Monday, 22 December 2008

International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) Closed?

Islamicists and other academics involved in studying the Muslim world are dumbfounded by the decision of the Netherlands government to close down the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM). The institute was founded ten years ago as a joint initiative of the universities of Amsterdam, Leiden, Nijmegen and Utrecht, which all host specially endowed ISIM chairs. Over the years ISIM developed an international reputation as one of the world's leading research centres on the contemporary Muslim World.

ISIM was founded in 1998 by the universities of Leiden, Amsterdam (UvA), Utrecht, Nijmegen en het Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. It is objective was to do research into social, political, cultural and intellectual developments in contemporary Islamic communities and societies worldwide. During the first five years each of the participating universities contributed 220,000 Euro to the Budgert, which was doubled by the Ministry to almost 2 Million Euro. Between 2003 and 2007, the Ministry provided an annual subsidy of 900,000 Euro, on condition that by 2007 ISIM should operate independently with financial support from the four participating universities. In 2008 the minister allocated another half a million in financial support.

In the course of the past decade interest in Islam and the Muslim World has increased tremendously (although often for all the wrong reasons). It is therefore difficult to comprehend why the present Dutch government has failed to make the necessary funding available to sustain ISIM. At no other point in time has there been a more acute and greater need for understanding Islam as a religious tradition and civilization, as well as developing informed insights into the complex dynamics of societies throughout the Islamic World and expatriate Muslim communities.

The Dutch government's stupefying decision flies also in the face of a report commissioned by the Scientific Council for Government Policy only two years ago. The outcome, Reformation of Islamic Thought: A Critical Historical Analysis, was hailed as 'a well-informed reflection of Islamic tradition', and a significant contribution 'towards creating a safe, open and critical intellectual environment in which Muslims and non-Muslims alike will be confident enough to move away from paralysing stereotypes and paradigms'. The author of the report, Professor Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (see the post of 11 September 2008), is himself an exponent of the critical Muslim intellectualism which the government's think tank says to support and which ISIM is tasked to research.

The closing down of ISIM appears to be symptomatic of a government lacking in vision and prone to ad hoc policies on an issue that is of critical importance to the country itself. Over the past few years The Netherlands has had to come to terms with serious shortcomings in integrating the resident Muslim communities into Dutch society at large. It has led to tragical incidents such as the assassination* of the columnist and TV-programme maker Theo van Gogh, the hype around self-promoting quasi-activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the rise of unsavoury populist politicians like Geert Wilders, whose PVV (Party for Freedom) drives a one-issue (anti-immigration)agenda.

As one fellow-Islamicist familiar with the machinations in Dutch higher education observed:

'The country is micro-managed by bureaucrats who have no idea about the fields they decide about and make outright baffling moves to cut costs aimed at transforming the Netherlands into a cold, wet paradise on earth. One example none of us can comprehend is the firing of Jan-Just Witkamp; the polyglot who used to be in charge of the Middle Eastern collection of the library in Leiden. He was replaced by consultants and the fact that these "consultants" cost the state more than a well-trained expert in the field, does not seem to matter. And by the way, they also operate on the idea that moving to a "US model" will be more efficient and beneficial. As far as I can see, they have no idea what this "model" is and mostly apply it when it comes to closing programs and cutting costs.
The Dutch government does not think in terms of long-term policies for the field of Islamic Studies but is narrowly focused on training Dutch-minded imams and pastoral workers. Thus it has launched programs in Amsterdam and Leiden that without a doubt have used up ISIM money'.

In the meantime, the issue has come to the attention of the Islam section of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). In response to the dismay with which the news of the imminent disappearance of ISIM was received, a signature campaign is now underway, in a last-ditch attempt to save ISIM by trying to make Education Minister Ronald Plasterk change his mind.

If you want to support this initiative, send an e-mail to: (stating in the body of the message "I endorse the petition to the Dutch Minister of Education to save ISIM", including your name, position and institution, affiliation with ISIM, and a few lines of comment).

* For a detailed description read Ian Buruma's Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Meanwhile on the Edge of Arabia

While the controversy surrounding the display of some works by Sarah Maple (see the post of 22 November 2008)could easily lead to pessimism regarding art's potential for breaking down cultural stereotypes, another exhibition elsewhere in London opens up more hopeful perspectives.

