A Talk in Tehran

How should academics comport themselves when visiting a dictatorship? More specifically, what should they do and not do when presenting a paper at an academic conference hosted by a government that denies academic and other freedoms to its own population? These were the questions that accompanied me to Tehran in July 2010 as I prepared to deliver a speech on “The Paradoxes of Diversity.” Answers to them evolved out of the visit itself.

My story begins with one of those mass emails announcing a forthcoming conference in Tehran on “Multiculturalism and Global Community”. Intrigued, I wrote the obligatory abstract and waited. A month elapsed before it was accepted. A few days before my departure, I checked the conference programme for the latest information only to discover that I had been elevated to a plenary speaker. That was unexpected. I had imagined a small slot in one of the many parallel sessions. Now I was to be in the limelight. The stakes of the visit had, at least for me, become higher.

Only a year previously the Iranian regime had brutally repressed growing tumult in the country, occasioned by the disputed presidential election victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iranians are Persians, not Arabs, but in hindsight one can see the June 2009 demonstrations in Tehran, Tabriz and other Iranian cities as the opening shot of a pan-Middle Eastern uprising that has since pulled down rulers in Tunisia and Egypt, launched sectarian strife in Bahrain and Syria, catalysed tribal conflict in Yemen and prompted the territorial see-saw in Libya between pro and anti regime factions.

Readers may recall scenes in Tehran two years ago of black leather-jacketed men on motorcycles, the Iranian Basij militia, beating students and other demonstrators. A famous video still circulates on YouTube of one of their victims, the young woman known as “Neda” who was shot in the heart, probably by a Basiji sniper.

Yet one year later, in July 2010, the Iranian authorities were set to hold a conference that draped itself in multiculturalism and global community, buzz words of tolerance and moderation. And all this while seven leaders of Iran’s Bahai’s — a peaceful faith considered a schism by Iran’s mullahs — were in prison awaiting their show trial. The conference theme was certainly appropriate but in the circumstances it was also bizarre.

Organizers of academic conferences in repressive states are rarely a homogenous group.  Some individuals are true believers of the governments they serve. Others are not. Only time and conversation reveals who is who. But whether they are regime enthusiasts, conflicted loyalists, or closet malcontents the organizers generally try to do a good job and seek to make guests feel welcome. Middle Easterners are proverbial for their hospitality and kindness to strangers. That being the case, it is indecent for visitors gratuitously to insult or offend their hosts. It is also cheap. Foreign academics presenting papers in Iran and comparable countries face no appreciable physical danger. The far greater danger is moral grandstanding. A combative visitor flies home from the encounter unscathed; the conference organizers stay behind and face the music.

Yet attentiveness to the feelings of one’s hosts, solicitude for the inner struggles that some of them may face, is also a hazard; it encourages people to censor the most important things — by which I mean the most dissonant things — they should say. “One gives way first in words,” Freud observed, “and then little by little in substance too.” Politeness and embarrassment impede honesty. But if academics are not honest at an academic conference, if civility erases candor, they betray their vocation.


I arrived at Imam Khomeini International Airport on July 24, mid-afternoon, having not slept the night before. I shuffled slowly in line towards passport control. A few of the foreigners, some of whom I would meet over the next two days, reached the desk before me only to be taken to an anteroom for further questioning. The supposed miscreants were Americans, spoor of The Great Satan, whose visas, I learned later, expired the day after the conference ended. Canadians like myself, in contrast, were permitted a month’s stay. That enabled me to take the post-conference trip to Esfahan. My passport received the official thud of documentation and I headed to the hotel.

The conference took place in the National Library and Archives of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a suite of modern buildings, somewhat elevated from the road, above a grass embankment. To their north stand the imposing Alborz mountains. Tehran, a city of some 8 million people, crouches in a valley beneath them, the sun blazing through the ubiquitous smog.

