A talk in Tehran

How should academics
comport themselves when visiting a dictatorship? More specifically, what should
they do and not do when presenting a paper at an academic conference hosted by
a government that denies academic and other freedoms to its own population?
These were the questions that accompanied me to Tehran in July 2010 as I
prepared to deliver a speech on “The Paradoxes of Diversity.” Answers to them
evolved out of the visit itself.

My story begins with one of
those mass emails announcing a forthcoming conference in Tehran on “Multiculturalism and Global Community”.
Intrigued, I wrote the obligatory abstract and waited. A month elapsed before
it was accepted. A few days before my departure, I checked the conference programme
for the latest information only to discover that I had been elevated to a
plenary speaker. That was unexpected. I had imagined a small slot in one of the
many parallel sessions. Now I was to be in the limelight. The stakes of the
visit had, at least for me, become higher.

Only a year previously the
Iranian regime had brutally repressed growing tumult in the country, occasioned
by the disputed presidential election victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iranians
are Persians, not Arabs, but in hindsight one can see the June 2009
demonstrations in Tehran, Tabriz and other Iranian cities as the opening shot
of a pan-Middle Eastern uprising that has since pulled down rulers in Tunisia
and Egypt, launched sectarian strife in Bahrain and Syria, catalysed tribal
conflict in Yemen and prompted the territorial see-saw in Libya between pro and
anti regime factions.

Readers may recall scenes
in Tehran two years ago of black leather-jacketed men on motorcycles, the
Iranian Basij militia, beating students and other demonstrators. A famous video
still circulates on YouTube of one of their victims, the young woman known as
“Neda” who was shot in the heart, probably by a Basiji sniper.

Yet one year later, in July
2010, the Iranian authorities were set to hold a conference that draped itself
in multiculturalism and global community, buzz words of tolerance and
moderation. And all this while seven leaders of Iran’s Bahai’s - a peaceful
faith considered a schism by Iran’s mullahs – were in prison awaiting their
show trial. The conference theme was certainly appropriate but in the
circumstances it was also bizarre.

Organizers of academic
conferences in repressive states are rarely a homogenous group.  Some individuals are true believers of
the governments they serve. Others are not. Only time and conversation reveals
who is who. But whether they are regime enthusiasts, conflicted loyalists, or
closet malcontents the organizers generally try to do a good job and seek to
make guests feel welcome. Middle Easterners are proverbial for their hospitality
and kindness to strangers. That being the case, it is indecent for visitors gratuitously
to insult or offend their hosts. It is also cheap. Foreign academics presenting
papers in Iran and comparable countries face no appreciable physical danger.
The far greater danger is moral grandstanding. A combative visitor flies home
from the encounter unscathed; the conference organizers stay behind and face
the music.

Yet attentiveness to the
feelings of one’s hosts, solicitude for the inner struggles that some of them
may face, is also a hazard; it encourages people to censor the most important
things – by which I mean the most dissonant things – they should say. “One
gives way first in words,” Freud observed, “and then little by little in
substance too.” Politeness and embarrassment impede honesty.
But if academics are not honest at an academic conference, if civility erases
candor, they betray their vocation.

* * * * * *

I arrived at Imam Khomeini
International Airport on July 24, mid-afternoon, having not slept the night
before. I shuffled slowly in line towards passport control. A few of the
foreigners, some of whom I would meet over the next two days, reached the desk
before me only to be taken to an anteroom for further questioning. The supposed
miscreants were Americans, spoor of The Great Satan, whose visas, I learned
later, expired the day after the conference ended. Canadians like myself, in
contrast, were permitted a month’s stay. That enabled me to take the
post-conference trip to Esfahan. My passport received the official thud of
documentation and I headed to the hotel.

 The conference took place in the National Library and Archives of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a
suite of modern buildings, somewhat elevated from the road, above a grass
embankment. To their north stand the imposing Alborz mountains. Tehran, a city
of some 8 million people, crouches in a valley beneath them, the sun blazing
through the ubiquitous smog.

