Philosophy in Tehran (and Beyond)

Protest against a UN-sponsored conference in Iran has a new tactic. Scott McLemee reports.

September 29, 2010

I've heard of a cartoon that appeared in the Iranian émigré press following the crackdown against last year’s widespread protests against the government. It shows a couple of young people in a prison cell. One of them says something like, “We’re philosophy students and they’ve thrown us in prison! Now what do we do?”

And the other says, “Calm down. We’ll just continue our studies. After all, our dissertation director is in the next cell….”

It is against this background of repression that the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization will be holding a conference to honor World Philosophy Day in, of all places, Tehran. Celebrated each year on the third Thursday in November, the event was proclaimed in 2002 “to reaffirm the true value of philosophy, that is to say the establishment of dialogue that must never cease when it comes to essential matters, and of thought which gives us back a large part of human dignity whatever our condition.”

When bureaucracies are ironic, it is always unintentional. In this case, one can well imagine that someone at UNESCO had honorable intentions that were overtaken by events. A few years ago, the existence of a rich philosophical scene in Iran -- with leading figures from around the world visiting to lecture, and their books appearing in Farsi translation with some regularity -- was an indicator of the cultural gap between young Iranians and their elders. The country has a long history of highly cosmopolitan intellectual life, if one marked by unhappy interruptions. But the reports coming out of Iran, say, five years ago sounded exceptionally energetic.

Since then, philosophy has gone from being a precarious but flourishing enterprise to a special target of repression. After last year’s street protests, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned about the tendency of foreign ideas to undermine faith. The country’s supreme ruler reopened the old charge against Socrates -- that of corrupting the youth.

In January, the Italian cultural journal Reset published an open letter opposing the Tehran conference, appealing for support from writers and intellectuals around the world. It drew the support of Jürgen Habermas and Seyla Benhabib, among others. UNESCO did not change its plans, however. Nor did it do so when President Ahmadinejad replaced Gholamreza Aavani, the director of the Iranian Institute of Philosophy, with Ali Haddad Adel -- whose most important qualification is that he is one of Ayatollah Khamenei’s in-laws.

The combination of nepotism and theological correctness was too much for the German philosopher Ottfried Höffe. Originally scheduled to be one of the keynote speakers at the World Philosophy Day event, Höffe told the press this summer that he had looked forward to the high level of discussion to be expected from his Iranian colleagues. Now, he said, the growing repression made it impossible to sanction the event's taking place in Tehran -- though he said hoped there would be “radical change” there in the not-too-distant future.

Other protests against the conference have appeared, including a number of forceful statements by Iranian intellectuals living abroad. Several appear at Reset’s English-language website.

Until recently, though, that seems to have been the extent of it -- a few articles here and there, calling for nonparticipation in an event that (with all due respect to the busy staff at UNESCO) not very many people were aware of in the first place.

But there has been an interesting development over the past few days. Following a meeting at the New School in New York City, plans are under way to hold a parallel conference on World Philosophy Day -- not in a particular city, but through online activities among philosophers around the world in solidarity with their colleagues in Iran.

Things are very much in the preparatory stage now. More on that in just a moment. But first, a few words about how welcome this change of course seems.

It is possible to feel complete agreement with the grounds for a protest against World Philosophy Day being held in Tehran while also having reservations about whether calling for a boycott of it is an effective or appropriate response. The fact that many Iranian intellectuals are unable to return to their country for the event is a compelling reason why others might want not to attend, of course. At the same time, it is possible that philosophers attending the conference could manifest opposition to the regime -- either by explicit statements criticizing it or through the force of their example (that is, by arguing freely).

Whether or not to boycott the event is, it seems to me, a question of tactics, not of absolute principle. But denunciations of the World Philosophy Day event often imply a simple, immediate relationship between philosophy and political context.

This came through very clearly when I asked a couple of people whether any good could even conceivably come from philosophers going to the UNESCO gathering.