I spoke on the first morning of the three and a half day event, sharing the plenary podium with two ayatollahs and an anthropologist from the United States. The latter offered an historical dissertation on Persian artifacts and symbolism. It was learned but arcane to all but the cognoscenti. No mention of politics disturbed the professor’s equanimity. The two ayatollahs spoke about modern Iran. Still a little jet-lagged, fiddling with the headphones that translated Farsi into English, and somewhat distracted by the chador-clad women chatting in the audience, I was less attentive than I should have been to the details of their speeches. My imperfect recollection is the refrain that diversity is respected in Iran, though diversity has its limits, those being of religious piety. I spoke last, cramming into 25 minutes a longer argument.

My address centered on certain paradoxes of diversity and some of its benefits. I pointed out, for instance, that the concept of diversity invoked by many advocacy and human rights groups implies something unitary. Diversity can never be bad, from the conventional viewpoint, because, at root, we are all the same and entitled to the same things. Our common humanity trumps our difference, that common humanity now being re-described as diversity. Those most wedded to diversity consciousness often assume that the main reason for conflict is that people have not understood each other. This liberal idea assumes in turn that people are rational in broadly the same way; that open communication will reveal common and compelling human interests that transcend partisanship. On such an account, enmity is a mode of incomprehension rather than a choice by people who understand all too well those they reject.

Moreover, while diversity is often seen as a salve of conflict it may just as well inflame it. Consider the phenomenon of so-called honour killings, a modality of homicide in the Middle East, Pakistan and Bangladesh that with immigration has been imported into the West. Honour killing is the murder of girls or young women by their families for the shame they have caused. Death will cleanse the shame of dating a Western boy, shedding the hijab (head scarf), and, worst of all, conversion to Christianity. Exposure to the more relaxed mores of Western diversity proves deadly to these young women. I granted that most Muslims abhor honor killing and that the custom is more tribal than religious.

But I went on to say that Islam is in some obvious respects in tension with Western diversity norms. How so? Islam is an orthopraxy not, like Christianity, an orthodoxy. An orthodoxy demands that people believe certain things, but beliefs, being invisible, cannot be policed or even monitored in a pluralist society. An orthopraxy demands that people practice the faith in certain ways: that they attend the mosque; that men and women are separated in it; that all, at some point in their lives visit Mecca; that all fast during Ramadan; and such practices are visible and, wherever Muslims make up the majority, publicly enforced.

Nothing stops Christians from converting to Islam if they in conscience decide to do so. In Muslim societies, conversion from Islam to Christianity is a crime, in many states — including Afghanistan — a capital crime. It is inconceivable, I said,

“that any Western country would enact a law demanding the death of someone who wrote what was considered to be an anti-Christian novel. But an equivalent ruling was handed down against the writer Salmon Rushdie on account of The Satanic Verses, and that fatwa was widely applauded around the Muslim world. Equally, it is unthinkable in the West that a particular peaceful religious minority would be denied civil rights and actively persecuted: but that is the fate of Bahai’s in your own country who are treated as a schism rather than a world religion, and considered as an enemy because the Bahai’s, unable to find refuge in Muslim countries, have their House of Justice, their headquarters, in Haifa.”

This is but a fragment of a longer speech but incorporates its most controversial aspects.

Question time followed. The atmosphere was edgy. Every question was fired at my portion of the plenary. None came from Iranians. An Indian Muslim claimed that my comments bespoke a colonial mindset. That accusation seemed to debar Westerners from making critical observations on non-Western polities and cultures. I let it pass. The most antagonistic remark, however, issued from a Caucasian Dean of Law from a British university who essentially accused me of Islamophobia. “Honour killing,” she said, was simply a hateful, anti-Muslim term for domestic violence, something rampant in the West among non-Muslims. I was picking on Muslims.

In response, I gestured at the obvious differences. Domestic violence is typically that in which one man alone impulsively abuses his female sexual partner for idiosyncratic reasons. Honour killing, in contrast, routinely involves an elaborate family conspiracy in which fathers and brothers murder daughters and sisters (sometimes with the help of mothers); the violence perpetrated against the girls is often of a highly ritualized and agonizing kind (beheading, burying alive, burning to death); and the assailants justify their conduct as a social obligation.