I spoke on the first
morning of the three and a half day event, sharing the plenary podium with two
ayatollahs and an anthropologist from the United States. The latter offered an
historical dissertation on Persian artifacts and symbolism. It was learned but
arcane to all but the cognoscenti. No mention of politics disturbed the
professor’s equanimity. The two ayatollahs spoke about modern Iran. Still a
little jet-lagged, fiddling with the headphones that translated Farsi into
English, and somewhat distracted by the chador-clad women chatting in the
audience, I was less attentive than I should have been to the details of their
speeches. My imperfect recollection is the refrain that diversity is respected
in Iran, though diversity has its limits, those being of religious piety. I
spoke last, cramming into 25 minutes a longer argument.

My address centered on certain paradoxes of diversity and some of
its benefits. I pointed out, for instance, that the concept of diversity
invoked by many advocacy and human rights groups implies something unitary.
Diversity can never be bad, from the conventional viewpoint, because, at root,
we are all the same and entitled to the same things. Our common humanity trumps
our difference, that common humanity now being re-described as diversity. Those
most wedded to diversity consciousness often assume that the main reason for
conflict is that people have not understood each other. This liberal idea
assumes in turn that people are rational in broadly the same way; that open
communication will reveal common and compelling human interests that transcend
partisanship. On such an account, enmity is a mode of incomprehension rather
than a choice by people who understand all too well those they reject.

while diversity is often seen as a
salve of conflict it may just as well inflame it. Consider the phenomenon of so-called
honour killings, a modality of homicide in the Middle East,
Pakistan and Bangladesh that with immigration has been imported into the West.
Honour killing is the murder of girls or young women by their families for the
shame they have caused. Death will cleanse the shame of dating a Western boy,
shedding the hijab (head scarf), and, worst of all, conversion to Christianity.
Exposure to the more relaxed mores of
Western diversity proves deadly to these young women. I granted that most
Muslims abhor honor killing and that the custom is more tribal than religious.

But I went on to say that Islam is in some
obvious respects in tension with Western diversity norms. How so? Islam is an
orthopraxy not, like Christianity, an orthodoxy. An orthodoxy demands that
people believe certain things, but beliefs, being invisible, cannot be policed
or even monitored in a pluralist society. An orthopraxy demands that people
practice the faith in certain ways: that they attend the mosque; that men and
women are separated in it; that all, at some point in their lives visit Mecca;
that all fast during Ramadan; and such practices are visible and, wherever
Muslims make up the majority, publicly enforced.

Nothing stops Christians from converting to
Islam if they in conscience decide to do so. In Muslim societies, conversion
from Islam to Christianity is a crime, in many states – including Afghanistan –
a capital crime. It is inconceivable, I said,

"that any Western country would enact a law demanding
the death of someone who wrote what was considered to be an anti-Christian
novel. But an equivalent ruling was handed down against the writer Salmon
Rushdie on account of The Satanic Verses,
and that fatwa was widely applauded around the Muslim world. Equally, it is
unthinkable in the West that a particular peaceful religious minority would be
denied civil rights and actively persecuted: but that is the fate of Bahai’s in
your own country who are treated as a schism rather than a world religion, and
considered as an enemy because the Bahai’s, unable to find refuge in Muslim
countries, have their House of Justice, their headquarters, in Haifa."

This is but a fragment of a longer speech
but incorporates its most controversial aspects.

Question time followed. The atmosphere was
edgy. Every question was fired at my portion of the plenary. None came from
Iranians. An Indian Muslim claimed that my comments bespoke a colonial mindset.
That accusation seemed to debar Westerners from making critical observations on
non-Western polities and cultures. I let it pass. The most antagonistic remark,
however, issued from a Caucasian Dean of Law from a British university who
essentially accused me of Islamophobia. “Honour killing,” she said, was simply
a hateful, anti-Muslim term for domestic violence, something rampant in the
West among non-Muslims. I was picking on Muslims.

In response, I gestured at the obvious
differences. Domestic violence is typically that in which one man alone
impulsively abuses his female sexual partner for idiosyncratic reasons. Honour
killing, in contrast, routinely involves an elaborate family conspiracy in
which fathers and brothers murder daughters and sisters (sometimes with the
help of mothers); the violence perpetrated against the girls is often of a
highly ritualized and agonizing kind (beheading, burying alive, burning to
death); and the assailants justify their conduct as a social obligation.

