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Ramin Jahanbegloo Released in Iran:Reading Arendt in Teheran

Ramin Jahanbegloo, a leading proponent of Iranian democratization, has just been released from several months of incarceration in Teheran. Active in building bridges to Western intellectuals (including dialogues with Isaiah Berlin and George Steiner), Jahanbegloo—also a Canadian citizen—was arrested in April of this year at the Teheran airport on his way to a conference in Europe. Accusations included spying and efforts to pursue a US-inspired “Velvet Revolution” in Iran. Other accounts suggest that an interview he gave with a Spanish newspaper, critical of Ahmadenijad’s Holocaust denial, led to his arrest.

The release may represent an effort to pursue a minor distraction from the crisis over Iran’s nuclear technology. There is certainly no indication of a larger thaw. There may be some more complex ideological and tactical connection, discussed below. This is however an important opportunity to pursue the connections between “theory,” which is clearly Jahanbegloo’s passion, and the urgent political questions of the moment.

In his essay “Iranian Intellectuals: from Revolution to Dissent,” Jahanbegloo distinguishes between reformist/revolutionary and conservative forces. Note the intellectual genealogy of the conservatives of the Mullahocracy.

“Unlike the reformist intellectuals, the neo- conservative intellectuals in Iran are in favor of the supremacy of the Leader and against concepts such as democracy, civil society and pluralism. This movement includes figures such as Reza Davari Ardakani, Javad Larijani and Mehdi Golshani. The famous personality among these is Reza Davari Ardakani, who as an anti- Western philosopher is very familiar with the works of Martin Heidegger. Davari, unlike Soroosh, takes some of the features of Heidegger’s thought, mainly the critic of modernity and puts it into an Islamic wording. He rejects the Western model of democracy, which is based on the separation of politics and religion.”

Heidegger in Teheran as an account of anti-modernism? But beyond the dialectic of left and right from the generation of the Iranian revolution, Jahanbegloo describes a younger generation which approaches modernity from what appears to be a post-modern perspective: not post-modern in the sense of giddy relativism or irresponsibility but with liberal openness and an interest in dialogue.

“One can consider a new generation of Iranian intellectuals who do not attempt to promulgate any ideologies and yet they undermine the main concepts of the established order. This generation is mainly characterized by the secular post-revolutionary intellectuals who are in their thirties and forties and who can be referred to as the ‘dialogical intellectuals’ (in contrast with the ideological intellectuals of the early 1980s). In other words, for this new generation of Iranian intellectuals, the concept and the practice of dialogue provides an ontological umbrella for all the political and cultural meanings and understandings. The very objective of this ‘culture of dialogue’ is no more to consider the other as an ‘enemy’ (who needs to be terminated as an individual or as asocial c1ass), but to promote a full acknowledgement of the other as a subject. In this case different intellectual attitudes are asked to co-exist side by side to find an intersubjective basis for their search of modernity and democracy. This move away from master ideologies among this new generation of Iranian intellectuals is echoed by a distrust in any metaphysically valorized form of monist thinking. Unlike the previous generations of Iranian intel1ectuals, what the critica1 thinking of modernity has taught the younger generation is to adopt a general attitude that consists of being at odds both with ‘fundamentalist politics’ and with ‘utopian rationalities.'”

To the extent that this post-modernism articulates an anti-foundationalism it appears as a critical alternative to literalist or theological fundamentalisms. Yet at the same time, the anti-utopianism may also impart—a caution? a modesty? a dose of quietism—which would undermine radical (radical reformist fervor). Toward the end of the East German regime, the Stasi reputedly supported the spread of post-modernism in the oppositional scene precisely because of an implicit anti-political tendency, or if not “anti-political,” then a reduced aspiration about world-change.

“This philosophical wariness is not joined to any kind of dream of rearranging totally the Iranian society. The intervention here is not only a reflection upon the pluralistic mechanisms of politics, but also upon the political self. This issue of value-pluralism also raises the question of the West as the ‘other’ in the context of modernizing projects. As an antidote to the ‘monolithic’ and ‘one-view’ formulas of the previous generations, the political and intellectual urgency of Iran’s encounter with the globalized modernity acquires a ‘dialogical and cross-cultural exchange.’ This dialogue is an exposure of the ‘Iranian self’ to the ‘otherness’ of the modern West.”

An interview with Danny Postel shows Jahanbegloo waxing enthusiastic about the work of Habermas, and he reports on the strong reception Habermas and Rorty have received in Teheran, precisely for their anti-foundationalism.

