Akbar Ganji: Message for the Celeberation of Ms. Simin Behbahani
Freedom Lover, Free Ganji:
In The Name Of Truth
To all the great Iranian mothers in diaspora, with greetings and best wishes for their happiness and prosperity.
As Jesus says, "[Then you will know the truth] and the truth shall set ye free" (John, 8:32). But which truth shall set us free? Which truth shall set free from the clutch of ideology (false reason)? His eminence, Molana Jalal al-Din [Rumi] believed that the prophets have come to set the human kind free:
Since the prophets guide to freedom / to believers they bring freedom
O believers, be happy in your groups / Like cedars and lilies take in freedom
It is futile to think that the society and the political system will be democratized by sitting and playing with concepts like freedom, civil society, tolerance, approval, human rights, secularism and the separation of the pubic and private realms. The human rights are there for the protection of human dignity and the principle of personal autonomy. Freedom of expression is justified based on the right of the speaker to expressing his ideas, and the right of the listener to hearing those ideas, and the collective good of a free society. But the society will not attain the freedom of expression, just by writing about it and its justifying bases. Belief without action, is no belief at all. READ MORE
It is not possible to claim belief in humanist values and ideals, but not to take a step for their realization. We must leave a special for courage, love and kindness in our moral value system. Courage is morally respectable, since accepting dangers is selfless. It is a kind of devotion originating from being free of care, greed, and from going beyond one's own self. All moral values will be blind or madness without reason, but without courage, they are void. One wouldn't know how to fight injustice without reason, but without courage one couldn't even consider it. Philosophers need courage in order to think. But thinking alone does not make one courageous. This is why Kant considered the message of Enlightenment to be growing out of childhood and commanded: Sapere Aude (have the courage to know). We need courage in order to know. When a thinker faces the logical consequences of a reasonable claim, he may find the consequences to be theoretically or practically unacceptable or frightening, but a thinker must face the problems courageously and follow a reasonable claim to its logical conclusion. It may be that the argued claim pull the rug from under our feet, disconnect us from our tradition and our past, destroy the cosmos we were living in, without providing us with a new support. The truth-seeking thinker and intellectual, will courageously accept the practical consequences of his idea, so that the truth sets him free; but, at the same time, he does not consider his ideas to be immutable and absolute truth, unlike those who disguise egotism and selfishness in a sacred outfit and do not know that if one should worship anyone, it should be God and no one else. And an idea is not God.
No one can think for us, suffer for us, fight for us. Intellectual courage, which is refusing to submit to fear in our thinking and refusing to accept anything but the truth, is now highly needed in our circles.
Democracy and human rights need bold and courageous agents. People who believe in democratic values and show their belief by struggling against oppression and injustice. It is obvious [however] that courage in practice, without wisdom in thoughts, will not do.
The problem of the avant-garde intellectual before the revolution [in Iran] was the poverty of philosophy and not attending to theoretical studies. Theorizing was completely rejected as "bourgeois philosophy" and "capitalist abstraction." Everything was reduced to "pratique" and "struggle." Resistance and courage, if not based on a democratic-humanist theory, replaces one dictatorship with another.
The 1979 revolution [of Iran] was the result of a 1970's discourse that was anti-West (anti-imperialist), anti-liberal, anti-democratic, based on a return to our selves ([alternatively] our Islamic, Asian, or communist class-free proletariat self), ideologic, utopian, and revolutionary. We should not think of that revolution as a detour. Trotsky wrote "The Revolution Betrayed" thinking Stalin had betrayed the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution. But no one betrayed the Russian revolution and what took place was the exact realization of the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary ideology. The classical all-encompassing ideological revolution is an irrevocably big mistake. [Such a] Revolution does not lead to democracy and does not create freedoms. Therefore, the 1979 revolution was not betrayed. It was the objective realization of the 1970's discourse. The experience of the 1979 revolution guided us all to the fact that without reason and thinking we cannot go past our childhood and become democrat adults.