* * * * * * *

When I walked down from the stage to take
tea in the mid-morning break, the adrenalin was gone. I waited to be
cold-shouldered. I imagined writing a text message to my wife  (a third generation Baha’i): “Talk a
disaster.” The hostile questions from the floor surely foreshadowed a greater

I was wrong. Non-Iranians – Europeans and
Americans mostly - approached me in a friendly manner confirming that someone
had to raise the Rushdie and Baha’i issues. I had said nothing about the
Iranian demonstrations of the year before. But as the conference proceeded,
Iranian students approached me to talk in private. One especially telling
occasion came during the closing speech.

Delivered by a former speaker (2004-08) of
the Iranian parliament  - Gholam
Ali Haddad-Adel – its thesis was that while the West previously dominated other
countries by force of arms, it now did so through media images. Dr Haddad-Adel
also objected with great vehemence to France’s resolve to ban full-face
coverings (the burqa, niqab) from the public square, saying that this infringed
the rights of Muslim women who veiled out of genuine piety. He criticized too
the prohibition of the headscarf from French schools.

As the speech morphed into a rant, I
discreetly left the auditorium to take more tea. A group of young women drew
near me in an otherwise deserted corridor. In a hushed tone and near-perfect
English one of them asked mildly: “Sir, what is your view of Dr Haddad-Adel’s
speech.” At first hesitating I replied that I had heard many such speeches
before and was accustomed to their anti-Western tone. I said I was bothered
more by the anti-Western remarks of many of the Western participants, including
the British dean of law mentioned previously, who took every opportunity to
commend Iran, who voiced no public qualms about its governance, and who was
indeed the very model of ingratiation. It struck me as wrong, dishonorable, for
Westerners to trash countries that provided in abundance liberties absent in
Iran. I also asked whether it was wise for Westerners to give television
interviews innocent of how their words would be translated, re-packaged and
conveyed. I had been approached several times for an interview and had refused.

I spoke, the young women’s demeanor became agitated. My homily over, I waited
for the reproach. Again I was surprised. “How dare the Speaker condemn the
French,” said one of them, her face flushed with anger, “when our friends are
being raped NOW in jail. Who speaks for them? Where is their piety? Where is
their freedom?” Another ventured, in so many words, that Westerners’ televised
comments at the conference would be framed to burnish and endorse the regime’s
legitimacy. These young women were dyed in the wool opponents of the regime.
Other Iranians I met were more ambivalent. As one whispered to me: “We had the
[1979] revolution to get rid of kings. Now we are ruled by them again”. Then
she added with the utmost sincerity: “Unlike the time of Imam Khomeini.”

* * * * * *

left Tehran nine days after I arrived. As I sipped coffee at the airport,
waiting to board, a young man sat down beside me. With frequent sidelong
glances he unpacked his troubles. He had been fired from his teaching post for
unorthodox views; he now worked in Africa; his nerves were so frayed he was on
constant medication. He then said that the West is wrong to believe that al Qaeda
and the Wahabists, Sunnis both, are the greatest danger to the world today. It
was the form of Shi’ism embraced by the current Iranian regime that was far
more menacing. It is preparing, he concluded, for the immanent materialization
of the twelfth Imam, the hidden Mahdi, the savior whose coming prompts the
cataclysm that will purge the world of evil. That is the real meaning of the
race for nuclear weapons.

may disagree with this judgment believing the Iranian regime to be more venal
than millenarian, more brazenly corrupt than high-mindedly ideological. But my
experiences in Tehran convinced me of at least one thing. Among those
opposed to the mullahs, rage burns like napalm in the soul. Its oxygen is the
humiliation of enforced silence. Academic conferences are occasions when
silences can be broken.

Baehr, a sociologist, is Academic Dean of Social Sciences at Lingnan
University, Hong Kong. His most recent book is Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism,
and the Social Sciences (Stanford University Press, 2010). Email: [email protected] 


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