers drought in terms of how dry a region is compared to the average and length of the dry period, as opposed to considering a lack of precipitation and its impact on human water supply, as hydrological drought would consider.

Miller downloaded PDSI data from the National Climatic Data Center for the Northern Mountains Climate Division in New Mexico, upon which she graphed PDSI values for the New Mexico Northern Mountain Climate Division from 1895 to 2011.  As can be seen in her figures PDSI values decrease significantly over time, which indicates a drying of the region, as the smaller the PDSI value is, the more dry the climate condition.  When tested for accuracy with the Mann-Kendall trend test, this negative trend proved statistically significant at the 95% confidence level.

However, as discussed by Miller, there is a disagreement amongst climatologists as to whether its is appropriate to use PDSI trends as an indicator of climate change due to the fact that the PDSI statistic was created to measure climate variability, not climate change, based on a defined climate condition (referred to in the literature as a climate mean). The difference is that climate variability is a change in climate statistics detected over a period of time less than 30 years, whereas climate change implies a change in climate statistics that takes place over more than 30 years.  Because the PDSI operates upon a defined climate mean of a given region, when a region’s climate mean changes due to warming the PDSI value will also shift, therefore not capturing the complete change in climate over time.  In this way, the PDSI can effectively underestimate the actual change in climate, which in this case is the drying of New Mexico.

Several trends emerge from Miller’s study that are informative about the climate of Taos County.  The first is that Taos County is experiencing warming temperatures of both its cold and warm seasons.  Some effects of increased temperatures (considered in isolation from other climate factors) are: increased evaporation of precipitation falling as both rain and snow, decreasing water levels in rivers and tributaries, less precipitation falling as snow, earlier spring snowmelt, and increased drought severity and extreme weather events. 

The second trend is that New Mexico, including Taos County, has historically experienced irregular cycles of dry and wet periods, and continues to do so today.  From analyses of the stream flow of the Rio Hondo, snowpack at Taos Ski Valley, and the precipitation records going back to 1895, there are no clear trends deemed accurate by the Mann-Kendall trend test that indicate how precipitation has changed in Taos County over time.

However, there is a statistically significant trend detected in the PDSI drought index in Northern New Mexico, showing a gradual increase in drought over time since 1895.  Thus, while ranchers and agriculturalists of Taos County have historically endured dry spells and severe droughts, as is evident in the precipitation records, the fact that drought conditions have continually worsened since 1985 is significant in that it indicates present and future drought conditions may be worse or more frequent than they were in the past.

[i] Miller 2013:56

Place 13

Source: Miller 2013:59

Place 14

Richard, Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Richard, personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Miller 2013

[1] McSweeny and Raish 2012

[1] Mayagoitia et al. 2001:54

[1] Rodríguez 2006

[1] McSweeny and Raish 2012:2

[1] U.S. Census Bureau 2013

[1] Logan 2013

[1] New Mexico Departure of Agriculture 2011:65

[1] New Mexico Departure of Agriculture 2011:65

[1] New Mexico Departure of Agriculture 2011:65

[1] Northern New Mexico Rural Economic Development Initiative 2010

[1] New Mexico Departure of Agriculture 2011:65

[1] New Mexico Department of Agriculture 2011:57

[1] Abramsky 2013

[1]John, personal communication, January 2, 2014

[1] Daniel, personal communication, December 27, 2014

[1] In Mayagoitia et al. 2012:52

[1] In Cox 2010:97

[1] Personal communication, January 9, 2014

[1] Mayagoitia et al. 2012:52

[1] Mayagoitia et al. 2012:52–53

[1] Miller 2013:73

[1] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[1] Miller 2013:72

[1] Miller 2013:72

[1] Northern New Mexico Regional Economic Development Initiative 2010:36

[1] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[1] Personal Communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) 2003 in Miller 2013:73

[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014; Miller 2013:75

[1] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 6, 2014

[1] U.S. Census Bureau 2011 and BBER 2003 in Miller 2013:78

[1] Personal communication, December 27, 2014

[1] Personal communication, December 31, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 6, 2014

[1] Personal communication, December 27, 2013

[1] Rodriguez 1986 in Miller 2013:67

[1] McSweeny and Raish 2012:14

[1] Personal communication, January 10, 2014

[1] McSweeney and Raish 2012:14

[1] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[1] McSweeney and Raish 2012

[1] McSweeny and Raish 2012:3

[1] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Simmons 2001

[1] Simmons 2001:119

[1] Simmons 2001:120; McSweeney and Raish 2012:3

[1] Personal communication, January 6, 2014

[1] Personal communication, December 31, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 6, 2014

[1] McSweeny and Raish 2012:15

[1] McSweeny and Raish 2012:15

[1] McSweeny and Raish 2012

[1] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[1] McSweeney and Raish 2012:4

[1] Valdez and Scarborough 2011:57

[1] McSweeny 2012:4

[1] deBuys 1985 and Hurst 1972 in McSweeney and Raish 2012:5

[1] Francisco, personal communication, January 9, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 9, 2014

[1] Francisco, personal communication, January 9, 2014

[1] Martin, personal communication, December 28, 2014

[1] Baker 1996:140

[1] Frank, personal communication, December 27, 2014

[1] Personal communication, December 27, 2014

[1] McSweeny and Raish 2012

[1] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[1] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[1] deBuys 1985 in McSweeney and Raish 2012:5

[1] deBuys 1985 in McSweeny and Raish 2012:5

[1] McSweeney and Raish 2012:5

[1] Leroy, personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Martin, personal communication, December 31, 2013

[1] Boxall 2011

[1] Presenter at the NMSA meeting, personal communication, January 11, 2013

[1] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[1] Carlos, personal communication, January 6, 2014

[1] Scarborough 2011:37 (see Touchan, Ramzi, Thomas Swetman, Henri D. Grissino-Mayer, Effects of Livestock Grazing on Pre-Settlement Fire Regimes in New Mexico, 1995.)

[1] Personal communication, January 9, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 4, 2014

[1] Personal communication, December 28, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 6, 2014

[1] Meyer and Brescia 1998 in McSweeny and Raish 2012

[1] McSweeny and Raish 2012

[1] Shadow and Rodriguez-Shadow 1997: 174

[1] Frank, personal communication, December 27, 2013

[1] Logan 2013

[1] Daniel, personal communication, December 27, 2013

[1] Daniel, personal communication, December 27, 2013

[1] Daniel, personal communication, December 27, 2013

[1] Sarah, personal communication, December 27, 2013

[1] New Mexico Historical Review January 1944:30

[1] Enrique, personal communication, January 1, 2014

[1] Miller 2013:61

[1] Miller 2013:63

[1] Sean, personal communication, January 3, 2014

[1] IPCC 2013:3

[1] Overpeck in deBuys 2011:28

[1] Gutzler and Van Alst 2010:1

[1] Gutzler and Van Alst 2010:1

[1] D’Antonio 2006

[1] Gutzler and Van Alst 2010

[1] Gutzler and Van Alst 2010

[1] Gutzler and Van Alst 2010:2

[1] Martin, personal communication, December 31, 2014

[1] Daniel, personal communication, December 27, 2013

[1] Leroy, personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Leroy, personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Daniel, personal communication, January 5, 2014

[1] Logan 2013

[1] U.S. Drought Monitor weekly comparisons June 2013

[1] Leroy, personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 9, 2014

[1] Ahtone 2013

[1] Associated Press 2013

[1] ICTMN Staff 2013

[1] Cart August 6, 2013

[1] Improvements in drought severity classification are referred to by the U.S. Drought Monitor   as a category improvement. For example, if a county’s drought conditions drop from extreme drought to severe drought, this is a “category-1 improvement.” (see figures A-D in appendix)

[1] U.S. Drought Monitor Weekly Comparisons 2013

[1] Logan 2013

[1] Logan 2013

[1] U.S. Drought Monitor Weekly Comparisons 2013

[1] U.S. Drought Monitor Weekly Comparisons 2013 (See footnote 126 for explanation of “category-1” improvement

[1] Contreras 2014

[1] Fleck February 17, 2014

[1] Cart August 6, 2013

[1] Fleck February 17, 2014

[1] Fleck February 17, 2014

[1] Cart August 6, 2013

[1] Cart August 6, 2013

[1] Cart August 6, 2013

[1] Rodriguez 2004

[1] Personal communication, January 3, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 9, 2014

[1] Speaker at the Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association, Personal communication, January 11, 2014

[1] Personal communication, January 8, 2014

[1] Francisco, personal communication, January 9, 2014

[1] Francisco, personal communication, January 9, 2014

[1] Pointeau 2014:17

[1] Rodriguez 2004

[1] deBuys 1985:6

[1] Miller 2013

[1] WRCC 2006

[1] WRCC 2006

[1] Rodriguez 2004

[1] U.S. Forest Service 2013

[1] Miller 2013 (all information cited in this summarization can be found in pages 47-63 of Miller)

[1] Miller 2013:52

[1] Miller 2013:53

[1] Miller 2013:56

[1] Miller 2013:56


The Implications of the Iranian Reform Movement’s Islamization of Secularism for a Post-Authoritarian Middle East, James Glassman

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This thesis examines the Iranian Reform Movement’s ‘Islamization of secularism’ between 1990 and 2004 as a case study on the changing relationship between secularism, Islam, and democracy in the contemporary Middle East. It focuses on the intellectual efforts of Iranian reflexive revivalists, ‘Abdolkarim Soroush, Mohammad Shabestari, Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari, Akbar Ganji, and Abbas Milani, by framing their theories historically, theoretically, and through their practical applications. The historical framework from 1953 – 2014 is divided into two overarching eras of thought: the post-colonial theoretical era from 1953 – 1989 and the post-authoritarian theoretical era from 1990 – 2014. By isolating these two distinct eras of political thought, a stark discursive shift is highlighted away from objectivist and totalizing visions of ideological secularism and Islam during the post-colonial theoretical era, and towards deobjectified interpretations of both theories that were infused with democratic ideals during the post-authoritarian era. During this time, Iranian intellectuals established a single democratic theory that combined both secular and Islamic thought whereby the politicization of Islam fundamentally relied on a secular and democratic system of governance to allow for the continuous evolution of religious knowledge and critical thought. The advocates of this theory, however, have been brutally repressed by the conservative clerical establishment for the last two decades and have been prevented from enacting significant democratic reform within the Islamic Republic.

Despite this repression, the hope for democratic change and the implementation of this new intellectual discourse is still very much alive both within Iranian civil society and abroad within many trans-national Shi’ite political organizations. As such, Iran’s revolutionary reinterpretation of secular, Islamic, and democratic theories is both relevant and applicable as a reference for present Middle Eastern democratization efforts as they navigate their own unique balance between secularism, Islam, and democracy. This reference is best understood through four points. First, objectivist and absolutist ideologies of the post-colonial era are unsustainable bases for democratic politics. Second, Islam is best understood in terms of an ever-changing discursive tradition that lends a moral and spiritual component to everyday political, social, and economic interactions. Third, Secularism should be understood as the creation of a non-coercive overlapping political consensus and the ideological neutrality of the government that allows for political agency to rest in the hands of the governed. Finally, because there is no outline for a form of governance in the Qur’an or the Sunna of the Prophet, traditional modes of Islamic interpretation are not sufficient for the creation of a democratic state. As such, a unique form of reason-based ijtihad is necessary that focuses on both religious and non-religious human knowledge as a means of socially constructing and changing political paradigms over time.

Keywords: Islamization of Secularism, Iranian Reform Movement, Middle East Democratization

The Implications of the Iranian Reform Movement’s Islamization

of Secularism for a Post-Authoritarian Middle East

Introduction: The Emergence of a Secular and Islamic Democratic Discourse in Iran

The Iranian people today live under an oppressive authoritarian regime that imposes a narrow interpretation of Islamic governance across the country. They have been fighting for democratic and religious reform for decades, but their battle is not with an ordinary authoritarian government. Iranian reformists are not simply colliding with repressive government institutions, but with the very epicenter of politicized Shi’ite clerical authority and the fundamental identity of Shi’a Islam itself. According to Nader Hashemi, an Iranian-American professor and author specializing in Islamic affairs, democracy, and Iranian politics, a reformist narrative of Shi’a Islam that is infused with both secular and democratic theories has won out in the hearts and minds of nearly 80 percent of Iran’s voting population. This popular reformist discourse, which Hashemi has described as, “Islamic secularism,”[1] illustrates a stark disconnect between the repressive clerical regime and the Iranian people. This ‘Islamic secularism’ should not be understood in terms of an accommodation of Islam by secularism or democracy, however, as that would suggest that democratization and secularization are both normative projects based on a specific, ostensibly Western, vision of modernity. Rather, this is a phenomenon whereby religious intellectuals and everyday Iranians alike have reconceptualized secular political theory based on their own unique social, historical, and religious experiences. Through this process, they have produced a revolutionary vision of what secular democratic governance could look like through a lens of Islamic virtue. 

The notion that a democratic state could be both secular and Islamic would seem counterintuitive at first glance, but that is exactly what a new wave of Iranian intellectuals have been working towards since the early 1990s. For this Islamization of secularism to be properly understood, however, a great deal of theoretical reconceptualization is necessary to see beyond preconceived notions of these political theories in fundamental opposition to one another. The most intuitive way to understand such a radical redefinition of secular and Islamic theory is by framing it in three ways: historically, theoretically, and through its concrete applicability in recent history.

Historically speaking, political Islam and secularism in Iran have had a relationship of prolonged interlocution and theoretical overlap.[2]  They have been defined and redefined based on a shared intellectual and historical heritage that has been shaped by the events leading up to the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution, the revolution itself, and its violent aftermath throughout the 1980s. This post-colonial theoretical period from 1953 – 1989 was dominated by Cold War era ideological trends of universality and vaguely defined, supposedly monolithic, notions of Islam and secularism. By contrast, beginning in 1989, evolving divisions within Iran’s political elite and popular disillusionment with the ideological promises of the post-colonial era gave way to a reconceptualization of Islamic and secular theory in a deobjectified and democratic light, signaling the beginning of a post-authoritarian theoretical era. It was in 1997, at the height of this post-authoritarian era, that the Iranian reform movement arose, undergirded by the epistemic revolution that was the ‘Islamization of secularism.’

To further conceptualize the complexities of the Islamization of secularism it is useful to also introduce a theoretical framework, beginning with a categorization of the intellectuals themselves. The leaders of this epistemic revolution were a diverse group of Iranian professors, clerics, secular-modernists, and other political reformists both inside and outside the state, who have been collectively described as ‘reflexive revivalists.’[3] They were ‘reflexive’ in that they critically looked inwards at Iran’s social, intellectual, religious, and historical traditions, and no longer blamed the outside world for their domestic imperfections or political problems. They were ‘revivalists’ in the sense that they did not try to fundamentally rework Islamic truth, but rather, sought to critique human knowledge of Islam, secularism, and democracy to revive their Islamic Revolution in a democratic fashion.[4]

Talal Asad, a Saudi Arabian anthropologist and political theorist, presents two concepts from his anthropological deconstruction of Islam and secularism that provide a valuable overarching theoretical framework. First, he suggests that Islam should be understood as a discursive tradition that “is simply a tradition of Muslim discourse that addresses itself to conceptions of the Islamic past and future with reference to a particular Islamic practice in the present.”[5] This means that contemporary Islamic political theory, for example, is derived from a past compilation of human interpretations of Islamic texts, traditions, and jurisprudence that necessarily change over time to confront new events in the present—a nearly identical description of the process Iran’s reflexive revivalists adhered to in their reinterpretations of Islamic theory.

Second, Talal Asad suggests that a fundamental notion of ‘the secular,’ from which various iterations of secularism can arise, must not be viewed as a simple separation of ‘church and state.’ Rather, he suggests that a secular ethic emerges as a combination of ideas, practices, and traditions over time that produce a Rawlsian notion of ‘overlapping consensus.’ This idea of creating overlapping consensus is central to an understanding of secularism that is essentially fluid and malleable depending on how such an ‘overlapping consensus’ is uniquely constructed within various national contexts.[6]  In this light, the Iranian intellectuals’ Islamization of secularism should be understood as the creation of an overlapping consensus through their common desire to institutionalize the fluidity of human religious knowledge and establish a non-coercive democratic state that allows political agency to rest in the hands of the governed, not a static political or religious ideology. Through this theoretical framework, the Islamization of secularism is best understood as the fundamental necessity for secular and democratic institutions in order for an ever-changing Islamic discursive tradition to be politicized.

It is crucial, however, to also look at the practical application of this revolutionary theory both in Iran and the contemporary Middle East to see how it affects the everyday lives of the social agents themselves. Though Iran remains a repressive authoritarian regime, this reformist vision of an Islamic secular democracy is still very much alive within Iranian civil society. The best evidence of this was the 2009 Green Movement protests, which both demanded democratic accountability and reform, and meaningfully exposed the conservative regime’s façade of democratic legitimacy for all of the world to see.

Perhaps the greatest pragmatic success of this new theoretical discourse can be found not in Iran itself, but within Shi’ite political organizations across the Middle East, such as al-da’awa al-islamiyya in Iraq and al-Wifaq in Bahrain. Since the 1990s, a groundbreaking trend of secularization within the leadership of these religious political parties has been increasingly evident. They have abandoned their connections to the esoteric clerical establishment and replaced them with lay intellectuals and politicians that still advocate religious principles but do so on an individual level without a clerical dictation of Islamic subjectivity. The fundamental core of the Iranian’s Islamization of secularism, however, was not intended to merely affect political parties, but was to create a lasting democratic institution. Even these lay political officials speaking in the name of Shi’a Islam have the capacity to become authoritarian and claim greater access to Islamic truth unless they are checked and balanced within a democratic system.

Though the Iranians’ task today to establish democratic institutions in the central hub of politicized Shi’ite clerical authority is daunting and will likely take quite some time to achieve, their democratic theoretical discourse has profound implications for other Middle Eastern nations across the region who are presently in the process of democratic transition. As such, the explicit aim of this thesis is to answer the following question: What are the theoretical implications of the Iranian intellectuals’ Islamization of secularism for democratization efforts across the Middle East as they navigate their own unique balance between Islam, secularism, and democracy?

