UNESCO, THE United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, chose Tehran for its next World Philosophy Day on November 21-23. Following the announcement of the event’s location, an international protest campaign of philosophers, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens–started by Giancarlo Bosetti, Guiliano Amato, and me–helped to push UNESCO to plan an additional special observance of World Philosophy Day at its Paris headquarters on November 18. While the Tehran conference will go ahead, there will also be events in cities around the world, including Mexico City, Tunis, and Dakar. Tehran will no longer be the main seat for the 2010 World Philosophy Day.
Why did we protest holding World Philosophy Day in Tehran? To organize a philosophy congress in a country where a theocratic and intolerant regime continually denies freedom of thought and expression and is engaged in removing the humanities from university curricula—that is a challenge to philosophy itself. In a country where students of philosophy like Neda Agha Soltan are shot and philosophy professors are accused of preparing a “Velvet Revolution,” it would be difficult to take seriously an invitation to Tehran for a free philosophical discussion. To make sure that the UNESCO Philosophy Day would be a pure product of the Iranian establishment, President Ahmadinejad replaced Gholamreza Aavani—head of the Iranian Institute of Philosophy and director of the Iranian Philosophical Association—as the head of the organizing committee with Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, the former chairman of the Iranian parliament and the father in-law of Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran.
On August 30, 2009, Ayatollahi Khamenei addressed a gathering of professors and university administrators with a stern warning. He blamed the humanities for promoting “skepticism and doubt in religious principles and beliefs” and called on faithful professors to “identify the enemy” and revise the philosophy courses that create “lack of faith” among Iranian students. Following this speech, the science minister, Kamran Daneshjou, announced that only academics who had a “practical commitment” to the principle of velayat-e faqih, or the rule of the Islamic jurist, could teach at universities. In an interview, Morteza Nabavi, editor of the hardline daily Resaalat and a member of the Expediency Council, attacked the universities and claimed that they are at the heart of the Green Movement. He said that the faculty has become more radical than the students, and that “God has died on the campuses.” He lamented the fact that “our children who have grown up in the Islamic Republic have turned against it.”
In truth, the centralized monitoring and control of Iranian universities started back in 1980 with the Cultural Revolution. At that time, the academy was purged of Western and non-Islamic influences to bring it in line with the precepts and principles of the newly formed Islamic regime. This process was not without violence: storm troopers attacked university campuses, killed and wounded students, and took over the premises. The universities were closed in June 1980, and the purification process began. On each campus, an administrative body called the Holy Council of Reconstruction was created. Professors and employees, even those who had a history of opposition to the Shah’s dictatorship, were fired, forced to retire, or refused their salaries.
In addition to interrupting the education and professional life of many Iranian students, this led to the emigration of many teachers. The “Committee for Islamization of Universities” carried out the task of fighting against the Western canon by ensuring an “Islamic atmosphere” for every subject, from the sciences to law, political science, economics, psychology, sociology, and education. Students were required to declare their loyalty to the Islamic theocracy, and religious minorities like Baha’is were excluded from all fields of study. The High Council for Cultural Revolution was also very active in fighting student movements, banning books, and supervising the selection of applicants to the universities. Islamic student associations mushroomed all over the country. They functioned as local investigators and informers who would testify to the degree of loyalty of students and professors to the Islamic regime. Gender segregation and forced veiling were among the immediate measures taken on campuses.
The Cultural Revolution continued in the following years under the High Council, which became the highest body for the Islamization of culture and education. This group of seven members (in 1980-83) and then seventeen (in 1984) and then thirty-six (in 1999) was expected to define all the country’s cultural policies. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replaced Khatami in 2005 as the head of the High Council. Since then and especially after the post-electoral unrest in June 2009, many veteran university teachers, who had survived the earlier purges, were dismissed or forced into early retirement and replaced by younger professors who fervently support the Islamic Republic.
Since June 2009, the Iranian government has relied largely on brute force, arrests, and show trials. But the government also appears to be making efforts to re-educate Iran’s mostly young and disenchanted population. Among these measures is the institution of 6,000 Basij militia centers in elementary schools across the country and the creation of a new police unit to surf the Internet for anti-government voices. Mohammad-Saleh Jokar, the head of the student and cultural section of the Basij, said the group was opening the elementary school centers because “students of this age are more open to influence than older students, and for this reason we want to promote and establish the ideas of the revolution and the Basij.” At the universities, politically active students are now barred from obtaining higher education and university degrees. Those identified as troublemakers are first summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence to sign a letter in which they promise to refrain from any political activity. Anyone who refuses is prevented from enrolling in graduate programs, even if they have passed, sometimes with distinction, the national entrance examination.
The hardliners have ratcheted up their pressure on both faculty and students, and for an understandable reason. Iran’s universities have always been at the forefront of the struggle against dictatorship. Of the 107 confirmed deaths in the wake of the election, twenty-three were university students. While Iran has about 3 million university students, representing 4 percent of the population, they accounted for 22 percent of those murdered.
