The Space of Philosophy
by HAMID DABASHI in New York
12 Oct 2010 20:30
Critical thought is not for smuggling.[ IDÉ ] In his piece "Iran Needs Free Thinking More Than Ever" (Guardian, October 6), Binesh Hass has taken exception to a number of philosophers and critical thinkers who have raised objections to holding UNESCO's "World Philosophy Day" in the Islamic Republic. "Scores of philosophers from around the world," Mr. Hass charges, "are up in arms against the allegedly preposterous idea of holding this event in a country that actively imprisons and forces into exile many of its most prodigious thinkers." The bad choice of metaphor -- accusing a small group of aging antiwar pacifists of being "up in arms" -- is the least of the problems with Mr. Hass's piece. But that bad choice of metaphor is precisely what sends Mr. Hass badly off track.
Mr. Hass exacerbates his bad choice of metaphor with an ill-fitted comparison of the Islamic Republic of 2010 with the Czechoslovakia of the 1970s -- no two dictatorships are exactly alike, and not everything round is a walnut, as a good old Persian proverb puts it. We are half a century of planetary cyberspacing and the aggressive transmutation of an Islamic Republic into a brutal garrison state away from the Eastern European satellite states of a corrupt Soviet empire that was held together not by any moral or material force of its own but by its dyslexic dieresis with another world-conquering monstrosity that wanted the world spelt differently.
Sustaining that false comparison, Mr. Hass suggests that the "velvet philosophers" ("smuggled" from Oxford and elsewhere) "streamed into the country to teach underground seminars on Kant and others. Underground, because the regime -- which fell in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 -- had a vested interest in eliminating the sort of free and critical thinking that philosophy has the potential to cultivate when it is not reveling in staid abstrusity." There are no Miranda rights stipulated in Islamic law or honored in the Islamic Republic, otherwise someone should have read them to Mr. Hass before he wrote and published that sentence, for he has just incriminated himself in the kangaroo courts of the Islamic Republic and his Canadian credentials notwithstanding he now has a reserved cell in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic for having confessed to being part of a velvet plot to topple the theocracy.
In his learned polemic, Mr. Hass fully acknowledges that the Islamic Republic "actively imprisons and forces into exile many of its most prodigious thinkers," and that "in the summer of 1988 alone, the regime massacred upwards of 3,000 prisoners of conscience in summary trials," and that "the Islamic Republic continues to officially persecute those who do not fall within its ideological parameters," and that "countless journalists and pro-democracy agitators continue to languish in the country's prisons and countless more will join them before Iranians eventually democratize their country" -- a strange choice of phrase, "pro-democracy agitators," but never mind that for now, for Mr. Hass also agrees that "indeed, Iran is among the most exceptionally repressive and anti-intellectual states of our time," and it does not escape him that "the event will be used for propagandistic ends by the Islamic Republic's government," and that "perhaps most infuriating, they will attempt to claim political and cultural capital for playing host," and that "most of Iran's freethinking philosophers are likely to be precluded from attending, to say nothing of those who have been forced into exile like Ramin Jahanbegloo, as well as others who have put their signatures to the circulating petition lobbying Unesco to change course."
And yet from all these facts Mr. Hass concludes, logic and reason be damned, that "this is precisely why UNESCO's World Philosophy Day can find no better venue" than being held in the military headquarters of the garrison state that calls itself an Islamic Republic.
The fundamental flaw in Mr. Hass's argument, predicated on a strange misreading of those who have sought to use this occasion for World Philosophy Day in Iran just to mean what it says, is to read the intent of this opposition as "cutting the sort of ties with Iran that World Philosophy Day represents." He is equally, and dangerously, wrong in assuming that "these boycotts, especially those like the current petition which are initiated from outside the country, will only embolden the Islamic Republic's sense of being beyond the remit of international interest for all things non-nuclear related."
The purpose of the exercise has been exactly the opposite of what Mr. Hass has assumed -- namely that "isolating this country further will only augment the impunity the government feels in the treatment of its people." To make that case, Mr. Hass yet again incriminates himself in the eye of the state prosecutor by bemoaning, "Worse still is that those philosophers who had a chance of slipping under the radar of the government and engaging with the eager minds brave enough to attend the lectures and meetings have been denied the opportunity to do so." Mr. Hass is either astonishingly naive about what is happening inside the garrison state, or else he is just one of those "pro-democracy agitators" who will land in those dark dungeons of the Islamic Republic were he dare to set foot on the other side of his hyphenated identity.
