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When thinking is a dissident act 24 décembre 2007

Posted by Acturca in Academic / Académique, Istanbul.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (USA), December 21, 2007 Friday, Vol. 54 No. 17 Pg. 9

Carlin Romano *, Istanbul

Why is there something rather than nothing? Why, on a Thursday in late November, can you find World Philosophy Day taking place in some exotic metropolis, but search fruitlessly the rest of the year for « World Economics Day, » or « World Comp Lit Day »?

Age, you might think, has its privileges, but World Philosophy Day, which took place in Rabat, Morocco, last year and Santiago, Chile, the year before, dates only to 2002. The explanation rests with Unesco, which many Americans think of as a Paris-based U.N. agency that preserves historic sites. The United States may have rejoined a few years ago, but that doesn’t mean we’re paying attention.

The agency, whose budget amounts to that of a midlevel American college, gives more support to philosophy than any government or nonuniversity institution. From its founding conference in 1946, attended by Jean-Paul Sartre, Unesco has favored the discipline, maintaining, as it stated in 1995, that « by training free, reflective minds capable of resisting various forms of propaganda, fanaticism, exclusion and intolerance, philosophical education contributes to peace, » Unesco’s one nonnegotiable goal.

Over the years, Unesco also has made a greater effort than any other institution to report on philosophy’s continuing place in the world. In 1995 it published Philosophy and Democracy in the World, a wide-ranging study conducted by Le Monde philosophy columnist Roger-Pol Droit. This year, in Istanbul, current Unesco philosophy chief Moufida Goucha unveiled Philosophy: A School of Freedom, an impressive 278-page report on philosophy teaching throughout the world. It lauds « the role of philosophy as a rampart against the double danger represented by obscurantism and extremism. »

World Philosophy Day, whose sessions are always open to the public, proved a natural extension of Unesco’s commitment when Ioanna Kuçuradi, the doyenne of Turkish philosophy, proposed the idea. Held at the organization’s Paris headquarters its first three years, it now moves annually from one venue to another. Next year’s meeting will take place in Palermo, Italy.

Unesco, in short, treats the world’s oldest academic profession just fine. Yet World Philosophy Day, packed with luminaries flown in to the plush Hotel Marmara for three days — no one said philosophers are able to count — can also appear ripe for caricature.

The agency, you see, never does anything second class — not with all those dues flowing in from member states. This year a swank dinner at a restaurant on the Bosporus preceded the opening morning session, titled « Dialogue: Between Whom, on What? » When not listening intently to speakers, attendees could go to a special concert of the Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, played only for them at the capacious Ataturk Cultural Center.

You’ve never seen a symphony orchestra outnumber its audience? No matter — Unesco doesn’t watch the meter as its hospitality rolls forward.

The temptation to skepticism, however, was outweighed by the presence of one baldish, modest-looking, 45-year-old thinker who participated in the round table at Ibn Rushd Hall on « Answering the Question: What Is Secularism? »

You might recognize the name — Ramin Jahanbegloo, the Iranian philosopher who won notice in recent years for his courageous conferences that built bridges to the liberal West, who invited such major Western apostles of free speech as Jürgen Habermas to Tehran.

In April 2006, Jahanbegloo found himself arrested at the Tehran airport and taken to solitary confinement in Iran’s forbidding Evin prison, accused by officials and the state-run press of « spying » and seeking to undermine the Islamic republic.

Chatting over a laptop in the Hotel Marmara’s press center, the soft-spoken scholar, who had been enjoying a visiting appointment at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi before his arrest, explains that a further accusation was « contact with foreigners. »

« You know, there’s an Afghan population living in Iran, » he says in a tone of slightly embittered bemusement. « Afghans are foreigners too. If somebody who is Afghan has contact with you, does that mean you are in contact with a foreigner? I thought it was really absurd. »

The mullahs certainly had a philosopher on their hands — a Sorbonne-educated thinker, who has published more than 20 books and sees himself as a votary of Isaiah Berlin’s liberalism as well as Gandhi’s and the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent activism.