Three versions of dissent have thrived in post-revolutionary Iran. They are the work of women, intellectuals, and young people. Iranian women have been struggling for more freedoms in both the public and private spheres. Iranian intellectuals have defended the principles of democratic accountability and value pluralism. Iranian youth were not around or are too young to remember the revolution, but they made up one third of eligible voters in the presidential election, and they want another Iran. In response to forced Islamization, a rebellious youth culture has emerged that is increasingly connected to a larger global cultural movement. All this has made for a vibrant civil society in Iran despite and in the face of theocratic sovereignty. A popular quest for democratization coexists with a violent conservative reaction.
Most active participants in Iranian civil society recognize that the main contradiction in contemporary Iran is between authoritarian violence and democratic nonviolence. Though this nonviolent paradigm is still in the making, it can nonetheless be characterized as “post-ideological.” The protest movement in Iran is nonviolent and civil; its approach to social change is ethical as well as political; it sets truth and solidarity against deceit and repression.
The Islamic Republic of Iran views itself as being above international laws, rights, and jurisdictions. It often reacts violently to nonviolent protests and, as we have seen in the past, it crushes any form of philosophical or artistic dissent by arresting intellectuals and artists. As a matter of fact, the minute an Iranian student decides to study philosophy, he or she is automatically a threat to a state that defines itself by its anti-philosophical and theocratic principles. This decision might go completely unnoticed by the international community, but the decision to study philosophy is nevertheless a nonviolent act against theocratic tyranny. Philosophy is not something that can be stuffed down the throats of students through ideological indoctrination. It is the highest form of nonviolence. Gandhi himself refused to be seen as an inventor of the methods of nonviolence, saying “I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and Nonviolence are as old as the hills.” If Gandhi was to visit Iran today, he would certainly agree that truth and nonviolence in Iran are as old as Mount Alborz.
Since Plato, philosophers have striven to imagine societies and political systems in which it would be safe to philosophize—for in their effort to live an examined life, they have always been a danger to the status quo. Socrates’s example has guided philosophers throughout the ages, and the idea that one must always ask questions, timeless and universal questions, is still as revolutionary today as it was in his day. The experience of tyrannies in history, and especially totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century, showed that a political power that conceives itself as the embodiment of an ideology and as the summit of philosophy cannot tolerate philosophical inquiry.
How might reading and teaching philosophy affect a person living under theocratic rule in Iran? How can one read philosophy in Tehran? As odd as it may sound, reading philosophy in Tehran is not only spiritually comforting; it is also politically empowering. It is an open challenge to the monologism of tyrannical thought, and it is an invitation to become a responsible dialogical self in a culture that has systematically sheltered itself from the Socratic task of learning through asking questions and “living in truth.” In this sense, a philosopher’s nonviolent discourse is diametrically opposed to the theocratic assumption that the teachings of a particular religious tradition represent absolute truth and that consequently all other religious and political interpretations, and all individual interpretations, are in error and must be corrected. Anxious times make the Socratic task of philosophy all the more necessary—and many people living under tyranny are receptive to philosophy’s lessons. When life suddenly seems much more uncertain and much less frivolous than it did before, philosophy provides a new sense of reality.
Fundamentalists believe that there ought to be neither individual identities nor idiosyncratic quests for meaning. In other words, all individuals must belong to a religious collective, and their everyday lives must be governed by the normative traditions of such collectives. As such, philosophical thinking is rejected by all forms of fundamentalism. In their eyes philosophical dialogue and hermeneutics are diseases from which people require protection. This is not to say that any contemporary movement uncomfortable with philosophy is purely and simply fundamentalist. But religious and political movements inspired by defiance to philosophical interrogation are justly called fundamentalist. This is the measure of Iranian fundamentalists: in their commitment to a singular revelation, they must fight against dialogue and individual choice. Iranian fundamentalists lay claim to exclusive possession of the divine truth and proceed to show the “right path” to everybody.
The impact of fundamentalist discourse can be witnessed all over the Muslim world today. Given the acuteness of the anxiety evoked by the modern world, the orientation toward Islam provides a ready standard against which modern urban society can be judged. The rise of fundamentalism with the Iranian revolution of 1979 and its violence against modernity does not absolve the “project of modernity” of its sins, but it does serve as an alarm to all those who, plagued by the ills of modernity, hope that the reassertion of religion will help create a new ethical community. This is where reading philosophy can help us see the ontological difference between being critical of modernity, and remaining true to philosophy’s radical self-choice, which requires the ongoing Socratic task of bringing inwardness and dialogue into political life.
As such, reading philosophy in Tehran is an encouragement to look for “signals of humanity” in everyday experiences, but it is also a way of saying “No” to all those who want to use philosophy against its perennial responsibility, which is always to think critically.
Ramin Jahanbegloo is a professor of political science and a research fellow in the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto. He is the author of twenty books in English, French, and Persian, including Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (Peter Halban, 1992), Gandhi: Aux Sources de la Nonviolence ( Felin, 1999), Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity (Lexington Books, 2004), and most recently The Spirit of India (Penguin 2008).
Homepage image: Raphael’s “School of Athens”