The Brunei Gallery at SOAS is host to a collection of artworks by contemporary artists from Saudi Arabia. Although not exactly a country invoking spontaneous associations with pushing the boundaries of cultural conventions through ground-breaking artistic expression, visitors to the Edge of Arabia Exhibition will certainly come away with a different impression of the oil-rich desert kingdom.

Featuring paintings, photographs, mixed media and graphics, sculptures, and installations by seventeen artists, the works shown are perhaps not as provocative as Sarah Maple's, but they certainly shed an unexpectedly light on the cultural atmosphere of a country with a reputation for religious intolerance, which translates also into cultural austerity. Edge of Arabia evinces not only the sea change that has transpired there in the course of the past decade, which -- having spent the better part of the 1990s in Saudi Arabia myself -- I would have deemed impossible and unimaginable at the time. It also affirms the tremendous paradoxes characteristic of societies in the process of reinventing themselves. Because alongside these remarkable signs of innovative artistic expression, other elements inside Saudi Arabia have become even more virulently anti-Western.

This event is not only important because of the exposure it gives to the state of affairs in the Gulf art scene (one of the exhibiting artists lives currently in neighbouring Bahrain); the fact that seven of the participants are women is significant too. And yet, old habits die hard: only one of the female artists, photographer Manal al-Dowayan, is herself recognizably shown in a picture.

But then she is from the Eastern Province, which since the start of oil production in the 1940s has been transformed into a Middle Eastern variant of Texas. Before seeking a 'rich and non-structured education' in photography in Saudi Arabia itself, as well as Dubai, Bahrain, and London, she grew up in Dhahran's ARAMCO compound, a company she currently works for herself. Manal's work is all the more exceptional, because it features images of other women as well -- still considered a bold thing when measured against Saudi standards of propriety (even when the women are veiled). An example is the photograph on the left, entitled 'I am a Petroleum Engineer'

More conventional in tone are fellow photographer and member of the Saudi royal family Reem al-Faisal's reportage-like portfolios from around the world. A granddaughter of the late King Faysal, she was educated in Saudi Arabia and France. When not traveling the world in pursuit of new images, she still divides her time between Jeddah and Paris. Her collections include impressions from Syria, Egypt, Turkey, China, and Saudi Arabia's western region of Hijaz. The exhibits at Edge of Arabia deal primarily with America's 'Nation of Islam'

Shadia and Raja Alem have embarked on a joint project called 'Jinniyah Lar' merging art and literature. Author Raja Alem composed a number of short stories based on medieval Arabic narrations matching the images created by her sister Shadia, which depict 'genies' featuring in this ancient story-telling tradition. Together with Tom Donough, Raja has also written a number of novels. These include Fatma: A Novel Of Arabiaand the experimental My Thousand & One Nights: A Novel of Mecca.

The composition of this ensemble of artists is also geographically balanced, with representatives not only from the country's mega-cities Riyadh and Jeddah, the urban centres of the Eastern Province, or the holy city of Mecca, but also three graphic artists originating from the Southwestern Asir province, on the borders with Yemen. Abdulnasser Gharem, Ahmed Mater Al-Ziad Aseeri, and Mohammed Farea were all contected with the Miftaha Arts Village in Abha, capital of the Asir, although Farea later joined the Riyadh Fine Art Group, to which fellow exhibitors Ali Ruzaiza and Sameer al-Daham belong as well.

Conventional molds are most evidently broken in the work of Abdulnasser Gharem and Ahmed Mater al-Ziad Aseeri. Gharem's work, which has also been on display at the Saatchi Gallery, straddles the media of painting, photography, typographic and installation art. The art of Ahmed Mater al-Ziad Aseeri, who co-curated the exhibition, betrays signs of his other profession. An established GP, he uses X-ray images in his compositions. Bahrain-based Faisal Samra's triptychs in 'Distorted Reality' are combinations of performance and installation. 'In a formal sense they are reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s legendary triptychs. Each performance is unscripted, with no contrived start or finish, and together they form part of Samra’s polemic against what he calls the ‘made-up images’ of advertising and globalised news media. His desire throughout is to present the viewer with images that are rigorously unmediated.'