The answer to this question is best understood in terms of four points of reference that Iran’s Islamization of secularism suggests about the changing relationship between Islam, secularism, and democracy in the post-authoritarian Middle East.

First, the use of objectivist, universalist, or ideological discourses speaking in terms of absolutes are unsustainable bases for democratic politics. They are inherently unchangeable and place political agency in the hands of a static ideal rather than in the hands of the people, which frequently leads to authoritarian politics of repression. Second, Islam is best understood as an ever-changing discursive tradition that lends an ethical and spiritual component to everyday political, social, and economic interactions. Third, secularism is best understood as the creation of a non-coercive overlapping political consensus that is uniquely indigenized within an individual nation. In Iran, the reflexive revivalists established this consensus by defining a secular state as being ideologically neutral so that political agency could rest in the hands of the governed. Finally, because there is no outline for governance in the infallible sources of Islamic truth, traditional methods of independent human reasoning (ijtihād) that look only the Qur’an and Sunna of the Prophet are insufficient. As such, the use of a new type of ijtihad that focuses not on the Qur’an and Sunna, but on religious and non-religious human reason is necessary to socially construct, critique, and reconstruct political paradigms over time.

Chapter One – Historical Framework Part One: Post-Colonial Secular and Islamic Thought in Iran 1953 - 1989

Chapter one presents the first portion of a historical framework through which to understand the emergence of the Islamization of secularism in Iran. This post-colonial theoretical era from 1953 – 1989 was dominated in large part by Cold War ideologies speaking in terms of universality and absolutes. The first portion of this chapter discusses the theoretical clashes between ideological secularism and Islam in Iran that would eventually contribute to the eruption of Islamic Revolution in 1978-79. The latter half of this chapter deals with post-revolutionary Iran’s institutionalization of Islamic ideology and a crucial divide that emerged between pro- and anti-clerical Islamist politicians regarding the structural identity of the Islamic Republic.

From Secular Nationalism to a Repressive Secularism of Religious Evisceration 1953 - 1977

In the early 1950s, Iran was a central theater for the Cold War and post-colonial political intervention. Though the British no longer physically occupied Iran in the aftermath of World War II, they maintained control over its oil industry for years, generating a deep resentment among an increasingly nationalist-minded Iranian public. In 1951, Mohammad Mossadegh, the leader of the secular-nationalist National Front Party, headed up a passing of legislation in the Iranian Parliament (majlis) to nationalize the country’s British-controlled oil industry. This caused his popularity to skyrocket among the Iranian people and he was elected as the new Prime Minister by a landslide parliamentary vote in 1951.[7]

The nationalization of Iran’s oil industry and Mossadegh himself presented the Shah with a serious challenge. Not only did his domestic popularity threaten the legitimacy of the Shah’s already questionable monarchy, but Mossadegh’s nationalist ambitions also stripped the Shah’s Western supporters of a major source of oil wealth. In 1953, with the United States’ growing fear of Soviet influence in Iran, and at the behest of Western oil companies, the American CIA and the British MI6 launched a military coup to overthrow Mossadegh, putting an end to a period of pseudo-democratic politics in Iran.[8] This solidified in most Iranians’ minds the idea that the West not only sought to exploit them for their natural resources, but also was willing to do so at the expense of Iran’s democratic freedoms and independence – a notion that would resonate for decades to come in Iranian society and among its intelligentsia.[9]

With the Shah back in complete control over the state, he proceeded to eliminate the remaining secular-nationalist supporters of Mossadegh and completely dismantled the pro-Soviet, Marxist Tudeh Party. By destroying or co-opting Iran’s two dominant political factions, the Shah created a vacuum that he would futilely attempt to fill with a ‘top-down’ project of modernization, secularization, and Westernization in the early 1960s. This ‘modernization project,’ known as the White Revolution (inqilāb-e sifīd), aimed to modernize the Iranian state by implementing what the Shah saw as the best path to a supposedly universal Western model of modernity. Using profits from oil wealth, he forcefully redistributed Iranian land from a semi-feudal landowning elite—many of whom made up the majority of the Iranian majlis—to a large number of Iranian peasant families, subsidized new businesses and industrialization, modernized Iran’s road systems and transportation networks, and provided women with a semblance of emancipation. The United States also provided the Shah with advanced military equipment that he used to equip his Israeli-trained secret police force, the SAVAK (Sāzmān-e Attelā'at va Amniyat-e Keshvar).[10]

The few remaining supporters of the secular-nationalist and the Marxist political parties were supportive of the Shah’s social and economic reforms, though the success of his ‘revolution’ was marginal at best. For example, though many Iranian peasants were given new land, the Shah’s industrialization and urban-focused development policies led to a mass migration from the countryside into the cities, negating the land redistribution policy’s benefits for most Iranians. Many of these newly urbanized Iranians brought with them a strong base of religious values, widespread illiteracy, and a desire for industrial employment, making it difficult for the Shah’s education reforms and limited industrial subsidies to fully account for an ‘ultra-rapid’ trend of urbanization. [11]

Though the Shah’s modernization plans did produce marginal economic and social benefits, they failed to alleviate persistent economic stagnation for the vast majority of Iranians. Among the first to lash out against the Shah for his questionable modernization project was Ayatollah Khomeini.  He vehemently criticized the Shah for his adherence to a Western model of modernity that left little to no room for public expressions of Islam and that produced a fundamental reliance on the West. In 1963, due both to a lack of political alternatives after the Shah’s purges of the secular-nationalists and Marxists, and by tactfully playing off of the religious values and economic discontent of the newly urbanized Iranian populations, Khomeini managed to incite a riot against the Shah’s Westernized regime. The Shah, operating through the SAVAK, responded ruthlessly, killing hundreds of Iranians and forcing Ayatollah Khomeini into exile. His exile, however, did not negate the effects of the revolt, which created a rapidly expanding and diverse Islamic opposition movement that would become a symbol of resistance against the Shah’s regime and its imperialist supporters. [12]

Following the 1963 revolt, the Shah asserted absolute rule for the next fifteen years, cracking down on any semblance of opposition. He especially focused his attention on the already marginalized Shi’ite clerical establishment (‘ulemā), fearing another popular uprising inspired by Khomeini and his fellow clerics. It was at this time that the secularization aspect of his surge towards Western modernity took on an entirely different meaning. Up to that point in the post-colonial political era, the notion of secularism was well integrated into a popular secular-nationalist discourse. It was understood as a simple absence of religion from the state, though the Shah frequently used some pro-regime clerics to boost his own legitimacy when it suited his interests. After 1963, however, the Shah sought to use secularism as a means of eliminating the political threat of the growing Islamic opposition movement. Under this forced separation of religion from society and the immense SAVAK oversight of religious gatherings, many clerics began to suggest that secularism was un-Islamic, an inherently Western innovation, and had been imposed to facilitate the declining social significance of religion as a whole.[13]

Due to the Shah’s forceful separation of religion from society, secularism fell in line with a broader post-colonial political narrative of casting off the imperialist West. Especially among the newly urbanized Muslim populations, secularism came to be understood as an inseparable part of Western imperialism and the Shah’s repressive regime that it was enabling. Reza Shah’s vision of secularism was indeed synthesized from what he saw as a universal Western path to modernity, despite the fact that secular theory in the West itself was never singular in origin or expression.[14] Despite its variable origins, the Shah sought to impose his own narrow vision of Western secularism from the top down, infusing it with his own anti-Islamic authoritarian bent. His hope to coercively replicate the successes of Western society from the top down generated little more than a summary Islamic rejection of secular thought, with the ‘ulema even deeming it pseudo-religious in nature (in an anti-religious, atheistic sense), and therefore always to be at odds with Islamic Truth.[15]

Instead of creating a secular society that allowed for peaceful conflict resolution, religious freedom, and a non-coercive state structure, the Shah blatantly eviscerated religion— and Islam in particular—from every corner of public space. For example, he forcefully removed hijabs from Muslim women who willfully donned them in public; forced Shi’ite clerics to take tests to qualify to wear a turban; threw all members of the ‘ulema out of the schooling systems, replacing them with ‘secular,’ pro-regime figures; and forced a commingling of the sexes in Iran’s school systems.[16] This strengthened the Islamic resistance forces and provided justification for a reactive and summary rejection of secularism in much of Iranian society.

Alongside the expanding Islamic opposition front, calls for nationalist and ‘cultural’ authenticity in the face of Western secular intervention strengthened, too. The forefather of this nativist intellectual movement was Jalal Al-e Ahmad, the son of a former anti-Shah cleric and a well-educated socialist activist. He manipulated an already popular third-worldist discourse, moving away from the idea of ‘neither East nor West,’ and specifically focusing on casting out the West, which he believed was a toxic roadblock to Iran’s path to modernity. This nativist aversion to Western secularism, though nationalist in origin, was readily taken up within the Islamic discourse as well, because many Iranians saw Islam as an essential part of their national identity.[17]

 Islam as a Revolutionary Ideology of Authenticity and Spiritual Liberation 1963 - 1978

Building upon his nativist opposition to the Shah’s secularization project, Jalal Al-e Ahmad turned his attention to the Shi’ite ‘ulema, upholding them as the only force that had remained independent of the West under the Shah. His evolving intellectual efforts to remove Western influence from Iranian society was articulated in his well-known book, Westoxication (gharbzadigī). In its original Persian, the term gharbzadigi carries a vitriolic connotation, meaning more than just Western toxicity, but also suggesting a state of being stricken, afflicted, or beaten down by the West. By suggesting that the Shah’s toxic Western-oriented government was attempting to crush Iranian national identity, Al-e Ahmad lent a degree of nationalist legitimacy to the ‘unafflicted’ Islamic opposition movement.[18]

After Al-e Ahmad’s death in 1969, ‘Ali Shari’ati moved to the forefront of the Islamic intellectual resistance, drawing on the success of Al-e Ahmad’s nationalist vision of the authenticity of Islam. Shari’ati, a Muslim sociologist, professor, and writer has been described as the most influential pre-revolutionary intellectual that, “did the most to prepare Iranian youth for revolutionary upheaval.”[19] Others have criticized his intellectual legitimacy, lack of academic and Qur’anic references in his writing, and reactionary outlooks, describing him as a bombastic pseudo-intellectual that “wrote and spoke more than he ever read.”[20] Regardless of his credentials, Shari’ati did indeed have a meaningful effect on pre-revolutionary Iranian society, namely for his contribution in transforming the Islamic faith into a politicized ideology. Shari’ati built this ideological vision of Islam largely on the intellectual efforts of Mohammed Iqbal, whose vision of Islam he described as, “paying careful attention to this world and the material needs of humanity, [but] also giv[ing] the human being a heart.”[21] Indeed, Shari’ati similarly presented Shi’a Islam as more than just a faith or a set of personal practices and guidelines, but as an all-encompassing synthesis of everything from individual to social, political, and economic Truth. Shi’a Islam, in his view, already included all of the useful aspects of Western theory and society, though it perfectly corrected all of its imperfections and propensities for economic excess by attending to the spiritual needs of humanity.[22]

Unlike Al-e Ahmad, who sympathized with the marginalized ‘ulema, Shari’ati sharply criticized the clerical establishment for allowing Iranians to adhere to an ‘opiate’ iteration of Islam that had left them vulnerable to exploitation and oppression from the imperialist West. He also went so far as to accuse the ‘ulema of polytheism for their usurpation of the Islamic faith to appease the Shah, who he believed blasphemously forced the subservience of the Iranian people when they were to be submissive to God alone. In place of the ‘ulema’s Islam of inertia, Shari’ati advocated an iconoclastic vision of Islam as an ideology that would allow Iranians, and indeed all people, to reach the ‘pinnacle of their human existence.’ Through Islam, he believed that the world could overcome the ‘myopic consumerism’ of the West’s ideologies by letting Islam guide them to something greater than their physical existence.[23] 

Though Shari’ati was at the forefront of the Islamic intellectual movement that popularized this ideological understanding Islam, his prescriptions were rife with vague and idealistic prescriptions. For example, though he viciously attacked the clerical establishment for ‘polytheism,’ at the same time he may have implicitly suggested their necessity, saying that Muslims must:

Make the effort of interpretation [ijtihad] and oblige one group among them to specialize in the theoretical knowledge of Islam, the deducing of Islamic laws, and the resolution of the problems of society and the events of the time. They should confide to this group social and ideological leadership [taqlid] as well as well as the responsibility for the people’s destiny [emphasis added].[24]

In this argument, Shari’ati conforms to the tradition of clerical emulation (taqlīd) via an exclusive—ostensibly clerical—role for ijtihad, though he provides little insight into who these ‘leaders of destiny’ should be. This evolving intellectual tradition, in all of its vague ideological fervor, anti-Western nationalism, and undefined role for clerical authority, stoked the revolutionary spirits of the newly urbanized public. Iranians only needed what Shari’ati had described as a ‘leader of destiny’ to help them bring down the Shah’s regime and all the fallacious Western theories it was built upon.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the man who would become such a ‘leader of destiny’ for millions of Iranians in the years leading up to the Islamic Revolution, remained persistent in his opposition to the Shah’s regime from exile in Iraq. In 1971, he began to devise a new style of Islamic governance that was neither a fully democratic republic nor a dictatorship. His vision for an Islamic state would be overseen by the Shi’ite ‘ulema, who he believed were best qualified to lead a community of believers in Islamic law and hermeneutics, though the degree and breadth of power they were to hold was never clearly circumscribed. In his book entitled Islamic Government (h̥ukmat-e islamī), he articulated an idea of clerical political leadership that he called ‘Guardianship of the Jurists’ (velāyat-e faqīh). Velayat-e faqih was based on the idea that because the twelfth Shi’ite Imam is in Occultation that the community of believers needed to place their trust in a pious group of jurists (faqīh) to guide them in social, political, and legal matters.[25]

Despite the warnings of numerous Ayatollahs and the support of nearly no one in the clerical establishment, Khomeini also sought to combine this juridical position of a faqih with the traditional Shi’ite role of marja’-e taqlīd. Marja’-e taqlid, meaning ‘Source of Emulation,’ is a well-established tradition whereby a high ranking member of the ‘ulema is selected as a marja’, who serves as a leading authority in religious matters, to which the other members of the ‘ulema and all believers look for guidance. By combining this faqih and marja’ role into his theory of velayat-e faqih, Khomeini’s vision for a system of Islamic governance led by a single figure had great potential for continued authoritarian governance in Iran. Although Khomeini never publically articulated the idea of velayat-e faqih until after the 1978-79 revolution, his popularity among many Iranians grew significantly throughout the 1970s. This popularity, however, can be mostly attributed to his persistent voice of charismatic opposition against the Shah and not necessarily for his political theories or Islamic intellectualism. Despite his relative silence in the intellectual discourse at the time, his political theorization would eventually fit well into Shari’ati and Al-e Ahmad’s intellectual discourse that had paved the way towards a popularly-supported Islamic transition to power. The role for the clerical establishment within that Islamic political system, however, would be deeply contested for years to come.[26]

Despite the mounting opposition of this Islamically-oriented social and intellectual movement, the Shah continued his top-down modernization program. A drastic increase in state oil revenue throughout the 1970s and rapid urbanization rates produced ‘uneven and erratic’ levels of economic growth, causing existing class disparities to become more pronounced. Many Iranians believed that they were witnessing the destruction of social justice at the hands of Western-oriented economic growth and all of its inherent excess. Indeed, many of these fears of excess were substantiated by the Shah’s wasteful spending on the most advanced military equipment and lavish national monuments while many poor Iranians lacked sufficient governmental support structures to ease increasing levels of urban poverty. This served to bolster Khomeini’s popularity among marginalized Marxist groups, too, as his rhetoric deftly took up hints of a class struggle at the behest of one of Shari’ati’s former colleagues and Khomeini’s greatest supporter—Ayatollah Mutahhari.[27]

Just before the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution in late 1977, the Islamic intellectual and social movement was as diverse as the Iranian nation that it represented. These various interest groups, however, were united in their mutual opposition to the Shah under a vaguely defined banner of ideological Islam that drew from the intellectual efforts of Al-e Ahmad and Shari’ati. Khomeini’s political prowess, charismatic personality, and religious credentials allowed him to wrangle various divergent popular sentiments into this united front, though he intentionally left a well-defined role for Islamic governance and the clerical establishment out of his publicized rhetoric. Many left-leaning and non-religious Iranians could appreciate the moral dimension that Islam lent to their revolutionary aspirations, though many thoroughly underestimated the amount of political power that an Islamization of the opposition front would provide an already well-organized clerical establishment.

Though its specifics remained undefined, three dominant features of this nebulous Islamic social and intellectual opposition movement were: (1) a nativist insistence on the authenticity of ‘Iranian culture’ and the necessity to excise the imperialist West from society and politics, (2) an ideological interpretation of Islam as a perfect political theory that encompassed every aspect of life from social interactions to economic and political decisions, and (3) a necessary role for ‘true Muslims’ to interpret Islamic Truth in order to spiritually remedy the ills of the post-colonial world—a role that would ostensibly be best played by the clerical establishment.

