Imagine that there is a reactionary and theocratic regime somewhere in the world -- one that routinely violates human rights, censors newspapers, harasses labor unionists, and punishes women for “sex outside of marriage” (even when they committed that "crime" by being the victims of rape). Suppose the regime does all this, and more, while enjoying friendly relations with the United States. Not so hard to picture, I'm afraid, realpolitik being what it is. We used to give big fat foreign-aid checks to the Taliban, remember.
But let's go further. Let's imagine that (in spite of everything) there are eloquent and courageous critics of the status quo within the country who fight to get a hearing. They organize, they demonstrate, they publish; they exploit every opportunity available to put forward an alternative vision of their society. The dissidents find that their fellow citizens, especially young people, are interested in what they have to say. They also often find themselves, no surprise, in prison.
Furthermore, let's picture the ranks of that opposition as filled with eloquent and well-read academics and intellectuals -- men and women who turned out, hard questions already formulated, whenever Jurgen Habermas or Antonio Negri showed up to give a lecture.
Courageous, committed, and smart.... What's not to like? Wouldn’t their peers in the United States want to do everything they could to support the dissidents? Wouldn’t there be solidarity groups, and teach-ins, and militant slogans hailing their cause as urgent and just?
Okay, now suppose that all of the above were true -- except for the part about the regime having U.S. support. Suppose, rather, the thugs in charge were full of anti-imperialist sentiment, ready to denounce most of the evil in the world as an American export....
You probably see where this is going.
“In hundreds of conversations I’ve had with Iranian intellectuals, journalists, and human rights activists in recent years, I invariably encounter exasperation,” writes Danny Postel in Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism, a recent addition to the Prickly Paradigm pamphlet series distributed by the University of Chicago Press. “Why, they ask, is the American Left so indifferent to the struggle taking place in Iran? Why can’t the Iranian movement get the attention of so-called progressives and solidarity activists here? Why is it mainly neoconservatives who express interest in the Iranian struggle?”
Postel, a senior editor of the online magazine openDemocracy, sees the Iranian situation as a crucial test of whether soi-disant American “progressives” can think outside the logic that treats solidarity as something one extends only to people being hurt by client-states of the U.S. government.
“Of course we should be steadfast in opposition to any U.S. military intervention in Iran,” he writes; “that’s the easy part. But it’s not the end of the discussion. Iran is, as the Iranian anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini puts it, ‘a state at war with itself.’ Progressives everywhere should take sides in that war and actively support the forces of democracy, feminism, pluralism, human rights, and freedom of expression.”
Postel’s title is a nod to Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading “Lolita” in Tehran, of course -- but also to Habermas’s work of social analysis from the book from the early 1970s, Legitimation Crisis. The role that recent European critical theory has played in Iran is a topic revisited by Postel in the booklet’s four sections -- one of them being a reflection on Michel Foucault’s journalistic writings on the Iranian Revolution, and his failure to discuss it after the clerical dictatorship was established. The highlight of the book is an extensive interview with the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo that deserves the widest possible audience. (Fortunately it is also available online.)
Habermas’s concept of “legitimation crisis” refers to periods when, as his translator sums it up, “the ‘organizational principle’ of a society does not permit the resolution of problems that are critical for its continued existence.” That notion may apply to Iran now. The viability of a regime has gone seriously into question when it feels threatened, not just by war clouds on the horizon, but by its own young people’s interest in studying philosophy.
But after reading this short book, I had to wonder if there might be another legitimation crisis under way – one affecting American scholars and activists who see themselves as progressives, who thrill to that oft-repeated demand to "speak truth to power." An unwillingness to extend support to the Iranian opposition puts into question any claim to internationalism, solidarity against oppression, or defense of intellectual freedom.
I sent Danny Postel a few questions by e-mail. Here’s a transcript of the exchange.
Q: You contend that the American left has shown an unseemly reticence about supporting oppositional movements in Iran: human-rights activists, feminists, journalists critical of the theocracy, etc. You say that there has been a double standard at work -- a tendency to express solidarity with movements if, but only if, the regimes they oppose are American client states. Is that something you've done yourself, in the past? If so, what made you question that tendency?
A: I came of age politically in large measure through the Central America solidarity movement of the 1980s. As I say in the book, our solidarity with struggles for justice in places like El Salvador was simultaneously a struggle against U.S. policies in the region -- namely, its support for death squads and murderous regimes. So there was a confluence between what we were against and what we were for: it was all of a piece.