EDGE OF ARABIA runs until 13 December 2008. An exhibition catalogue by Henry Hemming is for sale at the SOAS bookshop and online

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Another 'Culture War'?

Last Thursday, I participated in a panel discussion on the reactions to the first solo exhibition by budding artist Sarah Maple. Of British-Kenyan (Muslim) extraction, she is the recipient of the 2007 4 Sensations Prize awarded by London's Saatchi Gallery and Channel 4. Both the exhibition, entitled This Artist Blows, and the panel discussion were hosted by SaLon Gallery, run by Samir Ceric, a London-based art dealer of Bosnian Muslim origin. The debate was moderated by art critic and journalist Tom Flynn, who has covered the 'Sarah Maple affair' on his own blog.

Unfortunately, but also predictably, cynical media manipulation turned the exhibition into yet another incident in a series of controversies, which can be traced back to Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Since then, it seems that any artistic and cultural issue involving Muslims becomes an inevitable hostage of the undeniably increased political antagonism between 'the Muslim world' and 'the West'.

This time it all started on 10 October, with an article in The Telegraph, which insinuated that the vice-president of The Muslim Association of Britain had demanded the removal of the offending pieces. It has since turned out that no such demand was made. However, by then the issue had already snowballed into a full-blown scandal. Other self-proclaimed spokespersons of the Muslim community, as well as individuals, added their voices to an increasingly acrimonious media hype. The issue received even coverage in the BBC's Arabic language programme. Eventually, SaLon Gallery was subjected to an act of vandalism in which the windowpane was smashed, while both the artist and gallery staff received a substantial volume of hate mail.

Some of Sarah Maple's pieces can certainly be considered controversial, designed to provoke a reaction, but not -- as the artist repeatedly assured herself -- intended to mock or insult. Moreover, many of her paintings and photo collages also evince a sense of humour -- a quality sorely missing from any discussion on issues involving Islam, but which is actually eminently suited to take the edge of things -- a point recognized by several of the panelists, including the writer of this blog.

To put the issue into perspective, the moderator also noted that intolerance towards controversial artistic expression is not a Muslim monopoly, reminding the audience of the cancellation of last year's exhibition of the artwork 'My Sweet Lord' at New York gallery the Lab. In that case, Catholic civic rights organization The Catholic League was successful in having the 'chocolate Jesus' by Italian-Canadian artist Cosimo Cavallaro taken down. On the other hand, as panelist and media commentator Peter Whittle rightly observed, nobody was physically hurt, while in a number of occasions in which Muslims took offense people were killed.

There seemed to be also a general agreement among the participants regarding art's potential for building bridges between divergent cultures, because it can -- as Tom Flynn put it -- 'fly under the radar' of political disagreements or conflicts, and appeal to a shared humanity. However, at the same time, part of the way in which the debate unfolded appeared to affirm once again the very issue under discussion: namely how media-savvy interlocutors succeed time and again in turning such events into a tool serving their own agendas.

Peter Whittle, who with his New Culture Forum has jumped on the bandwagon of The Right, joining its 'Culture Wars' against the Liberal Left, was challenged by former BBC producer Najma Kazi. Although both clearly agreed that freedom of expression was an inalienable democratic right that must be upheld without compromise, they staged a polemical display which steered away from a substantive discussion on the role of art in a multicultural world. Subsequently, Peter Whittle's rendition of the debate on his own website, presents him as the only one in the forum who realized the gravity of the issues at stake. Thus he succeeded in exploiting the panel for waging another battle in the new Kulturkampf, which is turning Samuel Huntington's 'Clash of Civilizations' thesis into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The cosmopolitanism of Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi
Hamid Dabashi is an intellectual omnivore I heard recently speak at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. He was the keynote speaker at the launch of the newly established Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication. Currently he holds the Hagop Kevorkian chair in Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Aside from his literary studies, his interests straddle the history of Shi'a Islam, Sufism, Islamic philosophy, the intellectual history of Iran, and Iranian cinema and theatre, especially the cineast Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

