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.1 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. But despite the boycott and loss of official accreditation, the conference took place on November 21-23, in the presence of then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.2 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).
Because I had been included in the publicity for the conference, several of the boycotters wrote urging me not to attend, one describing Haddad-Adel as “the Goebbels of the Iranian Revolution.” It was a decision I assured them that had already been made, so nothing further came of my brief and tenuous involvement with the conference and its boycott. Or rather, nothing immediate happened, for there was, as it turned out, a delayed effect. My willingness to contribute a brief statement about the value of philosophy led several months later to a request from a journalist associated with the Tehran Times and the semi-official Mehr News Agency to respond to another series of questions. Intrigued by the opportunity to reach an audience I was unlikely to find any other way, I put aside any qualms I might have had about collaborating in a propaganda exercise and accepted the invitation. Thus began an involvement that has lasted until very recently and produced ten appearances in the pages of Iran’s leading foreign-language newspaper.3 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.
Launched in 1979 as a mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolution, the Tehran Times is a professionally produced “international daily,” printed in color since 2011, which has the appearance of a sober, straightforward newspaper rather than a biased tabloid. It often includes non-Iranian voices, among them Americans opining on a variety of subjects. Some, such as Noam Chomsky, have excoriated American foreign policy and cautiously sided with Iranian positions.4 Others have commented on current political events in the United States, a particularly unfortunate example being an American political scientist who shall remain unnamed, confidently telling his Iranian readers in 2015 that Donald Trump had no chance of even getting the Republican nomination for president.
In contrast, my own involvement was premised on a tacit refusal to comment on anything topical, especially when it meant criticizing American positions, even those I did not in fact support. Thus, when I was asked my thoughts on an American military build-up in the Middle East, I politely declined to respond. Having no legitimate credential as a commentator on current political events, especially international relations, I was loath to draw on the unearned authority that might be bestowed by appearing in such a venue with the mantle of expertise on my shoulders. When to my surprise, I found my essay on a few bizarre occasions on the front page of the paper accompanied by a flattering picture—once just beneath no less a figure than the Ayatollah Khamenei visiting a research institute of the petroleum industry—I became even more sensitive to the inflated weight that might be given my amateur opinions. 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.
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 relation between the strength of humanities in a country and its socio-economic development? What is the criterion of “authentic” thought? What is the relationship between ethics and economics? What is the meaning of the Western Enlightenment? What do Westerners know about Islamic thought? What is the place of tradition in the modern world? What is the role of historical studies in the social sciences and humanities? Is political development prior to economic development or vice versa?
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 Tehran Times. 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. 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. Although the picture she sent showed her obediently wearing the black chador mandated by the new order, she was eager to learn about ideas that were clearly forbidden at the time. She peppered me with serious questions about Derrida, Foucault, Habermas and other thinkers then in fashion in the West. I did what I could to provide concise answers and was rewarded by her alerting me to figures in her own tradition, most notably the early modern Persian Shi’ite theologian Mulla Sadra, of whom I had been blissfully ignorant. I also was able to send her copies of books, my own and extra copies of ones by leading Western thinkers, which she couldn’t acquire at home. But when she asked with what seemed reckless imprudence for a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, I declined with alarm, and our correspondence soon petered out.
This earlier exchange left me with a strong sense of the hunger for inter-cultural dialogue and curiosity about potentially transgressive ideas that can survive even the most concerted efforts to destroy them. Avoiding a polemical edge, I made every effort to respect rather than condescend to my potential readers. Recalling my earlier cluelessness about the Mulla Sadra, I had no reason to feel superior to anyone who might be encountering for the first time figures and ideas that a Westerner might take for granted. The reward was the privilege of unimpeded access to an audience that might in other circumstances be denied it. Or rather that was the case until my final attempt to reach it in November, 2016, shortly after the election of Donald Trump. The reporter for the Tehran Times asked me the following questions [with some corrections of his non-native English]: “What are the main historical causes of Islamophobia in the west? Some argue that after the fall of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism the West needed a new enemy instead of communism. Then Islam replaced communism in the West. What is your Idea about this? Do you think Islamophobia will be mainstream in the West in the future?”
