Is a Muslim Gandhi possible?

Mehru Jaffer Vienna

Iranian scholar Ramin Jahanbegloo’s visit to Vienna coincided with the International Day of Non-Violence, observed around the city for the first time this year, on October 2, the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi. Jahanbegloo’s topic at the Karl Kahane Lecture Series ‘Talking for Peace’ was titled: ‘Is a Muslim Gandhi Possible?’

Introducing Jahanbegloo at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, Patricia Kahane, president, Karl Kahane Foundation, said that the 51-year-old liberal philosopher was expected last year to give audiences a glimpse of what life is like in Iran since much of what is known about the Muslim world from other sources is not quite true. But in April 2006, Jahanbegloo was arrested and detained for 125 days in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison on charges of spying and preparing a ‘velvet revolution’.

Jahanbegloo is a great admirer of Gandhi. “Gandhi did not force upon others what he believed was the truth,” he says.

Gandhi celebrated diversity, encouraged dialogue and refused to politicise religion. He introduced a spiritual dimension into politics and practised morality and ethics publicly, away from the hypocrisy of organised religion. Without moralising, Gandhi stressed the strength of moral cohesion and the absolute sharing of social responsibilities. He had the courage to listen to his inner voice that remained the principle guiding force throughout his life. This internal dialogue with the self perhaps helped him to keep alive that restless activity of ceaselessly questioning the nature of evil confronted in political life.

Ramin Jahanbegloo was born in Tehran and studied at the Sorbonne University, Paris. He is currently the Rajni Kothari Professor of Democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. Prior to this he was a post-doc at Harvard University and then headed the department for contemporary studies at the Cultural Research Bureau, Iran. Among his twenty books in English, French and Persian are Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (Phoenix, 2000), and (as editor) Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity (Lexington Books, 2004).

Jahanbegloo’s reputation as a Gandhi expert soared, particularly in Europe, after he published a biography in French in 1998 to mark 50 years of the Mahatma’s assassination (Gandhi Aux sources de la non-violence: Thoreau, Ruskin, Tolstoy). The book is a study of Gandhi’s political thought, the philosophy of non-violence and its relevance today. Gandhi’s ideas of diversity and dialogue are similar to a world created by Islam between the 9th and 13th century in Andalusia, in Cordoba, around a population of about a million people. At that time there was no separation of scientific study from philosophy and religion. The East was not excluded here from the West, neither Muslim from Jew or Christian. Together, people from different communities contributed their thoughts to give birth to the renaissance in Europe based on a set of absolute and universal moral values agreed upon by all.

Gandhi’s vision of freedom from colonial oppression included tolerance of faiths different to his own. He was civilised for making a conscious effort to respect the beliefs of others. Gandhi was rational and looked upon all acts of violence as unreasonable. Gandhi is inspiring for his original ideas of self-sufficiency and non-imitative attitude towards modernity. It is out of the non-violent, pluralist and inclusive ideas of Gandhi that a modern India emerged as a secular State enabling diversity to sprout forth, less visible in other parts of the world.

Born in 1956 in Tehran into a family of scholars of theology and philosophy, Jahanbegloo is critical of the British and US governments for having plotted in 1953 the demise of the anti-imperialist, nationalist and secular policies of Mohammd Mossadegh, prime minister of Iran. According to Jahanbegloo, the ideological predominance of Leftist and religious politicians during the ‘Iranian revolution’ is responsible for throttling liberalism in the country. The politics of that time were such that they led to confusion about questions of moral responsibility and collective human solidarity.

Jahanbegloo studied philosophy at Sorbonne, Paris. To encourage an exchange of views across cultures he invited intellectuals from America, Europe and India to talk to people all over Iran about the struggle for diversity in their part of the world, and about moral values that are common to all cultures. The radical, liberal Jahanbegloo shatters the stereotyped image of believing Muslims who are seen as medievalists irrespective of the fact that all that they do in life is to think. He is a glowing example of roshan khudi va roshan khayal (enlightened self and soul). Jahanbegloo is the modern face of Islam, a religion that has a glowing history of encouraging independent and critical thought despite its present day reputation of breeding fanatics and violence.

“It is not religion that is good or bad, but people,” feels Jahanbegloo.

Jahanbegloo compares life without religion with a swimming pool without water. The task before liberals like him is to balance critical rationality with political decency, feels Jahanbegloo. He defines a radical as one who is capable of thinking differently and who has the courage to speak truth to power, like Gandhi did.

For every Taliban there are hundreds of Muslims who believe in peaceful co-existence and non-violence. Most devout Muslims today have no absolutist vision of their creed and no particular desire to perpetuate atrocious acts of terrorism in the name of religion. It is not their desire to live under the tyranny of oppressive governments that impose strict religious ideologies upon them.

Radical Muslims are seen as a threat to the western world but pose a greater threat to Muslims themselves. The real clash is not between Islam and the West but between absolutist and pluralist Muslims.

Jahanbegloo believes that the State and religion can be separate but he cannot imagine ethics and moral practices being divorced from political and public life. For him faith and belief are not a means to power but a way of life. He feels his voice, like that of many others, is the third force that struggles to be heard over all the din created by a clash of values of pluralists and absolutists in every culture.

The quest of intellectuals within Iran is for ethical truth and human dignity. Iranian intellectuals are not a monolithic group. There are secular intellectuals who disagree with both fundamentalist politics and with Marxist utopian rationalities and are mainly influenced by Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Berlin, Hayek, Popper, Foucault and Ricoeur. The reformists are trying to reconcile Islamic thought with democracy, civil society and religious pluralism. They are opposed to the idea of one Supreme Guide. Some even challenge the monistic view of Islam, while others insist that ideology takes sacredness out of religion.

The neo-conservatives have no time for democracy, civil society and pluralism. They reject the separation of politics and religion. They are anti-West, anti-modern and study the work of Martin Heidegger, the 20th century German philosopher who was concerned with the dehumanisation of modern man. The attempt by neo-conservatives is to interpret Heidegger in the Islamic context.

Jahanbegloo celebrates the diverse streams of intellectual thought that exist in Iran today unlike the period between the 1960s and 1980s when the choice was limited to supporting the cultural agenda, either of the Shah’s regime, or that of the Islamic republic. Jrgen Habermas, the living German philosopher, is very popular with young Iranians. Habermas is appreciated for his optimism about modernity and the active role of civil society in shaping a more humane world. Habermas is a great defender of the coffee house as a perfect example of using the public sphere for debating different issues of concern to human beings. According to Habermas, the 16th century Enlightenment period that elevated the role of reason in western societies is an unfinished project. He argues that today the values of Enlightenment can be corrected and complemented instead of being discarded.

The study of the classical period of Islam continues, says Jahanbegloo, quoting al-Arabi, t he 12th century Sufi thinker who wrote that he followed only the path of love. He claimed that love had made his heart a monastery for monks, a pasture for gazelles, a tablet of the Torah, letters of the Gospel. With so much going on in Iran today there is little doubt that a Muslim Gandhi is possible. Rather, he may already exist in the likes of Jahanbegloo.

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