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Who's afraid of Jacques Derrida?
Pioneer thinkers in Iranian universities should be welcomed

By Mehdi Nasrin
December 17, 2001
The Iranian

It looks as though Jacques Derrida and Edward Said are planning to give lectures and teach in Iran in the upcoming months. As a premature reaction, some (Iranian) scholars abroad have already criticized and condemned the acts. They argue that by traveling to Iran and participating in such seminars and lectures, these prestigious intellectuals help the Islamic government of Iran manifest a nicer picture of itself to the world.

It is likely that a government which has been criticized by many human rights organizations (like the UN and Amnesty International) and isolated from the international community for many years needs this nicer reputation. Moreover, such interactions between Iranian universities and foreign intellectuals may help the authoritarian government argue that there is actually freedom of speech in Iran.

Those who are criticizing Derrida and Said, of course, have even more concrete and detailed objections. One of the translators of Derrida's works was among the Iranian intellectuals who was kidnaped and killed by agents of the country's Ministry of Intelligence four years ago. Since then, those who committed these evil acts have been brought to justice. However the closed trial was rather quiet about those who ordered the murders. The critics think Derrida has a commitment of openly condemning these kinds of extra-judiciaries and must thus decline the request of giving a speech in Iran.

Said, on the other hand, has been criticized over the issue of Palestine. The Islamic government usually addresses the Palestinian people as the Moslem people of Palestine. This kind of statement, of course, can have racist interpretation. It seems according to the Islamic regime, there is no Christian or Jewish Palestinian. Since the critics think that Said has a commitment of openly condemning this idea, given that he himself is a (Christian) Palestinian, he must thus decline the request of teaching in Iran.

However, something is wrong with their conclusions.

Human rights violations and censorship within the Islamic government are undeniable facts. The premise of the critics' arguments is also correct: the Iranian government is a totalitarian regime with a very bad record of human rights violations. Thus it will probably (ab)use the presence of intellectuals (like Derrida) and activists (like Mandela who has already traveled to Iran twice) in order to improve its image. Therefore, critics conclude, these people should not travel to Iran.

The fallacy of this argument is rooted in accepting what the Iranian government imposes. The Islamic regime may indicate that anybody who participates in Iranian elections has accepted the principles and the legitimacy of the Islamic republic. Many do not buy that; it can be a peaceful way to show one's protest.

The Islamic regime may indicate that what happened on the streets after the World Cup qualification matches was nothing more than soccer hooliganism. Many believe it could be another social movement in the struggle for change. The Islamic regime may indicate that the flourishing humanitarian movement in the nation's film industry is a sign of a healthy society. But may say it could be just a fake intellectual passport to pass the borders of censorship.

Moreover, by allowing foreign intellectuals to give lectures in the country, the Islamic regime may be trying to show respect for freedom of speech. Many do not buy that either. It is most likely just a window decorating.

On the other hand, the presence of these pioneer figures in humanities, arts and sciences and any other interactions with the open world would be very beneficial for Iranian students and scholars. They would have the opportunity to directly discuss issues they have learned through translated texts and second-hand literature.

This is a situation not unlike the presence of the Doctors Without Borders in poor and far off villages in eastern and northwestern provinces of the country which have increased the level of public health. It is not only the physical presence which matters, the contribution of the UN health committee to the national projects (like birth control) was and is very important. This of course does not wash away what the Islamic regime has done in these provinces since the revolution, unless one wants to buy what they sell.

The same thing is true about higher education.

The presence of pioneer thinkers in Iranian universities should be welcomed. We should not forget that not all Iranians who have left their homeland have done so because of political reasons. Some seek better education and a higher social life. If the Ministry of Higher Education spends more money on research and invites more foreign professors, university education will improve in Iran.

Hardliners in Iran disagree with these kinds of interactions between universities and foreign scholars. They form a very influential band within the Islamic regime. It is not surrprisng that they are against any kind of interactions between the young generation and the open world.

Even some Iranian scholars are against these interactions. They think all Iranian ministries -- be it intelligence, education or health -- form a totalitarian system and these interactions help the system survive with a more beautiful and practical interface. The Islamic Republic is like any other totalitarian regime, afraid of more open interactions with the world. However, these interactions take place because the world is changing and they cannot be totally isolated.

Similar experiences (in Iraq, for instance) have shown it is only the citizens of these countries who pay the price of more vigorous sanctions and solid isolation. Any interaction with the open world (through the Internet, or educational exchanges) will help people move towards a more open and free society.

Those who condemn these interactions have a tendency to define themselves as the true opponents of the Islamic regime. They (over)react to whatever happens in that country. They easily forget what is in fact best for the nation.

If tomorrow the Islamic Republic announces that all those walking on the street are supporters of the regime, hardcore skeptics will ask people not to walk on the street, and criticize anyone who does so. But many will continue walking not only because they do not buy whatever the Islamic regime sells, but also because walking is good for their health.


Mehdi Nasrin is a student at the department of philosophy, University of Ottawa.

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