In Search of the Golden Mean

Until he was forced to flee Iran, Ramin Jahanbegloo was a voice of sanity and humanity emanating from a land where extremism generally has the stage. But he continues to express his conciliatory message from his new home, in Delhi.

The Clash of Intolerances, by Ramin Jahanbegloo, Har-Anand Publications (India), 156 pages

Few Israelis know his name, but Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian intellectual, is well known throughout Europe and the United States as an author and lecturer. This past year, his name hit the headlines after he was detained in Tehran while on his way to an international conference in Brussels. His arrest spraked a huge international outcry, which included petitions signed by hundreds of public figures from across the political spectrum: Bernard-Henri Levy, Noam Chomsky, Bernard Kouchner (today the French foreign minister), Michael Ignatieff, Umberto Eco, Jurgen Habermas and more. In the wake of this public protest, the "Iranian Andrei Sakharov," as he has been dubbed, was released, but not before being interrogated and spending many months in jail. The authorities allowed him to leave Iran, and he is now a fellow at a research institute in New Delhi, which is the publisher of this book.

Jahanbegloo was born in Tehran in 1961. In the 1980s, he studied at the Sorbonne, and later at Harvard. In 1991-2001, he was a guest professor at the University of Toronto, and he wrote several books in English and French, among them "Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity" and "Gandhi: Aux sources de la non-violence: Thoreau, Ruskin, Tolstoi (Le temps et les mots)." During this period, he also published a fascinating book called "Conversations with Isaiah Berlin," which may be one of the most interesting sources in print on the liberal theories of this British Jewish intellectual.

In 2000, Jahanbegloo made up his mind to go back to Iran. "I don't want to be an exile from my country," he explained. It was during the relatively liberal era of president Mohammad Khatami. Upon his return he was appointed head of the department of contemporary philosophy at the Center for Cultural Research, which had then opened in Tehran. In his articles and lectures from this period, he developed the theory of a "dialogue between civilizations" in response to Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations." Khatami incorporated some of these ideas in his speeches addressed to the West. In this atmosphere, Jahanbegloo was able to invite liberal Western intellectuals to his center, among them Richard Rorty, Agnes Heller, Habermas, and even Amitai Etzioni (despite his Israeli background). As a result, hundreds of Iranian students were exposed to Western intellectual discourse.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran, this window closed.

Jahanbegloo's arrest in April 2006 was not just an act of violence against one of Iran's most prominent independent intellectuals, but a brutal warning sign to all Iranians who believed the regime percentcould be made more moderate through internal change. For this reason, Jahanbegloo's latest book has generated special interest. In it, he lays out his theories, basing himself not only on Gandhi but also on Martin Buber, in an appeal for open, tolerant dialogue between societies that could help to narrow cultural and historical gaps. What Jahanbegloo seeks is the golden mean between universal principles and respect of cultural differences, which would reveal the humanist foundation that lies, in his view, at the core of all the great historical religions.

Other voices emanate

At a time when nearly everything Israelis hear about Iran revolves around its plans for nuclear development, it is worth noting that there are other voices emanating from Tehran, if at present stifled. Even if these voices are being muzzled at the moment and have taken a step back, they exist. They are evidence of the richness of Persian culture, which has always been open to other cultures. In this respect, Iran differs from the Arab world today. Tehran is home to a dynamic and vibrant society, of which Jahanbegloo is only one expression.

From the very start of the book, Jahanbegloo hints at the direction of his arguments: Hitler, he says, taking his cue from Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, was not an aberration in the psychological landscape of Germany: He articulated paranoia and perverted dreams that were shared by large sections of the German population. His uniqueness, and that of fascism in general, lay in turning the lowest cultural common denominator into the dominant social norm. This was done by exploiting the masses as a political force to shore up the leader's rhetoric and seditious oratory. This is a novel approach to Islamic fundamentalism - though not without its risks, as Jahanbegloo learned through personal experience.

Although secular himself, Jahanbegloo views Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, as a religion based on universal moral principles that can serve as a basis for dialogue and mutual tolerance. The problem is that Islam has been hijacked by its radical interpreters (every reading of a religious text is not "reading" in the narrow sense but an attempt to proclaim some new truth), and used by them as a political tool. The terror attacks in New York, Madrid and London may have been directed at the United States and Europe, he says, but they were also an attack on all Muslim countries with an interest in tolerance, pluralism and democracy.

