On 27 April 2006, the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo experienced what is coming to be commonplace for many Iranian intellectuals and political activists. In Tehran's Mehrabad airport, on his way to India, he heard his name being called out from the loudspeakers. He followed instructions and went to the security department of the airport where he found himself subject to the re-enactment of a frightening scenario.
It is the norm of the Iranian security forces to calm the suspect by telling him or her that he was most likely brought in because of “name confusion”. The detainee is then typically taken to the “bureau”, where he or she is reassured that his or her name would be “cleared”. In the meantime, the suspect's passport is confiscated. At that point, the person is accused, and forced systematically to “confess”. It is then the procedure that over the course of the next week, Iran's official news organ Kayhan (not to be confused with its anti-regime namesake based in London) and other newspapers will “leak” the news that the accused is a spy for the CIA and the Mossad.
In previous years, accusations of sexual perversion and alcohol consumption would also be attributed to the accused, who would then be paraded in front of the TV cameras, sitting with his interrogators, and would proceed to detail his “crimes” for all to hear. Upon their release, most “confessors” go public and renounce their previous “confessions” as the product of extreme duress. And the destructive replay of this brutal game of confession soon continues with yet another victim. (Torture, it must be noted, figures centrally in the extraction of such televised confessions.)
A close look at Ramin reveals that by no stretch of imagination is he a political activist. When he attended the Sorbonne in the heyday of Marxist radicalism, he was known as an advocate of non-violence. (Indeed he wrote his dissertation, later published as a book, on the philosophical sources of Gandhi's non-violence.) After he graduated and moved back to Iran, he very much maintained his position as a peace advocate, and a defender of dialogue and understanding between cultures.
In his inexhaustible efforts, Ramin convened conferences, put together forums and discussion groups, published books, interviewed thinkers and scholars, and lectured on non-violence, philosophy, and intercultural dialogue. Once I asked him about his proclivity toward non-violence, and why it was that he steered clear of Marxist ideology in the Sorbonne. He said he developed a resistance to any politics of violence because both his parents were leftists at the time.
Ramin's commitment to community service, however, divulges his indelible family traits. Ramin's mother, an author in her own right, manages an NGO for homeless girls. “People like my mother”, he once told me, “are the backbone of this society. They are anonymous social activists who work at the grassroots to help others, and keep this society from falling apart.” By remaining apolitical, Ramin has in fact demonstrated a certain sense of professionalism in a society overrun by the politicisation of the life-world. Ramin has always believed in expanding the cultural horizons of his fellow citizens rather than exhorting them to political activism.
I visited him in summer 2005 in Tehran at the Cultural Research Bureau where he works. He was busy hosting Timothy Garton Ash, who was on assignment for the New York Review of Books. His small office was covered with posters of the philosophers he had brought to Iran to lecture to the public. Richard Rorty's was among them.
At the time, Ramin was editing a journal and working on a book on the philosophy of democracy. He was organising lectures delivered to students by expatriate Iranian professors who had come back for summer vacation. In the meantime, Ramin was teaching a couple of courses on Hegel. He was proud of the seminar he had just held on Immanuel Kant, which more than 4,000 students had attended.
The question naturally arises why a government would arrest a tireless, selfless intellectual like Ramin Jahanbegloo. Individuals like Ramin are a source of immense benefit to a developing nation, with a young population hungry for new ideas and opinions. In fact, such people are cultural innovators, who bring ideas home by making them palatable to their people. (It should be noted that the intellectual conversation Ramin has created interfaces not only with the west but also, vitally, with India: in addition to his work on Gandhi, he has written on and recently published a book of dialogues with the Indian thinker Ashis Nandy.)
Intellectuals like Ramin revive a sense of civic vibrancy sorely lacking in the lives of many people whose societies are in transition and who find themselves negotiating between tradition and modernity without the intellectual resources to make sense of it all (significantly, one of Ramin's edited collections bears the title Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity).
This is why it is so difficult to comprehend the reasons for Ramin's arrest. In this regard, some of the news statements released about him by the Iranian authorities and state-sponsored newspapers are helpful. The newspaper Jomhouri Eslami, reporting on Ramin's arrest, followed the script by accusing him of working for the CIA and Mossad. This newspaper, which belongs to the “supreme leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, levels a new accusation against Ramin by asserting that he is one of the key components of the American plot to topple the Islamic regime through peaceful means.
A similar claim was made in February 2006 against the Sufis, when their peaceful gathering for worship was crushed by the plain-clothed members of the regime-sponsored vigilante group Ansar Hizbollah. The Sufis, the oldest spiritual sect of Islam, were accused of being British spies plotting to change the Islamic state by peaceful metamorphosis. Another statement along these lines was made by President Ahmadinejad in his recent “tit-for-tat” statement. In a speech unrelated to Ramin's case, he said: “We make restrictions as they (Americans) make restrictions.”
Thus one might view Ramin's arrest as a step towards greater repression that signals what strategy the Iranian president intends to adopt vis-à-vis the democratisation efforts alleged by the Bush administration — even as part of the Iranian government's response to the initiative put forth by US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice for enhancing democracy in Iran, including the request for $75 million to that end.
In the eyes of Ahmadinejad and his ideological cohorts, Ramin is perceived as a symbol of “westoxication“. Ramin advocates democracy, freedom, and dialogue — all deemed by Iran's reactionaries as western “imports” and as part of a “cultural onslaught”. The regime, therefore, suspects anyone who advocates these ideals as foreign agents.
The arrest of Ramin may indeed have such larger political implications, demonstrating the vulnerability of developing-world civil societies when “democracy” becomes a tug-of-war between them and America.
Rasool Nafisi teaches the sociology of development at Strayer University in Virginia. He contributes to various news agencies, including the Voice of America, BBC, and Radio France International. Visit rnafisi.com