The Islamic Revolution: Post-Colonial Islamic Intellectualism in Action 1977 - 1989

In late 1977, the Shah and his regime felt confident in their absolute control. He had consolidated his power, imprisoning, exiling, or assassinating every source of opposition to his power—including both Ali Shari’ati and Khomeini’s son, Mustafa Khomeini. As a reflection of his confidence, the Shah decided to publish an article in the Iranian newspaper, Etela’at, that many assume was a response to the increasingly vitriolic commentary of Ayatollah Khomeini after the death of his son. The article slandered Khomeini’s reputation as the preeminent Shi’ite marja’ and sparked an uproar in the religious city of Qom. This initial wave of violently suppressed protests expanded over the next few months and was met with mixed responses from the Shah and the members of his regime. Initially, the Shah appeared unfazed by the popular mobilizations, but divided members of his government responded in opposite and counterproductive directions in lieu of an authoritative response from the Shah himself. Some wanted to respond favorably to the protests, issuing further promises of reform and conciliations while others encouraged the Shah to crack down on the protestors without remorse.[28]

The division in his government reflected the Shah’s own vacillations throughout 1978, which served strengthened the opposition movement against him. On the one hand he appeared weak and desperately out of touch by attempting to reason with ‘his people,’ who in fact viewed him as quite distanced from reality and in the back pocket of the Western imperialists. On the other hand, he appeared frightened and insecure, frequently overreacting to minor protests with excessive violence. Due to the traditional Shi’ite practice of publically mourning an individual’s death forty days after their passing (chihilum), the Shah’s violent crackdowns exponentially expanded the protests, which often erupted at these mourning ceremonies. As another result of his excessive brutality, the Shah’s regime was blamed for a deadly fire that killed 400 Iranians at ‘Cinema Rex’ in the city of Abadan. Though the fire was started by a radical religious group, believable rumors that the SAVAK had started the fire and locked the people inside circulated quickly.[29]  

Protests continued to expand across the country and the Shah began making desperate conciliatory efforts, including implementing a civilian-led government under a hastily appointed prime minister, Shapur Baktiar. By the end of 1978, however, the Shah had completely lost control of his state and no amount of conciliation would return it to him. With the entire country gripped by protest and increasing divisions within the military, the Shah fled Iran in January 1979, and the entire Pahlavi state collapsed the following month. Shortly thereafter, a national referendum was held and the decision to turn Iran into an Islamic republic was passed by a landslide popular vote. The Shah had been ousted, the imperialist West had been utterly cast out with him, and both were replaced the anticipated perfection of Islamic ideology.[30]

Though the diverse groups that had converged under Khomeini’s leadership had been united in their desire to overthrow the Shah, their visions for what the Islamic Republic should look like after the Shah’s departure differed significantly. There were two primary groups within the Islamic movement that came to the fore in 1979. The first group, called the ‘republican Islamists’ or ‘liberal Islamists,’ foresaw their Islamic state as a democratic republic that should be guided by loosely-enforced moral principles, was neither aligned with the ‘East nor West,’ and provided little room for clerical political intervention. The second group, called the ‘Maktabis,’[31] or ‘authoritarian Islamists’ were largely dominated by the clergy, who instead sought to establish a republic that was overseen by the ‘ulema with a less fluid vision of Islamic moral principles.[32]

The divisions between these groups, who had been unified in their mutual opposition to the Shah, intensified in a struggle for the identity of the Islamic Republic. As the state apparatus under the temporary leadership of the republican, Mehdi Bazarghan, struggled to centralize authority, the pro-clerical camp gained significant coercive power through their control of the legal institutions, the Revolutionary Guard paramilitary force (pasdrn), and the security forces. These pro-clerical Islamists essentially created a ‘state within a state,’ controlling the mechanisms of force and coercion while the republicans only controlled parliamentary and bureaucratic positions. Most importantly, however, the pro-clerical Islamists maintained the support of a majority of Iranians, who had largely maintained rural outlooks, were semi-literate, and maintained deep sense of religiosity throughout the 1970s. Many of these recently urbanized individuals were politically reactive and supported only those individuals that could effectively communicate with them, who, at that time, was still Ayatollah Khomeini.[33]

Khomeini sought to stem the growing anarchy, calling for a stop to ongoing protests and attempting to calm the masses through a ‘controlled bloodletting’ of the remaining members of the Pahlavi state. Nevertheless, the continued political polarization, fear of anarchy, and rampant assassination squads led to an increasingly authoritarian atmosphere both in the state and in the streets that was largely out of Khomeini’s control. In November 1979, despite Khomeini’s initial warnings against it, a group of zealous Iranian students attacked the United States embassy in Tehran, initiating the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis. This event proved remarkable for two reasons. First, it allowed Khomeini to unite many of the infighting political groups by focusing their attention on the ‘Great Satan’—the United States—instead of each other. With public attention diverted, it also allowed him to more fully consolidate his authority, redrafting the constitution in order to institutionalize his role as the leader of the revolution through the idea of velayat-e faqih. He argued that in order for the authority of the faqih to be fully institutionalized, it had to rest in the hands of a single figure. The actual responsibilities of his position as faqih remained entirely vague and malleable, however.[34]

Second, the hostage crisis represented the utter casting out of the imperialist West from Iran, something that would draw great admiration from other post-colonially-fixated Middle Eastern nations. This victory for a ‘third way’ of Islam outside of the ‘East and West’ Cold War binaries inspired Muslims, Marxists, and third worldists alike, looking to Iran’s great victory over the West as a testament to the power of nationalist and Islamic authenticity. Most importantly, however, the revolution in Iran empowered Islamic organizations, which could begin to see themselves as political leaders instead of just opposition figures.[35] Looking for a way to avoid a similar unrest within his newly-established secular Ba’athist regime, Saddam Hussein turned his attention to the Islamic Republic, too. Acting both from a fear of the Islamic Revolution spilling over into the Shi’ite majority in Iraq and seeing a momentous opportunity to strike a longtime regional rival while its state and society was in a period of upheaval and transition, Saddam launched an invasion against the Islamic Republic in September 1980.

The initial stages of the invasion were marked by minimal Iranian opposition to the Iraqi incursion. Instead of destabilizing the newly-established Iranian regime, however, Saddam’s attack actually served to strengthen Khomeini’s influence and power. The invasion crisis allowed a great deal of totalitarian government behavior to be overlooked for the sake of maintaining a cohesive defense of the Islamic Republic. Khomeini took this opportunity to consolidate the absolute power of the clerical government with him at the helm, launching a campaign of political and intellectual cleansing against his domestic opponents. Throughout 1981, Khomeini’s regime executed several thousand leftist republican Islamists, purging Iran of an entire tradition of anti-clerical and pro-democratic students, intellectuals, and politicians.[36]

A strict interpretation of the revolutionary discourse of Islam as a perfect and liberating ideology had been effectively solidified under Khomeini’s leadership and he now called upon all true Islamic revolutionaries to defend the Republic with the sanctity of Islam at their back. With the domestic ‘threat’ neutralized and the hostage crisis coming to an end, Iraq proved a useful focus for all of the revolutionary zeal still circulating in Iranian society.  The revolutionary guard, military, and the newly formed ‘popular mobilization’ militia (basīj), turned their full attention to the Iraqi invasion force, pushing Saddam back to the border and retaking the major city of Khorramshar in 1982.  For many Iranians, this victory proved to be a decisive substantiation of the sanctity and righteousness of their war for Islamic preservation.[37]

In 1982, Khomeini and his government, motivated by what many believed to be an unstoppable force of righteousness, decided to go on the offensive in Iraq to claim the holy Shi’ite cities of Karbala and Najaf for the Revolution and liberate Iraq’s majority Shi’ite population from Saddam’s secular dictatorship. The Iranian government began to hold domestic rallies, changing their ‘sacred defense’ narrative into a mass-recruitment campaign of new ‘martyrs,’ whose sacrifice would be invaluable to the revolutionary cause. Though Khomeini’s regime stoked the traditional Shi’ite guilt for not having sacrificed themselves with Imam Hussein in Iraq, created a cult of martyrdom that mobilized a generation of young Iranians by elevating them to a level of great societal importance, and directed all of the nation’s revolutionary Islamic fervor at the Iraqis, both he and his Islamic ideology would fail to achieve victory or any meaningful gain during the war.[38]

During the ensuing eight-year Iran-Iraq War, missiles were exchanged between the nations’ major cities, leading to billions of dollars in infrastructural damage and excessive civilian casualties. Hundreds of thousands of young Iranian men were killed in mass wave attacks and human landmine clearing tactics, with casualties increasing drastically when Iraq began to deploy chemical weapons on the battlefield in 1986. The United States, still enraged by the hostage crisis, also fed a continuous supply of modern armaments to the Iraqi state while enforcing sanctions against Iran, crippling their already strained economy and making it difficult for them to secure their own modern armaments. [39]

After nearly eight years of costly stalemate, Khomeini emerged after submitting to a UN-sanctioned ceasefire in 1988 with little more to show than an economy in a state of disrepair and an unmoved border with Iraq that was littered with the corpses of a generation of idealistic revolutionaries. Because Khomeini had so inseparably linked revolutionary Islamic ideology with the war effort, a national weariness with the war was also largely reflected in public opinions about the Islamic ideology on which the clerical government drew its legitimacy. By the end of 1988, revolutionary dynamism had subsided and Khomeini faced an overwhelming task of reasserting his interpretation of Islamic governance. When he passed away in 1989, however, an opportunity arose for the formerly marginalized pragmatists and leftists of the decimated republican Islamist camp to help redefine the Islamic identity of their Republic.

Chapter Two – Historical Framework Part Two: Post-Authoritarian Secular and Islamic Thought in Iran 1989 – 2004

Chapter two presents the second portion of a historical framework through which to understand the Islamization of secularism in Iran. This post-authoritarian theoretical era began in 1989 after the Iran-Iraq War, the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the winding down of the Cold War, which created a domestic and international context that was conducive to the creation of new theories. Indeed, during the early 1990s, there was a stark discursive shift away from ideological Islam and secularism that had dominated the post-colonial theoretical era and towards a narrative of democratic reform. The first portion of this chapter discusses the evolving rift in Iranian politics between the pro-clerical conservatives and pragmatists and the anti-clerical leftists. This pro- and anti-clerical divide would transform again by the beginning of 1997, with the pragmatist Islamists shifting their alliances to a redefined anti-clerical leftist group, thus creating the political foundation of the Iranian Reform Movement. The latter half of this section focuses on the intellectuals within that anti-clerical reform movement and their development of the democratic theory of Islamic secularism. 

Khamene’i, Rafsanjani, and the Reconstruction of the Islamic Republic 1989 - 1997

Khomeini’s death in 1989 created a power vacuum again in Iranian politics. He left no indication as to who would be his successor as the leader of the Islamic Republic (rahbar), though the constitution mandated that the rahbar be chosen from among the highest-ranking marja’iyyat (plural for marja’). The conservative elite that controlled the Islamic government, however, did not find any of the marja’iyyat politically suitable to their interests to hold this position. Following Ayatollah Montazeri’s ascendance to Khomeini’s former position as the preeminent marja’, the conservative leadership deftly pointed out that he had resigned as Khomeini’s disciple and rightful successor after he publically criticized some of Khomeini’s decisions towards the end of his life. With Iranian society in a state of mourning and disbelief after Khomeini’s death, political infighting increasing over the empty role of rahbar, and no ‘suitable’ marja’ to fill the position, an alliance between the conservative and pragmatist Islamist elite began to form.[40]

This alliance, led by Hujatolislam Ali Khamene’i and Iran’s newly-elected president, Akbar Rafsanjani, issued a referendum to redraft the constitution—an undertaking that was widely supported in the disillusioning wake of the Iran-Iraq War. They implemented three major changes to the structure of the state, none of which meaningfully responded to the disappointment Iranians felt towards their Islamic state after the war, but rather, served the alliance’s political interests. First, they removed the position of Prime Minister, effectively purging leftist political influence from the Iranian state. The role of prime minister was frequently held by this leftist camp, a group that comprised many of Iran’s former republican Islamists, secular-nationalists, and socialists. During this period, the leftists had lost much of their sway with the Iranian people, too, as they had pursued a state-based economic strategy throughout the Iran-Iraq War that was largely unsuccessful. By removing this position of Prime Minister, Rafsanjani and Khamene’i greatly increased the power of Iranian presidency and purged the anti-clerical leftists from politics yet again.[41]             

Second, their redraft of the constitution removed the requirement for the rahbar to be a marja’-e taqlid, allowing for lower-ranking clerics to serve as rahbar and providing the ruling elite with a wider range of individuals to choose from at their discretion. With this ruling, Hujatolislam Ali Khamene’i was selected by the conservative-dominated Guardian Council (shūrā-ye negahbān-e qānun-e assāssī) as the next rahbar and was quickly promoted to the rank of Ayatollah. [42] Khamene’i’s religious credentials were nowhere near sufficient to have him considered to be a marja’, much less an Ayatollah, causing his religious leadership to be questioned by both higher-ranking clerics and Iranians alike. As a further complication, because Khamene’i was not a marja’ all believers did not have to adhere to his guidance as rahbar, but could look instead to higher-ranking clerics for guidance. This allowed room for discrepancies to arise between the official state rulings and those of other Shi’ite clerics that outranked Khamene’i. Khamene’i, therefore, required something more to legitimize his position as rahbar.[43]   

The final amendment to the constitution would provide Khamene’i with the level of further control that his lacking religious credentials necessitated. He redefined the foundation of the Islamic Republic from velayat-e faqih to velayat-e mutlaq-e faqih, meaning Absolute Jurisistconsult. Though Khomeini had presented this idea in the early stages of his theorization about velayat-e faqih, it was never implemented because he had initially intended to create a relatively democratic ‘guardianship,’ not an authoritarian state. After Khomeni’s death, however, velayat-e mutlaq-e faqih proved useful to ensure Khamene’i’s authority over other clerics to compensate for his questionable religious credentials. This addition of ‘absolute’ (mut̥laq) to his guardianship meant that he had the final word in everything religious, judicial, social, and economic in the Islamic Republic. Though it did not confer a level of infallibility upon his decisions, something reserved for the Shi’ite Imams alone, it did suggest that Khamene’i’s authority was not conditional or restricted (muqayyid), but all-encompassing. This meant that as the supreme leader, he could ‘suspend’ the rulings of other clerics if he deemed that a different course of action would better serve Islam as a whole.[44]

During this constitutional consolidation of conservative power, President Rafsanjani successfully led the reconstruction of Iran after the devastation of the Iran-Iraq War. He oversaw the gradual rebuilding of Iran’s cities, building parks, recreation areas, concert halls, and other major civic centers that allowed for a high degree of public interaction and commingling of the sexes in safe and religiously-acceptable settings. There was also a major population boom following the revolution, and by the end of the 1990s, Iran’s population would be twice what it was in 1979, creating a strain on Iran’s already fragile economy. Though Rafsanjani was unable to fully revive the economy, due in large part to this population boom and the Western embargoes that remained in effect since 1979, he did successfully privatize some sectors of the state, providing new opportunities for business and industry.[45]    

In the early 1990s during this reconstruction period, Mohammad Khatami, who would go on to win the presidency in 1997, was the minister of Islamic Guidance. As minister, he controlled the degree of ‘cultural freedom’ Iranians had in publications, art, theater, movies, and music. With the approval of Rafsanjani, Khatami eased restrictions on cultural modes of expression, allowing for a circulation of new ideas and expectations about democracy and civil society via the press and cinema. Due both their waning support within Iranian society and the regime’s persistent political purges, the leftists were forced to regroup and rethink their political stance. This easing of restrictions provided them with an opportunity to reshape their political platform away from a focus on state-based economics, turning instead to democratic reform, freedom of expression, and civil rights to appeal to a new generation of Iranians, who were at the heart of this brief period of free expression. Despite Khatami’s removal from his position of Minister of Islamic Guidance in 1992, this moment of cultural openness created a path to an innovative reform-based political platform for the leftists and an expectation of greater political accountability and freedoms within civil society.[46]

The population boom in Iran after the revolution did strain the country’s economy, but it also led to a vast increase in the number of educated individuals in urban city centers. In 1979, the number of students in Iran’s university system numbered about 175,000. This figure did not change very much throughout the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, but in the early 1990s, Iran’s university population shot up to over 1.25 million students. To account for this vast increase, reconstruction efforts also included a focus on expanding the number of state-run higher education institutions in Iran from 26 at the time of the revolution to 87 by 1997. Private sector ‘Islamic University’ systems also sprung up to complement the state’s efforts, establishing more than 100 new religious universities throughout the 1990s. This drastic increase of both men and, most notably, women, attending university added to an intensifying atmosphere of new expectations for democracy, civil rights, and pragmatism. [47]

This population of students flooding the university systems was largely made up of Iran’s new youthful generation, who were too young to remember the revolution and numbered approximately half of the entire population by the mid-1990s. These young people were at odds with the invasive religious restrictions that the state had put on them in the name of an Islamic Revolution, in which they had played no role. Because they had grown up during the Iran-Iraq War, too, most of what they knew of the Islamic Republic was based on its failures on the battlefield and pervasive popular sentiments of despair and disenchantment with revolutionary Islamic ideology. As a result, many of Iran’s youth turned to ‘degenerate’ behavior as a means of opposition to the Islamic government and the omnipotent moral police. Prostitution, drug addiction, and a wide-spread refusal to participate in religious practice were common place among this new generation as a means of escaping what they believed to be a hopeless political and social situation.[48]

In spite of such a drastic outpouring of rebellious and anti-religious behavior, there was not a loss of religious sentiment or interest in Islamic theology among many of them. Rather, Iranian youths shared a desire for a more inclusive vision of Islam that allowed them to be religious, hold diverse political views, and enjoy whatever movies, books, and music they wanted. They called this new vision of Islam the ‘Religion of Life’ (dn-e zindig), a more relaxed combination of faith, individual freedom, and fun that was inconsistent with the conservative government’s plan to produce a dutiful generation of ‘young true Muslims’ that adhered to the revolutionary values of cultural authenticity, anti-imperialism, and Islamic justice.[49]

The revolutionary paradigm had shifted by the mid-1990s, and nearly 80 percent of Iran’s youth were either completely opposed or indifferent to the Shi’ite clergy and the conservative Islamic state. A new wave of religious intellectuals, who had politically associated themselves with the reform movement, had an immense opportunity to reach out to these unrepresented young people. These lay and clerical intellectuals did precisely that, establishing a theological basis for this din-e zindigi that blended a more tolerant version of Islam with democratic and even secular political theories. Indeed, from 1992 to 1997, youthful attendance at academic lectures by this group of religious intellectuals far surpassed state-led religious gatherings.[50]  

A unified ‘Islamic Feminist’ movement also emerged in the 1990s that complemented the democratic and human rights demands of Iran’s growing civil society. This feminist movement focused on pragmatism and achieving attainable results, pushing political ideology and religious differences aside for the sake of women’s rights. For example, instead of trying to overturn the requirement for all women to wear a veil, they sought to introduce new, more fashionable veil options. They also fought for equal opportunities in university systems and the workforce for women of all social classes. The emergence of this pragmatic discourse within the feminist movement, coupled with the vast increase in well-educated students of both genders attending universities, fostered a new class of politically active and cosmopolitan young men and women. With the 1997 presidential elections approaching, the candidate who could relate best to a narrative of pragmatism and the expectations of greater political openness and human rights circulating around university campuses and intellectual circles, would have a good chance at claiming the presidency.[51]