For 125 days, he endured a cell of 2 by 3 meters, without a window. He faced regular interrogations while blindfolded.

At first he read, five or six times, the Farsi-language Koran that officials gave him. « For me the act of reading was emancipating, a way of getting outside the cell. » After about 40 days, officials permitted his wife to visit and bring the autobiographies of Gandhi and Nehru, both of whom spent spells in prison.

« I never had a trial, » Jahanbegloo explains. « I never had a lawyer. … I had to fight for my mental sanity. » He wrote as many as 2,000 aphorisms on the backs of tissue and biscuit boxes, only some of which he managed to get out of prison.

Jahanbegloo concedes he knew he took a risk with his Western-oriented activities, but he never expected « solitary »: « Most of those who had been arrested before had been student activists or feminist activists. … Everyone was shocked that somebody of my type was arrested. »

« Doing philosophy in a country like Iran, » he elaborates, « as in many other countries, is a work of dissidence … but philosophy for me since Socrates is a work of dissidence. It’s not just because of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It teaches you, and you teach others, how to think otherwise. To question and to criticize. »

Asked if he was tortured, Jahanbegloo answers « No, » then adds, « but solitary confinement is a kind of torture. It’s a psychological torture. It’s very difficult to live with no windows, and you never know when is the night, when is the day. »

Was Jahanbegloo ever pressed to give his interrogators names? He laughs good-naturedly: « There was no way I could give names. Because if you’re not engaged in a political activity, whose names are you going to give? You could give the names of Heidegger or Plato or Aristotle! »

Then, suddenly, on Aug. 30, 2006, it ended — after protests by Iranian demonstrators overseas and in Iran, pressure from the European Union, and a petition calling for his release signed by hundreds of intellectuals: « One day, they came and said ‘your family has paid the bail and you’re free and you can go.' » A final indignity remained: Officials forced him to issue a statement in which he admitted acting in ways that might have helped Western entities to foment a « velvet revolution » in Iran.

Jahanbegloo asserts he simply spoke honestly about his beliefs and the invitations and conferences he arranged, but also acknowledges, pondering his incarceration and release, « You’re always disgusted with yourself a little bit. … It’s very difficult to be a hero and stay heroic. … Because at some point you always betray the image you want to have of yourself. »

Reflecting back, this Muslim by birth, liberal and atheist by conviction, says he made it through his ordeal in part because of his prior reading on concentration camps — he’s visited Auschwitz twice — and imprisoned intellectuals. It has taught him, he advises, that one must « search for the humanity behind the inhuman, » that a philosopher’s most important task is to fight violence, intolerance, and inhumanity.

Jahanbegloo reveres the Dalai Lama for the Tibetan leader’s turning of the other cheek verbally while fighting for his people. He believes it was wrong for Columbia University President Lee Bollinger to invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Morningside Heights, then insult him: « You know, being on the side of violence is wrong: verbal violence, moral violence, military violence. »

For the moment, the affable scholar, who holds Canadian as well as Iranian citizenship and will start teaching political philosophy this spring at the University of Toronto, remains free on bail. At any moment, Iran could demand that he stand trial. He has not returned to Iran since it permitted him to leave in October 2006. His work in India has produced three books just out or on their way: The Clash of Intolerances, India Revisited, and The Spirit of India.

« I want it to be clear, » Jahanbegloo emphasizes, « that I in no way feel myself an exile. Because I don’t want to be an exile. I want to keep my contacts with Iran. I have my family in Iran, my wife and my daughter, my mother, students there, my apartment there, part of my life is in Iran. »

For Jahanbegloo, World Philosophy Day is no joke, no boondoggle. It’s a testament to an intellectual activity he fiercely defends, one that, he maintains, never surrenders its spirit of critical independence, whether surrounded by prison bars or businessman bars.

« I don’t know today how people perceive me, » he says, bidding a new acquaintance goodbye. To one set of eyes, he looks like a man who does not take lightly the freedom to sit on a panel, in a pleasant hotel, and say what he thinks.

* Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle and literary critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.


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