In the first two decades after the revolution, we gradually went beyond the 1970's discourse and shaped a new one. The new discourse was, in complete contrast to the old one, modern, liberal, democratic, non-ideological, non-utopian, of human rights, and reformist. But why, even with this new discourse, the intellectuals could not take the big step towards democratization of the political system and hope and enthusiasm turned to hopelessness, depression and isolation? The problem of the ivory-towered intellectual of the 2000's is escaping action, rejecting struggle and resistance, and being busy with philosophy and conceptualization. It is thought that all our problems will be solved by philosophy. The metaphysical tradition of [Mullah] Sadra and the mysticism of Muhy al-Din Arabi have taken us enough away from the world and social life. Then what need is there to Heideger, Nietzsche, and Carl Schmitt whose philosophy doesn't have any practical liberating aspect for us? ([Of course] all philosophies must be freely discussed in the public arena, but not all philosophies are liberating or truth-seeking and do not set one free from the darkness of mind.) Deliberating and thinking is not only our right, but also, strongly and emphatically, our duty. My emphasis, however, is on two pints: (1) Deliberation is the necessary condition for our prosperity, not sufficient. In order to provide the sufficient condition, acting on our ideas is inevitable. (2) From the limitless ocean of possibilities for deliberation, morality and humanitarianism rule to choose those that are not only theoretical, but those that will have some practical aspects sooner or later and can effect an improvement of the situation of the people. The analytical philosophy of Kant alone cannot get us to democracy, freedom and human rights. In order to build a democratic system we need not only empirical social sciences, but also action, steadfastness, movement, perseverance, ideals, courage, and civil disobedience, and very much so. In order to escape social responsibility, the ivory-towered intellectual resorts to the tricks of sophistry. He says: democracy, freedom and human rights, are not the issues of the people of Iran, but bread, water, clothing and shelter. He says: the knowledge and social prerequisites of democracy do not exist in Iran. He says: Iran will not be democratized in a hundred years. He says: the people are not ready to fight and pay the price for democracy, so why should the intellectual shoulder their burden and pay the price for them. He says: the modern era, is the era of separation of roles and division of social labour. The intellectual, is not a party or political activist, his job is to create thoughts and invent theories.
Even though all these claims are subject to criticism and leave ample room for questioning, let us suppose that they are all true. The question is: how can we deduce from these assumptions, silence before falsehoods, injustices, violations of human rights, and oppression? If the entirety of the people of a country are dictatorial and their political system is authoritarian, should the intellectuals be, following the people, dictatorial and support the authoritarian system? In any case and situation, for instance in fascistic conditions, the intellectual, even if single and alone, must stand against falsehood and courageously attack the violations of human rights. If the intellectual is only to defend his own rights, he must still stand against the sultanist system; because when intellectuals are butchered for being dissidents and different, tomorrow it will be the turn of the ivory-towered intellectuals who will be put in prison, in reality for dissent, but in appearance for imaginary excuses. If on the day when the first person was arrested and imprisoned, we had protested, if on the day when the first person was assassinated, we had stood up, if on the day when the first political opposition member was executed, we had resisted, now it would not have been my turn, the ivory-towered intellectual, to be arrested, imprisoned or assassinated.
Courage, this philosopher's stone of the world of intellect and reformism, is not limited just to the Kantian courage, that is the courage to know. We also need the [Baruch] Spinozan courage, which is the courage to overcome any of our psychological and moral failures and shortcomings, let aside the [Paul] Tillichan courage that wants us to see and accept ourselves as we are and not deny ourselves. Is not today's intellectual very much in need of this Tillichan courage as well? Does not the intellectual, in [Carl Gustav] Jung's interpretation, have a duty to accept the dark side of his existence as well, and is not a big part of this dark side, the intellectual's own past? And is there an intellectual who doesn't see in his past more or less dark spots, ignorance, mistakes, working with less than desired quality or quantity? And which intellectual is it who doesn't know that a considerable part of the misery and misfortune that has taken over his society is the consequence of his own ignorance, mistakes, and miscarriage? Why should the intellectual be so pessimistic and doubtful of people and optimistic and sure of himself?
