Ramin Jahanbegloo, Hossein Derakhshan and openDemocracy

Danny Postel
21 September 2006

Hossein Derakhshan's article in openDemocracy ("Ramin Jahanbegloo: the courage to change", 4 September 2006) recalls nothing so much as Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel set shortly before, during, and after the Soviet Union's 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The novel's protagonist, a Prague surgeon called Tomas, had written a somewhat elliptical magazine article critical of the invasion. That article would come back to haunt him: although it had been his one and only foray into the Republic of Letters, the authorities insisted that he retract it if he wanted to maintain his job. "The pressure to make public retractions of past statements - there's something medieval about it," the hospital's chief surgeon says to Tomas in breaking the news that the interior ministry has directed him to have Tomas write a retraction. "What does it mean, anyway," he asks, "to 'retract' what you've said?"

Danny Postel is senior editor of openDemocracy

The article he is responding to here is:

Hossein Derakhshan, "Ramin Jahanbegloo: the courage to change"
(4 September 2006)

Deploying sham sympathy for Tomas (an age-old interrogation technique), an interior-ministry agent asks him if perhaps he had been duped by the editors of the magazine in which the offending piece appeared. "Did they put you up to it?" "To writing it? No. I submitted it on my own," Tomas replies. But the agent will have none of it: "You have been manipulated, Doctor, used." What's more, the agent explains, "Whether you meant to or not, you fanned the flames of anti-Communist hysteria with your article."

The agent gives Tomas one final chance to comply: all he has to do is sign a statement that has been prepared by the ministry itself. The letter contains a denouncement of the intelligentsia for wanting to see the country sink into civil war. He insisted that Tomas had naively let himself "be carried away" by others "who had consciously distorted his article and used it for their own devices, turning it into a call for counterrevolution."

The icing on the cake comes when the interior ministry agent attempts to assuage any concerns Tomas might have about the text having been prepared for him. "Think it over," he assures him, "and if there's something you want to change, I'm sure we can come to an agreement. After all, it's your statement!"

In the end, Tomas decides against signing the letter, as a result of which he is consigned to washing windows for a living. Had he decided to sign it, however, we can easily imagine one of Kundera's characters heaping praise on Tomas for doing so, commending him for his "courage to change."

This, of course, is precisely what Hossein Derakhshan has done in his eerily titled, and bizarrely argued, article on Ramin Jahanbegloo.

Ramin Jahanbegloo, heads the department for contemporary studies at the Cultural Research Bureau, Tehran. He was arrested in Tehran on 27 April 2006, and released on 30 August 2006.

Ramin Jahanbegloo writes in openDemocracy:

"America's dreaming" (August 2004) – an exchange of letters with Richard Rorty

"Iran's conservative triumph" (June 2005) – a contribution to a symposium among Iranian intellectuals about the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Ramin Jahanbegloo's website is here

For protests about the arrest of Ramin Jahanbegloo, click here

openDemocracy published a petition signed by writers and scholars in support of Ramin Jahanbegloo's release:

"Ramin Jahanbegloo: an open letter to Iran's president"
(24 May 2006)

Danny Postel's interview with Ramin Jahanbegloo in Logos (5/2, 2006) is here

Also in openDemocracy:

Rasool Nafisi, "Ramin Jahanbegloo: a repressive release"
(1 September 2006)

Let's be perfectly clear about this: Derakhshan asserts that Jahanbegloo's "confession" was authentic - Indeed even "the possibility of it being imposed on him by his interrogators" is, according to his logic, "rule[d] out". The most obvious and immediate question involved is: how in the world could Derakhshan lay claim to such knowledge, let alone rule out the very possibility that Jahanbegloo's "confession" was coerced or imposed?

Essential to Derakhshan's assertion is his view that Jahanbegloo is in fact guilty. Of what? Of "indirectly helping the Bush administration in its plans for regime change in Iran through fomenting internal unrest and instability." And how, precisely, did Jahanbegloo do that? By conducting "comparative analysis of socio-political change in contemporary east-central Europe and the Islamic Republic of Iran" with "financial support" from American think-tanks.

The publication of Derakhshan's article has prompted a mixture of bewilderment and outrage from across the world. But most puzzling - indeed troubling - for many readers is the article's appearance, of all places, on openDemocracy. Consider the juxtaposition of the phrase "free thinking for the world" adorning the magazine's logo with Derakhshan's disparagement of an intellectual engaging in "comparative analysis of socio-political change in contemporary east-central Europe and the Islamic Republic of Iran". Perish the thought that a scholar should be free to undertake such studies and explore such terrain openly.

Consider, as well, the juxtaposition of openDemocracy having published an international appeal demanding Jahanbegloo's "immediate, unconditional release" - an appeal signed by editor-in-chief Anthony Barnett and editor Isabel Hilton - and Derakhshan's contention, in those same pages, that Jahanbegloo belonged behind bars after all and was right to "confess" his crimes.

Many people, myself included, think openDemocracy owes its readers an explanation for its decision to publish an article that justifies the repression of intellectual freedom - a position that stands in direct contradiction of the magazine's core principles.

Take the following sentence from Derakhshan's final paragraph: "Thanks to the work of the reformists who governed the country until 2005, Iran has passed the stage of state terror." Questions of political disagreement aside, one might think that a claim such as this might raise a red flag or two - that upon reading it an editor might think to check it against reality before running it. One doesn't have to be an expert on Iran to be struck by the claim's dubiousness.

A brief glance at the Human Rights Watch (HRW) website would have turned up the report Ministers of Murder: Iran's New Security Cabinet. A quick consultation with someone like Hadi Ghaemi, HRW's Iran researcher, would have yielded the following statement: "Iran has by no means passed the stage of state terror. The potential for it is quite present, particularly with people such as [Ahmadinejad's interior minister Mustafa] Pour-Mohammadi in positions of power."

Instead, the handling editor let a patently suspect, if not indeed preposterous claim about a deadly serious matter slip through. This is, I'm afraid, well beneath openDemocracy's normally high standards. Its readers deserve better - beginning with an open explanation.

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