A PRISONER’S DESPERATE HOPE, AND BRAVE WORDS
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
EXCLUSIVE Maclean’s reveals a scholar’s work, as efforts to free him stall
Two months have passed since the Iranian-Canadian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo was locked in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death in 2003. And Canada is making so little headway in securing his release that his advocates are turning to India, Bangladesh and Tibet for help.
The 46-year-old has still not been formally charged but is under relentless interrogation, in what his friends fear is an effort to force a confession to espionage or sedition, a notion they consider outlandish given his philosophy of non-violence and dialogue. Jahanbegloo’s Iranian architect wife, Azin, has been granted two brief visits, both in the presence of interrogators. “He is in poor shape and has lost a lot of weight,” she told the Inter Press Service news agency. “Even more painful for me and our 10-month-old child is the uncertainty over how long he will be away. We live in desperate hope day after day. The authorities say they haven’t yet completed their ‘investigations.’ Until that happens, he can’t even see a lawyer.”
Jahanbegloo taught at the University of Toronto and Harvard before returning to his homeland in 2002, where he frequently hosted foreign intellectuals. His “contacts with foreigners” have been given as a reason for his arrest. Canada’s efforts to see him or get him a lawyer have been rebuffed. “The authorities are refusing us access,” said Foreign Affairs spokesperson Marie-Christine Lilkoff. Canadian diplomats are still in contact with Iranian officials, and are “discussing the case with like-minded countries,” she said.
“The Canadian ambassador doesn’t have great access,” says family friend Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization. “Among some elements of the regime, Canada is perceived as enemy No. 1, and a country that can be scorned without fear of repercussion.” Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, and Canada’s interest in Kazemi’s case was seen as an effort to embarrass the regime. “Even the beating death of an innocent pho-
tographer they can turn on its head and project themselves as a victim,” said Sadjadpour. To succeed, Canada must involve non-Western, Muslim countries, he added. But that does not mean Canada should back down, says another friend, Victoria Tahmasebi, who teaches at York University and UofT. “How many murders do we need to have before we take action?” she asked. “At least they could call back the ambassador, take the case to an international level. They must show us
that we are accorded every protection possible as Canadian citizens.”
Canadian-Iranian relations took another nasty turn last week when Iran sent a delegation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva headed by Tehran prosecutor Gen. Saeed Mortazavi, who was responsible for Kazemi’s arrest and detention. Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said he was “disgusted” by his presence, which demonstrated Iran’s “complete contempt” for human rights.
And then MacKay tried to have Mortazavi arrested. “I spoke to the German foreign ministry about the possibility, under their law or international convention, of detaining Mr. Mortazavi,” MacKay told reporters in Quebec City. The Iranian prosecutor would have claimed diplomatic immunity if Canada had moved against him in Geneva, MacKay said, but a stop in Frankfurt might have offered a chance to nab him. In the end, Mortazavi didn’t stop on German soil. “But mark my words,” MacKay said. “This individual is on notice. If there is any way Canada can bring this person to justice, we’ll do it.”
The campaign to free Jahanbegloo is now centring on India. Before his arrest at Tehran’s airport, Jahanbegloo was teaching at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, and was organizing two Indo-Iranian conferences. The center’s faculty has written to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and met with Iran’s ambassador to India. There has been no formal response. “When we talked to them they said, ‘We don’t want to take a harsh view of it. We are aware of his
contribution as an intellectual.’ But it’s doubletalk because at the same time they talk about the security interests of the Iranian state. To which I say everything he has done has been in the public domain. There is nothing secretive and nothing conspiratorial about Ramin Jahanbegloo,” said the coordinator of the centre’s efforts, Suresh Sharma, who is now mobilizing colleagues in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Tibet.
Jahanbeloo’s cause got a boost last week from a petition signed by nearly 100 Arabs and Muslims, including a former Iraqi human rights minister, a Jordanian member of parliament, and dozens of Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Saudis, and Egyptians. But there is resistance among some of those who could have the greatest sway on Tehran—Muslim scholars. “Some people are reluctant to publicize human rights in Iran when Iran is facing pressure on the nuclear issues,” said Mansour Bonakdarian, who teaches history at Hofstra University. “They are afraid that too much discussion of human rights in Iran could be exploited by the U.S. and its allies.”
