Ramin Jahanbegloo is a noted scholar and a Canadian citizen. Now he's been locked up in Iran, accused of being a foreign agent, and Ottawa is powerless to do anything about it.
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
Last summer, while Iran was in the grip of the election campaign that would bring the authoritarian populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power -- and set the country on a collision course with the West over his nuclear ambitions -- Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff found himself in Tehran, talking to university students about such lofty matters as whether one can prove that human rights are universal. He was there at the invitation of a dapper, intellectually intense 46-year-old philosopher named Ramin Jahanbegloo, who had studied at the Sorbonne and Harvard, taught at the University of Toronto, and written some 15 books in three languages. Jahanbegloo, a Canadian citizen, was now back in his homeland, to foster what he earnestly called a "dialogue of civilizations."
Outside of the state-controlled universities, Jahanbegloo -- whose name in one dialect translates as "son of the world" -- had turned a small office in an arts and culture NGO into something of an international salon. Through force of will and a gregarious personality, he persuaded some of the world's most famous intellectuals to travel to Tehran, where they were treated like rock stars. Crowds of 1,500 people gathering to listen to German Jürgen Habermas discuss "post-ideological thinking," or Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty talk about "democracy and non-foundationalism." While such encounters are taken for granted on Western campuses, in theocratic Iran they took a measure of courage -- though it is only now becoming clear just exactly how much.
It has been less than a year since Ahmadinejad replaced the reform-minded Mohammad Khatami as president, but a political era has passed. Ignatieff is now running for the leadership of the Liberal party, and Jahanbegloo, who was until recently "dialoguing" with foreign presidents and the Dalai Lama, is in jail. He was arrested at Tehran airport on April 27, between a sojourn in India and a trip to a conference in Brussels, and locked up in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, where detainees are routinely subject to torture and abuse. Formal charges have not been laid, but Iran's minister of intelligence said Jahanbegloo was picked up because of "relations with foreigners." Government-aligned newspapers accuse him of being a foreign agent conspiring against the government.
His friends, and they number in the hundreds around the world, are shocked that the regime could target their Ramin -- a man so passive in his methods that a critic once dismissed him as "all talk and no action." "Ramin was not a political activist, an organizer, someone to get caught up in causes," says his long-time friend, Nader Hashemi, a post-doctoral fellow in political science at Northwestern University in Illinois, who got to know him while studying in Toronto. "That's something he was critical of."
A letter to Ahmadinejad calling for the philosopher's release has been signed by more than 420 thinkers from Antwerp and Austin to Malaysia and Serbia, including Habermas, Umberto Eco, Timothy Garton Ash, Noam Chomsky, Leszek Kolakowski, Antonio Negri and others. Danny Postel, a Chicago-based journalist and critic who is organizing the petition, admits that given the unpredictability of the regime, he can't be sure it won't do more harm than good. "The authorities could say, 'Look at all the Western intellectuals who are behind Ramin. This proves our point.' We hope it has the opposite effect of putting pressure on the regime. But one simply doesn't know." Insists Ignatieff: "This man had no connection to any anti-regime activities of any kind. It would be an international disgrace if they harmed him."
A disgrace, yes, but not the first one. Jahanbegloo is the second Canadian citizen to be thrown into the brutal Evin prison, at risk for his life. And it's the second time Canada seems powerless to do anything about it. He sits in the same prison where Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist arrested for taking pictures during a demonstration, was raped and tortured. She died of her injuries. Jahanbegloo's friends worry that he could face a similar fate.
Ottawa's campaign to have him either formally charged or released has consisted mainly of stern letters from Foreign Minister Peter MacKay to the Iranian minister of foreign affairs, and futile entreaties. A letter co-signed by the EU, which has greater diplomatic and economic ties to Tehran, protested the lack of due process, the fact that no charges have been laid, and that he has not been granted a lawyer. But it has made no difference. Canada has not been allowed consular visits. "Iran does not recognize joint citizenship, so they're not in any way acknowledging his Canadian citizenship or connection," MacKay said. "In fact, by some bizarre assessment, having Canadian or American or any other foreign connection is feeding perhaps the reasons for his detention."
The Iranian chargé d'affaires in Ottawa has met with Canadian officials, while Canada's ambassador in Tehran has met Iranian officials, but there have been no public threats to recall our ambassador, as Canada did at least three times over the Kazemi affair, and no public upbraiding of the regime over the case. It's a delicate area because every step must be weighed for its consequences on a man's life. MacKay and his officials have taken pains not to issue statements that might be interpreted as putting pressure on the unpredictable Iranian regime.
But some critics say Canada should be doing more, not just for Jahanbegloo but to hold Iran to account for human rights abuses, and to encourage democracy there. "If the Bush administration monopolizes this issue on the international stage, it's the kiss of death for civil society in Iran," says Payam Akhavan, an associate professor of international law at McGill University, and a former adviser to the UN war crimes prosecution at The Hague. "We take notice because [Jahanbegloo and Kazemi] are people with a connection to Canada, but there are so many people like them who suffer in silence because they don't have a foreign nationality. Canada should be engaged in promoting civil rights in Iran irrespective of whether a Canadian is languishing in prison. The case has to be raised at the highest levels. It needs to become an international issue."
