By D.D. GUTTENPLAN, The New York Times
LONDON -- The idea was simple: each year, on the third Thursday in November, the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization would hold an international gathering of philosophers for a day of rational discussion and free debate.
But this year, the celebration of World Philosophy Day has been overshadowed by a boycott organized by academics from around the world who say that by holding the event in Tehran, Unesco risks turning its "school of freedom" into a propaganda exercise for a brutal regime.
The first World Philosophy Day, in 2002, was a relatively quiet affair held at Unesco's headquarters in Paris. Moufida Goucha, head of the organization's Human Security, Democracy, and Philosophy Section, told delegates that the goal would be to ensure "debates in which each and every person should feel free to participate according to his or her convictions." Three years later the event had become sufficiently important on the intellectual calendar to be moved out of Paris, first to Chile and then to Morocco, Turkey, Italy and Russia.
Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian philosopher who now teaches at the University of Toronto, still remembers the excitement of debating the question "What is secularism?" at the Istanbul celebrations in 2007, an event he attended a few months after his release from jail in Iran, where he had been arrested because of "his contacts with foreigners."
"I was arrested in Tehran in April 2006 and taken to Evin Prison," he said in a recent interview. Istanbul also saw the publication of "Philosophy: A School of Freedom," a 300-page document by Unesco on the "defense of the teaching of philosophy -- a fertile guarantor of liberty and autonomy."
Accused by the Iranian press of having links to the Central Intelligence Agency and to the Israeli security agency Mossad, Dr. Jahanbegloo had also been charged with bringing Western philosophers including Jürgen Habermas and the late Richard Rorty to Iran in a bid to foment a "velvet revolution." He was released only after an international campaign and Dr. Jahanbegloo, the author of "Reading Gandhi in Tehran," said he said in a recent interview that he considers himself lucky to have escaped with his life.
So when he learned that Unesco had decided to hold this year's World Philosophy Day celebration in Iran, he wrote to the organization's director general, Irina Bokova, urging her to reconsider.
"It is certain that under current conditions a World Philosophy Day could not be held in normal conditions in Iran and that many philosophers would not be able to attend freely," he said.
This spring, after Unesco announced that the meeting would go ahead as planned, Dr. Jahanbegloo and two colleagues from the Italian journal Reset began to organize a boycott.
The politics of boycotts are never simple -- especially when intellectuals are involved. Even the cultural boycott of South Africa, widely cited as helping to bring about the end of apartheid, remains controversial. In recent years the British Association of University Teachers passed -- and then rescinded -- a proposal for an academic boycott of Israel in protest of that country's policies toward the Palestinians. Just last spring a proposal by the Student Senate at the University of California at Berkeley to divest from certain companies that supply the Israeli military divided that campus. And the response to the call to boycott Tehran next month has been far from unanimous.
"Since 2002 Iran has always participated in World Philosophy Day events," said Sue Williams, a spokeswoman for Unesco. "So when Tehran offered to host an event this year, Unesco accepted."
Dr. Jahanbegloo responded: "This is a government which has jailed scores of scholars and writers in the past five years, and where you have a total ban on independent thought and critical thinking." He also pointed to President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's removal of Gholamreza Aavani as director of the Iranian Institute of Philosophy and his replacement by Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a hardline politician whose daughter is married to the son of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"It's as if they decided to hold a philosophy conference in Berlin in 1938 -- with Goebbels as head of the conference!" Dr. Jahanbegloo said.
Brian Klug, who teaches philosophy at Oxford and is the author of "Being Jewish and Doing Justice," said "As I see it, the reasons that have been given for not going are more like reasons for going: going and giving solidarity to those Iranian intellectuals who are opposed to their government's infringements of human rights. Let the government of Iran be the one that does the boycotting," he said, by "withdrawing invitations or forbidding would-be participants from participating."
"Down the line, this might lay a basis for a public call to boycott the event. But that's down the line."
In July, the German philosopher Otfried Höffe, who had agreed to give the keynote speech in Tehran, announced that he would not be going to Iran. "Such a step requires not just a good, but a very good reason," he told the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, pointing to the installation of Mr. Haddad Adel as conference president and "the risk that World Philosophy Day" would be used by Mr. Ahmedinejad "as a propaganda platform. I shouldn't be helping him do that."
But Binesh Hass, an Iranian-Canadian doctoral student at Oxford, wrote on the Guardian Web site that isolating his country further "will only augment the impunity the government feels in the treatment of its people."
Avishai Margalit, a philosophy professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who also opposes the boycott, told The Wall Street Journal it was unlikely that Iran would allow Israelis to attend. However Unesco insists that all affiliates of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies, including Israel, have been invited to participate. "It is my understanding that nobody has been refused a visa," Ms. Williams of Unesco said.
Even some supporters of the boycott have found the decision a difficult one. "I have a very special personal relationship with Iran," Dr. Höffe said by telephone from his office in Tübingen. "Not only because I have supervised a number of Iranian students, but because I am the only foreign member of the Tehran Academy of Philosophy. In general I try to take part in intercultural discussions. But I wouldn't go to North Korea. And I'd find it profoundly difficult to go to Cuba. With Iran however, as with Israel or China, I think you need to consider each case on its merits."
Dr. Höffe's objection to the official character of the Tehran conference, and the Iranian regime's close control over it, has been echoed by Dr. Habermas, perhaps Germany's most prominent public intellectual. In a e-mail message, Mr. Habermas said he "strongly" opposed "official contacts with representatives of the present government in Iran," but warned "we should not make attempts to intervene in the domestic politics in Iran either."
He said that when the former president Mohammad Khatami was still in office, "I had the opportunity to meet and have discussions with many of my colleagues in Tehran. These encounters filled me with great respect for the sophistication and scholarship of the academic elite of the country."
On Sept. 27, opponents of the Tehran event gathered at the New School for Social Research in New York to plan an Alternative World Philosophy Day conference, to be held online. Meanwhile, there are signs that Unesco is beginning to waver. Ms. Williams, the Unesco spokeswoman, said that the organization had planned an additional special observance of World Philosophy Day this year, to take place at its Paris headquarters on Nov. 18. And while the Tehran conference will go ahead, there will also be events in cities around the world including Mexico City, Tunis and Dakar.
Ms. Williams denied that the apparent downgrading of Tehran had anything to do with the boycott campaign. But Giancarlo Bosetti, editor of Reset and an organizer of the protest, said that it was the New York meeting that had pushed Unesco to act. "They did what they could -- and that was quite a lot," he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times on October 24, 2010
Monday, November 1, 2010
By D.D. GUTTENPLAN, The New York Times