Ramin Jahanbegloo, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto who was imprisoned by the Iranian authorities for four months in 2006, responded: “By accepting to go to Iran and participate at this conference, any philosopher from the East or West will be betraying the critical tradition of philosophical thinking and will legitimize a regime that neither accepts international laws and rights nor respects philosophy and philosophers.”

Which would be true, of course, if philosophers did nothing but praise their hosts and make no challenging or embarrassing points. But that was not what I asked about -- on the contrary.

Nadia Urbinati, a professor of political theory and Hellenic studies at Columbia University, made a similar argument in a more dialectical idiom: “Philosophy, since it [first] existed, cannot be manageable according to the interests of the ruler; so, not to go to Tehran is not a negation but an affirmation of philosophy, which has one responsibility only: allowing the thinker (every human being) to think with her mind. If a regime cannot allow this basic freedom of thought, there is no philosophy there, regardless of a UN office that decides to hold a conference.”

This is rhetorically compelling but historically untrue. Sartre worked out Being and Nothingness while France was under Nazi occupation. Most of Jan Patocka’s work was written while Czechoslovakia was a Stalinist police state. The question is not whether philosophy can be done under such conditions, but where it is done, and by whom. There is also the issue of whether it can then reach an audience. It may be that someone coming back from the UNESCO conference will be smuggling out manuscripts that would not be circulated otherwise. So to repeat: Whether or not to participate in World Philosophy Day in Tehran is an issue of tactics and not of principle.

Fortunately another tactic is now available.

On Monday of this week, a number of philosophers and activists involved in the protest held a press conference at the New School. As it turned out, no reporters actually attended. Or so I heard from Danny Postel, the author of Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran (University of Chicago Press, 2006), who called after it was over.

The meeting had instead turned into an open-ended discussion. A turning point came when Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, suggested doing more than just denouncing the event in Tehran. Instead, he proposed holding a “shadow” or “parallel” World Philosophy Day conference. “As soon as he said it,” Postel told me, “it shifted the discussion among everyone in the room. It was a game-changer.”

I got in touch with Dabashi -- though not before trying to figure out why his name seemed familiar: a few years ago, he made David Horowitz’s list of the country’s most dangerous professors. His other credentials are also impressive. A volume called The World is My Home: A Hamid Dabishi Reader is due out from Transaction soon, though it is evidently behind schedule.

“There are scores of prominent Iranian thinkers,” Dabashi said in the course of our e-mail exchange, “who for a variety of reasons (including but not limited to just political) cannot be in Iran for this conference. So a parallel conference will accept the fact that there is very little that ordinary people around the globe can do to convince UNESCO not to hold its World Philosophy Day in a theocracy that has systematically gone through successive ‘cultural revolutions’ and university purges precisely to prevent independence of thinking.”

By virtue of taking place online using websites, blogs, and Skype, the parallel conference can draw in Iranian intellectuals living abroad. Non-Iranians who wanted to express solidarity would also be welcome.

This left me wondering if making gestures of political solidarity -- important as that is -- was really the best use of World Philosophy Day. Shouldn’t the conference involve papers by people actually "doing philosophy," as the expression goes?

“Of course it MUST include something more than expressions of solidarity,” wrote Dabashi in reply. “My idea is for people to write about the link between philosophy and political freedom -- or between national sites of philosophy in an increasingly globalized world.” Participants should discuss “the occasion of this conference (political tyranny), the medium of our philosophizing (the Internet), and the modus operandi of philosophizing (collapse of national boundaries)” -- matters to be addressed “in our individual contributions in the form of short essays, interviews, podcasts, Skype presentations, Facebook distributions, etc.”

Another benefit of conducting things online, come to think of it, is that it might attract more attention from Iranians than the official event itself. The regime’s efforts to control access to the Internet keep running up against the technical savvy of its own citizens.

And as Dabashi says (perhaps with tongue in cheek; with e-mail it’s hard to tell) any UNESCO functionary ought to welcome “an Internet-based, globally-wired, inclusive celebration of World Philosophy Day that will be ‘in Iran’ in a symbolically and literally significant and undeniable way.”

For updates on the event, check the Reset website.


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