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Iran and the Future of Liberalism

by Danny Postel

As an authority against authoritarianism, liberalism is undergoing a renaissance in Iran, and reflecting back to the West its radical roots.

IN her 2003 memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, the Iranian literary scholar Azar Nafisi tells the story of a group of her female students who surreptitiously gathered in her living room once a week to discuss works of Western literature deemed unfit for classroom instruction by the Islamic Republicís censors. Over a period of close to two years in the mid-1990s, the women snuck into their teacherís home every Thursday morning, removed the veils they are legally required to wear in public, and mixed it up over Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Flaubert, Jane Austen, Henry James and Saul Bellow.

Reading Lolita is about how these women experienced internal freedom amidst external repression – about a struggle to carve out a space for the imagination under the crushing weight of a regime committed to administering the totality of public and private life alike. It’s a story about the transformative power of great literature, its ability to connect and transport its readers to an outside world – in this case, a world that is prohibited, closed, off-limits. It is an attempt to contravene, however momentarily and precariously, what Andrei Codrescu calls “the disappearance of the outside”.

As Nafisi shows, the encounter with books under such conditions has a transformative effect not only on those who read them, but on the works themselves. The women in Nafisi’s clandestine book club see things in these novels that people on the outside are unlikely to see. Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading resonates differently for readers in the Islamic Republic of Iran than for those, say, in North America or Western Europe.

In turn, I think it’s fair to say that we in the West can discover a great deal about our own literature by seeing it reflected back through the prism of an outsider. Nafisi poignantly captures this two-way street by explaining that the West’s “gifts to us have been Lolita and Gatsby”, while Iran’s gift to the West “has been reasserting those values that they now take for granted…”. My contention here is that this insight may be applied to international politics.

If you want to go where people are reading Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper, Nafisi has admonished, “go to Iran”. Go to Iran, I would add, if you want to discover where people are reading Jürgen Habermas, Isaiah Berlin, Leszek Kolakowski and Immanuel Kant. “There have been more translations of Kant into Persian in the past decade than into any other language”, reports Vali Nasr, “and these have gone into multiple printings”. Abdollah Momeni, the leader of Iran’s most prominent student-activist group (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat), claims Habermas as his chief inspiration. The speeches and writings of Akbar Ganji, Iran’s leading dissident, are peppered with references to Kant, John Stuart Mill and Albert Camus.

Indeed, there are often “more vibrant resonances of ‘Continental’ thought” in countries like Iran, writes the political philosopher Fred Dallmayr, “than can be found in Europe today”. In an elegant elaboration on this point, he observes:

This does not mean that European perspectives are simply disseminated across the world without reciprocity or reciprocal learning. Nor does it mean that local origins are simply erased in favor of a bland universalismÖ What it does mean is that landscapes and localities undergo symbolic metamorphoses, and that experiences once localized at a given place increasingly find echoes or resonance chambers among distant societies and peoples.

As the Iranian scholar Farideh Farhi has noted, there is an “elaborate and extremely rich conversation that has taken shape in Iran in the past few years concerning the requirements of a democratic and transparent political system and the relationship between faith and freedom”. The Iranian political scientist Mehrdad Mashayekhi describes “an epoch-making renaissance in political culture and discourse”, while the Tehran-based philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo argues that there is nothing less than “a renaissance of liberalism” taking place in Iran today. (Indeed, Jahanbegloo’s own work perfectly embodies the intellectual conversation between Iran and the West. In addition to his books of conversations, in English, with Isaiah Berlin and Ashis Nandy and, in French, with George Steiner, he has written works on Machiavelli, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Tagore and Gandhi. He has also brought an endless stream of Western intellectuals to lecture in Iran in recent years, among them Nandy, Dallmayr, Richard Rorty, Agnes Heller, Antonio Negri, Michael Ignatieff and Timothy Garton Ash).

Why is there such an intense interest in these authors in Iran? How do books like The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Origins of Totalitarianism speak to contemporary Iranians? Do the ideas of Habermas and Berlin look the same to Iranian intellectuals and dissidents as they do to us? And of the many intellectual-political currents emanating from the West – Marxism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, subaltern studies, and various blends thereof – why is liberalism the most popular school of thought among Iranian intellectuals and students at this historical moment?

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