Khatami’s Election and the Rise of the Iranian Reform Movement 1997 - 2004

Mohammad Khatami, who retained much of his popularity for easing the restrictions on modes of cultural expression in the 1990s, emerged as the presidential candidate representing the new Iranian left in 1997. His campaign reached out to women and young voters alike, focusing on democratic reform, civil rights, relaxing restrictions on the media, and allowing civil society to freely expand once again. It was at this time that the Iranian left under Khatami’s political leadership became known as the reformists, uniting under his political promises for democratic reform and relaxation of government restrictions. The 1997 elections in Iran shocked both the conservative establishment and this new reformist party, with an unprecedented 80 percent voter turnout. Iran’s youthful population made its voice heard, with over two thirds of the overall vote going to Mohammad Khatami.[52]

Khatami’s unexpected election would prove to be a momentous opportunity to implement change before the conservative establishment and Ayatollah Khamene’i could fully control it. Among the first things Khatami did was reopen the press and media, allowing the reformist intellectuals and journalists to articulate their ideas for change in hopes of ‘reigniting the fading revolution’ for a new generation of Iranians. Despite the conservative establishment’s best efforts to reign this in—frequently through the use of brutality, assassinations, and warnings of the toxic incursion of Western cultural imperialism—the spread of democratic plans for reform with Islam at their core spread rapidly through the university campuses, youth-based intellectual circles, and reformist publications. In the 2000 parliamentary elections, the reformists won the majority of seats, too, placing this grassroots political movement for democratic and religious reform in control of two of the three branches of the Iranian government.[53]

The third branch of the Islamic Republic, however, remained fully in control of Khamene’i and the conservative establishment. Khamene’i acted as commander in chief of the armed forces and the basij militias, controlled the judiciary and the guardian council, and had essentially bought off the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guard (pasdaran) during the reconstruction period, giving them private ownership over large portions of Iran’s oil and business sectors. With absolute control of the state mechanisms of coercion, Khamene’i could imprison, execute, and dismiss members of the reform movement at his discretion. Though the conservatives unequivocally lost every popular election, they still managed to receive ten to twenty percent of the vote, giving them control over a “potent, militant, and violent social base,” that they could use to intimidate and mobilize against the reform movement in the streets if necessary.[54]

The Reflexive Revivalists and the Reconceptualization of Secularism

With his absolute power over the judicial system and military branches, Ayatollah Khamene’i could limit the political mobility of the reform movement within the state apparatus and could keep popular demands for freedom of self-expression at bay with constant oversight from his basij militias and the pasdaran. What he feared most, however, was the reform movement’s intellectuals, many of whom were well-versed in Islamic theology, had impeccable revolutionary credentials, and appealed to a new generation of Iranians and their demands for freedom and democracy. The most prominent among these intellectuals was ‘Abdolkarim Soroush, who has been deemed by some to be the “Martin Luther of Shi’a Islam.”[55] Soroush studied Islamic theology, philosophy, and history both in Iran and Europe and returned to Iran during the revolution to help the new government establish curriculums across the expanding university system. He also taught at Tehran University where he played a significant role in disseminating his new vision of Islamic, democratic, and even secular political theories to the burgeoning student populations. He was thrown out of the university in 1996 by Khamene’i’s regime, however, and has since then spent much of his time abroad, continuing to press for reform in Iran.[56] Soroush, along with fellow professor and mid-ranking cleric Muhammad Mojtahed Shabestari, inaugurated a trend of Islamic intellectual reform that provided the theological base for the reform movement’s democratic aspirations and young Iranian’s new expectations of Islam as din-e zindigi.

Supporting the religious reformers’ theological work with Islam and democracy was another group of intellectuals called the secular-modernists. This group was made up of theorists such as Akbar Ganji, probably the most famous reformist journalist and modern secular intellectual, and Abbas Milani, an author on Persian modernism, professor, and pro-democracy activist. It was these individuals that were responsible for shifting the reform movement’s understanding of secularism away from the West-centric aspirations of secular mimicry during the Shah era and the subsequent demonization of it as ‘culturally inauthentic’ during the revolution and throughout the post-colonial political era. They also presented the idea of ‘modernity’ as a continuous adaptation of existing traditions—including Islam—to confront present circumstances.[57]

This combined group of new intellectuals was unique in their outlook. They were true reformers in the sense that they did not advocate for an overthrow of the Iranian regime or the Islamic Revolution from which it drew its legitimacy, but rather, they sought to revive the revolution through new Islamic, democratic, and secular theories. Beyond simply being reformers, however, these intellectuals are more aptly described as ‘reflexive revivalists.’ They were reflexive in that they no longer blamed the West or the outside world for their domestic conditions. Instead, they looked inwards, drawing on their own historical experiences throughout the post-colonial era to establish a pragmatic and indigenous vision of Islamic and secular democracy for a post-authoritarian Iran. They were revivalists in the sense that they did not seek to fundamentally change Islamic truth, but focused instead on questioning Islamic exegesis and drawing a line of distinction between fallible human knowledge and infallible Islamic Truth.[58] Through their collective efforts, these reflexive revivalists undertook an ‘Islamization of secularism’ to produce a multi-faceted secular and religious democratic theory that represented, on an intellectual level, the political activity of Khatami’s reform movement and its vast support structure among Iran’s female and youth populations.

Their conception of a secular state, however, must not be understood as Soroush says in terms of, “a deliberate effort to exclude religion from worldly affairs,”[59] as it had been throughout the post-colonial era, but rather, “as a regime in whose polity no values and rules are beyond human appraisal and verification and in which no protocol, status, position, or ordinance is above public scrutiny.”[60] Similarly, this secular state according to Akbar Ganji is, “ideologically neutral…[and one in which] the state does not have the right to interfere with religion, but religion, like any other institution in civil society, can be involved in ongoing politics and publically express its own criticisms.”[61]

There is very little divergence between the secular-modernist and religious reformers’ understandings of secular theory. Both groups focus resoundingly on some sort of governmental neutrality with regards to ideology that ensures political agency is in the hands of the governed and not a restrictive political or religious ideology. Secularism, in their view, was an inseparable aspect of any democratic society, as it ensured the right of individuals to change their state’s structure over time.[62] Soroush believed that this change over time was necessary because human political and social constructs—government itself, for example—are fundamentally fallible and fluid. Religion, however, can enter into this secular system, he believed, by means of its people. He said that in this secular and religious society, “it is not religion per se that arbitrates, but some understanding of religion which is, in turn, changing, rational, and in harmony with the consensual and accepted extra religious criteria.”[63] This extra religious criteria, or ‘overlapping consensus,’ that he mentions here is the non-coercive democratic system itself that is fundamentally representative of and responsive to the popular will. If religion is an aspect of that popular will, it can influence and operate within a secular state.

Along similar lines, mid-ranking cleric, Mohammad Shabestari suggested that, God has decreed to “let the world be the world” and that the faithful must know “to what extent they can expect religion to solve their secular problems,” because, he continues, “it is not perfection for religion to function as a substitute for science, technology, and human deliberation.” Democracy and secularism are human social constructs, he says, and:

cannot be derived from the meaning of faith or the religious texts. However, since social realities demand such a form of government, people of faith must forge a relationship with this reality, reconcile themselves with its requirements, and follow a faithful life along its riverbed.[64]

Soroush added to this, suggesting that this ‘social reality’ that necessitates secularism was simply to prevent ideological coercion from eroding the foundations of democracy. “The only thing that is required of a secular democracy” he said, “is tolerance of different points of view and their advocates.” This ‘secular tolerance’ would act as the underlying foundation of democracy and adhering to it would not require believers to renounce their own beliefs, but rather would be a “concern [of individual] believers” and their ability to accept different viewpoints from their own.[65]

To briefly summarize, secularism as a theoretical tradition has undergone drastic changes since the post-colonial era in Iran. During the post-colonial theoretical era, it was interpreted by most Iranians as a forceful separation of religion from the state. This was substantiated by the coercive secularization program between 1963 and 1977 under the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi for the purpose of maintaining his own political power. Such a forceful marginalization of religion bred a monolithic nativist rejection of secularism as a purely Western and inherently un-Islamic theory that persisted in the popular discourse until the early 1990s. During the post-authoritarian political era, however, secularism was reinterpreted by reflexive revivalist intellectuals. They produced a multifaceted secular and religious democratic theory that advocated for a neutral state apparatus that would allow religion and extra-religious traditions to peacefully intermingle and engage in critical discussion with one another.

The idea of a secular democracy was pragmatically indigenized by these intellectuals to produce what secular-modernist Abbas Milani believed to be a revival of historical Persian encounters with the idea of democratic modernity. Historically, he said, “Persians were not only open to other cultures, but freely adopted all they found useful from them. Indeed, an eclectic cultural elasticity has been said to be one of the key defining characteristics of the Persian spirit and a clue to its historic longevity.”[66] This cultural elasticity and pragmatism extended beyond the debate on secular theory, and was also evident in the reflexive revivalists’ Islamic reformations.

The Reflexive Revivalists and the De-Ideologization of Islam

Soroush emerged at the fore of Islamic reforms as well, drawing on an enduring Islamic intellectual tradition that can be traced back through ‘Ali Shari’ati. To begin his reform efforts, Soroush steeply criticized Shari’ati’s efforts to ideologize Islam. He believed that “making religion ideological erodes its timeless and eternal message and nature, making it applicable only to specific circumstances and times.”[67] By turning Islam into an ideology, the Iranian revolutionary government had created a temporally bound vision of what Islamic government should be at the time it was implemented. In the late 1970s, ideological Islam provided the revolution the momentum that it needed to overthrow the Shah and defend itself from the Iraqi invasion in the 1980s. By the 1990s, however, the same Islamic ideological paradigm was no longer prevalent and yet the repressive authoritarian structures of the state that still drew on that revolutionary paradigm for its legitimacy remained in place. Islamic ideology at that point, Soroush said, became, “highly susceptible to dictatorship,” producing an esoteric class of official interpreters who, “slam shut the gates of thought and treat the ruling ideology as if it represented the perfection of reason.”[68]

Like Shari’ati, however, Soroush saw Islam as adding an essential spiritual and moral component to social, political, and economic interactions. He argued that strictly ‘liberal societies’ deleteriously ignore the existence of God by focusing the entirety of their efforts on the satisfaction of human beings, leading to excessive consumerism, immorality, and social injustice. On the other hand, strictly religious governments—like the current regime in Iran—supposedly “attended exclusively to divine, not human, mandates … [and] assumed people’s satisfaction was contingent upon and a natural by-product of God’s satisfaction.”[69] Both of these extremes, he suggested, were improper applications of Islam. Instead, he believed that there needed to be “a balance between the religious and non-religious to do right by both people and by God, acknowledging at once the integrity of human beings and of religion.”[70]

In this balance, he recognized that there would not be a lasting consensus as to how divinely-focused and how worldly-focused social, economic, and political interaction would be. He therefore advocated for a mutual tolerance (tasmuh̥) to “allow a coexistence of religious and secular people, free from antagonisms that result from unequal rights and the imposition of one’s beliefs on another.”[71] In this view, Islam was not a static ideology or set of intolerant guidelines, but a moral ethic that could be applied to varying degrees within daily interactions for the sake of striking a balance between the oneness of God and His infallibility, and humanity’s pluralistic and fallible nature.

For this tolerant balance between religious and worldly to be successful, Soroush and Shabestari continued by undertaking the task of further dividing Islamic truth between infallible and fallible sources. Their division, however, transcended the traditional separation of the infallible Qur’an and Sunna from fallible ijtihad and jurisprudence (fiqh), moving a step further by suggesting that there was an explicit division that needed to be drawn between accepted religious knowledge and the fundamentally fluid nature of all human knowledge. Accepted religious knowledge, Soroush said:

meaning our knowledge of the Qur’an and the Sunna—is human knowledge, and, similar to other sciences, must be in constant flux, evolution, and contraction and expansion. This contraction and expansion is directly produced by contractions and expansions in other areas of human knowledge, and understanding of [religious knowledge] is not independent of our understanding of nature and science, and changes in relation to it. Therefore, just as philosophy and natural sciences are imperfect and continue to evolve, the sciences of jurisprudence and interpretation and ethics and disputation are also imperfect and also must continue to evolve.[72]

This means that the accepted religious knowledge generated by clerical ijtihad, for example, necessitates a further degree of ijtihad that would be continuous in nature and focused on reason itself, not the Qur’an and Sunna. This continuous ijtihad (ijtihad-e mustamar) required that the believer also look at extra-religious sources, too, in order to properly produce religious knowledge in relation to the present realities of the time period.

Similarly, Shabestari argued that this ‘continuous ijtihad’ would allow for ‘dynamic’ interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunna. He believed that, “we cannot continue imitating [taqlid] past faqihs [Islamic jurists], and, especially given the rapidly changing world around us, there is pressing need for new ijtihad on all fronts of Islamic knowledge.” Shabestari and Soroush here effectively issued a threatening challenge to the Iranian clerical establishment in control of the Islamic Republic. The entire notion of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurists) that the current regime is based on fundamentally relies on Iranians trusting the guardianship of the clerical establishment for the interpretation of Islam and its relation to the world. Soroush and Shabestari, however, challenge that notion by obligating Muslims to undertake their own reason-centered ijtihad in a continuous and critical fashion of existing clerical ijtihad.

This tradition of challenging clerical ijtihad is not new, however, and can be traced back in modern times to the 1930s and Ali Akbar Hakimizadeh. Hakimizadeh was a former cleric, who issued a forty-page long written attack called Thousand-Year-Old Mysteries against the clerical establishment. Though he denies the claim, it is widely assumed that Hakimizadeh’s criticism prompted Ayatollah Khomeini to respond with his first book in order to reassert the authority of the ‘ulema.[73] Hakimizadeh lashed out at the clerics for being misleading, monovocal, and preserving their own power by immediately condemning any opponents as apostates and pushing for their execution. He challenged the clerics to place their theories in front of the masses so that their ijtihad could be popularly reasoned with instead of, “spout[ing] off arguments in an empty arena … and fill[ing] millions of books with unverified nonsense.”[74] Hakimizadeh offered up a similar challenge to traditional Shi’ite power structures, suggesting instead that the population of believers had a significant role to play in ijtihad, saying, “Nowadays, nothing but reason and logic can stop people from questioning what you [the clergy] argue. It is better to possess such reason and logic, but one cannot withstand the flood of popular sentiment with silence, excommunication, heresy, or executions; the only choice is to respond or resign.”[75]

Hakimizadeh’s call for a reason-based popular ijtihad of existing clerical ijtihad, however, was subsumed by post-colonial and imperialist political clashes that empowered the ‘ulema as a barrier against foreign oppression and as guardians of the faith in the absence of the Imams. During the post-authoritarian political shift in 1990s, however, Soroush asserted himself as the latest reformer in opposition to the clerical establishment. He, like Shari’ati before him, believed that the clerical establishment was corrupt and unfit to lead a community of believers, though instead of condemning them of ‘polytheism’ as Shari’ati had, Soroush condemned them for their aversion to continuous rational thought and new scientific discovery.[76] “The clergy” he said, “is a syndicate group whose economic interests and livelihood depend on presenting and perpetuating specific, often petrified, interpretations of religion … Religious knowledge cannot progress and reach additional heights so long as it remains tied to the clergy’s syndical interests.” Instead, he suggested that the ‘spirit of reasonable inquiry’ was best served through democratic means by which the ‘ijtihad of the majority’ would be juxtaposed with the ijtihad of the clergy, all of which would therefore be guided by the ‘moral compass’ of evolving Islamic reason. [77]

Along similar lines, Mohammad Shabestari and Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari, both clerics themselves, advocated for an obliteration of the clerical class altogether and a complete opening of the ‘gates of ijtihad’ for all believers. Eshkevari says that “Islam did not have a clerical class to begin with … [and] today, no one group, not even the clergy, can have a sole monopoly over the specialization of any one field.”[78] Shabestari more deeply lashed out at the legitimacy of the clergy, specifically those at the heart of the Islamic Republic, saying that the Islamic Republic’s narrow interpretation of Islam, or, “jurisprudential Islam[,] … has become plagued with crises and problems that it can no longer properly govern. It cannot sustain itself because of its … frequent resort to violence in order to force itself on society, and its philosophical dearth and poverty.”[79]

The significance of Soroush, Shabestari, and Eshkevari’s attack against the clerical establishment is profound. This argument for the necessity of a continuous, reason-based ijtihad to be juxtaposed with existing clerical ijtihad, bears far greater weight than a simple opposition to repressive political power. It is also attempting to fundamentally restructure a long-standing Shi’ite tradition of taqlid—trusting the ijtihad of the clerics—by creating this additional layer of ijtihad based on reason itself (‘aql mehvar). Such an implementation of reason-based ijtihad, however, effectively complements a transition to democratic politics, whereby each individual or community of individuals uses independent reasoning to interpret knowledge of faith, science, and politics in relation to one another in order to produce their own conclusions. These conclusions can then be judged within a democratic forum whereby the will of the population is used to decide the best application of reason within a changeable secular state structure that is fundamentally necessary to preserve the capacity for continuous ijtihad (ijthihad-e mustamar) to take place.

It is in this way that Iran’s reflexive revivalist intellectuals have Islamized secularism. As discussed in the introduction, this notion is best understood via what Talal Asad describes as the Islamic discursive tradition, through which Islam acts as an ever-changing interpretive tradition of present circumstances in relation to past experience and future expectations. The Islamization of secularism, in this light, is the latest manifestation of Iranian Islamic interpretations that are responding to the present demands of Iran’s youthful population in relation to past lessons gleaned from the post-colonial political era, and more specifically, the failures of the Islamic Revolution.

Chapter Three – Theoretical Framework: A Literary Review of the Theorists and their Interlocutors

Chapter three discusses four theoretical themes within the ‘Islamization of secularism.’ It includes commentaries from the theorists themselves, which are placed into a discussion with other intellectuals, analysts, and historians of Middle Eastern politics, who have been influenced by or have come to similar conclusions as Iran’s reflexive revivalists. The four themes discussed here are: (1) the shift from post-colonial secularism to a diverse post-authoritarian understanding of it (2) the transition from post-colonial to post-authoritarian Islamic theory, focusing on the division of Islam into an ethical framework of reference and the inherent fallibility of all human knowledge of Islam (3) defining the roles of Islam and secularism in a religiously-based democracy, and (4) democratic tolerance and the importance of understanding political traditions in terms of an evolving discourse of experiential knowledge.