The purpose of the objection has been precisely the opposite of Mr. Hass's reading of it: not to isolate the Islamic Republic but in fact to force it, by the power of the Internet, to face the global reality that surrounds it and under whose gaze it cannot continue to maim and murder its own citizens, imprison and torture those among them who dare to think freely, and yet host a World Philosophy Day to show for it. By suggesting the possibility of a "parallel" (not "substitutional" -- for none of us "up in arms" thought ourselves powerful enough to stop a massive bureaucracy from doing anything) World Philosophy Day, we have intended to redefine Iran beyond its territorial boundaries and into the global digital commons so that Iranians from all walks of philosophical life, in or out of that physical domain, can participate in it. We have not intended to isolate the Islamic Republic, but exactly the other way around: to pull it into the global limelight.
Mr. Hass's bad metaphors and false analogies get the better of him and make him blind to the very laptop on which he wrote his essay and e-mailed it to the Guardian for us to read it on its website from around the globe. The mixed blessing of this thing called the "Internet" is not limited to systematic distraction and addiction to Facebook and Twitter and whatnot. It also enables a form of globality that was simply inconceivable in 1970s Czechoslovakia, which seems -- how odd -- to remain Mr. Hass's frame of reference.
The point of the proposal was never to hold World Philosophy Day "in Rome or London," as Mr. Hass falsely surmises, nor indeed "that it is reorganized somewhere comfortable, open and free," unless by "comfortable, open and free" we just mean a chair and a laptop or an Internet café. It is precisely the politics of space that has baffled and confused Mr. Hass and that equally frightens the custodians of the sacred terror that now rules Iran. Cyberspace has a presence in some decidedly uncomfortable, closed, and un-free spaces, such as in the solitary confinements inside the dungeons of the Islamic Republic -- where visionary young leaders of this civil rights movement like Majid Tavakoli, or even the elders of the nation like Mohammad Nourizad, have revolutionized the very definition of that space from within their prison cells in Evin, Kahrizak, and Raja'i Shahr. If it were up to me I would hold World Philosophy Day in Majid Tavakoli's prison cell, for I consider the leading student activist suffocating in the prisons of the garrison state the sharpest and most agile thinker of his generation -- precisely for which reason he is in jail.
The conundrum we face today is of a very simple but potentially debilitating nature. On one side we have a brutal theocracy run by a band of militant and militarized warlords who have no regard for human decency and systematically maim and murder their own citizens; and on the other stands a predatory empire (the United States) and its colonial outpost (Israel), continuing equally systematically to demonize any country or clime of resistance to their warmongering. Facing this conundrum, many Iranians who deeply worry about their homeland have opted to remain silent about the criminal atrocities of the Islamic Republic for fear of fueling the fire of warmongering that has now targeted Iran after it has destroyed Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other side of the spectrum are those among Iranians so incensed by these atrocities, or else tempted by political opportunism, that they bashfully or happily side with the worst neocon chicaneries in the United States, aiding and abetting in demonizing Iran, for they think a U.S.-led military strike is the only way to get rid of this theocracy. In the middle stand a few of us categorically and constitutionally against any sanctions or boycott of our homeland, economic or cultural, or any covert operation and above all, and a fortiori, any military strike by Israel or the United States against its territorial integrity, and yet not letting the Islamic Republic off the hook for its criminal atrocities over the last 30 years.
Entirely oblivious to these issues, Mr. Hass is too playfully into smuggling things -- "Who knows," he says, "it may be that whatever philosophers are smuggled into Iran may, as with Czechoslovakia, assist in its inevitable democratization." That form of clandestine, corrupt, and abusive exposure to philosophy has never done anyone any good. We who oppose tyranny at home and warmongering around the world are not in the business of smuggling anything anywhere. Free, open, critical -- particularly auto-critical -- is the way we imagine our homeland and the world.
The objective of rethinking World Philosophy Day in a way that will allow for a far more open and democratic space is precisely to allow for thinking critically through these issues without being charged with a velvet plot to topple the regime or else be accused of being an accomplice in its crimes. What we fundamentally lack and desperately need in Iran is a free and democratic space to think critically through these issues. Today, World Philosophy Day, as any other day, can potentially provide that space on the Internet. The Islamic Republic's gaudy conference halls of state-sponsored banality, over which ceremoniously presides the fraudulent figure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, do not.
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine.
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