A Season In Hell

By | September 23, 2014 at 10:29 am | No comments | Blog | Tags: , , ,

In April 2006 Ramin Jahanbegloo, a Canadian-Iranian scholar and philosopher, was arrested in Tehran as he prepared to board a flight to Belgium. Instead of attending an academic conference in Brussels, he spent the next four months in Evin Prison, answering questions about his alleged role in a “soft overthrow” of the government. On Sept. 26, 2014 the University of Regina Press will launch Time Will Say Nothing, Jahanbegloo’s reflective memoir of this ordeal, at Ben McNally Books in Toronto. In the lead up to the event, we asked Jahanbegloo, a former board member of PEN Canada, a few questions about Iran, Canada and global democracy.

A Q&A with Ramin Jahanbegloo

(Book cover via University of Regina Press)

(Book cover via University of Regina Press)

PEN Canada (PC): For those unfamiliar with your story, can you briefly describe the events that led the authorities to accuse you of plotting against the government of Iran?

Ramin Jahanbegloo (RJ): On April 27, 2006, I was was detained at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport, and shortly after taken to the section 209 of the Evin prison and interrogated on a daily basis, I was accused of actively preparing to take part in a “velvet revolution” in Iran. I suppose the suspicions regarding my thoughts and actions came from the fact that I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent change and I continued lecturing and writing on nonviolence after returning from the West to Iran. The question of violence looms large in Iran, whose regime was born of the convulsions of 1979. The Iranian Revolution contained several currents of thought—it included Marxist anti-imperialists and Third-Worldists as well as liberal-democratic nationalists and feminists. Yet in the end it was overtaken by the anti-modernist Islamists, and so became a conservative-clerical revolution rather than a democratic one. Also one of my many trips to India, I met  with the Dalai Lama, who in turn has made frequent visits to Prague to meet with Havel since 1989. I met Havel twice in my life and his writings made a great impact on me. I, therefore, decided to compare Iran’s democratic intellectuals with their East-Central European predecessors. All such links reinforced suspicions among Iran’s clerical rulers that a “ velvet revolution” is at hand and I am one of its theorists.

PC: You write that “Iranian politics has mobilized the worst human qualities: egoism, envy, hatred, and incivility.” But it has also witnessed courageous resistance from people like Siamak Pourzand, Akbar Ganji and Nasrin Sotoudeh. Are you hopeful that these iconic dissidents, and the many others who support them, will eventually ensure a decent level of freedom of expression in Iran?

Though Iranian politics has emptied Iranian society from all forms of ethical consciousness, we can find archipelagos of ethical resistance in Iranian civil society.

RJ: This is true. Though Iranian politics has emptied Iranian society from all forms of ethical consciousness, we can find archipelagos of ethical resistance in Iranian civil society. I believe in what Hannah Arendt says when she points out the fact that: “What usually remains intact in the epochs of petrification and foreordained doom is the faculty of freedom itself, the sheer capacity to begin, which animates and inspires all human activities and is the hidden source of production of all great and beautiful things.” In a country like Iran where strong authoritarian governments have predominated for a century, the eruption of the idea of civil society in the public debate does not automatically lead to its empowerment. However, as  Iranian citizens with a moral capital engage in dissent and dialogue, their aims, so long as they remain nonviolent and inclusive, could become marginal paths for a constructive future.

PC: The book is filled with references to such books as Kafka’s Trial, Sartre’s La Republique du Silence, and Dante’s Inferno. You write that “Memories became my true friends. I lived with them and I listened to them. Truly, seeking out memories takes away the pain of everyday life, especially when one is in prison.” Did your recollection of these literary moments occur to you during the ordeal, or afterwards, as you sifted through your memories?

Aldous Huxley said: Every man’s memory is his private literature.”  I think we can also say: “ Every literature is man’s private memory.” 

RJ: Aldous Huxley said: Every man’s memory is his private literature.”  I think we can also say: “ Every literature is man’s private memory.”  I mean literature provides more than a means of reflecting on one’s absence of freedom in solitary [confinement]: it is also the site of the rebirth of freedom. Literature became for me a powerful tool capable of rescuing my memories from oblivion and bringing them back to life. This said, I think literature is a significant form of resistance that allows individuals to share their life experiences with one another. The use of literature was an important means by which I could identify the basis of experiences in life but also in solitary confinement, but also give an account of how to overcome the kind of absolutist thinking which would exact vengeance through violence.

PC: PEN often talks about the importance of access to books in prison. How comforting were the books your wife brought you? Why?

RJ: Books have always played an important role in my life. Therefore, even in solitary I continued reading any book which came under my hand. For fifty days I re-read the Koran and some Islamic books. Then I continued with Gandhi, Nehru and Hegel. Reading books in solitary certainly helps psychological effects of solitude. Though in the beginning of my imprisonment reading was the last thing on my mind, I realized after the third day that reading could help me feel less lonely and more comforted psychologically. But reading and writing also became for me modes of moral resistance.

PC: At one point you write that “Today, philosophy is loosely associated with a form of idle speculation, and philosophers are looked at as academic bookworms whose knowledge deals with intangible ideas that do not contribute to the comforts or material progress of societies.” Has imprisonment made you a more grounded philosopher, or teacher? Has it changed your idea of what philosophy students should understand about their discipline?

There is little point in talking and writing about philosophy without having to reflect on the Socratic nature of philosophy itself.

RJ:Prison, injustice and repression gave me a better idea of the civic task of philosophy. And herein resides the sphere of conflict between philosophical interrogation as critical questioning of established norms and meanings and widespread ethical relativism which has creates an attitude of “anything  is acceptable”. There is little point in talking and writing about philosophy without having to reflect on the Socratic nature of philosophy itself. This is the reason why, the civic and critical functions of the philosopher, as a person whose mind watches the inhumanities and injustices of the world, (and most of the time in the name of concepts and ideas), should be maintained. As I say in the book, whatever the price that philosophers will have to pay for their empty hands in the battle against thoughtlessness and fanaticism, they should not and cannot be replaced by pensioned academics and  bureaucratic technocrats even if the temper of the time
suggests it.

Please join us at the launch of Jahanbegloo’s memoir Time Will Say Nothing: A Philosopher Survives an Iranian Prison Friday Sept. 26, 6 p.m. at Ben McNally Books.

Featured photograph of Evin Prison accessed via Roxana Saberi.

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