Reliable news on Jahanbegloo's condition is difficult to come by. His wife, with whom he has an infant daughter, is thought to be the only one who has seen him, and she has declined to speak to reporters out of fear of making things worse. She is also said to be wary of involvement by foreign governments.
If his treatment follows the typical pattern of other dissidents, he is likely being held in solitary confinement in a small cell with the lights continually on, in an effort to disorient him and deprive him of his sense of time, says Akhavan, who is also president of the New Haven, Conn.-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. "He is probably being interrogated to coerce a confession through sheer exhaustion or psychological breakdown," he says. Jahanbegloo could be there a long time. "If he doesn't confess, they will continue to detain him. If he does confess, they cannot release him because their accusations would lack credibility," Akhavan says.
There are multiple layers of irony to his arrest, not the least of which is that Jahanbegloo was a patriotic Iranian who turned down the chance at an academic career in the best Western universities to live in a middle-class apartment and contribute to the cultural life in his country. "I encouraged him and so did others," says Hashemi. "We said that he was more needed in Iran than anywhere else." Says Ignatieff: "He could be living a comfortable life in Toronto -- that makes me angriest. This man is a patriotic Iranian and has every right to live and teach in Iran."
Moreover, to hear his friends and colleagues tell it, the idea of him plotting to overthrow the regime is as likely as seeing Mahatma Gandhi get into a barroom brawl. Jahanbegloo was raised in a family of intellectuals in Tehran; his father was an economics professor and his mother hosted salons for writers and artists. He did his Ph.D. dissertation at the Sorbonne on the non-violence philosophy of Gandhi. He studied the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as well. "The key feature of his thinking is non-violence and dialogue," explains Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, professor of history and Near and Middle Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto.
Jahanbegloo first moved to North America to study and teach at U of T from 1997 to 2001. Hamid Marjaee, a friend and community volunteer in Toronto, remembers his dedication to his work. Except for early morning swims and strolls around the city, he spent his time working. "He liked Canada. He was very happy here, with the non-intrusiveness," says Marjaee. After a stint in Washington, Jahanbegloo headed back to Iran in 2002.
In a lengthy series of interviews in January and February with Danny Postel, to be published in the online journal, Logos, Jahanbegloo explained: "I consider myself a politically moderate and non-violent person, but a philosophically radical-minded person. . . . Philosophy is the daily practice of dissent at the level of thought. Being a true radical is having the courage to think and to judge independently." His contacts with foreigners were part of a philosophical, rather than a political, project. "For those of us who live and work in Iran, every visit of a prominent intellectual figure is fresh air which gives us the necessary oxygen to continue thinking differently," he told Postel.
Jahanbegloo comes from a generation of Iranian thinkers disillusioned by revolutionary politics and political violence, and rejects utopian ideologies like Marxism as well as religious dogma. Instead, the way forward is through tolerance, "dialogue" with other cultures, and efforts to understand them, though not to ape them. "The new Iranian intellectual is no longer entitled to play the role of a prophet or a hero," he told Postel. "He/she is in the Iranian public space to demystify ideological fanaticisms and not to preach them."
It is no coincidence that one of his best-known books, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, published some 14 years ago, focused on a thinker Ignatieff describes as a "pragmatic" liberal. At one point in the book, Berlin tells Jahanbegloo, "Total liberty can be dreadful, total equality can be equally frightful." Here was a Persian entering into conversation with a Latvian-born Jew and Oxford don. "That's what it means to think freely," says Ignatieff, who has written an authorized biography of Berlin. "It means you don't decide you like a thinker based on his religion or ethnicity -- you find him interesting based on what he says, and that is Ramin's view."
Another irony of his arrest as a foreign agent is that, despite his immersion in Western philosophy, he was opposed to importing Western ideas wholesale into Iran. On the contrary, he told Postel, "We have to look for a universalism which is founded on all human experiences of history rather than only on Western values." Says Postel, a senior editor at openDemocracy.net, a British-based online magazine: "I think of Ramin as a philosophical ambassador between Iran and the outside world -- and not just the West. He is engaged in a profound dialogue with India." While in prison, he will miss the publication of his latest book, a collection of conversations with Indian thinker Ashis Nandy.
At U of T, Jahanbegloo founded an Iranian discussion group that met each Saturday and called itself the Agora, after the ancient Athenian forum. "Agora initially created a lot of problems in Toronto," recalls Tavakoli-Targhi, "because it brought people from the far right and far left and they were debating. They had been so polarized: Islamist, monarchist, or leftist, and he sort of messed this up. He came and brought people of different ideologies together."
There are a variety of theories as to why this moderate man of letters was targeted. For one thing, his detention is part of a broader crackdown. Student leaders and prominent writers have been arrested in past months. Human Rights Watch reported that "freedom of expression and opinion deteriorated considerably" last year, while Amnesty International pointed out the arrests of journalists, online bloggers and human rights defenders. Last month, the government even closed a state-run newspaper "due to its publication of divisive and provocative materials."
