Early in my consideration about going to Iran (I had been told our group would be meeting with former president Mohammed Khatami [official site]) I read many of Khatami's writings. They played a big role in my becoming so intrigued. Especially worth considering is his speech to the U.N. when he proposed a "Dialog Among Civilizations" (as as an alternative vision of world politics to Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations.") Largely due to his efforts, The UN declared 2001 as the "year of dialog among civilizations. (After the 911 attacks, the UN extended that declaration for another five years. Due to American hostility to all Iranian government behaviors, however, all of this was barely covered by our press.)
I was struck by the key points Khatami made when making his original U.N. proposal:
- Khatami began by speaking to Persia's unique cultural and historical role in the Eurasian world, especially praising the humane qualities of Islamic civilization and its global invitation to humanity.
- He made a pitch for a new (not Eurocentric) model for an emerging world culture: "World culture cannot and ought not to ignore characteristics and peculiarities of any particular local culture with the aim of imposing its own upon them."
- This preservation of cultural uniqueness was the specific context out of which he articulated his idea, " In order for an emerging world culture to assume a unified identity, in form and substance, and avoid the chaos caused by various cultural discords, it must engage all the concerned parties in dialogues aimed at exchanging knowledge, experience and raising understanding in diverse areas of culture and civilization." Otherwise, he warned that many people would experience "cultural homelessness."
- Since "it is impossible to bar the transfer of cultural ideas among civilizations" we have a choice of
- Doing this randomly, without premeditation, and reaping the chaotic results.
- Engaging conscious and deliberate dialog among "philosophers, scholars, artists, thinkers, and theologians" aiming at "meta-historical discourse." Interesting!
- Then he became really interesting IMO:
- First, he claimed that his proposal reflects a new "paradigm" for civilizational dialog.
- Then he went on to request a sacred conversation: "At times, we encounter a difficult situation where we interact with a language which sounds the same as the one we use, however, the universe to which these two languages belong are very different. One of the most arduous passages in the road of dialogue among cultures arises when a party to the dialogue attempts to communicate with another by employing a basically secularist language - I'm here referring to a broad and general concept of secularism which means the rejection of any intuitive spiritual experience and any belief in the unseen - in an essentially sacred and spiritual discourse."
- He then argued that Islamic and other non-Western cultures have good reasons to resist absorption into modernism as it has been so far shaped by Western civilizations: "It now appears that the Cartesian-Faustian narrative of Western civilization should give way and begin to listen to other narratives proposed by other human cultures. Today, the unstoppable destruction of nature stemming from the ill-founded preconceptions of recent centuries threatens human livelihood."
- But he offered this as an opportunity for learning for all participants: "We could know ourselves by taking a step away from ourselves and embarking on a journey away from self and homeland and eventually attaining a more profound appreciation of our true identity."
- Finally, he invoked the importance of mystical knowledge in forging deeper understanding among cultures, citing "the unified mystical meaning and content across cultures and the linguistic parallelism among mystics, despite vast cultural, historical and geographical distances."
- I began to get a sense why the UN General Assembly decided his dialog initiative merited a 6 years international endorsement!
- As Khatami began to summarize his idea, he offered a plug for what he called "the fundamental principle of dialog" which "rejects any imposition, and builds upon the premises that all parties to dialogue stand on essentially equal footing." (Sounds like a kinder, gentler version of Ahmadinejad's main message!)
- Finally, he called for the removal of the blindfold over the eyes of Themis, the Greek goddess we see blindfolded and holding the scale of justice on our courthouses. "Let us ask her to set aside the lofty scale that currently weighs political and economic might as the sole measure. Instead, she should call all parties to an open discussion in various domains of thought, culture and civilization."
- "Dialog is not easy" he concluded, but is a necessary ordeal, "Should the spirit of dialogue prevail, humanity, culture and civilization should prevail."
His message appealed not only to the UN delegates, but also to Iranian voters, who twice elected him (by landslide margins) as their president. Even though voters later became disillusioned by Khatami's inability to resist or restrain hardline policies against activists, dissident newspapers, and even reformist candidates, the spirit he articulated still resonates widely among Iranians.