I am reading his Iran: A People Interrupted. Critical of the prevailing tendency to see tradition and modernity as an oppositional relationship, he argues that this is only applicable to what he calls 'colonial modernity'. As an alternative, Dabashi suggests a cosmopolitan approach,which transcends the modernity vs. tradition binary. For this reason, Dabashi can be considered as belonging to the 'new Iranian intellectuals described by Farhad Khosrokhavar (and also discussed in my posting of 16 September 2008). But I believe it places him also in conversation with scholars firmly rooted in the Western academe, like Ulrich Beck, whose Cosmopolitan Visionadvocates a 'realistic cosmopolitanism', building on his concept of 'second modernity' or 'reflexive modernity', which had developed in earlier publications, like Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity and Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order.

Aside from these scholarly interests, Dabashi is what Gramsci called an 'organic intellectual', with strong opinions about other matters affecting the Muslim world. When expressing his views on the Question of Palestine, for example, his feelings about the grave injustices surrounding this difficult issue led him to making such passionate statements that he got into trouble with the other camp. Thus he was once deemed worthy of a personal attack by the Neo-Conservative commentator(demagogue?) on things Islamic, Daniel Pipes, who called him 'Columbia's Hysterical Professor'

His most recent publication is Islamic Liberation Theology: Resisting the Empire. For a more detailed impression of his research interests and publications, visit his personal website.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

YES WE CAN work with Obama.

Reactions from Muslims and the Muslim world to the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States.

Relations between the United States and the Muslim World -- not to forget the country's government and its own Muslim citizens -- have not exactly warmed under George W. Bush's watch at the White House. Not surprisingly then that the election of Barack Obama rises expections for an imminent improvement of these relations, although many remain cautious. Here are some reactions from Muslim quarters to the Democrat's victory.

The altmuslim website, based -- of all places -- in Austin (Texas), greeted Barack Obama with a special three-part report entitled 'Assalamu aleikum, Mr. President: Obama prevailed. So will we', "exploring what an Obama victory means for Muslims in the US and around the world"

The Muslim Council of Britain said it was "confident the vast majority of Muslims, not just in the UK, but worldwide, would welcome an Obama victory. The last eight years under Bush are viewed as hugely damaging ones, not just for America, but for the world" [...] "Obama is seen as a person who will hopefully be more inclined to take into consideration the views of other people. We hope Obama will work with other countries. "As someone from a minority background, he embodies America's best ideals in practice. Obama's victory in the election is living proof of America as a symbol of hope around the world."

French Press Bureau AFP reports that, in the Middle East, the Obama win was hailed "amid mixed expectations of change". Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Palestian Authority President Abbas are looking forward to Obama's plans for restarting the Peace Process. Banned from participating on the grounds that the US 'does not negotiate with terrorists', the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas was reserved in its response. But it 'urged the Democrat leader to learn from the "mistakes" of previous US administrations in dealing with the Muslim and Arab worlds'. Spokesman Fawzi Barhum accused the Bush administration of having "destroyed Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine".

Gamil Matar, director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research, warned that even with Obama in the White House and the Democrats a majority in Congress, "the policies of the neocons are not going to vanish overnight." Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia it was 'business as usual', as Saudi King Abdullah sent Obama a congratulatory message, hailing the "historic and close" ties between the two countries.

Put in the 'Axis of Evil' by outgoing President Bush, many Iranians have their hopes pinned on president-elect Obama, but a BBC assessment of the prospects for any immediate improvement of relations is not overly optimistic for the near future.

Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a senior adviser to Iran's Surpeme Leader, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, said: "Obama's election displays the failure of America's policies around the globe. Americans have to change their policies to rescue themselves from the quagmire created by Bush." Prominent MP Hamid Reza Haji Baba'i said Obama's victory was an "opportunity and test" and that the Islamic republic had been waiting for a change.

In neighbouring Iraq, the sentiments of Shi'ite leaders were not very different from their Iranian counterparts, although the movement of Iraq's anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr welcomed Obama's victory. "We consider his victory as a wish of the American public to withdraw forces from Iraq. This is what we are looking for," spokesman Sheikh Saleh al-Obeidi said in the holy city of Najaf.