From Post-Colonial to Post-Authoritarian Secularism

The concept of secularism in Iran and the Middle East has come under immense criticism from both within and without. These criticisms, though, largely focused on the blind acceptance of a supposedly universal or objective vision of secularism that was embodied by secular dictatorships and disseminated by a hubristic Western liberal discourse of hegemony throughout the post-colonial political era. Indeed, it was precisely this form of imposed and blindly adopted secularism that Jalal Ale-Ahmad, ‘Ali Shari’ati, and Ayatollah Khomeini sought to combat in the 1960s and 70s, and was still a prevailing understanding that the reflexive revivalists had to redirect in the post-authoritarian era as well.

As a point of entry into the evolving debate on secularism, ‘Ali Shari’ati’s encounter with the theory prior to the 1978-79 revolution is instructive. Shari’ati recognized that the strength of a secular ‘society without God’ lay in its institutional structures,[80] but he harshly condemned the effects of a secular democratic society saying that, “individual freedom without a specified direction, [would] be debased and reduced to a veritable cesspool of corruption and filth; [which was] certain to result in the pollution of freedom.”[81] Here, Shari’ati referred to the lack of attention secular society pays to the human spirit. Though he recognized the value of these ‘modern frameworks’ that secular society offered, because it ignored the spirituality of humanity, he believed that man would become ‘savage’ and ‘materialistic.’ Secularism, therefore, debased humanity’s desire for freedom by alienating them from a fundamental necessity of their human condition—spirituality.[82] Shari’ati, however, failed to see the possibility for Islam to be cultivated and thrive within the individual, believing instead that secularism would cause Iranian Muslims to lose their faith unless Islam was institutionalized within the state itself.

Ali Mirsepassi, an Iranian-American professor, intellectual, and recent secular-modernist, directly confronts such monolithic and objective interpretations of secularism, advocating instead for a pragmatic adoption of secular institutional structures. He argues that, a ‘metaphysically interpreted’ version of secularism, if forcefully applied as had been done under the Shah’s regime in Iran, ignores the very valuable institutional structures and conflict resolution mechanisms that secular society provides. By ‘metaphysical’ he means that by turning secularism into an anti-religious ideology, it can no longer act in service of humanity and instead works in the service of a repressive ‘ideal.’ This causes institutional structures—like the judiciary or police force, for example—to focus their efforts on removing religion from the public sphere in the name of some ideological secular ethic instead of allowing individuals to direct the path of the state. Furthermore, he argues that secularism has no claim to “universal or objective truth” in the first place and therefore must operate within the context it is applied to, not be blindly adopted from an externally synthesized model. Secularism, in this way, must be expressed differently in various times and places based on the context that it operates in and is, therefore, not static or objective, but is subject to interpretation.[83]

Talal Asad’s query into the foundations of secularism and various ‘formations of the secular’ substantiates these viewpoints and also refutes secular objectivity, saying, “the secular is not singular in origin, or historical identity, it has shifted throughout the years and necessarily overlaps with religion—neither of which are fixed categories.”[84] Like Mirsepassi, Asad suggests that secularism is fundamentally subjective in nature, and to unquestioningly imitate it based on a foreign entity’s formation of secularism is to also perilously assume the same domestic conditions and social climate. Instead, ‘the secular’ is best implemented through gradual and organic reform.[85]

Again, using ‘Ali Shar’iati’s argument as a useful point of departure, the claim that ‘unguided humanity’ in a secular society would necessarily lead to ‘cesspools of filth,’ brings up the useful topic of public and private overlap in a secular society. Asad claims that a distinct separation between private and public cannot be drawn to suggest that a secular public is necessarily devoid of all religious influence in the first place. He says that, although the government structures themselves may not be based on religion, the people that act within them have viewpoints shaped within both the private and public spheres. It is thus that individuals’ views, no matter the political system they live in, are shaped both inside and outside of the state apparatus.[86] This means that, if a “cesspool of humanity” were to form within the contexts of a secular state, it would be a combination of a failure of the public sphere and private spirituality to direct the course of man. Furthermore, it suggests that a division between public and private spheres of influence is faulty in the first place as it is impossible to restrict the natural commingling of these domains of influence in any society unless done so through coercion.

ʻAbdulkarim Soroush, aptly sums up the transformation of a supposedly objective secularism from a ‘foreign ideology’ that would facilitate the degradation of human spirituality to a useful theory that could be applied within Islamic thought and practice. He says:

we must not take as a starting point of departure the assumption that what has not originated among us is necessarily alien to us … [nor should we] seek to establish the hegemony of one culture at the expense of others … [rather,] each culture contains elements for which it must repent and aspects it should uphold.[87]

The important thing, he believes, is that secularism is neither “blindly emulated nor blindly rejected” based on some false objectivity or understanding of “Islamic culture as terminus.”[88] Secularism, he argues, also does not inherently cause a “decline of religion in society,” as Shari’ati suggested it would. Instead, he says, “we see the opposite … [with] the sharp dichotomies of the past, e.g. between secularism and religion, becoming blurred. They are relics of the positivist era, and are no longer tenable.”[89] In this way, he challenges Shari’ati’s notion that a secular society itself would necessarily prevent humans from attending to their spiritual needs. Instead, he argues that believers, “must stand in the agora of cultural exchange, fit, able, and willing to assume the task of defending the truth for [them]selves.”[90]

From Post-Colonial to Post-Authoritarian Islamic Theory: Referential Divisibility and the Fallibility of Human Knowledge

Expanding upon the reflexive revivalists’ reforms within the Islamic discursive tradition, reformers both in Iran and Middle East have continued to work against the notion of Islam as a perfect and complete political ideology. Instead, they have turned to something resembling a divisible set of faith-based ethics, or an evolving framework for inquiry that is based on incomplete human knowledge and therefore in need of continuous revision and supplementation. As both a point of comparison and departure, it is useful to look again at post-colonial visions of Islam as an ideological political theory from Ayatollah Khomeini and ‘Ali Shari’ati. Khomeini described the political application of Islam as the, “light of divine justice [that] shall shine uniformly on all and the divine mercy of the Qur’an… [that] shall embrace all like life-giving rain.”[91] Indeed it was this unspecific and idealistic vision of Islam that was popularized in the 1970s as the perfect light against the darkness of Western incursion.

Similarly, Shari’ati saw Islam as the perfection of ideology:

the efficacious combination of the three currents [inherent to humanity] of mysticism, socialism (equality), and existentialism (freedom) without the problems of one being able to overtake the goodness of another. As a combination of the three, Islam can overcome the subsumation of humanity by religious slavery, the materialism associated with equity, and the godless misdirection and materialism associated with an unguided free man.[92]

This definition of Islam in Shari’ati’s eyes was first and foremost the idea that it was the perfect completion of ideology for all-time. He argued that it already had the West’s ideas built into it, but corrected their ills like materialism, for example, by attending to the human spirit and providing an absent moral dimension to political, economic, and social interaction. The second important concept to be taken from this is his idea that ‘unguided man’ would necessarily fall into misdirection and godlessness. Though simplistic, this idea that humanity needed a guide adhered to the Shi’ite tradition of taqlid, Ayatollah Khomeini’s notion of velyat-e faiqh, and with the idea that religion in the hands of individuals in the private sphere would not be sufficient to prevent their falling into godless alienation.

In stark contrast to a vision of Islam as a perfect and static ideology is an interpretation of it instead as a divisible set of politically-applicable ethics. Tariq Ramadan, a widely criticized but influential author and cultural critic, advocates the notion of transcending post-colonial conceptions of Islamic objectivism through the use of an ‘Islamic reference’ within emerging secular and democratic societies. He envisions this ‘reference’ not as a static ideological foundation, but as “a corpus of principles that can orient and inspire political action” and as an ‘applicable ethic’ that can transcend the ‘economic subservience’ associated with Western conceptions of liberal democracy and secular society by focusing on social justice and individual spirituality.[93]

Samira Haj, a professor of Middle East studies and author specializing in Islam and modernity also offers some unique analysis that complements the idea that Islam is not an inert or indivisible ideology. Haj presents the argument of Talal Asad that Islam is a discursive tradition that is interpreted and reinterpreted based on historical experience and textual sources extending through the past, present, and into the future. Via this interpretation of Islam as an evolving discursive tradition, she makes the argument that it is best understood as a ‘framework of inquiry’ through which Islamic reformers and everyday people can interpret their present based on a set of historical debates and textual truths.[94] By suggesting that Islamic traditions are essentially socially and historically-situated references, Haj would agree with Ramadan that Islam is not a monolithic ideology that is perfectly static, but rather, serves as a framework of experiential religious knowledge for current and future interpreters.

Soroush and his fellow intellectuals usefully sum up their own vision of this historically-situated ‘framework of inquiry.’ Soroush suggests that because the infallible religious texts of Islam do not contain an outline for a specific form of government, Islam as a politicized ideology is nothing more than fallible human knowledge, not the epitome of ideological perfection that Shari’ati and Khomeini believed it to be.[95] Echoing this point, Mohammad Shabestari argues that human religious knowledge—which Islam as an ideology is derived from—is a fallible source of human intuition that is incomplete and that must be supplemented with ideas like secularism and democracy, for example. “The meaning of perfection of religion is not that it contains everything under the sun,” he says, “so that if we were unable to find a specific item in it we should go off calling it imperfect. It is not perfection for religion to falsely function as a substitute for science, technology, and human deliberation.”[96] In this view, Islam can serve as a framework of reference, for example, but is not going to provide a framework for all aspects of the human political, economic, and social experience as Shari’ati believed it would.

Continuing to Define a Secular and Religious Democracy

The reflexive revivalists have recently elaborated upon their conception of a combination of secularism and Islam within a democratic system. They suggest that secularism acts as the institutionalization of the fluidity of the public will through an ideologically neutral government apparatus. If that public will has Islam as a major marker of its identity, religion can then work its way into the public sphere as a representation of the governed. Other intellectuals and analysts that have expanded upon this combination of Islam and secularism within a democratic framework have produced a diverse body of opinions on the subject. As a foundational reference to understand how one could establish a secular and Islamic democracy, however, the work of Talal Asad again proves most useful. In the post-authoritarian era, Asad views secular theory as a combination of sensibilities and moralities, as “more than just the separation of religious and secular institutions in government, but [a presupposition of] new concepts of religion, ethics, and politics that define a new political ethic.”[97] In this light, secular theory is not an unwavering force of religious evisceration into which all other theories and practices must assimilate, but rather, is an amalgamation of converging ideologies, theories, and beliefs that produce a “least common denominator” or an “overlapping consensus” based on common values like equality, human rights, or female modesty, for example. Secularism, in this way, serves to balance variable religious beliefs and interpretations of reality within the ever-changing expectations of society.[98]

In stark opposition to the notion that religion could indeed operate within a democratic political system, however, ‘Ali Mirsepassi sees a religious and secular democracy as “contradictory and questionable at best.” He argues that:

to have a complete democratic system, one has to desacralize all spheres of politics [because] all religion, in one way or another, rests on a concept of the sacred. If any element of government, leaders, ideologies, institutions, laws and the like is invested with the aura of the sacred, it cannot claim to have come from the will of the people. In a democracy, legitimacy and representation are not permanent or fixed. People and positions can be changed or recalled. Nothing can occupy a privileged position beyond the reach of popular vote.[99]

Mirsepassi is missing the mark entirely here. Instead of understanding Islam in terms of an ever-changing discursive tradition, that is “not permanent or fixed,” he deleteriously assumes that Islam cannot be representative of a collective will of individuals nor be reinterpreted and adjusted over time. Both assumptions are unequivocally false according to the reflexive revivalists.

Soroush, for example, strongly disagrees with Mirsepassi’s desacralization prescription, saying first that in a religious democracy, “it is not religious per se that arbitrates, but some understanding of religion which is, in turn, changing, rational, and in harmony with consensual and accepted extra-religious criteria.”[100] Religion, by this definition, is not opposed to democracy—which is an extra-religious social construction by nature—and therefore is applicable to Mirsepassi’s idea that legitimacy and representation is always changing.  Soroush continues saying:

It is valid to argue that in a secular society a religious democratic government is impossible because religious governments are not answerable to the people. In such a society, the best form of government would be a secular democratic regime. However, it is not valid to argue that nowhere and under no conditions may one perceive the desirability of a religious democracy, even in a religious society. The truth of the matter is that a religious government can be an appropriate reflection of a religious society. Indeed, in such a society a purely secular government would be undemocratic. [101]

In this light, he suggests that the extent to which a society is democratic depends directly on its responsiveness to the will of the people and respect for their right to individual expression. If religion is representative of the will of a population, ensuring a universal application of ‘desacralization’ would itself be inimical to today’s interpretations of secular and democratic theory.

Indeed, Nader Hashemi, who specializes in Islamic, democratic, and secular politics in Iran, agrees with Soroush that a desacralization or a complete ‘privatization of religion’ is not necessary for the establishment of a secular democracy. In fact, he believes that it works against a democratic representation of a society like Iran in which religion is a major marker of individual identity. He argues instead that both secularism and an interpretation of Islam that is operable within a democratic society would need to be socially constructed though a process of bottom-up reform and theoretical indigenization. They are, “earned, not assumed,” he asserts. Though he suggests that a secular democracy can indeed also be a religious one, he qualifies his argument with two “lines that cannot be crossed” within a secular democracy. These “minimums” for secularism come from a notion called the ‘twin tolerations.’[102]

The ‘first toleration’ is the idea that a democratic constitution cannot give religious organizations a ‘veto power’ over popularly elected policies. [103] This means, for example, that the Iranian clerical establishment could not deem a popularly approved removal of the veil in public as un-Islamic and counteract popular sentiment with a veto. Instead, they would be forced to articulate their opposition to it through democratic institution structures—the parliament or free press, for example. Instead of using religion coercively, they would have to use it reasonably by engaging the populations through ijtihad to prove their religious credentials democratically.

The ‘second toleration’ Hashemi presents says that a secular democracy must not bar a religious organization from politics simply for its religious nature. [104] This means that in order for a religious organization to be removed from politics, it would have to be attempting to undermine or subvert the democratic system through violence or coercion. For the sake of relevance and continued public support, though, it would ostensibly be more beneficial for religious organizations to operate within the confines of the system.   

Like Hashemi, Eshkevari also suggests a non-coercive religious democracy that at its core is secular—though not in the sense Mirsepassi describes it as a desacralizaiton of the public space. By secular, Eshkevari means that that a religious democracy is one that is not based on the coercive application of religion, because religion cannot be, according to the Qur’an, imposed on the hearts of individuals, but must be desired by willing believers. Instead he says that a religious and secular democracy is:

one that is based on the non-religious rights of the people and the non-political responsibility of religious individuals towards management and critique of power. Its first responsibility is to provide for the material needs of the people in order to rid them of such material needs, so they can attend to matters that are more delicate and spiritual. The people can thus freely choose their beliefs and also transform society into a stage for open and free choice of religion.[105]

Here, Eshkevari makes the argument that a secular society is based on the inherent human rights of all religious and non-religious individuals. In order for religion to be properly ‘attended to’ in a secular and religious democracy, he argues that a secular state must provide for the people’s worldly needs so that they can further incorporate spiritual matters into their daily lives. Indeed, this provision of worldly needs to the individual is one of the most striking counter arguments against the Islamic Republic, which many believe has utterly failed to produce a viable system of banking, international trade, and social support structures.

Popular Hermeneutics: The Importance of Social Actors in Interpreting Tradition

Expanding from the concept of a potential fusion between Islam and secularism in a democratic society, Soroush moves beyond the existing literature in his discussion of toleration. Indeed, Mirsepassi, Hashemi, and Asad all speak of toleration as a fundamental principle that inherently accompanies secular society; though the question remains as to whether or not toleration can be successfully reconciled within societies where there are a multiplicity of individual conceptions for promoting and ensuring the sanctity of ‘the Good.’[106] Soroush goes beyond simply assuming a tolerant ethic within secular society, however. In an attempt to reconcile the concept of toleration within religious communities, he suggests that the idea of tolerance does not necessarily imply that, in accepting the self-expression of another, a tolerant individual is abandoning or sacrificing their own religious beliefs. Therefore, he believes, the problem of intolerance depends on the choices of the individual believer, not the Islamic faith itself.[107]

At a pragmatic and societal level, Asef Bayat and Nader Hashemi make similar claims that the quest to internalize new visions of Islam and secularism within the Middle East falls on the people themselves and particularly on their social interpretations of secular and religious theory. Bayat argues that little attention has been paid during the post-colonial era to what political theories actually meant in the day-to-day lives of people. Instead, he says that such theories must be defined by human history and humans themselves through social movements in particular, which have a decisive role in developing popular “shapings of truth.” Most importantly, like Soroush, he says that, “it is the social agents that determine the inclusive or authoritarian thrust of religions, not the religions themselves.”[108]

This is a crucial point that exemplifies the shift away from notions of top-down, ideologically-based theories of the post-colonial era. By suggesting that individuals are the ones that determine how theories are expressed at a given point in history, Bayat dispels any preconceived notions of theories having some kind of intrinsic value outside of what a society allows them to have. Bayat, like Soroush, also elevates the role of human agency in the creation political traditions and the governmental structures through which they are corporeally embodied. In this light, the objectivist visions of ideological totality from post-colonial era failed to successfully root themselves within the Middle East because they were not derived from the people themselves but were coercively imposed from the top-down, not through a bottom-up organic synthesis.

Chapter Four – Pragmatic Applications of Iran’s Islamization of Secularism within the Post-Authoritarian Middle East 2005 - 2014

Chapter four discusses the pragmatic applicability of the Islamization of secularism both in Iran and across the Middle East. The first portion of this chapter discusses the lasting implications of the secular and Islamic democratic discourse in Iran after the reform movement was suppressed in the early 2000s. The latter two sections of this chapter deal with the application of the Islamization of secularism on an international scale, first by discussing the secularization of the leadership of Shi’ite political networks across the Middle East and second by offering four fundamental lessons that the Islamization of secularism can offer to other Middle Eastern nations currently in the process of democratic transition.