Ms. Simin Behbahani is one of Iranian heroines, who, in the past years, has been in the front line of Iran's liberal movement. In this path, she has been insulted and beaten. She was treated unjustly and endured magnanimously. Behbahani could move a generation with her poems, but her work is not limited to poetry and literature. She actively and bravely defends the victims whenever the civil rights are trampled upon. One day she shows up in front of a hospital to defend the disregarded rights of an imprisoned dissident. On another day she is in a park to protest the extreme, unbelievable, and painful inequality of women compared to men and to say we are human too and human, on being human alone, is entitled to rights and dignity, and no regime, ideology, belief or culture could not and should not discriminate between human beings based on imaginary and ancient divisions and ignore their need to dignity. Still on another day, in another setting, she protests the murder of dissidents and with her poems keeps their memory alive. She has the courage to think.
Here I want to examine this issue from a different angle, and point out a valuable characteristic of the lady of the sonnet of Iran, which may have been less noted beside her beautiful and deep poetry. What boldly distinguishes the best contemporary poet of Iran, is her civil courage. Civil courage is a rare element in the Iranian society. It brings pride and honor, that a lady in the realm of literature reminds her compatriots, with her pen and her pace, of courage and civic duties.
With all the suffocating taboos surrounding women, by stating the most creative elements of the private realm in her poems, Ms. Behbahani not only breaks taboos but also presents Iranians the gift of negative liberty. The oppressed quiet of the liberal soles afraid of demanding their rights in the private and public realms, finds a liberating boldness in the sphere of Behbahani's poems. A pluralism of demands and needs in Behbahani's poetic space, provokes the reader against all ideological impositions and compulsions, against neglecting the private realm and against depressing and uniformity of the public realm.
However, the lady of poem and sonnet does not only teach the lesson of civil courage with her poets. She is a citizen from whom we may, without exaggeration, learn citizenship. Despite all the sufferings and injuries on her tired and fragile body, she endures the hardship of defending the rights of the dissidents, women, and intellectuals and reminds the forgetful rulers, with serenity and patience, of the dignity of human being and its morality, and never falls short of, and knows no limits to, civil action to enlighten them. The courage of Iran's great poet is linked with a civil responsibility. Understanding civil responsibility in dictatorial Iran requires courage, and should be rightly distinguished, from other false and crooked forms of courage, as civil courage. Her poems and thoughts, her knowledge and character, whether in the sphere of literature or society, has this same description; being responsible for the protection of human rights and the dignity of citizens, as human beings intrinsically deserving respect, and taking them as the ultimate objective. Ms. Behbahani's poems are very important in the theory of literature. Her creativity in the domain of Persian sonnet (which was likened by a famous literary scholar to Nima's*: Behbahani is the Nima of sonnet) shows that the courage and the creativity we see seen in her social commitment, is apparent and influential in her artistic and poetic work as well. In the social commitment discourse, there is always a concern for "seriousness," "strictness," and "firm belief." These are the imperative elements for political and social activities, but literature (especially poetry) adds a humanistic and emotional aspect, and in a sense, a new moral aspect to all of this. It is the language of poetry that expresses both human problems and their solutions. They show what is decaying and declining and what is coming out from within this decline. Poetry is internally and deeply related to human freedom.
Yes, it is this valuable and rare characteristic that distinguishes the lady of poetry of Iran and bestows influence upon her words and honesty upon her manners, and with this influence and honesty invites us all, and mostly the rulers, to do the same.
What can we say about the lady of Persian poem and sonnet, who as an artist is in the service of beauty, but firstly: has put beauty in the service of two other psychologically valuable elements, that is truthfulness (truth) and goodness (good), and secondly: her art is not only to show the beauties of life and being, but also to make them more beautiful as well. There are many artists who show the beauties of the world, being and life--and this is very valuable in its own right--but there are few who moreover try to make the world, being and life beautiful and in addition to displaying the beauty, create beauty as well. And Behbahani's descent is of the latter.
Behbahani is the symbol of an unequal battle with different kinds of falsehood, which only with human dignity has kept her stead. In these chaotic times, in spite of illness, she still stands tall, in the manner of cedars, and guards the sublime human values. Celebrating her is celebrating human dignities, especially dissent and being different.
May her existence be everlasting and her kindness be evermore.
May 20, 2006
* Nima Yushij (1896-1959) is the father of modern Persian poetry