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IN HIS OWN WORDS
Ramin Jahanbegloo was arrested on April 27, and locked up in the notorious Evin prison. He has not been charged, but Iran’s minister of intelligence has said he was picked up because of “relations with foreigners. ” Hisfriends say no one is sure exactly what motivated the arrest. His work in other countries was well-known: he has studied and worked at the Sorbo7ine, the University of Toronto and the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. But some have linked the arrest to two articles he wrote for Spain’s El Pais newspaper, one on his 2004 visit to Auschwitz (which appeared soon after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejadpronounced the Holocaust a “myth”), a?id one on the intellectual climate in Iran. Both are reprinted here-.
AN ASSEMBLY LINE OF MORTAL DESTRUCTION
Auschwitz is a name well known in Iran. Most of the Iranian literati have heard about this place and clearly understand that it is an infamous location. But not too many Iranians feel the historical necessity to visit there. Not even those who travel to Poland for educational or business purposes wish to return to Iran having had a personal experience with Auschwitz. I visited Auschwitz in February 2004, having the opportunity to travel to Poland to speak with various Polish intellectuals and artists in preparation of a special edition for an Iranian magazine. It was a cold afternoon and I was one of the last visitors at the camp. I was horrified by the idea of what I would be seeing on the outskirts of the Polish city of Oswiçcim.
As the taxi approached the extermination
camp, a single railway line stretched before me, ending at a red brick building—the terminal of the Auschwitz-Birkenau line constructed in the spring of 1944. There were barbed-wire and brick barricades as far as the eye could see. The crematoriums in ruins
were all around, all covered with a blanket of snow. Visiting Auschwitz under the recently fallen snow emphasized the reality of this barbaric creation produced by modern rational minds.
The main objective of the Auschwitz camp was to destroy men, women and children whose only crime was that they were Jewish. They had been transported from Greece, Hungary, France,
Belgium, Holland and Poland to be killed in the gas chambers and reduced to ashes; their gold teeth, hair and clothing were recycled and converted into raw materials for the Nazi war machine. Many years later I was reading the memoirs of several survivors, such as If This is a Man by Primo Levi and Night by Elie Wiesel, but it goes without saying that experiencing directly the horror of the extermination camp is something that overwhelms the imagination. To visit Auschwitz is like visiting no other prisoner camp or torture chamber in the world. The terrifying expression of cruelty and human insanity of the other two locations would most certainly shock anyone. What puts Auschwitz in a place of its own is not only the horrible imprint from witnessing this assembly line of mortal destruction, but especially the bitter aftertaste and nausea toward humanity that remains hours, days and months afterward.
In reality, the most important lesson that can be learned from a visit to Auschwitz is not that the Holocaust was merely a tragic event in Jewish history, but rather it was a challenge to the very existence of man. Auschwitz was an unprecedented occurrence, not just an ordinary crime based on the assassination of millions of human beings. Auschwitz is a moral failure and an aberration of the very foundations of civilization, because it is the unlimited degradation and destruction of the human condition. From a moral point of view, no one is innocent by not knowing what happened in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, not even those who voluntarily turned a blind eye to the real nature of the horror. Auschwitz is no accident or error in history; it is a trauma for all human civilization. Putting Auschwitz to words with any certainty is an impossible task for poets, philosophers and politicians. Given that with
Auschwitz the impossible became the possible, nothing more remains impossible. Let us not forget what Paul Celan said about words following Auschwitz: “It, the language, remained, not lost, yes, in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through this happening. Passed through and could come to light again, ‘enriched’ by all this.” Without a doubt, Auschwitz is an indescribable occurrence of inhumanity, but today it is our responsibility to bear witness to Auschwitz and the indescribable, imposing limits on the human condition.
-Jan. 28, 2006
‘THE REAL PROBLEM IS WHO WE ARE’
As might be expected, the dialogue between Europe and Iran has in all practicality reached a standstill, and the European Union has joined with the United States in its decision to relegate the Iranian question to the UN for the possible enforcement of sanctions. However, what the European media as well as media from other countries across the globe generally omit in their coverage is the fact that Iranian society comprises multiple facets. Iran is a juxtaposition of paradoxes and contradictions. The country is located in the heart of the Near East and yet its population is not Arab. This is a country that is rich, yet underdeveloped; that has been exploited excessively but never colonized. It is a civilization based on an ethnic mosaic, just like India, except that its nationalism is cohesive. And last, but not least, Iran is one of the few Muslim countries where you can find a vital, active civilian society.
