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The Space of Philosophy

by HAMID DABASHI in New York

12 Oct 2010 20:3017 Comments

Critical thought is not for smuggling.

SHahid-CHamran.jpg[ 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.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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17 Comments

Mister Dabashi, you say"...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. ", but this is not really accurate. I think that the main reason why some iranians haven't raised their voices is the simple but depressing fact that iranians are not unified, the culture is divided, the history is broken and every one can be the king, and no one gives a shit about the other. Because people have their own theories about things, the other one is not respected, the victims of the 80's are not counted, they were out of the system. No one cries for the afghan smuggler hanged in Zahedan. The bigger concept is not understood, God died many hundred years ago in Iran, and you can see the effects everyday. It is very depressing.

sãm / October 12, 2010 10:03 PM

What a bunch of shrill.

At the tip of the spear for the demonization campaign against Iran is one Hamid Dabashi.

Yeah, let's have philosophy discussed in Egypt or occupied Palestine or Guantanimo or Bagram...

Give it a rest with this exiled Iranian extremism.

Pirouz / October 13, 2010 12:46 AM

i can only hope that those who read this piece read binesh hass' original argument first, because hamid dabashi completely misrepresents it in order to levy his usual haughty insults.

to hold world philosophy day in tehran, to struggle to maintain the integrity of the event (and he acknowledges that it would be a struggle), is far more in the spirit of the day that to do so in cyberspace. holding the event in cyberspace risks reaching out only to those to predisposed to its message. indeed, dabashi's assertion that in cyberspace all Iranians can participate is curious one, given the level of internet penetration in Iran, largely segmented regionally and by class, as well as the threats of online censorship. i can only assume, especially given his nod to those outside of the physical domain of Iran, that he means all of the honorable Iranians in exile.

that's fine. but hass was arguing for taking the day outside of the echo chamber of exile and the free, open, comfortable spaces in which free thinking doesn't face an existential challenge. for those of us committed to non-violent change in Iran, among which I know dabashi counts himself, all we have to fight against the Islamic Republic and all of its gaudy conference halls are our ideas. shame on dabashi for mocking those who believe in the power of those ideas.

fb / October 13, 2010 12:55 AM

I object also to the second part of that statement. Mr Debashi seems to imply that everyone who is not categorically against sanctions is siding with neocons and even warmongerers. This sounds too polemic for me. Of course, no one wants the Iranian people to suffer from the consequences of harder sanctions. However, even some/many people inside Iran are in favor of sanctions because they believe that sanctions do work against the regime, and because they are willing to pay a price for their freedom. This should at least be taken into consideration.

Nemo / October 13, 2010 1:42 AM

With "that statement" I mean the paragraph mentioned by the first commenter Sam...

Nemo / October 13, 2010 1:46 AM

Nemo:

If one is to follow your logic then:

1) There are Americans who support Bin Laden because they believe if more innocent Americans are killed American foreign policy will change as a result.

2) There are Israelis who support Hamas suicide bombers because they believe it will end the occupation and bring about peace.

Iranians are not ignorant people. They realize the sanctions, like in Iraq, will ultimately result in a genocide. 500,000 dead Iraqi children, and to American officials it was worth it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4PgpbQfxgo

And yes, they will blame their own government, but now they will also blame the Americans.

B / October 13, 2010 3:37 AM

Mr. Dabashi can make a perfect dictator.

SE / October 13, 2010 4:51 AM

The issue really is whether you go to Iran on the outrageous,onerous terms of the coup-regime or not. Whether you go as a philosopher, or to see aged family members for a last goodbye or as a well-meaning tourist the dilemma is the same and a tough one.

pirooz / October 13, 2010 5:44 AM

thank you dr dabashi,we need more people like you,intellectuals to bring these topics to the table for debates.we iranian-americans at least have to learn to disagree with each other,but not hate one another,that will be the day of political maturity.

fay / October 13, 2010 6:56 AM

CRITICAL thinking & ISLAMIC Republic regime? Sounds like contradiction in terms.

In a land rules by a corrupt totalitarian regime, beyond any petty dictatorship of 20th century, nothing can be further than critical thinking. More correctly, anyone can think whatever they want, but, try expressing anything against the hypocritical theocracy of the Mullahs!

Then again UN has increasingly become irrelevant, ever since Western Communists and Capitalists kissed and made up and Chinese became modern version of slave laborers and drivers. So, who cares if UNESCO holds anything anywhere.

Bobak / October 13, 2010 7:26 AM

There have been more philosophical discussions, debates, and modern philosophers in Iran in the last 30 years in Iran than anywhere in the world. What does philosophy mean anymore in the west?

Iran's previous 8-year President had a BA in WESTERN PHILOSOPHY!!

If anything, Iran deserves to have this event held in Iran ever year, because its one of the few countries in the world that actually takes philosophy seriously anymore. World With Us or Against Us can be held in USA, no problem with that.

And Nemo, no Iranian I have met in Iran that is not driving a BMW supports sanctions.

M. Ali / October 13, 2010 11:30 AM

Let's make one thing clear first: sanctions only hurt the Iranian people and middle class and strengthen the IRG Mafia who specializes in back market deals and has a growing list of clients and suppliers. These sanctions and threats only help the regime in blaming the outside world for Iran's miseries and allow it to repress any form of opposition as foreign agents.

Holding the Philosophy conference in Iran should only be followed through by UNESCO if it is open to the public and includes speakers who are on the regime's blacklist. Namely Khatami, Mousavi, Karroubi, Rahnavard, Abdolkarim Soroush, and other opposition philosophers and thinkers who are either exiled, in jail, or out on bail. Otherwise the event will only serve the regime and its goons, and once again prove the useless nature of UN to the oppressed masses.

Ali / October 16, 2010 12:08 AM

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.


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.

Exceptionally and perfectly said reply....


observer / October 16, 2010 1:04 PM

Ali, its World Philosophy Day, not World Greens Day

M.Ali / October 16, 2010 5:39 PM

Dabashi's shrill
Hass is naive
Pirooz is a shill
And Ahmadinejad is the deev

Poet / October 18, 2010 6:03 AM

M. Ali

It's not IR Philosophy day either! By your definition any one who is critical of the regime is considered Green and can be excluded from the Philosophy day?

I wonder what the point of such a conference would be? For IR apologists to debate the holliness of Khamenei? if you can call that a debate! Maybe they can finally prove that he is the 12th Imam!!!

Ali / October 18, 2010 9:31 PM

The story of Dabashi and Islam reminds one of Mulla Nasrudin and his donkey: a villager goes to Mulla and asks to borrow his donkey. While Mulla is excusing himself that he could not oblige him since the donkey is doing work for some other people, the donkey starts braying. Surprised the man say: but the donkey is braying! Mulla replies: you take donkey's word over mine? Should we accept the 'word' of Islam in action in Iran or that of the coquettish professor?!

bijan / October 22, 2010 8:13 AM