The Islamization of Secularism after the Dismantling of the Reform Movement 2005 – 2014

Although the Iranian reform movement had generated a viable intellectual framework for Islamic, secular, and democratic governance, by 2004, it had been eclipsed by a wave of social and political repression under the conservative clerical establishment. In his last term as president from 2000 - 2004, Khatami and the Iranian reform movement were effectively immobilized by the subversive political efforts of Khamene’i and his control of the judiciary system. Iran’s reformist intellectuals, political figures, and social activists were regularly summoned by the court systems for even the most minimal critiques of the regime. The parliament and presidency were severely restricted as well, preventing them from successfully facilitating institutional change. By 2005, the reform movement’s role in elected positions had been so restricted that the Iranian people could no longer pragmatically vote for them and expect any change.[109]

In addition to the regime’s domestic efforts to subvert the reform movement, international developments in the early 2000s overshadowed Iran’s quest for reform as well. After the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 and the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, an ‘obsession’ with the United States and its military presence in the region had overtaken the public discourse in Iran. Domestic fears that Iran would be the next victim of a U.S. military intervention grew significantly when the nation had been numbered among George W. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil.’ The conservative regime used this opportunity to shift the public’s attention away from its continuous obstruction of constitutional reform and towards the ‘Great American Satan’ once again. With the Iranian public fearing a United States military intervention and a blaring Islamophobic discourse circulating across Western and international media airwaves, the reform movement’s democratic efforts were utterly subsumed by a global discourse focused on Islamic extremism. As the 2005 presidential elections approached, the Iranian reform movement and their democratic ambitions had been crushed domestically by Khamene’i and overshadowed internationally by a violent surge of American imperialism that had a very different vision of democratization.[110]

By the time the 2005 presidential elections had come around, the conservative establishment had successfully eroded any confidence Iranians had in the reform movement’s ability to produce practical change. The electorate was effectively trapped between an immobilized reform movement and the repressive conservative establishment with few presidential candidates falling outside of that binary. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former professor and provincial governor, had been a vocal critic of the failures of the reform movement throughout the early 2000s. Though he was officially running as a conservative candidate, he did not appear to be completely in the back pocket of the Khamene’i’s clerical establishment. Instead, he appealed to some Iranians as a viable option for change outside of the reformist-conservative gridlock. His eventual victory in the 2005 presidential elections, however, was not greeted with the outpouring of support that Khatami had in 1997. In fact, many Iranians had become so disillusioned with the political system as a whole that they didn’t even show up to vote.[111]

Ahmadinejad’s first term in the presidency was largely characterized by a failure to produce tenable economic strategies to deal with increasing unemployment as well as a resurgence of government restrictions on young people and women. Domestically, freedoms in the press were cut back significantly, professors and students at universities that had remained sympathetic to reform movement ideology were forced out, and the reformist majority in the majlis had all but evaporated. Internationally, Ahmadinejad had reversed what meager gains Khatami had made in easing Iran’s international isolation by giving the nation a friendlier voice in the global arena. In part a ploy to take advantage of Iran’s increasing regional influence as a result of the toppled Afghani and Iraqi governments, Ahmadinejad also sought to increase his domestic and international popularity by stoking national and regional sentiments against Israel and the West. He denied the Holocaust, condemned the United States’ military interventions, and suggested that if it were up to the populations of the Middle East, Israel would be voted out of existence. In 2006, when Iran refused to allow UN inspections of its nuclear facilities, the West assumed the worst, due in part to Ahmadinejad’s vitriolic international grandstanding and ramped up the sanctions that the U.S. had in place for years.[112]

In addition to further corrupting Iran’s international image and launching rampant domestic crackdowns, another defining characteristic of Ahmadinejad’s first term in office was the increasing economic hardship from Western sanctions that were imposed after the 2006 expulsion of UN nuclear inspectors. By the end of Ahmadinejad’s first term in 2009, Iran’s unemployment rate was on the rise again despite marginal improvement since 2005, international and domestic business opportunities were stifled by sanctions, and Iran’s essential oil exports had fallen from 2.5 million barrels per day to approximately 1 million barrels per day.[113] Iranians were promised change and had instead been confronted with the possibility of a U.S. invasion, harsher economic sanctions, and a new surge of government violations of their individual freedoms.

In 2009, with all political avenues for change looking increasingly bleak, the reformists had another opportunity to retake Iran’s presidency. Mir Hussein Mousavi, the pragmatist prime minister who served during the Iran-Iraq War, emerged as the reformist frontrunner for the presidency. Despite the reformists’ failure to deliver meaningful political change in the early 2000s, the discourse of reform and the Iranian intellectuals’ plans for Islamic democracy still resonated with nearly two thirds of the population. The reformists no longer promised any fundamental or revolutionary change, however, but instead focused the Mousavi campaign on steering Iran away from the destructive domestic and international policies that Ahmadinejad had pursued. Indeed, the reformists’ campaign had managed to succeed in mobilizing Iran’s electorate with a nearly 85 percent turnout at the elections.[114]

After voting had concluded, the conservative regime suspiciously shut down the reformist campaign’s election monitoring system, which allowed them to keep track of vote tallies in real time and report fraud if they saw it. Shortly thereafter, Mousavi’s campaign website also went out of service. After only a day of counting votes, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was hastily pronounced the victor despite the fact that there was a legally mandated three-day waiting period before the announcement could be made.[115] The reformists were in utter disbelief that Ahmadinejad could have won and began to find many discrepancies with this outcome. For example:

Mousavi received fewer votes in his hometown of Tabriz than Ahmadinejad; Karoubi’s [the second of three reformist candidates] total vote was less than the number of people active in his campaign, and Rezaee’s [the third reformist candidate] votes shrank by a hundred thousand in the final stages of the announcement.

In addition to this, after all of the votes were tallied, Ahmadinejad had apparently received more total votes in this election with nearly 85 percent voter turnout than he did in the 2005 election with only 60 percent voter turnout. Many Iranians believed this to be inconceivable in light of his extremely unpopular domestic and foreign policies and well-established political knowledge that high voter turnout rarely favors the incumbent. [116]

After scrutinizing the election process in search of more discrepancies, all evidence suggested that there had been no falsely added votes and that the election had indeed been conducted properly. The fraud, the reformists discovered, was not in how the election was conducted as they had expected, but in the official announcement of the results. When the vote count was received by the Ministry of the Interior, it was hastily readjusted and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shocked by the results himself, was fraudulently handed a second term as Iran’s president.[117] Shortly after the election results were officially announced in June 2009, dismayed voters poured out onto the streets, donning green arm and headbands that they had used during the campaign to show support for Mousavi. They carried signs that read, ‘where is my vote?’ (rā’ī man kujast?), and over the following weeks, nearly one million Iranians had mobilized, demanding accountability for what they believed was a blatantly rigged election. These were by far the largest protests Iran had seen since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the conservative regime was well aware of its potential consequences.

These mass mobilizations came to be known as the Iranian Green Movement (junbish-e sabz-e irn) and was a diverse combination of Iranians from various economic and social backgrounds, united in their demands for democratic accountability. These largely peaceful demonstrations, however, were met with excessive government brutality. The revolutionary guard, basij militias, and state police forces attacked the Iranian people on the streets in an attempt to halt the protests. They indiscriminately beat and imprisoned people and occasionally resorted to shooting protestors from rooftops with high-powered sniper rifles to disperse the crowds. Government violence did not stop the protests, however. Social media and camera phones played a major role in disseminating images of government brutality, sparking more popular outrage and causing the movement to grow. By the end of 2009, the Green Movement had reached more than three million strong and their initial focus on the sham election had shifted to calls for the downfall of the Khamene’i regime and a transition to democracy.[118] 

By the spring of 2010, however, the security forces’ excessive presence in the streets, complete shutdowns of reformist media and communication sources, and a systematic campaign to incarcerate prominent political figures within the Green Movement’s upper echelons had proved successful. Mir Hussein Mousavi was placed under house arrest in February and was effectively cut off from any form of communication with his supporters or the outside world. Ahmadinejad, Khamene’i, and the Revolutionary Guard had solidified their control of the Islamic Republic and initiated a period of unprecedented dictatorial repression not seen since the Shah era. The Green Movement had effectively died out in the streets, but its lasting significance cannot be understated. The protests in 2009 exposed the cracks within the conservative establishment, officially dispelled the illusory notion that the Islamic Republic was a legitimate ‘religious democracy’ for all the world to see, and forced the Revolutionary Guard to emerge from the shadows as a major power player in Iran.[119]

Though the Green Movement was initially an outburst of anger for the violation of Iran’s thirty year tradition of fairly administered elections, at a much deeper level, it was the corporeal manifestation of the democratic hope that the reform movement’s intellectual discourse of Islamic secular democracy had generated among Iran’s populations. More precisely, it meaningfully demonstrated that the reformist intellectual narrative was still very much alive in the Iranian public discourse despite the outward appearance of the repressive conservative regime and the reform movement’s failure to change the state’s institutional structures.  Over the next four years of Ahmadinejad’s second term in office, however, that residual hope would be severely put to the test.

Between 2010 and 2013, Iran’s domestic situation became extraordinarily bleak. Absolute dictatorial repression gripped the country as the conservative establishment cracked down on any semblance of opposition. As the Arab uprisings erupted across the Middle East beginning in 2011, Khamene’i and his conservative regime further entrenched their absolute authority, executing, imprisoning, and torturing any remaining individuals still explicitly sympathetic to Green Movement. The Islamic Republic’s belligerent mouthpiece, President Ahmadinejad, had also become increasingly unmanageable for Khamene’i, both internationally and domestically. By the end of his presidency, a deep rift between the conservative clerical authorities and Ahmadinejad had opened up, causing Khamene’i to restrict the Iranian presidency’s power to little more than an international spokesman. Western sanctions had also ramped up significantly against the Islamic Republic for its persistent nuclear program, and by the beginning of 2013, the value of Iran’s currency had fallen by nearly 80 percent, oil exports were at an all-time low, and unemployment had shot up to 14 percent.[120]

As Iran’s 2013 presidential elections approached, Khamene’i knew that his regime would be faced with dire consequences and another mass uprising if he falsified the election results again. Domestic calls for a general boycott of the election circulated with rumors that Iran’s Guardian Council—which is responsible for approving presidential candidates—would not allow any non-conservative candidates to run. That notion, however, was partially proven wrong as reform-oriented candidates that ran as self-described ‘moderates’ were allowed through the selection process. One among them was Hassan Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator, member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, and mid-ranking cleric. Rouhani’s campaign focused on changing the direction of Iran’s international isolation by re-engaging the West and easing nuclear tensions. He also promised to decrease domestic restrictions on the freedom of speech and the press, vowing to cut back security force oversight in universities and civil society. Though the power of the presidency had been severely restricted during Ahmadinejad’s last term in office and such lofty campaign goals depended largely on the willingness of Khamene’i’s regime to allow them to happen, Rouhani’s campaign proved successful, winning him just over 50 percent of the overall vote, with his closest opponent receiving only 17 percent.[121]

It had been widely assumed, given the extreme political repression and consolidation of power after the Green Movement protests, that Khamene’i would dictate the outcome of the election. The fact that he not only failed to unite all the conservatives behind a single candidate and that the overwhelming majority of Iranians united behind Rouhani’s calls for ‘moderation’ spoke volumes about the lasting effects of the Iranian Green Movement and its undergirding discourse of Islamic and secular democratic reform. Though Rouhani’s power to meaningfully direct policy in the Islamic Republic is severely limited today, his recent efforts to ease Western sanctions, soften Iran’s harsh international image, and curb Iran’s nuclear program stand as testaments to Khamene’i's lack of absolute authority. There are deepening cracks within the conservative ranks, many clerics are speaking out in opposition to the regime and its violence in the name of Islam, and an unequivocal victory of a subterranean discourse of secular and Islamic reform has swept the hearts and minds of nearly 80 percent of the Iranian public. [122]  Achieving lasting democratic change within the central hub of politicized Shi’ite clerical authority, however, will be a matter of time and patience.

Situating Iran’s Intellectuals within an International Shi’ite Political Discourse

In an interview in 2010, ‘Abolkarim Soroush appropriately described the concept of Islamic secularism that was becoming increasingly popular throughout the 1990s within the ranks of transnational Shi’ite political organizations. “A line has been drawn,” he said:

between religion and power. This delineation means that, in keeping with their religious duties, religious people can take part in power and politics … [however,] they cannot claim exclusive rights in the name of religion or claim that religion has only one single interpretation, which is the official [clerical] one. These are all things that nowadays fall under the banner of political secularism.[123]

Soroush’s vision of secular politics, whereby religious individuals in power and political roles could still be fully devout Muslims without asserting a claim to Islamic esotericism or imposing religious truth on others, rang true with the earlier efforts of his fellow Iranian intellectuals. Though this discourse of Islamic secularism has failed thus far to produce significant institutional changes within the Iranian state itself, perhaps some of most profound effects can be seen within the recently secularized leadership of Shi’ite political organizations throughout the Middle East. Just as Iran’s intellectuals were heavily influenced by the outcomes of the Iranian Revolution, so too did its consequences weigh heavily on the many Shi’ite political organizations abroad. It is useful, therefore, to begin by looking at a regional disappointment with the Iranian Revolution to understand how a discourse of Islamic secularism could meaningfully replace it.

In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini had declared the Islamic Revolution to be a ‘victory for all of Muslims.’ The Iranian Revolution’s success in casting out the imperialist West was indeed representative of a supposed universal victory for an Islamic ideology that fell well outside of the Cold War’s universalistic binaries. Its ideological triumphalism had generated a great deal of expectations and hope for Islamic organizations abroad, who were similarly experiencing the effects of imperialist duress. By the beginning of the 1990s, however, a separation of many Shi’ite organizations from clerical power centers in Iran and Iraq had become increasingly evident. Lay and clerical leaders of these organizations in Iraq, the Levant, and the Gulf felt as though the Islamic Republic had established a monopoly on Shi’ite religious power and had relegated them and their interests to the periphery. Their discontent grew as they perceived that Khomeini and the new Iranian epicenter of clerical political power were myopically focused on forcefully exporting the revolution to Iraq and eliminating factional opposition within Iran’s domestic political structures. Just as the revolution’s initial triumph had reverberated across the region in 1979, so did many of its unfulfilled expectations.[124]

The failure of the Islamic Revolution throughout the 1980s and 90s to pragmatically deliver on its ideological promises resulted in a widespread trend of, “domestification of Shi’ite political concerns.”[125] This shift inwards exacerbated an existing rift between lay officials and the clergy within these peripheral Shi’ite political groups as well. These lay political figures, known as iffinds in the Gulf and Iraq, traced their intellectual heritage back to ‘Ali Shari’ati and his biting disavowal of the clerical establishment. The extent to which the new Iranian intellectuals’ notion of Islamic secularism had influenced international Shi’ite political networks became clear not only due to a pronounced shift away from clerical power centers in Iran, but also through a blatant transition to iffindi leadership in the 1990s. This idea of Islamic secularism had gained significant traction within these international Shi’ite political networks as a pragmatic solution to existing frustrations with Iranian clerical hegemony. Instead of relying on Iran’s clerical power centers, which had offered many of these Shi’ite groups little more than a supposed perfection of Islamic ideology, they turned to the iffindis and embraced the pragmatism of Islamic secularism to address their local issues.[126]

In Iraq, for example, the Shi’ite political party al-da’wa al-islamiyya (the Islamic Calling), which was founded by the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, severed ties with the clerical establishment in the 1980s. After Saddam’s execution of Baqir al-Sadr and other members of al-da’wa in 1980 for their support of the Iranian revolution, a power struggle between the group’s clerical and lay leadership ensued. Al-da’wa’s new leadership turned away from Iran and Baqir al-Sadr’s vision for the group to establish a universal Shi’ite guardianship over the entire world of believers (velyat-olumma), focusing instead on alleviating persistent domestic persecution and government purges during the Iran-Iraq War. The clerics within the party’s ranks that had previously occupied leadership roles gradually withdrew from politics throughout the 1990s, and today, lay officials have completely replaced them.[127] 

In Bahrain, political influence within Shi’ite religious groups has similarly shifted from clerics to lay officials. For example, the al-Wifaq Shi’ite political party decided that it would participate in the 2006 parliamentary elections despite an existing boycott that had been in place as a result of the Bahraini monarchy’s decision to suspend the nation’s constitution. ‘Ali Salman, the party’s lay figurehead, had managed to muster enough political support outside of religious circles to proceed with the decision to take part in the elections. Only after gaining that domestic support did he go through a prolonged process of reaching out to Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani—one of the highest ranking marja’iyyat (plural for marja’)to receive his official religious approval. Weeks after the decision had already been made within the party ranks, Ayatollah Sistani issued his consent for their participation in the elections. This delayed response and the fact that Sistani’s approval was only sought out after the decision had already been made speaks volumes about the significantly diminished role of clerical officials in political decision making.[128]   

Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani’s approval of al-Wifaq’s participation in the Bahraini elections is also representative of another increasing trend of indirect rather than direct clerical intervention into politics. Sistani like many other high-ranking clerics within the Shi’ite establishment have either never been active in politics or have withdrawn to fulfilling indirect roles outside of Iran’s governing circles. Ayatollah Sadiq Husseini Shirazi, for example, a high-ranking Ayatollah from Karbala, Iraq, decided to remove himself from politics completely, surrendering political decision making to his ‘local representatives,’ saying that they were ‘better informed’ than he was in relation to actual political situations and that his area of expertise remained only in the study of Islam.[129] These apolitical and indirectly involved clerics have been deemed ‘quietists,’ though their opposition to clerical governance—specifically that of Ayatollah Khamene’i—has become more vocal over recent years as a result of what they perceive to be an exploitation of Islam to maintain political control.

Even more pronounced than clerics removing themselves from positions of political authority, however, is a movement of clerics who have been educated within the howzehs (theological seminaries) turning away from the profession altogether. In Saudi Arabia, for example, a former cleric by the name of Mohammed al-Mahfouz said, “Islam can do without the ‘ulema and may be regarded as a personal matter, between God and the individual believer, as Sunnis believe.”[130] Though this idea of removing the necessity of the clerics in Shi’a Islam is not new, it has regained significant traction after intellectuals like Soroush, Shabestari, and Eshkevari had reignited an anti-clerical theoretical discourse in the 1990s that Shari’ati had proposed prior to the Islamic Revolution.