Here are the thoughts I sent off in response:
If we define a phobia as an irrational fear, an anxiety disorder that interferes with normal functioning in the world, it inevitably raises the question of what a rational fear might look like, and forces us to confront the way they may interact. Let me begin by first considering the former and then move on to the latter. In the case of what is now commonly called Islamophobia, which has emerged to one extent or another in many Western countries (as well as elsewhere, for example in India and China), an exaggerated and unfounded suspicion of Muslims as such poisons human relations and undermines tolerance of difference. It is apparent when the noun “Muslim” is immediately modified by the pejorative adjectives “radical,” “extremist” or “fundamentalist.” Feeding on long repressed memories of the geopolitical and cultural clashes of centuries past, orientalist fantasies of inherent Western superiority, and sheer ignorance of the beliefs and customs of the people who are stigmatized, it manifests itself in a wide variety of ways, both practical and symbolic. It would be, alas, very easy to provide a long list of such manifestations, but let only one stand for the whole: the forced removal last summer of an observant Muslim woman’s burkini on the beach in Nice, France, for being an alleged provocation, rather than an act of modesty.
What, however, this example also shows is that attitudes in the West towards the alleged menace of Islam are by no means consistent, for the ban on modest beach dress for Muslim women was vigorously denounced in many quarters and has been challenged in court. Indeed, as the widespread use of the term “Islamophobia” to indicate an irrational fear demonstrates, such prejudices are themselves vigorously challenged by those who defend religious freedom and the healthy pluralism of multi-cultural societies. The particular French republican tradition of intransigent secularism—itself an understandable response to the often oppressive role of the Catholic Church in its modern history—is by no means universally shared. The much admired statement at a Washington mosque of American President George W. Bush after the catastrophe of 9/11, in which he praised Islam as a religion of peace and warned against assuming all Muslims were America’s enemies, expresses the sincere desire of many in the West to fight Islamophobia in the same way that anti-Semitism or other sinister ideologies have been opposed. So one has to be very careful before assuming that irrational fear of everything connected with Islam is the prevailing norm in the West as a whole. Still, it would be no less foolish to deny that it is increasing with disturbing rapidity, as demonstrated by the recent American presidential campaign, in which one candidate shamelessly exploited it in his attempt to profit from the anxieties of voters.
If, however, we now turn to the difficult question of the interaction between irrational phobia and rational fear, several no less troubling realities have to be squarely faced. The episode of the burkini mentioned above happened, after all, in Nice, where only a short time before a Tunisian-born resident of France drove a truck on Bastille Day through a crowd near that same beach, ruthlessly killing almost a hundred victims. It was the third mass killing in France in eighteen months, all carried out by self-described jihadists claiming to act in the name of Islam. Responsible Muslim groups quickly denounced the act, as they have other such atrocities from 9/11 on. But against the backdrop of incessant suicide attacks or mass kidnappings by outlaw groups like Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and ISIS, such denunciations fail to dispel the legitimate fears that are generated by terrorists who gleefully celebrate the deaths of innocents and are honored as martyrs by their supporters.