But in a case like Iran, being against U.S. aggression and military intervention -- which we should indeed oppose, and strenuously -- doesn’t necessarily tell us how to think about the internal situation in Iran, or logically lead to a position of solidarity with the kinds of oppositional movements you mention. There’s no direct or obvious link, in other words, between what we’re against and what we’re for with respect to Iran. Most leftists are better at thinking about the first half of that equation, and tend to get confused (or sometimes worse) when it comes to the second half.
So yes, my political consciousness was very much formed within that paradigm, the framework of anti-imperialism. In the 1980s I was definitely less than enthusiastic about the idea, for example, of supporting dissident movements in Eastern Europe. I never sympathized with, and indeed was appalled by, the Soviet empire. Somehow, though, the prospect of standing in solidarity with those resisting it from inside just didn’t stir me.
In retrospect I’m self-critical about that. I now think people like Mary Kaldor (from Helsinki Citizens Assembly) and Joanne Landy (of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy) -- among others on the Left -- were spot on in simultaneously opposing U.S. militarism and supporting democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Eastern Europe. I retroactively stand with them and wish I had been with them at the time.
Realizing that I got it wrong on that front is partly why Iran is important to me. Though I don’t discuss it much in the book, the parallels between Eastern Europe and Iran are manifold -- many of the philosophers and political thinkers who inspired Eastern European dissidents loom large for Iranian dissidents today (Arendt, Popper, Berlin). But the more direct reason for my engagement with Iran is personal: two close Iranian friends, over the course of countless conversations and e-mail exchanges, convinced me that something truly remarkable was happening in Iran, both politically and intellectually. The more I read and explored, the more I was hooked. And I’ve been asked to get involved, for example in the Committee for Academic and Intellectual Freedom of the I nternational Society for Iranian Studies, through which I’ve made more friends. Some of my friends in Iran have been jailed. So my involvement in the issue has become very personal.
My book is an attempt to engage the Left in an argument about Iran. We -- myself included -- have gotten a lot of things wrong. I desperately want us to get Iran right.
Q: So how do you account for the persistence of the blindspot? Is it intellectual laziness? A preference for moral simplicity? At the same time, isn’t the desire to avoid saying anything that could be useful to the neocons at least somewhat understandable?
A: One doesn’t want to generalize: There are different reasons in the cases of different people. I would say that each of the factors you mention plays a part. In some cases it’s one more than the others; in many cases it’s a combination.
Yes, I do think the desire to avoid saying things that could be useful to the neocons is somewhat understandable. But it can also be a cop-out. It was actually more understandable back in 2002-5, when the neocons were endlessly frothing on about their support for democracy and human rights in Iran and it wasn’t as clear to the naked eye how bogus those claims were. Over the last year, however, there’s been a palpable and significant, though largely unnoticed, shift in neocon rhetoric about Iran. They rarely talk about democracy and human rights anymore. They now frame their stance in the terms of Iran as a security threat, with a rotating focus on (depending on the month) Tehran’s nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah, or its role in Iraq. And they’ve ratcheted up the threatening rhetoric, many of them explicitly calling for a military attack.
That puts them at direct odds with the democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Iran, who are unequivocally opposed to any U.S. attack on their country. With the outbreak of the Israel/Hezbollah/Lebanon war in July-August, several neocons came out of the closet, if you will, as supporters of a war on Iran, calling, in the pages of The Weekly Standard and elsewhere, for the bombing to begin. Since that time there’s been virtual silence from the neocons about democracy and human rights in Iran. How can they claim to support either, when democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Iran stand diametrically opposed to them on the question of attacking Iran?
That lie is up. What is now blindingly clear to the naked eye, for anyone who cares to look, is that the neocon agenda vis-à-vis Iran has never been about democracy or human rights. What the neocons want in Tehran is a pro-U.S. and pro-Israeli regime; whether it’s a democratic one or not is an entirely secondary matter to them. And Iranian dissidents know this, which is why they want nothing to do with the neocons. Note that the funds the State Department earmarked last year for democracy promotion in Iran met with a resounding thud among dissidents, who see right through the neocons and their agenda.
