In the late 1970s as clouds of revolution gathered in Iranian skies, the state-owned television decided to provide a space in which rival ideas, simmering beneath the surface, could be expressed, albeit in a limited context.
That led to a weekly programme labeled “East or West?”
No one explained the title or why it had been chosen. But the implication was that Iran had reached a crossroads, and had to choose between going East, that is to say becoming more like Arab and other Islamic states, or accelerating its 100-year old quest to become more like modern European nations.
The panel included only one permanent participant on each side of the argument, thus allowing many protagonists to face one another each week. Over several months, dozens of writers, philosophers, scientists, and historians from different backgrounds were able to address millions of tele-viewers for the first time.
As it turned out I was chosen as the permanent member on the Westernisation side.
My argument was that Iran could not preserve its personality, including its Islamic culture, without adopting pluralist politics and capitalist economics. In other words, if we wanted to remain ourselves, we had to change.
In one programme an elderly philosophy professor was introduced as my sidekick. His name was Ahmad Fardid, and he turned out to be a consummate debater and the owner of the sharpest sense of humour in the Persian Empire.
After recording the programme Fardid invited me to his home, a modest apartment he rented from one of the reporters in our newspaper, for “tea and sympathy.”
As soon as we sat down Fardid’s face was redrawn by a frown.
“I think I went too far,” he said. “If that programme is broadcast I will be a dead man.” When I asked what he was talking about he reminded me of the scorn he had poured on the mullahs, calling them “an ignorant tribe, more interested in money than faith.”
He urged me to ask my friend Reza Qutbi, then director of the TV, to allow a bit of “scissoring”. After much wrangling, Qutbi, having refused the cuts, agreed to let us record a new programme. This time Fardid was more circumspect, only suggesting that mullahs work with philosophers to “seek answers to questions posed by society.”
At that time, late in 1977, neither of us knew that in less than two years Iran would be ruled by the mullahs, and going neither East nor West but towards an historic impasse.
Nevertheless, if Fardid’s philosophical instinct proved wrong his political nose had detected the right smells. He had called on the mullahs and philosophers to form a partnership and, soon after the Khomeinists seized power, he saw his wish realised.
One of the first acts of the new regime was to close all universities for two years so that textbooks could be re-written in an “Islamic way”, and the undesirable teachers and students thrown out.
To carry out the purge, Khomeini set up something called The High Council of Islamic Cultural Revolution made up of several mullahs and a number of non-clerical “thinkers.” Fardid, as the most eminent Iranian teacher of philosophy to side with the Khomeinists, was a star member.
While proceeding with the purge of academia, The High Council also transformed itself into a philosophical club in which mullahs and their non-clerical associates soon divided into two camps.
One camp was labeled “the Heideggerites”, named after Martin Heidegger, the pro-Nazi German philosopher who was also claimed by existentialists as a spiritual ancestor. Fardid, who described himself as “a companion of Heidegger”, was their champion. Fardid’s young sidekick Reza Davari carried the Heideggerites’ banner in media appearances.
The other camp was named “the Popperites”, after the British philosopher Karl Popper who devoted his life to fighting totalitarianism.
Initially, the Popperites had rallied around Murtadha Mutahhari, a mid-ranking mullah who had worked for Empress Farah’s High Council of Philosophy before the revolution. When Mutahhari was assassinated, presumably by hard-line Heideggerites, the Popperites promoted a non-cleric amateur philosopher named Abdul-Karim Sorush as chief spokesman. A British-educated chemist, Sorush had been appointed Secretary-General of the council.
Needless to say neither the Heideggerites nor the Popperites merited their labels. Both accepted Khomeini’s claim of the right to rule in the name of the “Hidden Imam”, something that neither Heidegger nor Popper would have understood.
The Heideggerites were chiefly interested in presenting any form of democracy as both anti-Islamic and anti-philosophy. Davari, for example, claimed that Socrates had been sentenced to death because of his opposition to democracy and that his disciple, Plato, had been an advocate of the “rule by the select” which, in Iran’s case, meant a government of the mullahs.
The Popperites insisted that the mullahs’ rule should be subjected to public endorsement in elections but were not prepared to go as far as allowing just any citizen to stand for election. All candidates had to be loyal to the regime. Nor were they prepared to admit that the government of the mullahs was bound to lead to totalitarianism in the name of religion.
Until 1989 the Heideggerites were the dominant philosophical force within the Khomeinist establishment. The then Prime Minister Mir-Hussain Mussawi and the then Chief Justice Abdul-Karim Ardebili, a businessman-cum-mullah, were confirmed Heideggerites.
The Popperites started their ascendancy in the 1990s and managed to emerge as the dominant group within the regime in 1997 when one of their supporters, Muhammad Khatami, a junior mullah, won the presidency against Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri, the candidate of the Heideggerites.
Last summer, however, the Popperites suffered their worst defeat when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the candidate of the Heideggerites, won the presidency. That victory has put the limelight on Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, one of Fardid’s most talented pupils and the best-known mullah among the Heiddegrites. Mesbah-Yazdi is Ahmadinejad’s “thought-master.”
It might come as a surprise to outsiders but, for the past 27 years, the philosophical debate in the Islamic Republic has been over a misunderstanding of a pro-Nazi German philosopher on the one hand and an even bigger misunderstanding of a liberal British philosopher on the other.
Almost three decades of supposedly Islamic rule has not produced a single Islamic philosopher. Even Mesbah-Yazdi, acclaimed by his supporters as the “most significant Islamic philosopher of the past two centuries”, has little to offer besides a rehash of Fardid’s misunderstanding of Heidegger.
The Heideggerites claim that each society must identify the elite that could provide it with the best government. In the case of Islam that elite consists of religious scholars. Once the “just rule” is established, society should admit no dissent and should, instead, mobilise all energies against internal and external foes.
The Heideggerites have also inherited a dose of anti-Semitism both from the German philosopher himself and his Iranian admirers.
Since Ahmadinejad’s election the Heideggerites have attacked the Popperites as “naïve souls deceived by a Jewish troublemaker”, a reference to the fact that Popper had been of Jewish birth.
The Popperites allow for a diversity of views and even “multiple readings of the sacred texts”. But they, too, reject any possibility of changing the structures of the Islamic state let alone subjecting the faith to critical scrutiny.
A couple of years ago, Jurgen Habermas, the most fashionable German philosopher alive, visited Iran as a guest of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and was surprised by the domination of Iranian thought by “ misunderstood Western philosophies.”
Well, may be it is time for Iranians to start thinking for themselves.