Secular intellectuals were tolerated under Khatami, who encouraged at least a rhetorical "dialogue of civilizations" as cultural policy. But Ahmadinejad is interested only in a "dialogue of religions." "This administration wants to roll back the democratic gains that were achieved in the last presidency," says Hashemi. "One way of doing that is to target someone like Ramin as an example of the type of people they don't want."
"He lived in this kind of bubble that the regime allowed for free thought in Tehran," Ignatieff notes. "Now it's not simply that they have arrested a free mind, but they have also deliberately decided to puncture the bubble for free thought. It's not just Ramin, it's all these people. In silencing him, they decided to silence all other free spirits in Iran with trumped-up charges of espionage." Another theory is that Jahanbegloo was simply becoming too popular among young Iranians, who make up 70 per cent of Iran's population.
Some accounts have linked his arrest to two articles he published in Spain's El País newspaper. In January, a little more than a month after Ahmadinejad famously denounced the Holocaust as "myth," Jahanbegloo wrote emotionally about his 2004 visit to Auschwitz, calling it "one of the most terrible experiences that anyone can experience." In a second article, which ran on April 20, Jahanbegloo outlined the current intellectual debates in modern Iran, stating that it is one of the few Muslim countries with an active civil society, which he compared to those in Poland and Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime. He described two groups of religious intellectuals -- reformists who aim to reconcile Islamic thought with democracy, civil society and religious pluralism, and oppose the absolute supremacy of clerics; and neo-conservatives who believe in the supremacy of the clerics, are against Western ideas, and oppose the separation of church and state. Jahanbegloo placed himself among a third new generation of thinkers who do not follow a specific ideology, but are in favour of exchange with other cultures and a dialogue with the West and with modernity, thus posing a threat to the philosophical and intellectual principles of the established order.
Some see Jahanbegloo as a pawn in the escalating confrontation between Iran and the U.S., which earlier this year announced it would spend US$75 million to promote democracy in Iran. Some of that money is slated to flow to radio and TV broadcasts to promote opposition to Iran's religious leaders. But some will flow to non-governmental organizations and institutions such as the National Endowment for Democracy, an organization based in Washington that receives some funding from the U.S. Congress.
Jahanbegloo won a fellowship from the endowment to cover a year's living expenses in the U.S. capital, where he worked on a book that dealt with balancing the traditions of Persian civilization with the demands of the modern world. Now, his connection to the endowment could be held against him. But the notion that by receiving a fellowship he was somehow on Washington's payroll is "bogus," says Hashemi, "because the U.S. government gives money to many academic institutions, and a lot of people indirectly benefit from U.S. largesse. In that sense, many top-ranking Iranian officials who studied at U.S. universities could be accused of the same things."
Nonetheless, some blame the Bush administration for pursuing a program that is backfiring. "I think he is a victim of the kind of policy the U.S. has been pursuing of openly declaring they are giving $75 million to the opposition to overthrow the regime. So the regime has been looking for people to scapegoat. It seems they have picked Ramin as a way of making a case," says Tavakoli-Targhi.
But others say that if other countries stood firm, such a policy would not be branded as a purely U.S. project. "You can fault the Americans, but where are the Europeans and the Canadians in making a more serious commitment?" asks Akhavan. "It is equally the fault of Canada and the Europeans that they are not playing a more prominent role on the issue."
Hashemi fears there is little Canada can do to help Jahanbegloo. "Unfortunately, Canada's relations with Iran are at an all-time low. The leverage that Canada has over Iran is not extensive. The only thing Canada can do is keep raising the human rights profile and condition of Iran in international forums and not allow Iran to close the case on Jahanbegloo or Kazemi."
The Kazemi case was a flashpoint in Iranian-Canadian relations. After Iran admitted she died as a result of being beaten in 2003, and an intelligence officer was charged, Canada was forbidden to have representatives at much of the trial. Our ambassador was twice recalled in protest. The intelligence agent was acquitted in July 2004, and the story exploded again in March 2005, when an Iranian physician who had examined Kazemi fled to Canada as a refugee and recounted how he had seen signs of horrific torture and rape. More recently, a story in the National Post suggesting a new Iranian dress code would force non-Muslims, including Jews, to wear identifying badges caused an uproar, and led to our ambassador being summoned to Iran's foreign ministry. (The Post later admitted the story was wrong.)
Despite the strained relations, former Hague adviser Akhavan says it is time for Canada to get more serious about pushing Iran to respect human rights, by taking concrete steps such as using international law to indict members of the regime. "Canada should exercise leadership in leading a coalition to push for individual accountability against Iranian leaders who are responsible for crimes against humanity, such as widespread executions, torture, persecution on political or religious grounds," he says. As well, Canada could look for regime-related assets to freeze.
At stake is ensuring that the issue of promoting a civil society in Iran "doesn't simply become a standoff between the U.S. and Iran, but becomes part of a broader sustained commitment on the part of the international community," Akhavan says. In that, he adds, Canada must be strongly engaged. Foreign Affairs declined to comment on what steps, if any, are now being considered. But, says Ignatieff: "It's time for everyone who loves freedom of thought to stand up and speak out on Jahanbegloo's behalf."