According to Jahanbegloo, the battle is not between civilizations, but within civilizations, and even in the West there is a struggle going on between attempts to prove the supremacy of the West (Huntington, for example) and attempts to conduct a dialogue with other cultures without surrendering universal principles (John Rawls, Isaiah Berlin, Michael Walzer). With sadness and an undercurrent of anger, the author describes the radical demonization of Islam in the West following the September 11 attacks, and how Muslims and Arabs became automatic suspects based on their origins and facial features.

No monopoly on tolerance

The second chapter is the book's most important, and it gave the volume its name - "The Clash of Intolerances." All the pathos and liberal thinking of the author come out here, but a certain weakness in his argument is also revealed. Morality is his strong suit, history less so. In this chapter, Jahanbegloo writes that Western culture does not own a monopoly on tolerance or respect for the other. To illustrate this, he cites his "Cordoba paradigm." In Cordoba during the Islamic period, Muslims, Jews and Christians co-existed in harmony, providing inspiration for the finest philosophical works in medieval times, from Thomas Aquinas to Maimonides and Ibn Rushd. Judeo-Arabic culture and Islamic-Arabic culture, he writes, developed side by side.

That, of course, is not a new or original theory, but it is stated here very emphatically, with literary flair that sometimes brings to mind the writing of A.B. Yehoshua in his novel "Voyage to the End of the Millennium." Jahanbegloo?s lyrical observations here are definitely worth reading: "While Europe was darkened at sunset; Cordoba, the largest city and the seat of the Muslim Moorish empire in Spain, was illuminated by public lamps. Europeans bathed in streams and lakes; the citizens of Cordoba had over a thousand bath houses. Europe was infested with vermin; people in Muslim Spain changed their undergarments daily. Europeans walked in mud; Cordoba?s streets were paved. Europe's palaces had smoke holes in the ceiling; Cordoba's Arabesque architecture was exquisite. Europe's nobility could not sign its name; Cordoba's children went to school. Europe's monks could not read the baptismal service; Cordoba's teachers created a library with over two million books on every subject of human life."

It is easy to call this a simplistic and idealized portrayal, even if it contains kernels of historic truth. The more important question is why this tolerant culture, which developed under Muslim rule, did not succeed in creating normative frameworks that would allow its pluralism to be safeguarded and preserved. The fact is, despite all the glorious achievements of tolerant Muslim Andalusia, liberalism and democracy developed, in the long run, in Christian and post-Christian Europe rather than the Arab world. For this, Jahanbegloo has no answer, and one of the reasons is that his writing is primarily philosophical. He never confronts the question of how theoretical principles are turned into historical realities.

But these criticisms should not blind us to the purpose of this idealized portrait of Cordoba. What Jahanbegloo wants to show us with this magnificent depiction of Andalusia is very simple: Islam can co-exist with tolerance, because Islam contains historical and theoretical elements upon which respect for others can be based. This is an important polemical approach in view of the benighted rhetoric coming out of Iran these days, from jihadists steeped in the Saudi Wahhabism cultivated by Al Qaida.

Israeli readers will find Jahanbegloo's book particularly interesting. For starters, they will discover an Iranian philosopher many of whose universal intellectual ideas are derived from Jewish thinkers (Isaiah Berlin, Martin Buber, Norbert Elias, Elias Canetti, Heinrich Heine), alongside such other luminaries as John Locke, Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, Rabindranath Tagore and Boris Pasternak. To these, he adds Muslim intellectuals like Mohammed Arkon, Muhammad Sa'id al-Ashmawi and Mohammad Ayub. It is a very universal list, though somewhat eccentric, that attests to the broadness of the author's intellectual horizon.

On top of that, in view of Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial, the author's remarks on this issue are of special merit. Shortly before his arrest, he published an article about his visit to Auschwitz, in the Spanish daily El Pais, which began with the words "Everyone knows what happened here." The book contains passages that are no less blunt, as the author suggests that all human beings have a moral obligation to recall what happened in the gas chambers, which can serve to define the outer limits of inhuman behavior.

Today, Jahanbegloo is forced to say these things from his exile in New Delhi. One can only hope that this humanistic and universal approach, which does not turn its back on Islamic heritage, will one day find its way back to Tehran. There is another Iran, and we, who live just a stone's throw away, must not forget it.

Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His May 2005 dialogue with Ramin Jahanbegloo is available at