When I walked down from the stage to take tea in the mid-morning break, the adrenalin was gone. I waited to be cold-shouldered. I imagined writing a text message to my wife  (a third generation Baha’i): “Talk a disaster.” The hostile questions from the floor surely foreshadowed a greater disapproval.

I was wrong. Non-Iranians — Europeans and Americans mostly — approached me in a friendly manner confirming that someone had to raise the Rushdie and Baha’i issues. I had said nothing about the Iranian demonstrations of the year before. But as the conference proceeded, Iranian students approached me to talk in private. One especially telling occasion came during the closing speech.

Delivered by a former speaker (2004-08) of the Iranian parliament — Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel — its thesis was that while the West previously dominated other countries by force of arms, it now did so through media images. Dr Haddad-Adel also objected with great vehemence to France’s resolve to ban full-face coverings (the burqa, niqab) from the public square, saying that this infringed the rights of Muslim women who veiled out of genuine piety. He criticized too the prohibition of the headscarf from French schools.

As the speech morphed into a rant, I discreetly left the auditorium to take more tea. A group of young women drew near me in an otherwise deserted corridor. In a hushed tone and near-perfect English one of them asked mildly: “Sir, what is your view of Dr Haddad-Adel’s speech.” At first hesitating I replied that I had heard many such speeches before and was accustomed to their anti-Western tone. I said I was bothered more by the anti-Western remarks of many of the Western participants, including the British dean of law mentioned previously, who took every opportunity to commend Iran, who voiced no public qualms about its governance, and who was indeed the very model of ingratiation. It struck me as wrong, dishonorable, for Westerners to trash countries that provided in abundance liberties absent in Iran. I also asked whether it was wise for Westerners to give television interviews innocent of how their words would be translated, re-packaged and conveyed. I had been approached several times for an interview and had refused.

As I spoke, the young women’s demeanor became agitated. My homily over, I waited for the reproach. Again I was surprised. “How dare the Speaker condemn the French,” said one of them, her face flushed with anger, “when our friends are being raped NOW in jail. Who speaks for them? Where is their piety? Where is their freedom?” Another ventured, in so many words, that Westerners’ televised comments at the conference would be framed to burnish and endorse the regime’s legitimacy. These young women were dyed in the wool opponents of the regime. Other Iranians I met were more ambivalent. As one whispered to me: “We had the [1979] revolution to get rid of kings. Now we are ruled by them again”. Then she added with the utmost sincerity: “Unlike the time of Imam Khomeini.”


I left Tehran nine days after I arrived. As I sipped coffee at the airport, waiting to board, a young man sat down beside me. With frequent sidelong glances he unpacked his troubles. He had been fired from his teaching post for unorthodox views; he now worked in Africa; his nerves were so frayed he was on constant medication. He then said that the West is wrong to believe that al Qaeda and the Wahabists, Sunnis both, are the greatest danger to the world today. It was the form of Shi’ism embraced by the current Iranian regime that was far more menacing. It is preparing, he concluded, for the immanent materialization of the twelfth Imam, the hidden Mahdi, the savior whose coming prompts the cataclysm that will purge the world of evil. That is the real meaning of the race for nuclear weapons.

Scholars may disagree with this judgment believing the Iranian regime to be more venal than millenarian, more brazenly corrupt than high-mindedly ideological. But my experiences in Tehran convinced me of at least one thing. Among those opposed to the mullahs, rage burns like napalm in the soul. Its oxygen is the humiliation of enforced silence. Academic conferences are occasions when silences can be broken.


This article was originally published on MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit MercatorNet.com for more.


Peter Baehr, a sociologist, is Academic Dean of Social Sciences at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. His most recent book is Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences (Stanford University Press, 2010).

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