A decision by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Unesco, to hold its annual Congress for World Philosophy Day in Tehran, has raised hackles. A growing number of internationally renowned academics have said they will boycott the event, citing ongoing repression of humanities professors in Iran.
Top academics say they will stay away from the 21-23 November event in Tehran in solidarity with Iranian academics. The issue came to a head last week when a meeting was held in New York to plan an alternative online forum for those unable or unwilling to go.
Earlier this year a number of prominent professors, including German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas and German-based Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, wrote a letter of protest to Unesco Director General Irina Bokova asking her not to allow the event to be hosted by Iran.
Iran "should not be considered as a normal rotation of locations, since we are sadly aware, due to a very close experience, how one can be imprisoned and risk one's life in Iran because of one's ideas," they wrote.
"A World Philosophy Day could not be held under normal conditions in Iran and many philosophers would not be able to attend freely."
Jahanbegloo told University World News: "The definition of philosophy itself is critical thinking and free debate and that is not possible in Iran today.
"At the same time as attacking universities' humanities programmes the Iranian authorities are saying they are supporting philosophy at the official level. They are seeking legitimacy for their regime, and this is one way for them to legitimise themselves on the world stage. Unesco should not be allowing them to use (Unesco) do this.
"The Unesco initiative was a good one but you cannot practice this kind of philosophy in a society with one dimensional discourse and everything controlled by the state," said Jahanbegloo, who was imprisoned by the Iranian authorities in 2006 and is now a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
Jehanbegloo was accused, among other things, of bringing to Iran Western philosophers such as Habermas, Richard Rorty, the late professor of philosophy at Princeton University, and Italian Marxist sociologist and philosopher Antonio Negri.
"Philosophy - western philosophy but above all also the philosophical mysticism of Islam - is popular today among young Iranians, because it is perceived as a form on resistance against Iran's political ideologies and religious dogmatism. Even today Tehran is a place where people read Habermas and Hannah Arendt," said Katajun Amirpur, a female writer on theology in Iran, now based in Iran, who also signed the letter to Unesco.
With many professors forced to resign or retired early, "the humanities have been under attack by the regime which says these academic thinkers are the main inspiration for the Green movement, because they cause young people to question and disbelieve the official ideology," said Jahanbegloo.
Jahanbegloo said in August 2009 that Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had warned a gathering of professors and university administrators that the humanities was a field of study that "promotes scepticism and doubt in religious principles and beliefs". Western philosophies in particular created "lack of faith" among Iranian students, Khamenei said.
German philosopher Otfried Höffe has pulled out as keynote speaker at the November event.
"Such a step requires not just a good, but a very good reason," said Höffe explaining his decision in July in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Höffe said it was due to Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel being named by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as convener. Haddad-Adel, a former vice-minister of education, who holds a PhD in philosophy from Tehran University, is Ahmedinejad's son-in-law.
"The risk is that World Philosophy Day will be misused by the [Iranian] president as a propaganda platform. I shouldn't be helping them to do that," said Höffe, a professor of Philosophy at Tübingen University in Germany.
Haddad-Adel is known for his conservative Islamic views, which critics say is inappropriate for an event intended to encourage dialogue between Eastern and Western Philosophers.
Jahanbegloo said with Haddad-Adel presiding, "there is not going to be much of a philosophical debate, more an ideological discourse."
Although the Iranian delegation to Unesco in Paris has said "the participation of high-level philosophers from all regions is welcomed in this event," the prominent German philosopher Habermas was named in an indictment by the Iranian state prosecutor as a "co-conspirator" in the velvet revolution because his "dangerous" ideas were conducive to toppling the Islamic Republic.
John Keane, a professor of politics at the University of Sydney and founder of the Centre for the Study of Democracy in London, was also banned after he was also named by the state prosecutor for "instigating protests" in Iran through his writings on political theory and democracy.
Jahanbegloo and others said the boycott had support from many scholars and academics in Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East.
"They are not going to Iran in solidarity with the rest of us," said Hamid Dabashi, now a professor of Iranian and comparative literature at New York's Columbia University: "Scores of independent-minded scholars have been arrested. Scores of us cannot go to Iran without going to jail.
"If I go to Iran I will not be landing at the airport I will be landing in jail," Dabashi told University World News. "But even if I could go to Iran it is obvious I would want to see pressing political and intellectual issues of the day being discussed freely."
Although many Unesco insiders say the outcry has caused embarrassment to the UN organisation in Paris, Unesco says officially it is powerless to cancel the event, which has the backing of its member states.
This week Dabashi convened a meeting of academics in New York to organise a parallel event to draw in academics who cannot attend the event in Teheran. To be held online and via video-link it would include "those in Asia, Africa and the Middle East who want to be part of world philosophy," who cannot attend the main event.
"It will be about freedom and philosophy," Dabashi said.
World Philosophy Day was initiated by Unesco in 2005, to be held on the birthday of the Greek philosopher Socrates. Previous events were held in Morocco and Turkey, sparking robust debates on differences between Eastern and Western thinking.
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