News / Middle East

Iran Curtails Western Studies; Philosophy Day in Tehran Draws Criticism

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (file photo)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (file photo)

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The Iranian government says it will curtail the study of western traditions, including philosophy, being taught in Iran.  The statement is likely to increase the controversy over UNESCO's decision to hold this year's World Philosophy day in Tehran.

Many Western philosophers are blasting the decision by UNESCO to hold World Philosophy Day in Iran, next month, because of Tehran's dismal record of academic and press freedom.

The growing chorus of complaints over the UNESCO conference coincides with the Iranian government decision over the weekend to restrict the teaching of various academic subjects, including philosophy, at Iranian universities.

Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian philosopher who now teaches at the University of Toronto - and who spent over a year in Tehran's infamous Evin Prison for his defense of Western ideas, including secularism - has repeatedly urged UNESCO to call off the event.  "The position of philosophy in today's world, especially in countries like North Korea or Iran, where you have a ban on freedom of thought and you have many philosophers or people who try to promote freedom of thought in prison, it's like I said in The New York Times, to somehow hold a conference in Berlin in 1938, with [Nazi propagandist] Goebbels as head of the conference."

Iranian leaders also lashed out against Western culture Monday, while at the same time praising Iran's own cultural heritage. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, addressing what was being touted as a Conference Against Soft War at Tehran University on Monday, insisted that Iranian culture is one that others should follow.

Ahmadinejad describes Iranian culture and Islamic tradition as superior to others, and promotes them as a model.  He also insists that Iranian culture will eventually spread and triumph.

Iranian government TV also showed the country's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei addressing students in the holy city of Qom, where he delivered substantially the same message.  He warned that both Western plots and "pernicious Western culture" were a threat to Iran and its revolution.

University of Birmingham Professor Scott Lucas, who writes about Iran in the popular blog "Enduring America," points out that that the rhetoric coming out of Tehran today is a "far cry from the dialogue of civilizations" espoused by Iran's former reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

Iranian leaders, Lucas stressed, are fighting for their legitimacy in the eyes of the Iranian public, after last year's disputed presidential election, and this creates a negative atmosphere.  "When you fight for legitimacy, unfortunately, in my eyes, one of the tactics you use is not to really be able to give an idea of the positives that you bring to people, but warning of the negatives, that you warn of the enemies and how they're trying to undermine you, and how they're trying to take away life, liberty and happiness."

Lucas also noted that despite the criticism of all things Western, Iranians are still fascinated by Western culture.  "The Supreme Leader may denounce Western culture, yet if you go to an Iranian market … you can pick up almost any Western film or piece of music that you want.  And that interchange has only expanded … when you have phenomena, such as Facebook, that were being adopted in Iran and opening up new avenues of conversation."

Lucas thinks that Iran's leaders, as well as some in the West, epitomize the struggle depicted in Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations.  "This political battle," he argues, "is us versus them, and good versus evil." Ordinary Iranians, however, he said, "embrace the idea of interchange, and benefit from ideas of both sides."

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