For a detailed account of the intricacies of the US relationship with the Middle East, and Iraq in particular, read Juan Cole's Informed Comment

One country appears to be unreserved in its welcome of the new president. Indonesia is not only the world's most populous Muslim country, but Barack Obama lived there for four years (1967-1971) after his mother married geologist Lolo Soetoro. Obama's halfsister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, even addressed the Democratic National Convention. One of the top stories carried by The Jakarta Post reports on the reactions at Obama's former school in Jakarta's Menteng District. The country's president Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, meanwhile, "welcomed Mr Obama's election", but concentrated in his comments on economical issues, rather than the disturbed relationship between the US and the many parts of the Muslim world: "I want to congratulate Senator Obama for his success in being elected as US President. I also want to congratulate US citizens [...] Indonesia hopes that the US will continue to play a role in bringing peace and security in the world and a fair global economy. [...] In particular, Indonesia hopes the US can take concrete measures to settle the global economic crisis and the financial crisis in the United States."

Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, founder of the Liberal Islam Network and one of Indonesia's most prominent young Muslim intellectuals, commented from Boston, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Harvard University, that "The election of Obama is clearly a punishment for [a] miserable four years of Bush administration! Salute to [the] American people".

On the Northwestern fringe of the Muslim world, in Turkey, the focus is also on economic issues rather than anything else. Prime Minister Erdogan, whose AKP or Justice and Development Party walks a tightrope between its own stress on 'Islamic values' and the country's staunchly secular constitution, congratulated the newly elected president, but added that "I believe that Turkish-American relations should be defined by the strategic ties between Turkey and the United States, not by government changes there". He went on to say that Obama would "have to shoulder a heavy burden at a time of global financial crisis and compelling international issues." Turkish media are cautiously optimistic, pinning their hope for a better future on Obama, or adopting a 'wait-and-see' attitude.

This somewhat lukewarm response can be explained by the Turkish reservations towards Vice-President-elect Joe Biden, who as a senator went on record stating that the emergence of a Kurdish state in the border regions of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey would have to be reckoned with as a feasible possibility. In addition there is apprehension over Americans of Armenian descent advocating the Armenian issue with a Democrat occupant of the White House. The largest contingent of American-Armenians lives in California, the state of the current Democrat Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who would be in a position to facilitate access to the new administration.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Dispelling stereotypes: Moroccan-born Muslim becomes mayor of Dutch city

The selection (not election, mayors are still appointed in the Netherlands)of a Morrocan immigrant as mayor of the second-largest Dutch city Rotterdam shows that, in spite of the undeniable polarization and increased sense of antagonism in Dutch society following the assassination of cineast Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist of Moroccan origin, there is a glimmer of hope for successful integration into the adopted culture.

At 47 years of age, Ahmed Aboutaleb is a rising star of the Social Democrat party. As an 'alderman' (an awkward & medieval-sounding term, but there appears to be no alternative)in Amsterdam, he earned kudos for his handling of the van Gogh murder. Speaking in the Al-Kabir Mosque the day after the murder, he was not afraid of confronting discordant elements in the Muslim community. Insisting that immigrants should fully underwrite the core values of Dutch society or get on the next plane home, Aboutaleb was suddenly considered as 'potential cabinet material', although, when the next government was formed, he had to settle for deputy secretary of labour and social affairs.

The appointment is not uncontroversial, supporters of right-leaning parties, often running on the basis of covert or overt anti-immigration agendas, are dismayed over the fact that Aboutaleb still holds dual nationality. On the other hand, it has been suggested that if anybody should be capable of turning around Rotterdam's dismal record in integrating immigrants, it would be this tough-talking son of an imam and practicing Muslim with the can-do attitude.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Iran and the Iranians (2): Pushing boundaries

The limits of the possible and acceptable in the Islamic Republic of Iran are not only explored by men. Recently, actress Golshifteh Farahani, who stars in Body of Lies opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, challenged the mores of her home country by appearing unveiled at the film premier in New York.