“Habermas’s visit to Iran was a huge success. He was treated in Iran the way Bollywood actors are treated in India. Wherever he went or lectured, he was encircled by hundreds of young students and curious observers. This same phenomenon happened again when Richard Rorty visited Iran in 2004: around 1,500 souls came to his lecture on ‘Democracy and Non-Foundationalism’ at the House of Artists in Tehran. Habermas’s visit to Iran was an important event in the process of democratic thinking and dialogue among cultures. As Victor Hugo says in Histoire d’un Crime: ‘One can resist the invasion of an army, but one cannot resist the invasion of ideas whose time has come.’ The time of philosophical ideas have come in Iran. Today in Iran philosophy represents a window on Western culture, on an open society and on the idea of democracy. This is the reason why Habermas, Rorty, Ricoeur, Berlin and many others are relevant in Iran. Most of the intellectuals in Iran today are struggling against different forms of fundamentalism, fanaticism and orthodoxy. Habermas is considered the inheritor of the Frankfurt School’s intellectual tradition that from the very beginning questioned all orthodoxies and authoritarianisms.”

Yet while Habermas and Rorty may afford liberalizing prospects in Teheran, the implied appeal for dialogue may explain how the regime is currently trying to manipulate the Jahanbegloo case: are Ahmadinejad’s letters to Bush and Merkl acts of dialogue? Surely not: the texts, previously presented here, mix mendacity, propaganda and ill will, hardly symptoms of a will to dialogue, despite his pretenses. Nonetheless, the post-modern appeals for dialogue may therefore appear to serve the interests of the regime and its agenda of stalling the West—the more we talk, the more they develop their nuclear capacity (recall Schmitt’s invocation of Donos Cortes’ designation of liberals as a “discussing class”). Therefore, in contrast to Jahanbegloo’s optimistic reception of Habermas and Rorty, his similar appreciation of Arendt, especially Origins of Totalitarianism, lends a sobering note to all this hopefulness. Islamic Iran is surely not the same as Saddam’s Iraq—but in both cases, Arendt’s thoughts on totalitarianism have played an important role in the assessment of the respective regimes: Makiya invoked Arendt in his Republic of Fear, as does Jahanbegloo in this interview:

“In a young and troubled Iran in search of a new intellectual culture, there is a serious desire to explore Arendt’s oeuvre. If Arendt’s contribution to political thinking finds an important place in Iranian civil society and among Iranian intellectuals, it is mainly because her thinking shows us how to recover the meaning of the public world. I believe that Arendt’s popularity in Iran after the Revolution of 1979 is due to the fact that many among us saw a similarity between our experience of living with political violence and totalitarian ideologies (whether Islamist or Marxist-Leninist) and her own alienating political experience as a Jewish refugee who was excluded from participating in public life.

“This is the main reason why the first translation of Arendt published in Iran was The Origins of Totalitarianism. Many Iranians had no idea in 1979 what a totalitarian state was, because most of us were in no way affected by the experience of Nazism or Communism. Actually for a long time the Iranian Left dismissed the claim that Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were a form of totalitarianism. This reminds me of what Arendt formulates beautifully in her book. She says that ‘While the totalitarian regimes are thus resolutely and cynically emptying the world of the only thing that makes sense, they impose upon it at the same time a kind of super sense which the ideologies actually always meant when they pretended to have found the key to history or the solution to the riddles of the universe.’

“I think Arendt’s work on totalitarianism is key to showing us that evil is an important problem in everyday politics and that it has the possibility to emerge at any time and in any place. I believe that many have experienced in Iran what Arendt describes in the Origins of Totalitarianism as ‘the anti-political principle.’ It is the end of ethics in the political realm and the unlimited degradation of civic morality. In 1979 the abyss between men of civility and men of brutal deeds was filled in Iran with the ideologization of the public sphere. One saw the breakdown of the old system, followed by the failure of political liberalism and the formation of the ideologies of 1979. One can say that when common sense breaks down or becomes impossible, hopelessness and resignation set in; people lose the capacity for action and despair over their ability to influence things.

“If the Iranian revolution of 1979 showed us that “anything is possible,” Arendt on the contrary helped us to understand that thinking is an ongoing process which reclaims our capacity for action. I believe that Arendt’s phenomenological reconstruction of the nature of political existence appealed to many of us as a way to uncover the originary character of political experience that has for the most part been forgotten in Iranian politics. Reading Arendt in Tehran reminds us continuously of the fact that freedom is ‘the ability to begin,’ and therefore civil society is a domain where people, in their collective plurality, remember who they are.”

The pertinence of Arendt’s account of totalitarianism, in turn, relates back to the ongoing debate about “Islamic fascism” and the relevance of the “T” word today. Various liberals are anxious about “totalitarianism”—perhaps because of its anti-Communist vintage—as if that were an argument against it, now that we know what we have learned about Soviet Communism. Still, old habits die hard. Of course, the contemporary totalitarian tendencies are variegated across the wide geography of Islamic extremism. It is not a single unified ideology—but even Nazism was always full of inconsistencies, nor was Hitler’s Germany the same as Mussolini’s Italy, etc. What is true is that the network of Islamic fascist tendencies stretch across the world in a profound antagonism to freedom. As Jahanbegloo testifies, “totalitarianism” is an appropriate appellation for the hostility to freedom and human creativity that holds power in Teheran; and the term has, with appropriate modifications, application to other forms of Islamic extremism. For the West, the question remains: will it face up to this challenge?

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