Evidence of this shift away from clerical authority within international Shi’ite political organizations is perhaps the greatest success story thus far of the Iranian intellectuals’ Islamization of secularism. Rather than clerical figures leading political organizations and using ‘official’ religious authority to dictate the path the group should take, lay religious individuals have resoundingly taken up leadership roles in their stead. Religion in this regard is still very much a part of these groups’ political orientations, though the secularized leadership and their opinions regarding Islam remain fundamentally that—opinions. Iran’s intellectual Islamization of secularism, however, has a far broader applicability than simply inspiring Islamic secularization at the political party level. At the theory’s core, the reflexive revivalists sought to create a secular and Islamic democracy, an idea that has profound implications for a Middle East in the midst of democratic upheaval.

Defining a Post-Authoritarian Discourse: Four Lessons for Emerging Middle Eastern Democracies from the Iranian Islamization of Secularism

The democratic aspect of Iran’s Islamization of secularism is perhaps the discourse’s most important defining characteristic. Without democracy and its capacity to institutionalize the fluidity of popular sentiments and interpretations of religion, even the Islamic secularism that is sweeping the ranks of Shi’ite political parties across the region has the capacity to become repressive and authoritarian. In order to better understand the fundamental democratic message of the reflexive revivalists’ Islamization of secularism, it is useful to first look at how another scholar has described their revolutionary efforts to establish a new Islamic political discourse.

Asef Bayat, an Iranian-American author and cultural critic, who specializes in social movements and their relationship to political and Islamic theory, has usefully summarized the intellectual efforts of Iran’s reflexive revivalists. He characterizes them according to the following four principles:

(1) They embrace modernity by not only following in a long tradition of accepting science and reason’s compatibility with Islam, but also creating new ideas and new discursive vocabularies to accompany them (2) they are post-nationalist in nature in that they stopped blaming the outside world for their problems, but instead sought a different notion of freedom than their revolutionary predecessors – they sought freedom as liberty not freedom as liberation from the outside world (3) they are post-revolutionary in that they abandoned the notions that the clerical regime maintained of martyrdom, bravery, and militancy, and instead advocated for tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and democratic reform. (4) They are post-ideological in that they stood against the idea that religion should or could be ideologized, which meant that it necessarily was the antithesis of free critical thinking, needed to ‘create enemies’ and inherently fostered authoritarian-style domination, which encouraged apostasy and ‘Secularism’ [understood in an anti-religious ideological sense].[131]

Based on this relatively comprehensive description, Bayat suggests that Iran’s intellectuals have inaugurated a discourse that is: ‘post-nationalist,’ ‘post-revolutionary,’ ‘post-ideological,’ and finally, he builds up to the all-inclusive description, ‘post-Islamist.’[132]

It is critical to understand what Bayat specifically means by saying that these individuals have created a post-Islamist discourse, because it is not sufficient to simply describe this new intellectual era in terms of what it is not. Indeed, it is not ‘Islamist’ meaning that it does not adhere to some ideological or static vision of Islamic theory. It is, however, according to Bayat, “both a condition and a project, which must be embodied within a master (or multidimensional) movement.” The first phase of this movement he says was a popular experimentation with and ultimate exhaustion of Islamic ideology due to its failures to produce pragmatic results in the economic and political world. At this point, he says that the movement was forced to reinvent itself, but “[did] so at the cost of a qualitative shift away from its fundamental ideological principles.”[133] 

The second phase of this ‘post-Islamist’ movement Bayat says was a “conscious attempt to conceptualize and strategize the rationale and modalities of transcending Islamism.” Through this description, he suggests that the reflexive revivalists’ intellectual efforts are best understood as a transcendence of Islamism. He subsequently qualifies this notion of ‘transcendence,’ however, saying that it, “[was] neither anti-Islamic, nor un-Islamic, nor secular, [but] turned the underlying principles of Islamism on its head … by emphasizing rights instead of duties, plurality in place of a singular authoritative voice, … and the future instead of the past.”[134]

Alternatively, it is crucial to view any recent evolution in the interpretation of Islam in terms of a discursive tradition. In this light, the reflexive revivalists were not necessarily opposing ideological Islam or what Bayat thinks were its ‘fundamental principles’ that opposed ‘rights, plurality, and the future.’ Rather, they reformed fundamental aspects of past Islamic theory to produce a superior representation of what Islamic truth meant to them in the present in reference to a past body of textual and experiential knowledge. It is important to remember as well that the Islamic ideology that the Iranian regime draws its legitimacy from today was at one point in time what the majority of Iranians believed to be the greatest expression of Islamic Truth. As such, the problem with Iranian ‘Islamism’ was not specifically that it was ‘opposed to rights, plurality, or the future’—all of which Iranians had assumed ideological Islam would attend to in 1979—but rather that it had been warped during the Iran-Iraq War into an unmalleable authoritarian government. Therefore, to classify the Islamization of secularism as, “post-Islamist” is both misleading and inaccurate. Rather, it was its revolutionary reconceptualization of secular democracy that best defined it, and more specifically, how politicized Islam as an evolving discursive tradition fundamentally requires a democratic secular neutrality to ensure the continuous production of Islamic reason and knowledge.  

Unlike during the post-colonial political era, Iran’s reflexive revivalists were no longer operating within a discourse of absolutes or oppositionalism. They were not fixated on casting out the West, casting out Islamic ideology, and certainly not on defining their democratic theory in terms of what it was not, as Bayat has with his myriad of ‘post-’ distinctions. Instead, they pragmatically embraced their history and built their interpretations of the present on top of a body of experiential social, political, and religious knowledge. Today, the final step for the Islamization of secularism is to see its immense potential realized within an actual democratic system. For the time being, the Iranian people will have to wait for more opportune circumstances to transition to democracy. Many Arab nations across the Middle East, however, are presently in the process of democratic transition and Iran’s intellectual Islamization of secularism can offer crucial inspiration for these nations as they will invariably need to confront today’s evolving relationship between Islam, secularism, and democracy.

It is imperative to emphasize that the Iranian reflexive revivalists’ ideas must not be blindly emulated by other Middle Eastern democratization efforts. Rather, it is best to understand the international applicability of the Islamization of secularism in terms of a divisible set of the following four principles. First, universalism, theoretical objectivity, and ideological discourses speaking in absolutes are unsustainable bases for democratic politics. They do not allow for democracy to properly function because they are inherently averse to change and may be utilized to force varying conceptions of reality on individuals that may not see it in the same way.

Second, Islam is best understood as lending a non-coercive spiritual and moral dimension to political, economic, and social interactions of individuals if it is to be applied within imperfect human political constructions. While Islam as a religion itself is infallible and perfect, political derivations of it and human religious knowledge as a whole is fallible and must be subject to change. Third, Secularism is best understood as a fundamental governmental neutrality with regards to ideology that allows for agency to rest in the hands of the governed. It is also the fundamental necessity of a democratic society as it fosters a degree of political tolerance among both religious and non-religious individuals. This political tolerance can then prevent the erosion of democracy through ideological coercion and allows democratic elections to determine which interpretation of religious or non-religious policy is the most applicable in that present moment.

Finally, the role for independent human reasoning (ijtihad) to interpret both Islamic texts and religious knowledge and translate them into political systems is central to the combination of Islam and secular democracy. Because there is no reference to a specific style of governance in the infallible sources of Islamic truth (the Qur’an and Sunna), an additional level of ijtihad that focuses on both non-religious and religious knowledge is necessary to establish the most preferred interpretation of political theory as it changes over time. This results of this ijthiad, however, must remain fluid and their interpretations continuous in accordance with the Islamic discursive tradition if they are to be applied within a democratic framework.   

Chapter 5 – Conclusion: Obstacles to a Democratic Iran and Limits of this Research

By framing the Iranian reform movement’s Islamization of secularism historically, theoretically, and through its pragmatic applications since its inception in the 1990s, a concept of what secular and Islamic governance could look like in a post-authoritarian Middle East has been articulated. A new conceptualization of secular theory is best understood in terms of two central ideas. First, as Talal Asad suggests, generally speaking, ‘the secular’ is essentially the creation of a unique set of overlapping consensuses within a domestic context. The overlapping consensus can range anywhere from a consensual privatization of religion and a descralization of the public sphere to a fully religious government. The identity of secularism fundamentally relies, therefore, on the way that it is indigenized within society and what they decide their ‘overlapping consensus’ should be. Second, secularism, as it has been indigenized in Iran, is a fundamental ideological neutrality of the state that allows for political agency to rest in the hands of the governed. In this way, the secular and democratic government system is malleable and can be shaped based on the public will as it invariably changes over time.

With this notion of secularism in mind, politicized Islam is best integrated within a secular framework when it adheres to three recent reconceptualizations of Islamic truth. First, according to Talal Asad, Islam should be broadly understood in terms of a discursive tradition. This discursive tradition is essentially an evolving ‘framework of inquiry’ through which Muslims interpret their present circumstances based on a compilation of experiential religious knowledge and textual references extended through time. This suggests that interpretive knowledge of Islam is in constant flux and is necessarily affected by both religious and non-religious influences at different points in history. Second, according to ‘Abodlkarim Soroush, Islam as a political force is a fundamentally human and, therefore, fallible construction. As such, there can be no esoteric claims by clerics or individuals to a single conception of Islamic political truth. In this light, two levels of ijtihad are necessary today in order to effectively check and balance interpretations of Islamic truth. The first is a traditional narrative-based ijtihad that focuses on interpreting the Qur’an and the Sunna of the Prophet. The second is an innovative reason-based ijtihad that focuses on the results of narrative-based ijtihad as well as non-religious sources of human knowledge in order to effectively establish popular consensus among various interpretations of Islam and their relation to the world. Finally, according to Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari, Islam is fundamentally a spiritual matter of the individual believer and cannot be forced on the heart of the unwilling. This notion of coincides with the Qur’anic mandate that says, “there is to be no compulsion in the acceptance of religion. The right course has been made clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in idolatry and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it…”[135] This suggests that the acceptance of religion is truly an individual matter and that Islamic truth can speak for itself and therefore does not require coercion to be rightfully heard.

With these reconceptualizations from the Islamization of secularism in mind, the politicization of Islam fundamentally relies on a non-coercive secular framework in order to institutionalize the perpetual change inherent to the Islamic discursive tradition. Through this discursive tradition, Muslims continuously interpret the world with both reason and narrative-based ijtihad through a framework of experiential religious knowledge extended through time. They can then apply their conclusions within a democratic framework, by placing their findings in front of the masses to be judged as Ali Akbar Hakimizadeh had urged more than 80 years ago.

Through this unique democratic theory, the Iranian reflexive revivalists issued a threatening challenge to the authoritarian clerical government within Iran. Though they have been marginalized for the last two decades, their theory is very much alive both within Iran itself as well as abroad. The prospects for democratic transition in Iran today are actually quite good despite the government’s continuous violation of individual freedoms. For example, many of Iran’s young men and women have been through university systems both within Iran and abroad, providing Iranian civil society with a body of well-informed and cosmopolitan social agents with high expectations of government; young Iranians have overwhelmingly turned away from clerical authority and discounted a revolutionary narrative of international isolation, martyrdom, and dutiful piety; the clerical conservative regime is almost completely isolated internationally with few allies capable of assisting them should a mass uprising occur; many high-ranking clerics have turned away from the Iranian regime and have sharply criticized Ayatollah Khamene’i for using Islam as a means of political repression; and most importantly, nearly 80 percent of the population supports the democratic reform narrative that was undergirded by the intellectual efforts of Iran’s reflexive revivalists.[136]

Despite all of these trends suggesting that a realization of the Islamization of secularism in Iran is possible, there are four major obstacles that have hindered democratic transition. First, the Iranian regime is not simply an authoritarian government, but is a religious government that still maintains the unwavering support of about 20 percent of the population. According to a former member of the Iranian Green Movement, “these people still really believe that the rahbar is the representative of God on earth. They would die for him if he told them God wanted them to.”[137] Second, in addition to this zealous portion of the population—many of whom are already members of the armed forces, basij militias, or the police force—the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard), has a vested interest in keeping the conservative government in power, violently if necessary. During the reconstruction era in the early 1990s, Khamene’i and Rafsanjani gave the Pasdaran control of approximately 40 percent of the entire Iranian economy. Should the current political balance be upset, their economic interests would likely be threatened by a new government system. As such, there is a good reason to believe that, as demonstrated during the Green Movement protests of 2009, the armed forces would willingly fire upon the population if there was a democratic uprising.[138]

Third, with the knowledge that the armed forces would likely fire upon the Iranian people if their economic and political interests were threatened, the specter of the Syrian civil war looms over the head of many Iranians. With well over one hundred thousand people dead and the civil war showing no signs of slowing down, the Iranian people, in many ways, fear a similar bloody fate. In addition to that, the violent anarchy and mass political executions that ensued after the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution are still very much alive in many Iranians’ memory. Finally, the international sanctions that are in place have overwhelmingly hurt the Iranian people more than the conservative establishment. With their currency devalued by nearly 80 percent since 2006, economic hardship has afflicted lower and middle-class Iranians alike. As such, many do not have the luxury to step away from their occupations for long periods of time, making a prolonged popular insurrection less of a reality for many Iranians who need to focus instead on managing everyday expenses.[139]

Democratic transition in Iran will likely come via a prolonged reform effort rather than a popular uprising. For the time being, however, the revolutionary intellectual efforts of the reflexive revivalists, need not be confined to Iran. Their discourse of democratic reform and a combination of non-coercive secular and Islamic theory can indeed have profound implications as a viable reference for other nations across the Middle East in their own democratic transitions. The reflexive revivalists must not be blindly mimicked nor disregarded, but religious intellectuals within nascent Middle Eastern democracies must indigenize their own conceptions of secular and Islamic theory, using Iran’s Islamization of secularism as a useful framework of reference not a model for reproduction.  

Democratic transition will remain an immense task for intellectuals across the Middle East and one that will certainly warrant future research, as the Islamization of secularism continues to evolve within various national contexts. The greatest limitations of this particular research study were twofold. First, the vast majority of the intellectual publications of these thinkers remain untranslated from Persian and are notoriously difficult to obtain. Few libraries have access to any of these Persian volumes, meaning that I unfortunately had to rely mostly on secondary sources to gather the majority of the quotes from the theorists used in this case study. Second, there is very little that has been written on this topic, with most intellectual histories of contemporary Iran ending with the initial works of Soroush, without juxtaposing his ideas with those of the many other theorists who have elaborated on his intellectual efforts.


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---. Religion vs Religion. S.l.: ABC International Group, 2000. Print.

Sisk, Timothy D. Between Terror and Tolerance: Religious Leaders, Conflict, and Peacemaking. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2011. Print.

Stepan, Alfred, Arguing Comparative Politics. “The Twin Tolerations” New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. pg. 213-53. Print.

Soroush, ʻAbdolkarim, Mahmoud Sadri, and Ahmad Sadri. Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of ʻAbdolkarim Soroush. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Soroush, ‘Abdolkarim. "Enlightenment and Philosophy in Islam." Interview by Michiel Leezenberg. Dr. Soroush.com., Autumn 2007. Web.

---. Farbehtar az Ideolodji (Sturdier than Ideology). Tehran. Sarat Press, 1993. Print.

---. "It’s Best Just to Speak of an Unqualified Republic." Interview by Mojgan Modarres-Olum. Dr. Soroush.com., 1 Mar. 2010. Web.

---. Modara va Modiriyyat. (Moderation and Administration). Tehran. Sarat Press, 1997. Print

---. Qabz va Bast-e Te’orik-e Shari’at: Nazariyyeh Takamol Ma’refat-e Dini (The Expansion and Contraction of the Theory of Shari’a: Analyzing the Evolution of Religious Knowledge). Tehran. Sarat Press, 1995. Print.

---. Raz-dani va Roshanfekri va Dindari (Knowing Secrets and Intellectualism and Religiosity). Tehran. Sarat Press, 1998. Print.

Wright, Robin. "Abdolkarim Soroush" The Guardian / Los Angeles Times, 1 Feb. 1995. Web. 22 Jan. 2014.


[1] Hashemi, Nader. “Is Rouhani the Iranian Gorbachev?”

[2] Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety :The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. pg. 24-5.

[3] Soroush, ʻAbdolkarim, Mahmoud Sadri, and Ahmad Sadri. Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of ʻAbdolkarim Soroush. pg. xix.

[4] Haj, Samira. Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition: Reform, Rationality, and Modernity. pg. 4.

[5] Asad, Talal. The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam. pg. 14.

[6] Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular. pg. 2-5; 16.

[7] Keddie, Nikki. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. pg.132-69. and Matin-Asgari, Afshin. “The Pahlavi Era: Iranian Modernity in Global Context” in Daryaee, Touraj. The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. pg. 348-65.

[8] There is some debate about this western-orchestrated coup. Though the CIA and MI6 did play a central role, some have tried to lessen it, suggesting instead that domestic factions – namely a group of clerics associated with Ayatollah Khomeini – were responsible for generating enough genuine public support to launch the coup. I believe more contemporary anti-clerical political motivations are behind pinning the clerics as the primary movers against Mossadegh. Though there was some clerical opposition to Mossadegh that participated in the coup, the fact that the initial coup that was launched by the CIA failed is central to understanding why the clerics would support the second successful coup shortly thereafter. Without the CIA’s first failed attempt it would have been very unlikely that the clerics would have willingly launched one themselves. So, to diminish the role the CIA played, especially the money that was used to pay off hesitant opposition figures, would be to ignore well-documented facts.  Though I do not agree with the views held in the book, it is an interesting counterargument to the long-established narrative of Western unilateral intervention that warrants a response. Bayandor, Darioush. Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited.

[9] Keddie, Nikki. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. pg.132-69. and Matin-Asgari, Afshin. “The Pahlavi Era: Iranian Modernity in Global Context” in Daryaee, Touraj. The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. pg. 348-65.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular. pg.25.