The issue is now the subject of hot debates on Iranian websites, between those who support Farahani's decision and those who accuse her of 'selling out to Hollywood'. The actress is not the first high profile Iranian woman to put Islamic conventions to the test. In 2003, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi attended the award ceremony in Oslo without a veil.

Watch Golshifteh Farahani's Youtube interview

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Going to Extremes (1)

Surveying the Muslim world for new ideas, it is difficult to escape the impression that, apart from the 'diaspora' in Europe, North America, and even Australia, some of the most exciting developments are actually taking place on the geographical peripheries of the Dar al-Islam itself.

Intellectual circles -- it must be admitted that much of these innovations are confined to those segments of society with the highest levels of education -- in Northwest Africa have been at the forefront of these initiatives. For decades, Algerians like Malik Bennabi and Mohammed Arkoun, the Tunisian historian Mohamed Talbi, and Moroccan Marxist thinker Abdallah Laroui have been recognized as key contributors to the study of the intellectual history of the contemporary Muslim world. Equally comfortable in French and Arabic, their writings have found a readership in both the region itself and migrant communities from the Maghreb elsewhere.
Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri
The 'Andalusian Renaissance' proclaimed by the Moroccan philosopher Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri has received a favourable reception as far away as Indonesia. His advocacy of what could be considered a form of intellectual autarky motivated him to return to the legacy of Ibn Rushd, the thinker known to the West as Averroes who moved from Muslim Spain to Morocco and became not only famous as an authoritative commentator on the works of Aristotle, but deserves also recognition as an original philosopher who tried to reconcile rationalist thought and revelatory knowledge embodied in Sacred Scriptures. Quarrying this legacy, al-Jabiri and like-minded intellectuals are sometimes referred to as 'Neo-Ibn Rushdians'. The only drawback is that al-Jabiri publishes exclusively in Arabic and very few of his writings have been translated into English. Arab-Islamic Philosophy: A Contemporary Critique is a brief and illustrative introduction to his thought.

More recently a number of expatriate Moroccans representing a younger generation of intellectuals have added their voices to what is rapidly becoming a rather bold discourse.

Anouar Majid
In the United States, the literary scholar Anouar Majid wrote a book with the provocative title A Call for Heresy. Contributions such as these are not uncontroversial and draw sharp criticisms from more traditional Muslims as well as Islamists on the other side of the spectrum of contemporary Islamic thought. However, they are also evidence that critical thought is alive and well among present-day Muslims.

Oujda-born Fouad Laroui, an engineer and economist trained in Paris and Cambridge, who now teaches in Amsterdam, drew quite some attention with his 'personal refutation of Islamism', which has so far appeared in French and Dutch editions, but not (yet) in English. Aside from non-fiction, Laroui has also pubished novels and short story collections. Watch an interview (in Dutch) on youtube, where he explains the significance of Ibn Rushd.

Abdelwahab Meddeb
Paris-based writer Abdelwahab Meddeb, author of avant-gardist prose and translator of Sufi classics, caused a stir with his diagnosis of what is wrong with the Muslim world at present in Malady of Islam. He wants to show that there might be possibilities to take up other elements from Islamic tradition; elements that could be a kind of antidote to the poison of religious fundamentalism and that obey the principle of life rather than the bleak, misanthropic spirit of fundamentalist preaching.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Iran and the Iranians (1): Misunderstood and underrated.

No Muslim country has had such a consistently bad press in the West as Iran since 1979, when a grave-looking cleric succeeded in ousting the Shah. But it is often forgotten that also under the Pahlevi-dynasty Iranian politics had its sinister side – not least by the decision of the last Shah’s father to rename the country ‘Iran’ in order to underscore the nation’s perceived Aryan roots, a notion that conjures up very unsavoury associations, certainly in post-war Europe and America.

Perhaps it would be better if the country were named ‘Persia’ again',* because it might help raising other people’s awareness of its ancient cultural legacy. When, in the seventh century CE, Islam took a foothold in the region, Persians quickly occupied influential positions because they possessed the skills which were in short supply among the Arabs who initially controlled the new empire. When the Abbasid caliphate replaced the Umayyad Dynasty of Damascus, Persians began pouring into the state administration and education system. Their cultural influence radiated far beyond present-day Iran into Central Asia and what are now Pakistan and Northwest India. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, Persian was the court language of the Mughal emperors.

