[Reader-list] Intellectual life in India and Iran - some questions

Shuddhabrata Sengupta shuddha at sarai.net
Thu Dec 20 17:48:03 IST 2001

Dear Readers,

Here's a posting in response to what Monica sent in earlier about the 
minister of human resources, Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, calling historians (or 
some of them) "Intellectual Terrorists". 

Here is a dilemma that we might have to learn to familiarize ourselves with. 
As the cultural and intellectual spaces in India begin to freeze over - as 
they surely are in the process of doing - how can this freezing over be 
challenged - by calling for boycotts, or by working to create alternative 
spaces, outside those that have exist.

In other words, when at last they begin to imprison (or as in other places, 
execute) people who write or translate books then should this lead to a call 
for a boycott of the intellectual life. It is a tough question - if you 
boycott - you do not endorse the regimes terror, but you also deprive those 
who are within from access to a broader intellectual life. If you do not 
boycott - you may act as an unwilling endorsement of an authoritarian regime.

Who knows what course of action which of might choose. I am not saying one 
choice is better than the other, merely pointing out that the choice will not 
be an easy one to make.

This posting , that I am forwarding below, about the current intellectual 
climate of the Islamic Republic of Iran might throw some light on similar 
dillemmas as they come to ariculate themselves in the Republic of India.

The posting is from NETTIME, and it is a forward of an article by Mehdi 
Nasrin in the Iranian. Apologies for cross posting



<nettime> FW: Intellectual traitors
From: Leili <nethics at cyberosis.tv>
To: <nettime-l at bbs.thing.net>
Date: Wed, 19 Dec 2001 13:31:54 -0500

Who's afraid of Jacques Derrida?
Pioneer thinkers in Iranian universities should be welcomed
By Mehdi Nasrin
December 17, 2001
The Iranian

It looks as though Jacques Derrida and Edward Said are planning to give
lectures and teach in Iran in the upcoming months. As a premature reaction,
some (Iranian) scholars abroad have already criticized and condemned the
acts. They argue that by traveling to Iran and participating in such
seminars and lectures, these prestigious intellectuals help the Islamic
government of Iran manifest a nicer picture of itself to the world.

It is likely that a government which has been criticized by many human
rights organizations (like the UN and Amnesty International) and isolated
from the international community for many years needs this nicer
reputation. Moreover, such interactions between Iranian universities and
foreign intellectuals may help the authoritarian government argue that
there is actually freedom of speech in Iran.

Those who are criticizing Derrida and Said, of course, have even more
concrete and detailed objections. One of the translators of Derrida's works
was among the Iranian intellectuals who was kidnaped and killed by agents
of the country's Ministry of Intelligence four years ago. Since then, those
who committed these evil acts have been brought to justice. However the
closed trial was rather quiet about those who ordered the murders. The
critics think Derrida has a commitment of openly condemning these kinds of
extra-judiciaries and must thus decline the request of giving a speech in

Said, on the other hand, has been criticized over the issue of Palestine.
The Islamic government usually addresses the Palestinian people as the
Moslem people of Palestine. This kind of statement, of course, can have
racist interpretation. It seems according to the Islamic regime, there is
no Christian or Jewish Palestinian. Since the critics think that Said has a
commitment of openly condemning this idea, given that he himself is a
(Christian) Palestinian, he must thus decline the request of teaching in

However, something is wrong with their conclusions.

Human rights violations and censorship within the Islamic government are
undeniable facts. The premise of the critics' arguments is also correct:
the Iranian government is a totalitarian regime with a very bad record of
human rights violations. Thus it will probably (ab)use the presence of
intellectuals (like Derrida) and activists (like Mandela who has already
traveled to Iran twice) in order to improve its image. Therefore, critics
conclude, these people should not travel to Iran.

The fallacy of this argument is rooted in accepting what the Iranian
government imposes. The Islamic regime may indicate that anybody who
participates in Iranian elections has accepted the principles and the
legitimacy of the Islamic republic. Many do not buy that; it can be a
peaceful way to show one's protest.

The Islamic regime may indicate that what happened on the streets after the
World Cup qualification matches was nothing more than soccer hooliganism.
Many believe it could be another social movement in the struggle for
change. The Islamic regime may indicate that the flourishing humanitarian
movement in the nation's film industry is a sign of a healthy society. But
may say it could be just a fake intellectual passport to pass the borders
of censorship.

Moreover, by allowing foreign intellectuals to give lectures in the
country, the Islamic regime may be trying to show respect for freedom of
speech. Many do not buy that either. It is most likely just a window

On the other hand, the presence of these pioneer figures in humanities,
arts and sciences and any other interactions with the open world would be
very beneficial for Iranian students and scholars. They would have the
opportunity to directly discuss issues they have learned through translated
texts and second-hand literature.

This is a situation not unlike the presence of the Doctors Without Borders
in poor and far off villages in eastern and northwestern provinces of the
country which have increased the level of public health. It is not only the
physical presence which matters, the contribution of the UN health
committee to the national projects (like birth control) was and is very
important. This of course does not wash away what the Islamic regime has
done in these provinces since the revolution, unless one wants to buy what
they sell.

The same thing is true about higher education.

The presence of pioneer thinkers in Iranian universities should be
welcomed. We should not forget that not all Iranians who have left their
homeland have done so because of political reasons. Some seek better
education and a higher social life. If the Ministry of Higher Education
spends more money on research and invites more foreign professors,
university education will improve in Iran.

Hardliners in Iran disagree with these kinds of interactions between
universities and foreign scholars. They form a very influential band within
the Islamic regime. It is not surrprisng that they are against any kind of
interactions between the young generation and the open world.

Even some Iranian scholars are against these interactions. They think all
Iranian ministries -- be it intelligence, education or health -- form a
totalitarian system and these interactions help the system survive with a
more beautiful and practical interface. The Islamic Republic is like any
other totalitarian regime, afraid of more open interactions with the world.
However, these interactions take place because the world is changing and
they cannot be totally isolated.

Similar experiences (in Iraq, for instance) have shown it is only the
citizens of these countries who pay the price of more vigorous sanctions
and solid isolation. Any interaction with the open world (through the
Internet, or educational exchanges) will help people move towards a more
open and free society.

Those who condemn these interactions have a tendency to define themselves
as the true opponents of the Islamic regime. They (over)react to whatever
happens in that country. They easily forget what is in fact best for the

If tomorrow the Islamic Republic announces that all those walking on the
street are supporters of the regime, hardcore skeptics will ask people not
to walk on the street, and criticize anyone who does so. But many will
continue walking not only because they do not buy whatever the Islamic
regime sells, but also because walking is good for their health.

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