[15] Andresen, Joshua. "Deconstruction, Secularism, and Islam." pg. 375-92.

[16] Keddie, Nikki.Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. pg. 222.

[17] Boroujerdi, Mehrzad. Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism. pg. 68-9.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Keddie, Nikki. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. pg. 200.

[20] Milani, Abbas. Notes from a brief interview on 1 Nov. 2013.

[21] Shari’ati, Ali. Iqbal: Manifestation of the Islamic Spirit, Two Contemporary Muslim Views. pg. 48. Translated by Laleh Bakhtiar from the original Persian.

[22] Rāhnamā, ʻAlī. An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari'ati. pg. 247-8.

[23] Shari’ati, Ali. Marxism and Other Western Fallacies: An Islamic Critique. pg. 111. For a description of Shari’ati’s attack against the ‘ulema, see Rāhnamā, ʻAlī. An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari'ati. pg. 248-50. For the original text, see Shari'ati, Ali. Religion vs Religion.

[24]Shari’ati, Ali. Tashayyo’-e ‘alavi (‘Alawi Shi’ism). pg. 273-4. 1973. Found in Keddie, Nikki. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. pg. 208.

[25] Milani, Mohsen M. "The Transformation of the Velayat-e Faqih Institution: From Khomeini to Khamenei."pg.176-77.

[26]  Ibid. and Kamrava, Mehran. Iran's Intellectual Revolution. pg.85-91.

[27] Ansari, Ali. Modern Iran: The Pahlavis and After. pg. 246-51; 257. Ayatollah Muthhari was arguably one of the most influential figures behind Khomeini’s idea of velyat-e faqih. He has been described as the ‘theoretician’ of the Islamic Revolution, but was assassinated during the revolution itself by radical anti-clerical elements within Iran. His biography provides a useful discussion of his influence on Ayatollah Khomeini’s velyat-e faqih and ideas for an Islamic government. It can be found in Davari, Mahmood T. The Political Thought of Ayatullah Murtaza Mutahhari: An Iranian Theoretician of the Islamic State.

[28] Ibid. pg. 248-56.

[29] Ibid. pg. 260-63. and Matin-Asgari, Afshin. “The Pahlavi Era: Iranian Modernity in Global Context” in Daryaee, Touraj. The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. pg. 362-3.

[30] Matin-Asgari, Afshin. “The Pahlavi Era: Iranian Modernity in Global Context” in Daryaee, Touraj. The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. pg. 367-8.

[31] The term maktabi is drawn from the Arabic and Persian word for book (kitāb), suggesting that these individuals had a ‘by the book’ doctrinal view of Islamic principles.

[32] The divergence in terminology used to describe these two groups is curious. I believe that for the first group, ‘republican Islamists’ is the most apt description as these individuals were, by and large, dedicated to establishing an Islamically infused democratic republic. The term ‘liberal’ in my mind suggests a more western-oriented philosophy, though in reality, they were more interested in curbing the power of the ‘ulema through a democratic state rather than adhering to some normative understanding of Western liberalism. This collection of ‘republicans’ was composed of many different Islamic Marxists, leftists, and other disparate pro-democratic groups. The second group’s descriptions as ‘maktabis’ and ‘authoritarian Islamists’ is also misleading. Though many of these individuals did hold a stricter interpretation of Islamic principles that they sought to institutionalized through coercion if need be, they were mostly interested in securing a position for the ‘ulema in the new state. I also want to shy away from describing these pro-clerical Islamists as velayatis, becuase Khomeini’s idea of velayat-e faqih remained unarticulated at this early stage in the revolution. It is more important, therefore, to view this as a division over the role for the ‘ulema in the emerging republic, and less about their liberal or authoritarian bent. Regardless, the terms ‘republican Islamist’ and ‘authoritarian Islamist can be found in Ansari, Ali. Modern Iran: The Pahlavis and After. pg. 281. The terms ‘liberal Islamist’ and ‘maktabi’ can be found in Behrooz, Maziar. “Iran After Revolution” in Daryaee, Touraj. The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. pg. 369-70.

[33] Behrooz, Maziar. “Iran After Revolution” in Daryaee, Touraj. The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. pg. 370; Ansari, Ali. Modern Iran: The Pahlavis and After. pg. 281; and Milani, Mohsen M. "The Transformation of the Velayat-e Faqih Institution: From Khomeini to Khamenei."pg.179.

[34] Ansari, Ali. Modern Iran: The Pahlavis and After. pg. 268-82.

[35] Parvaz, D. "Iran 1979: A Revolution That Shook the World." Interview with Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a professor of political science at Syracuse University.

[36] Ansari, Ali. Modern Iran: The Pahlavis and After. pg. 290-94 and Behrooz, Maziar. “Iran After Revolution” in Daryaee, Touraj. The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. pg. 374.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Peterson, Scott. Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran – A Journey Behind the Headlines. pg. 81-115.

[39] Behrooz, Maziar. “Iran After Revolution” in Daryaee, Touraj. The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. pg. 376.

[40] Behrooz, Maziar. “Iran After Revolution” in Daryaee, Touraj. The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. pg. 377-81.

[41] Ibid. and Matin-Asgari, Afshin. “The Iranian Left’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey.” in Cronin, Stephanie, and University of London. Reformers and Revolutionaries in Modern Iran: New Perspectives on the Iranian Left. pg. 49-50.

[42] The position of hujatolislam within the clerical establishment is a level below that of Ayatollah and far below the highest rank an Ayatollah can achieve – Marja’-e Taqlid. Khamenei was quickly promoted to Ayatollah after assuming leadership of the Islamic Republic, but his religious credentials were severely lacking and required him to do a great amount of appeasement of clerics who outranked him. He also removed himself from Iran’s fractional politics, trying to avoid any unnecessary criticism to his already questionable leadership. This conferred great power and authority to the Presidency under Rafsanjani, allowing him relative freedom of action.  As a second note, the Guardian Council is a body of clerics that is responsible for choosing and dismissing, if necessary, the rahbar. It is composed of six high-ranking clerics that are elected by the parliament, though the degree to which they represent the Iranian people through this electoral system is limited, as their positions of power and the tradition of taqlid gives them power to dictate Islamic law and guidance as they see fit.

[43] Milani, Mohsen M. "The Transformation of the Velayat-e Faqih Institution: From Khomeini to Khamenei.” pg. 175.

[44] Kamrava, Mehran. Iran’s Intellectual Revolution. pg. 105-7.

[45] Behrooz, Maziar. “Iran After Revolution” in Daryaee, Touraj. The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. pg. 377-81.; Bayat, Asef. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post- Islamist Turn. pg. 56-7.; and Mashayekhi, Mehrdad. "The Revival of the Student Movement in Post-Revolutionary Iran." pg. 287.

[46]Keddie, Nikki. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. pg. 266-7.

[47] Mashayekhi, Mehrdad. "The Revival of the Student Movement in Post-Revolutionary Iran." pg. 287-88.

[48] Bayat, Asef. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. pg. 59-65.

[49] Ibid. pg. 61; 63.

[50] Ibid. pg. 86-7.

[51] Behrooz, Maziar. “Iran After Revolution” in Daryaee, Touraj. The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. pg. 381.

[52] Ibid. pg. 382.

[53] Ibid. pg. 383. and Peterson, Scott. Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran – A Journey Behind the Headlines. pg. 116 - 25.

[54] Behrooz, Maziar. “Iran After Revolution” in Daryaee, Touraj. The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. pg. 384.

[55] Wright, Robin. "Abdolkarim Soroush." pg.1 and Sadri, Mahmoud. "Sacral Defense of Secularism: The Political Theologies of Soroush, Shabestari, and Kadivar." pg.257.

[56] Kamrava, Mehran. Iran's Intellectual Revolution. pg. 155-6.

[57] Milani, Abbas. Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran. pg. 16. and Kamrava, Mehran. Iran's Intellectual Revolution. pg. 61; 181; 183.

[58] Soroush, ʻAbdolkarim, Mahmoud Sadri, and Ahmad Sadri. Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of ʻAbdolkarim Soroush. pg. xix.

[59] Soroush, ʻAbdolkarim, Mahmoud Sadri, and Ahmad Sadri. Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of ʻAbdolkarim Soroush. pg. 54.

[60] Ibid. pg. 60.

[61] Ganji, Akbar. Manifest-e Jomhuri-khahi. (Republican Manifesto). pg. 16. Translated from original Persian by James Glassman.

"... از نظر ایدئولوژیک بی طرف است... دولت حق دخالت در دین را ندارد ولی دین مثل هر نهاد دیگر جامعه مدنی می تواند در سیاست جاری دخالت کند و انتقادات خود را علناً بیان کند."

[62]  Kamrava, Mehran. Iran's Intellectual Revolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2008. pg. 206-7. Print.

[63] Soroush, ʻAbdolkarim, Mahmoud Sadri, and Ahmad Sadri. Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of ʻAbdolkarim Soroush. pg. 132.

[64] Shabestari, Mohammad. Iman va Azadi, (Faith and Freedom). pg. 67; 134; 192. quoted in Sadri, Mahmoud. "Sacral Defense of Secularism: The Political Theologies of Soroush, Shabestari, and Kadivar." pg.261-2.

[65] Soroush, ʻAbdolkarim, Mahmoud Sadri, and Ahmad Sadri. Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam :Essential Writings of ʻAbdolkarim Soroush. pg.138.

[66] Milani, Abbas. Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran. pg. 15.

[67] Soroush, ‘Abdolkarim. Farbehtar az Ideolozhi (Sturdier than Ideology). pg. 122. found in Kamrava, Mehran. Iran’s Intellectual Revolution. pg. 159.

[68] Ibid. pg. 135.

[69] Soroush, ʻAbdolkarim, Mahmoud Sadri, and Ahmad Sadri. Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of ʻAbdolkarim Soroush. pg. 122.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid. pg. 123.

[72] Soroush, ‘Abdolkarim. Qabz va Bast-e Te’orik-e Shari’at: Nazariyyeh Takamol Ma’refat-e Dini (The Expansion and Contraction of Theory of Shari’a: Analyizing the Evolution of Religious Knowledge). pg. 245. found in Kamrava, Mehran. Iran’s Intellectual Revoltuion. pg. 157-8.

[73] Milani, Abbas. The Shah. pg.56-7.

[74] Hakimizadeh, Ali Akbar. Asrar-e Hezar Saleh. (Thousand-Year-Old Mysteries) pg.4. Translated by James Glassman from the original Persian. "... در میدان خالی رجز خوانده باشد و یا ملیونها کتاب را از رجز خوانی پر کرده"

[75] Ibid. Translated by James Glassman from the original Persian "اکنون جز دلیل و منطق چیزی نمی تواند جلو آنرا بگیرد اگر دارید که چه بهتر و گرنه دیگر با سکوت و تکفیر و یا فاسد العقیده خواندن و استکان آب کشیدن نمی توان جلو سیل احساسات مردم استاد اکنون یا جواب یا استعفا"

[76] Soroush, ‘Abdolkarim. Raz-dani va Roshanfekri va Dindari (Knowing Secrets and Intellectualism and Religiosity). pg. 109. quoted in Kamrava, Mehran. Iran’s Intellectual Revolution. pg. 160.

[77] Soroush. ‘Abdolkarim. Modara va Modiriyyat. (Moderation and Administration). pg. 26; 47. found in in Kamrava, Mehran. Iran’s Intellectual Revolution. pg. 160.

[78] Quoted in Kamrava, Mehran. Iran’s Intellectual Revolution. pg. 150.

[79] Shabestari, Mohammad. Naqdi bar Qara’t-e Rasmi az Din. (A Critique of the Official Reading of Religion). pg. 97. found in Ibid. pg. 169.

[80] ‘Ali Shari’ati. Marxism and Other Western Fallacies :An Islamic Critique. pg. 100-01

[81] Ibid. pg. 112.

[82] Ibid. pg. 99-101.

[83] Mirsepassi, ‘Ali. Democracy in Modern Iran. pg. 20; 25; 46-7; 63.

[84] Asad, Talal: Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. pg.25.

[85] Chatterjee, Partha. “Fasting For Bin Laden: The Politics of Secularization in Contemporary India.” Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors. pg. 60.

[86] Asad, Talal: Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. pg. 186-7.

[87] Soroush, ‘Abdolkarim: Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of ʻAbdolkarim Soroush. pg.169.

[88] Ibid. pg. 170.

[89] Soroush, ‘Abdolkarim. "Enlightenment and Philosophy in Islam." pg. 2.

[90] Soroush, ‘Abdolkarim. Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of ʻAbdolkarim Soroush. pg.170.

[91] Khomeini, Ali Ruhollah. cited in, Peterson, Scott. Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran--a Journey behind the Headlines. pg.34.

[92] Shari’ati, Ali. Marxism and Other Western Fallacies: An Islamic Critique. pg. 119-20.

[93] Ramadan, Tariq. The Arab Awakening :Islam and the New Middle East. pg. 98-116.

[94] Haj, Samira. Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition: Reform, Rationality, and Modernity. pg.4.

[95] Soroush, ʻAbdolkarim, Mahmoud Sadri, and Ahmad Sadri. Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of ʻAbdolkarim Soroush. pg. 192-4.

[96] Sadri, Mahmoud. "Sacral Defense of Secularism: The Political Theologies of Soroush, Shabestari, and Kadivar." pg. 261.

[97] Asad, Talal: Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. pg.16.

[98] Ibid. pg. 2.

[99] Mirsepassi, ‘Ali: Democracy in Modern Iran :Islam, Culture, and Political Change. pg. 101.

[100] Soroush, ‘Abdolkarim: Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of ʻAbdolkarim Soroush. pg. 131.

[101] Ibid. pg. 126.

[102] Hashemi, Nader. Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies. pg.172-4., which presents the notion of the ‘Twin Tolerations,’ found in Stepan, Alfred, Arguing Comparative Politics. pg. 213-53.

[103] Ibid. pg. 175.

[104] Ibid. pg. 175-6.

[105] Eshkevari, Hasan. Hakumat-e Demokratik-e Islami (Democratic Islamic Government) pg.296., found in  Kamrava, Mehran. Iran's Intellectual Revolution. pg.135.

[106] Asad, Talal: Formations of the Secular :Christianity, Islam, Modernity. pg. 182-3. and MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. pg. 220-24.

[107] Soroush, ‘Abdolkarim: Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of ʻAbdolkarim Soroush. pg. 138. This notion of tolerance within the Islamic faith is advanced ad nauseum in many other books targeting a Western audience. It is in large part a reaction to the post-colonial era traditions of Orientalism, but especially the September 11 attacks that elicited a widespread Western demonization of Islam as intolerant and violent. This is a brief but not exhaustive list of sources that I found, which discuss this Islamically-rooted tolerance: (1) Abou El Fadl, Khaled, Joshua Cohen, and Ian Lague. The Place of Tolerance in Islam. (2) Diouf, Mamadou. Tolerance, Democracy, and Sufis in Senegal. (3) Jackson, Sherman A. On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abū Ḥāmid Al-Ghāzalīʼs Fayṣal Al-Tafriqa Bayna Al-Islam Wa Al -Zandaqa. (4) Shah-Kazemi, Reza. The Spirit of Tolerance in Islam. and (5) Kurzman, Charles. Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook.

[108] Bayat, Asef: Making Islam Democratic :Social Movements and the Post- Islamist Turn. pg.5.

[109] Behrooz, Maziar. “Iran After Revolution” in Daryaee, Touraj. The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. pg. 384-85. and Ansari, Ali, M. Iran, Islam, and Democracy: The Politics of Managing Change. pg. 220-24.

[110] Ansari, Ali, M. Iran, Islam, and Democracy: The Politics of Managing Change. pg. 229-33.

[111] Ibid.

[112] Ibid. pg. 386-7. and Gerges, Fawaz. A. Obama and the Middle East. pg. 178-9.

[113]Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yearly Economic Reports 2005 – 2010.

[114] Hashemi, Nader. and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle For Iran’s Future. pg. xi-xii. and Sahimi, Muhammad. “A Raging Fire Under a Heap of Ash: The Green Movement at One Year.” pg. 295.

[115] Kurzman, Charles. “Cultural Ju-jitsu” Ibid. pg. 7

[116] Alizadeh, Ali. “Why are the Iranians Dreaming Again?” Ibid. pg. 3-4.

[117] Farhadpour, Morad, and Omid Mehrgan. “The People Reloaded.” Ibid. pg. 130.

[118] Hashemi, Nader. and Danny Postel. Ibid. pg. xvi-xvii.

[119] Sahimi, Muhammad. “A Raging Fire Under a Heap of Ash.” Ibid. pg. 295-7.

[120] Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 2010 – 2013. and Berliner, Uri. "Crippled By Sanctions, Iran's Economy Key In Nuclear Deal."

[121] Bakhash, Shaul. "Rouhani's Surprising Election." pg. 1-2.

[122] Hashemi, Nader. “Is Rouhani the Iranian Gorbachev?”

[123] Soroush, ‘Abdolkarim. “It’s Best Just to Speak of an Unqualified Republic”

[124] Louer, Lawrence. Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf. pg. 177-83.

[125] Louer, Lawrence. Shi’ism and Politics in the Middle East. pg. 84.

[126]  Ibid. pg. 24-5.

[127] Ibid. pg. 126. and Louer, Lawrence. Transnational Shia Politics Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf. pg. 84-7.

[128] Louer, Lawrence. Shiism and Politics in the Middle East. pg. 131-2.

[129] Ibid. pg. 133.

[130] Ibid. pg. 128.

[131] Bayat, Asef. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post- Islamist Turn. pg.86-7.

[132] Ibid. pg. 10-11.

[133] Bayat, Asef. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. pg. 10-11.

[134] Ibid. pg. 11.

[135] al-Qur'an al-Karim. Translated by Sahih International. (Sura 2, Verse 256).

[136] Hashemi, Nader. “Is Rouhanin the Iranian Gorbachev?” and Milani, Abbas. “Prospects for Democracy in Iran”

[137] Anonymous. Interview conducted February 16, 2014. When I told this individual that my work may be publically published on the university’s website, they asked that I kept their identity confidential.

[138] Hashemi, Nader. “Is Rouhanin the Iranian Gorbachev?” and Milani, Abbas. “Prospects for Democracy in Iran”

[139] Ibid.

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