The Persians' cultural resilience is exemplified by the fact that they managed to retain their own language even after Islamization, in contrast to, for example, the Egyptians and Syrians who became more thoroughly Arabized. Some of the finest Islamic poetry of Islamic world was written in Persian. Through translation, poets like Attar, Hafiz, and Rumi (or Jalal al-Din al-Balkhi as the Persians call him) have even become household names in the West. But also famous medieval Islamic scholars addressing wider audiences in Arabic, like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and al-Ghazali, came from the Persianate world.

Present-day Iranians (Persians) are not only well aware of this legacy, but take an active interest in preserving it and keeping it alive. Whenever I meet Iranians they never fail to impress me with their erudition. At a conference in Indonesia I met a man who in his daily life worked as an administration manager at an oil refinery in Southern Iran, but whose real passion was literature. Equally at home in classical Persian poetry and modern prose, as well as Western writings, he quoted from Bertold Brecht and Joseph Conrad. Although he claimed that his superior at work was a grim and dour member of the 'mullahcracy', the latter nevertheless was generous enough to give him time off to attend conferences around the world and always eager for stories from the outside when he returned.

Kader Abdolah
Admittedly, substantial numbers of intellectuals have been forced to seek refuge elsewhere. There is the very impressive example of Kader Abdolah (pen name of Hossein Sadjadi Ghaemmaghami Farahani). As a leftist political activist he fell foul of the regime and had to flee the country in 1985, reaching the Netherlands in 1988 While awaiting political asylum in a refugee centre he taught himself Dutch. In 1993, he made his Dutch literary debut with a collection of short stories about his experiences as a refugee and foreigner. Now he is one of the country’s best-selling authors. The English translation of his latest novel, My Father's Notebook won the prestigious Vondel Prize, while the Dutch original (Spijkerschrift: Notities van Aga Akbar) was awarded the E. du Perron Prize. Others were able – for some time at least – to find a modus Vivendi with the regime, although with the growing influence of hardliners that became increasingly difficult.

Abdolkarim Soroush
For some time one of today’s foremost Persian thinkers, the pharmacologist-turned-philosopher and scholar of religion Abdolkarim Soroush (pen name of Hosein Haj Faraj Dabbagh), was able to combine his work in the Islamic Republic’s higher education system with critical philosophical investigations. Initially primarily interested in the philosophy of science, he later shifted towards religious topics. Unfortunately, by 2000 his views drew such hostile reactions from Ansar-e-Hizbullah vigilante groups that he deemed it prudent to move abroad. Since then he has been teaching at Ivy-league universities in the States and at Berlin’s Wissenschaftkolleg. Most of his writings are in Persian, but Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam, a collection of essays in English, gives a good insight in his ideas.

More recently, I came across the writings of Ramin Jahanbegloo. A cousin of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Jahanbegloo studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and spent many years teaching in Toronto, until he returned to Iran, accepting a post as head of the Contemporary Philosophy Department of the Cultural Research Center in Tehran (2001-2006). During this time he wrote a book on intellectual life in Iran, entitled Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity

Ramin Jahanbegloo
After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over the presidency in the Fall of 2005, Iran’s intellectual climate deteriorated and between April and August 2006, Ramin Jahanbegloo was detained in the notorious Evin prison. Following an intensive campaign by intellectuals in both Iran and abroad he released and went to India. BHe served for two years as Rajni Kothari Professor of Democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, until returning to Toronto in early 2008.

Jahanbegloo made name as the one who managed to bring thinkers like Richard Rorty, Antonio Negri, and Michael Ignatieff to Tehran. He also published books of his conversations and interviews with Isaiah Berlin and Ashis Nandy, and written about Indian thought, Gandhi, and the doctrine of nonviolence. Certainly a man to watch.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Controversial Interpretations of the Qur'an

I have just published brief impressions of Mahmud Muhammad Taha (a.k.a. Mahmoud Mohamed Taha) and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, whose controversial interpretations of the Qur'an got them into serious trouble with the self-appointed religious establishment in their respective countries. Available on line at