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In addition, I was happy to have the chance to promote certain values that might support those tendencies in Iranian culture and politics that were less repressive or authoritarian than ones dominant at the moment: religious pluralism and tolerance, the healthy role of critique rather than blind obedience to tradition, the clash of moral imperatives without a simple hierarchy dictating behavior, the importance of justifying values through rational argumentation, and so on.
In addition to espousing these liberal nostrums, which are commonplace in our culture (although, alas, not always observed in practice), I sought to challenge in small ways the anti-Semitic slant that I feared too often informed Iranian anti-Zionist discourse.
Thus, for example, when responding to the question about the Western reception of Islamic ideas, I mentioned the importance of Jewish scholars like Ignaz Goldziher, the 19th-century father of German Islamwissenschaft, and the conservative political theorist Leo Strauss, a great admirer of the late medieval theologian Al-Farabi, who did so much to preserve and develop Greek rationalism in the Middle Ages while not turning it into an excuse for the domination of nature.
Fueling my efforts was the memory of another episode in the 1980’s, when I was also engaged in a dialogue—or more precisely, a kind of question and answer exchange—with a young Iranian woman only a few years after the Iranian Revolution.
Sometime in the spring of 2010, while spending a semester at the American Academy in Berlin, I was invited to participate in the World Philosophy Day Conference, an annual event sponsored by UNESCO since 2005 and scheduled for that November in Tehran, Iran.
Although declining for a variety of reasons, I did agree to contribute a short statement responding to questions posed by the organizers about the importance of philosophy, which then found its way into the publicity they were issuing to advertise the conference.
As it turned out, an international protest against the conference was launched by the Italian journal Reset, and supported by Iranian exiles such as Ramin Jahanbegloo, who had been imprisoned for over a year in the notorious Evin Prison for his defense of Western ideas.
It was soon joined by eminent international philosophers, including Jürgen Habermas and Seyla Benhabib, who objected to the conference being held in a country that had systematically oppressed intellectuals and purged universities for criticizing the Islamic Revolution.
It was launched by an address by Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a conservative politician and philosopher who served as Speaker of the Parliament (and whose son was married to the daughter of Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran).Thus began an involvement that has lasted until very recently and produced ten appearances in the pages of Iran’s leading foreign-language newspaper.Although the results were published in English, I gather from Iranian friends that at least some were also translated into Farsi and appeared in other sites.The ones I did choose to answer were grand in scale and open-ended, reminding me of the kinds of “naïve” questions often posed by unselfconscious, curious undergrads before they learn to censor themselves to avoid looking foolish in the eyes of their more jaded counterparts.Among them, to the best of my recollection, were the following: Can you compare the relationship between theory and practice in the West and East? What is the place of tradition in the modern world?So rather than risk turning into an updated version of Tokyo Rose, I confined my responses to questions with no direct contemporary political implications.Or at least I did so until last year, as I will explain in a moment.Meetings were held at places like the New School to discuss what should be done to express outrage at the choice of Iran as the site of the conference, and alternative Philosophy Day events were planned for other cities around the world.Although UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova initially resisted the call to cancel its sponsorship, a month before the conference opened she agreed to do so.Having always told my students that they should never be hesitant about asking the most basic questions, which are sometimes both the most challenging to answer and most fruitful in terms of clarifying unexamined premises, I relished the chance to tackle them in ways that I hoped would be meaningful to a reader of the .A lifetime of teaching courses in intellectual history prepared me to speculate with some confidence on big, open-ended questions of this kind, while pitching the answers on a level that acknowledges the sophistication of some listeners but doesn’t leave others behind.