There is yet another cause for the real fears that have combined with the irrational phobia of Islam, which is the distressing spectacle of internecine violence and discrimination in the Islamic world itself. Few in the West have any sense of the substantive differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims, not even fully understanding the competing claims to the rightful succession of the Prophet, but what we all understand is that it has often led to appalling levels of sectarian violence. Because the West has itself recent memories of the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, which continued well into the 20th century in places like Ireland, it reacts with a shudder to the stubborn persistence of such explosive divisions in the Islamic world. No less disturbing are the examples of intolerance towards minorities in the name of Islam, such as the Yezedi in Iraq, the Turkmen and Assyrian Christians in Syria, and, let it be said frankly, the Baha’i in Iran. Unequal treatment of women in places like Saudi Arabia or denial of rights to homosexuals in other Islamic countries feeds a narrative that Islam opposes the hard-earned gains of previously oppressed groups in the West. When Islamophobic demagogues in the West warn against the alleged terrorist goal of imposing Sharia law, they can point to such examples as justifications for their fears. The contrasting historical examples of benign Islamic toleration of religious and other minorities, which was often more generous than Christian behavior at the same time, fade into oblivion with every beheading of an “infidel,” torture of an “apostate,” rape of a kidnapped child, or bombing of a rival place of worship. The damage done to the reputation of Islam as a whole when the leader of a major Islamic republic can support the odious denial of the Holocaust in the service of challenging Israel’s right to exist is immense.
The larger point that should be taken away from this quick and incomplete account of the sources, phantasmatic and real, that have combined to generate Islamophobia in the West is that we now find ourselves in a vicious circle in which one feeds the other. That is, every time a mob in the Islamic world shouts “death to America!,” Islamophobes take it as a confirmation of their anxieties, and every time a political leader in the West seeks to ban Muslims, even desperate refugees fleeing unspeakable violence, it feeds the image of the West as prejudiced and hypocritical. It is this sinister dialectic rather than any structural need for an external enemy to replace communism that is the real source of the pathological fear of Muslims that shows few signs of abating. It should be the aim of anyone who hopes to combat the mounting threat of an endless and futile “civilizational struggle” to break the self-confirming cycle and step back from the apocalypse that is casting its shadow across the future.
I then waited for a response, which took much longer than usual to arrive. In fact, it only came after I sent a follow-up message the following April asking what had happened to the piece. With some obvious chagrin, the reporter replied; “the editor of the Tehran Times told me that they will justify some of your words in the note. They highlighted those words. I apologize for this news. Do you agree they delete the highlighted words?” Highlighted were the references to the oppression of Baha’i in Iran, the denial of the Holocaust by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the shouting of “death to America.” The word “homosexual” was so offensive that it was simply erased from my text rather than highlighted in yellow.
Although I suppose I should have expected this outcome, it was still shocking to experience it. Only once before had I faced potential political censorship, which occurred when I was asked to write a preface to the Chinese translation of one of my books. Before composing it, I was told the sole taboo was any mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre. As I had no reason to bring it up, I wrote the preface without any qualms. But this case was different. I wrote back to my Iranian contact that I was deeply disappointed to hear about his editor’s “justification” of the piece, and pointed out that in English, “to justify” means to give plausible reasons, not to censor. It means listening to the position of someone with whom you disagree and then trying to persuade them of the rightness of your position. I could understand, I told him, why the treatment of the Baha'i in Iran, the status of homosexuals in Islamic countries, the implications of denying the Holocaust and shouting “death to America” might be sensitive issues to treat critically. But, I added, they won’t go away if they are simply ignored. Instead of censoring, which is inherently an act of cowardice, it is always better to argue and provide, if possible, real justifications.
Moreover, I continued, by censoring these ideas, his editor inadvertently plays into the hands of Islamophobes. For instead of reassuring outsiders that Islam is not repressive or aggressive, he creates precisely the opposite impression. I then alluded to an essay I wrote a decade ago in Salmagundi that sought to explain the disturbing increase of anti-Semitism, an inherently and inexcusably deplorable development, as in part a reaction to certain unfortunate Israeli actions.5 That essay was very vigorously attacked by defenders of Israel who denied anti-Semitism could be in any way explained by blaming Jews, no matter what they might do. Those critics were responding in the same way, I told him, that his editor responded to me, by denying any unwitting role played by victims—or at least a regrettable portion of them—that gave credence to an irrational phobia that exceeded any actual cause, let alone justification. The difference, however, in the two cases, I pointed out, was that I was not censored in making my initial argument about Israeli actions or prevented from replying to my critics. Affirming the hope that I might be given the same courtesy now, I told him I had been very aware that I was a guest in the pages of the Tehran Times, and was very grateful for the opportunity to reach his readers. But, I reiterated, I was not willing to accept censorship as a price to pay for that privilege.