Today in Iran, civilian society is the subject of intense debate.... The key players in Iranian civilian society are concerned with the structures that bridge the government and its citizens; they are equally important, as were the members of civilian society in Poland and Czechoslovakia during the Communist regime. In modern Iran, civilian society does not mean having a market economy that is independent from the state. Civilian society
is an alternative sphere of citizenry that clings to the promise of individual autonomy that transcends political and religious sectarian attitudes. Beyond being merely a “volunteer” or “charitable” sector, Iranian civilian society is an “ethnic sector.” It requires a constant effort for citizens to express themselves as individuals rather than just belonging to a society founded on theological and political premises. Because of their role in giving meaning to that promise, the moral responsibility of individual members in Iranian civilian society is greater than in any other historical period.
Over the last 15 years, the role of intellectuals has been crucial in breathing fresh
‘EVERYTHING DERIVES FROM RELIGION, AND THE PROBLEMS IN ISLAM ARISE FROM THIS VISION’
air into Iran’s civilian society. Whereas the revolutionary intellectuals in the late 1970s and early 1980s were not successful in offering alternative ideological platforms to the key discourse of the Iranian revolution, the socalled religious intellectuals of the ’90s tried to redefine the long-standing clash between modernity and tradition. In reality, the religious intellectuals are divided into two groups: reformists and neo-conservatives. The reformist faction is represented by names like Abdolkarim Soroush, Mohsen Kadivar, [Mohammad] Mojtahed Shabestari and others. The unifying features of this group include its recognition of the need for reform of Islamic thought, democracy, civilian society and religious pluralism, and its opposition to the absolute supremacy of the
faqih (supreme spiritual leader). The proliferation of the religious intellectual faction can be followed through the writings of Soroush. He maintains that certain unalterable religious truths do exist, but our perception of them depends on our scope of scientific and philosophical knowledge. He speaks of the possibility of an “ Islamic democracy.” According to Soroush, the role of the philosopher is to reconcile religion and freedom. He accentuates the existence of two religious concepts: the maximalist and the minimalist.
From the maximalist perspective, everything derives from religion, and the majority of the problems currently experienced in Islam arise from this vision. The minimalist vision implies that certain values, such as respect for human rights, are not founded on religion. In Soroush’s opinion, the minimalist concept must prevail, or the balance between Islam and democracy will not be possible.
Motjtahed Shabestari is one of Iran’s religious intellectuals who barely question the singular vision of Islam. According to him, the official debate on Islam in Iran has triggered a double crisis. The first is due to the belief that Islam encompasses a political and economic system that offers solutions that are pertinent for all historical periods; the second implies the conviction that the government must apply Islamic law to the letter. In contrast to the reformist intellectual platform, the neo-conservatives are in favour of the pre-eminence of the supreme spiritual leader, the faqih, and against concepts such as democracy, civilian society and pluralism. Between these two extremes we find Reza Davari-Ardakani, Qolam-Ali Hadad Adel and Mehdi Golshani. Reza DavariArdakani, although an anti-Western philosopher, is familiar with the works of Martin Heidegger. He adopts Heidegger’s criticism of modernity and couches it in Islamic terms. He rejects the Western model for democracy based on the separation of politics and religion. Davari-Ardakani may be considered as the philosophical spokesperson of the Islamic regime.
The reformist and neo-conservative intellectuals do not dominate the entire Iranian public sphere. There exists a new generation. Intellectual non-religious post-revolutionaries such as [Seyyed] Javad Tabatabai, Babak Ahmadi, and others may be defined as “de-
bating intellectuals,” in contrast to the revolutionary intellectuals of the seventies and eighties. The importance invested in the notion that truth should be reflected in the power of the constitution as proposed by the new Iranian intelligentsia reveals the affinity of this younger generation for the ideal of value-pluralism. This value-pluralism questions the stance that the West is the “opponent.” These thinkers of Iranian civilian society believe that the political and intellectual relationship between Iran and the rest of the world requires urgent cultural interaction between the two sides. By helping to maintain this dialogue with modernity and Western civilization, the new generation of intellectuals rises above the blackmail position of having to be “for or against the West.” Being for or against the West is no longer the issue. The real problem is who we are. And we cannot respond to this question without acknowledging our role as citizen of the
world. Therefore, the notion of civil responsibility is the key issue in Iranian civilian society. Seventeen years following the Iranian revolution, the main concern of this civilian society no longer consists of choosing between morality and politics, but rather in determining how to forge a political system based on civil responsibility, without which, you are left with the politics of hypocrisy. M —April 20,2006 © Copyright: EL PAÍS Daily Newspaper, S.L.
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To read our original article on Ramin Jahanbegloo, visit www.macleans.ca/ramin