The plight of Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo again demonstrates why the state of intellectualism is so impoverished in the Muslim world, the Middle East in particular. Dr. Jahanbegloo, a former Sorbonne and Harvard professor with dual Canadian-Iranian citizenship, was arrested April 27, during a stopover at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport. Afterward he was taken to the notorious Evin Prison, for “medical care.” His treatment has apparently entailed repeated torture.
I cannot claim to have heard of Dr. Jahanbegloo before his arrest set off alarms in intellectual and human rights circles. I generally don’t run in those circles. But I’ve since come to learn that the good doctor is someone who should be taken very seriously indeed. He is of a long line of distinguished Iranian intellectuals, a dissident who longs to see democracy come to his homeland.
He is not alone. Today thousands of pro-democracy students are imprisoned in secret jails throughout the land, many languishing in solitary cells no larger than a closet. These youngsters look up to Dr. Jahanbegloo as a symbol of democracy and hope, just as previously they had looked up to intellectual reformer and former President Mohammed Khatami’s advisor Saeed Hajjarian, until an assassin’s bullet left him paralyzed in 2000. (As one might expect, the assassin, Saeed Asgar, was released after a brief prison sentence.) Whatever these students’ faults, naivete is not one of them. Young Iranians (who make up make up an estimated 70 percent of their country’s population) are well aware that none of Iran’s four intellectual movements since the early 19th century have had much impact on the political leadership, whether that regime was a secular dictatorship like the former Shah’s, or a religious despotism like the present.
IN HIS HOMELAND Dr. Jahanbegloo is widely respected as a champion of constructive dialogue among divergent cultures, and one who has contributed significantly to the understanding of Western philosophy. That’s more than enough reason to toss this democratic symbol in the clink. Dr. Jahanbegloo was first charged with the unpardonable offense of “having contact with foreigners.” But even the absurd mullahs seemed to realize how idiotic this sounded, and thus charged him with spying for the U.S. and, of course, Israel. In particular that he is “an element of the United States who was part of the plot to overthrow the regime under the guise of intellectual work by peaceful means.” Agence France-Presse reports allegations in the Iranian press that Dr. Jahanbegloo was involved in an anti-government plot, acting as a “link between monarchists inside and outside the country.” (The former Shah’s son Reza Pahlavi’s recent article in Human Events calling for a democratic revolution in Iran did not go unnoticed by the mullahs.) More likely Dr. Jahanbegloo was targeted for an article that appeared in an April issue of the Spanish newspaper El Pais in which Iran’s president was criticized for denying the Holocaust.
Similar charges of espionage were leveled against the Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi. Back in July 2003 Ms. Kazemi was attempting to report on the underground pro-democracy student movement. For this she was arrested, raped, tortured, and eventually murdered in the same Evin prison. Iran refused to acknowledge Kazemi’s Canadian citizenship, and is thus far refusing Canadian diplomatic calls to visit Dr. Jahanbegloo in prison.
What’s more, Dr. Jahanbegloo’s arrest came close on the heels of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s announcement that the U.S. would begin a $75 million campaign to promote regime change in Iran and may be seen as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s response to that declaration.
In his essay “September 11 and Prospects for Democracy in Iran” Dr. Jahanbegloo writes that the U.S. hard-line approach, notably President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, slowed down democratization in Iran and benefited the hardliners. “America’s threats and accusations are providing the Iranian conservatives with a good opportunity to argue against the reformists that America would never have ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is quite disconcerting, because the Iranian civil society has the potential to becoming easily the most liberal in the region.”
Iran, according to Dr. Jahanbegloo, is the only Muslim country where people are rapidly moving away from radical Islam. This is obviously not a message the mullahs want out.
DR. JAHANBEGLOO’S recent seminar on Immanuel Kant attracted by more than 4,000 students. His seminars on Hegel (a great admirer of ancient Persian civilization) and Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathrusta have also been wildly popular with Iranian students. All evidence shows that young Iranians are starved for Western ideas. Writing for the website Open Democracy, Rasool Nafisi suggests that “Intellectuals like [Jahanbegloo] revive a sense of civic vibrancy sorely lacking in the lives of many people whose societies are in transition and who find themselves negotiating between tradition and modernity without the intellectual resources to make sense of it all.”
The mullahs have a profound interest in keeping their young people ignorant of Western ideas, of making sure that they do not have the “intellectual resources to make sense of it all.” Dr. Jahanbegloo is a threat to the mullahs and therefore must be silenced. Those of us who stand for ideas like democracy and freedom should do everything we can to see that Dr. Jahanbegloo is not only freed, but that he is heard.