This is not only a critique of the neocons, though; it’s also a challenge to those on the Left who have bought into the neocons’ Big Lie about being the bosom buddies of Iran’s dissidents. Due to intellectual laziness, a preference for moral simplicity, existential bad faith, or some combination thereof, lots of leftists have opted out of even expressing moral support, let alone standing in active solidarity with, Iranian dissidents, often on the specious grounds that the latter are on the CIA’s payroll or are cozy with the neocons. Utter and complete tripe. Perhaps, as I say, understandable in the past, when it wasn’t as transparent what empty hogwash the neocons’ posturing was. But now that the neocons’ real cards are on the table and their pretense of solidarity with Iranian dissidents has been shattered, the Left can no longer use the neocons as an avoidance mechanism.
Leftists should be arguing not that we might say things that the neocons could put to nefarious ends but, on the contrary, that neocon pronouncements about Iran are fraudulent and toxic. The neocons are hardly in a position to employ anyone’s arguments about human rights and democracy in Iran when they themselves have forfeited that turf. Indeed it’s not the neocons but rather liberals and leftists opposed to attacking Iran who turn out to be on the same page with Iranian dissidents on this Mother of All Issues. It is we who stand in solidarity with Iranian human rights activists and student protesters and dissident intellectuals, not the Bush administration or the American Enterprise Institute.
I intend this point to be both disabusing, on the negative side, and a call to arms, on the negation of the negation side, if you will: Iranian dissidents are actively seeking the support of global civil society for their struggle. Not the support of the Pentagon or the neocons or foreign governments, but of writers, intellectuals, and human rights activists. We ignore their message at both their peril and our own.
Q: Intellectual life in Iran sounds much livelier than one would expect under a theocracy -- if also no less precarious. If you could ensure that every American academic knew about at least one or two of the serious debates taking place there, what would they be? If there were a Tehran Review of Books (maybe there is one?) what would be the recent headlines?
A: The Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo speaks poignantly to this question in our dialogue. Citing Sartre’s line, “We were never more free than under the German occupation,” Jahanbegloo observes: “By this Sartre understands that each gesture had the weight of a commitment during the Vichy period in France. I always repeat this phrase in relation to Iran. It sounds very paradoxical, but ‘We have never been more free than under the Islamic Republic’. By this I mean that the day Iran is democratic, Iranian intellectuals will put less effort into struggling for the idea of democracy and for liberal values.”
Habermas was struck by this on his visit to Iran in 2002. A young Iranian political scientist told him that, despite the many constraints and problems in Iran there is, as Habermas paraphrased him, “at least a political public realm with passionate debates.” There really is that palpable sense of vitality in Iranian intellectual life, a feeling that debates about democracy and secularism are deeply consequential in a way that they aren’t here. And yes, the element of precariousness looms large. In a dark irony, within weeks of Jahanbegloo making that observation, he was arrested and spent four months behind bars .
Iranian intellectuals are constantly navigating the Islamic Republic’s red lines: magazines and journals are routinely shut down; scholars and journalists are in and out of prison -- or worse. But as Jahanbegloo’s Sartrean observation suggests, that precariousness plays a huge role in giving Iranian intellectual life its vibrancy and sense of urgency.
There is, as it happens, something like a Tehran Review of Books — it’s called Jahan-e-ketab, which would translate World of Books. And there’s an intellectual journal called Goft-o-gu ( Dialogue). And fancy this: Iran’s leading reformist newspaper, Shargh, had on its staff (until the government banned it in September) a full-time “Theoretical Editor.” Imagine an American newspaper -- not a quarterly journal or a monthly or weekly magazine, but a mass-circulation daily newspaper -- having a “theoretical” section! That alone speaks volumes about Iranian intellectual culture.
What you find in the pages of Jahan-e-ketab and Goft-o-gu and the late Shargh and a philosophical journal like Kiyan, before it too was banned in 2001, are debates about things like modernity ( tajadod in Persian, a huge theme in Iran) and secularism; liberalism and democratic theory; feminism and human rights; universalism and value pluralism. A recent issue of Goft-o-gu, for example, featured an essay on Foucault’s concept of “governmentality,” and another arguing against the tendency to blame outsiders for Iran’s problems (what the historian Ervand Abrahamian once cleverly called “The Paranoid Style in Iranian Politics”). There are also intense discussions going on among religious intellectuals about things like the separation of religion and the state; whether Islam can be synthesized with universal human rights; and the proper place of faith in public life.