My contact quickly answered: “I completely agree with you. The censorship is the result of the lack of argument. Unfortunately all things in publishing are not in my control. I am so embarrassed by this event. I have read some of your articles and I agree with your point of view in many things and I learned much from you. I hope you understand me. It is my honor that I am your student from reading some of your articles and notes. I wish I could see you in Iran and apologize for this recent event.” Clearly he was in a difficult situation, with which I could certainly sympathize, but the bottom line was that the unredacted piece remained unpublished, and the censor’s veto stood.
I thought the matter was settled and my odd run as an occasional contributor to the Tehran Times at an end. But then about fifteen months later, in July of 2018, I received a new set of questions and an invitation to answer them, as if nothing had prevented the publication of my previous response. I wrote back saying I would only consider the request if I had a guarantee that the results would not be censored, a condition that a quick follow-up message regretfully declined to meet. But then something happened that complicated the firmness of my resolution to give up access to the audience I had hoped to reach by writing in the first place. An article appeared in the Sunday magazine of another Times, the one published in New York, called “Human Collateral,” which dealt with the cruel and cynical Iranian practice of seizing innocent visitors from the West as hostages in the hope of exchanging them for Iranians in Western detention.6 The particular case on which it focused struck particularly close to home. It concerned a doctoral candidate in the History Department at Princeton, Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-born American citizen, who had been doing research on a topic in medieval Central Asian history. On totally trumped up charges he had been detained as a spy since August, 2016, languishing away in the same Evin prison whose name was familiar to me from the protests against the World Philosophy Day conference eight years earlier. As it turns out, Wang’s doctoral supervisor was the distinguished scholar of Soviet history, Stephen Kotkin, who had done his own degree at Berkeley and been a student in my seminars. So the monstrous injustice of his treatment only confirmed my resolve to wash my hands of any connection with an official organ of the regime that had caused it.
But then I was stopped short by a few sentences in the article that referenced an insight attributed to Gary Sick, Jimmy Carter’s expert on Iran. He had noted that “at least some Iranian hard-liners most likely really do believe the detainees pose a danger to Iran’s national security. They just happen to perceive as dangerous any activity that connects Iranian citizens to the outside world, particularly to the United States.”7 Was there, I now began to wonder, a tension between my refusal to endure any censorship and the sacrifice of my access to an audience that the fundamentalist authorities wanted to keep in the dark about Western ideas? Was I being self-righteously principled rather than strategically flexible? Was I failing to recognize the implicit tension between my long-standing contact at the Iranian newspaper, who lamented the pressures under which he was operating, and those who were applying them?
At this writing, the situation is still fluid. I have no illusions that the ten articles I’ve contributed to the Tehran Times have done much, if anything, to alter the balance of power between hard-liners and liberalizers in Iran (if indeed the political situation there can be reduced to so simple an alternative). Nor do I want to exaggerate the injury to my own freedom of expression wrought by the censorship of a single essay. After all, I have plenty of other venues in which to vent my ideas, including the more scholarly Iranian journal, Farhangemrooz (Culture Today), which published two pieces in Farsi in 2016 and 2017. And, of course, until the essay you are now reading, I have done nothing in public to protest that censorship, being satisfied to register my dismay only through the private email messages referenced above. In short, I am ambivalent about what to do next. But I still believe nonetheless that communication across ideological lines, especially when the stakes are so high, is invaluable and needs to be nurtured whenever possible. I am no less convinced that those who seek to stifle it through censorship are betraying the deep insecurity they must feel about the power of the ideas they themselves so fervently espouse. Those ideas need to be defended by plausible justifications in the sense of giving good reasons, not by the capricious power of editors who “justify” uncomfortable ideas by obliterating them.