If you were to compare the tables of contents of Iran’s leading journals of critical thought with their counterparts in the West, the similarities would be striking, particularly in terms of the thinkers around whom the debates tend to revolve: Kant (of whose writings there have been more translations into Persian than into any other language over the last decade), Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, Arendt, Popper, Isaiah Berlin. Interestingly, these ideas often serve as the nodal points for secular and religious debates alike. Akbar Ganji, one of Iran’s leading dissidents, is currently abroad assembling a book of conversations he’s conducting with the likes of Habermas, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, Charles Taylor, Ronald Dworkin, Amartya Sen, Robert Bellah, and Nancy Fraser, among others. There you have it.
Q: You note that the oppositional movements in Iran are emphatically not asking for support from the U.S. government -- let alone military action. At the same time, it sounds as if some intellectuals and activists there, finding no solidarity among their peers on the left abroad, end up warming somewhat to the American neoconservatives, who at least pay attention to them. How is that contradiction playing itself out?
A: The Iranian journalist Afshin Molavi speaks to this when he observes : “I know far too many Iranian leftists who have gone neo-con as a result of their feeling of abandonment by the American and European left. I wish they had not gone that route.”
But as I said earlier, things have changed on this front. Afshin wrote those lines in June 2005. That was much more the case then than it is now. The neocons have thoroughly squandered any sympathetic vibration they might have enjoyed with Iranian dissidents in the past. Their adoption of a belligerent and bellicose stance toward Iran has severed any pretense of standing in solidarity with progressive forces in Iran. Indeed that bellicosity has served to make the situation for Iranian dissidents and human rights activists dramatically more perilous.
Every threatening pronouncement from Washington strengthens the hand of the most reactionary and repressive forces in Iran and puts the opposition in ever more dire straits. The irony is that Ahmadinejad is actually on the defensive at home, facing growing disenchantment — but, as Ali Ansari and many others have pointed out, the hawks in Washington are tossing him a lifeline. The neocons are Ahmadinejad’s best friends, and are doing massive damage to the cause of democracy and human rights in Iran.
For these reasons, sympathy for the neocons among Iranian dissidents is nil. But that doesn’t translate into an automatic love fest with the western Left. Progressives in the west have to make an effort to connect up with our Iranian counterparts, to enter into a dialogue with them.
Q: Is there anything specific that oppositional intellectuals in Iran need now, in particular, from any Americans who are in solidarity with them?
A: The number one thing we can -- and must -- do here is to prevent the U.S. government from taking any military action against Iran. That is the Mother of All Issues right now. It’s the sine qua non for any solidarity with dissident intellectuals and human rights activists; the minute the first bomb is dropped the democratic struggle in Iran will be derailed for the foreseeable future, maybe for decades. That message has to be articulated as emphatically as possible over and over until Bush and Cheney leave office.
I’ve long believed a U.S. military attack on Iran to be highly unlikely, and I still think the chances are against it -- but the signals emanating from Washington over the last several weeks have me thoroughly worried. Let’s just say we should prepare for the worst and be on offense rather than defense. We can't wait until it’s too late. There’s a preponderance of arguments against military action on Iran. In fact it’s disturbing that it’s even being discussed. But among the myriad arguments one can offer -- the most obvious being the humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophe it would unquestionably produce -- one of the most important, it seems to me, is that the democratic struggle in Iran would be dismantled by it.
It’s already in serious peril just by virtue of the threatening storm currently gathering momentum in Washington. This is the Present Danger, if you will: even if the current maneuvering is actually posturing calculated to bulldoze Tehran, which many suspect it to be (and let’s hope they’re right), it’s an extremely hazardous game with potentially cataclysmic consequences and has to be brought to an end immediately.
It would be highly useful for antiwar activists in the west to know what democratic dissidents, human rights activists, women’s rights activists, and liberal intellectuals in Iran have to say on the issue of a US attack on their country. Most antiwar activists in the west would be hard pressed to even name an Iranian dissident, let alone rehearse their arguments. I’d like to see that change.
Antiwar activists and progressive intellectuals in the west should know, and be prepared to say extemporaneously in public debate, what the likes of Shirin Ebadi , Akbar Ganji , Emadeddin Baghi , Abdollah Momeni , and Ramin Jahanbegloo think — most pressingly, what they think of a US military attack on Iran, but also what they think about the human rights situation in Iran, the nature of the Islamic Republic, and what members of global civil society can do to support them. Indeed we should be in conversation with them, and with many other Iranian progressives — writing articles about them, inviting them to speak at our universities, learning as much as we can about them. To use something of an old-fashioned formulation, we should make their struggle ours.