As a philosophy student in France, Ramin Jahanbegloo admired Nelson Mandela and took part in “Free Mandela” campaigns. On Nov. 5, he was awarded the 2009 Peace Prize by the Association for the United Nations in Spain, an honour that has gone to Mandela himself, as well as Mikhail Gorbachev and South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba. The prize is awarded to individuals with exceptional records of promoting human rights and the objectives of the UN.
Born in Iran, Jahanbegloo initially pursued a pre-med degree. But he grew disgusted by how science was taught, with auditoriums full of students who worried about good grades rather than engaging in discussions. He switched to philosophy in France, influenced by post-1968 radicalism. In 1997, he came to Canada, teaching at U of T until 2001.
Jahanbegloo made headlines in 2006, when he landed in Iran’s Evin prison for four months in 2006, accused of preparing a military revolution. He returned to U of T in 2008, teaching political science. Jahanbegloo’s philosophy revolves around the concept of dialogue and building bridges between cultures. “People think I am idealistic, and that politics is about pragmatism,” he said in a recent interview. “I think non-violence is one of the most pragmatic philosophies today because it is about the future of humanity.”
The Varsity: Why do you think you won the prize?
Ramin Jahanbegloo: I think there is an intellectual conviction in what I have been teaching and the non-violent action that took me to prison. I have also related very closely non-violence to inter-cultural dialogue.
TV: You have had several interviews on your 2006 imprisonment. Do you feel that it defines you too much in the public eye?
RJ: I hope not, because it is a bitter part of my life. It is no honour to go to prison. That aspect of my life is of course important for me, because it has left me with a lot of consequences, but I try to go beyond it. Non-violence has helped me a lot to go beyond it. I do not have any bitterness; I try to get to pragmatic results from my imprisonment. I think one has to go beyond his or her own tragedies to think of the political construction of a country in democratic matters.
TV: Currently, there is another Iranian-Canadian, Hossein Derakhshan, who is being held without trial in Evin prison. What do you think will happen with his case?
RJ: Yes, I know him and have met him. I hope nothing bad happens. He is a very controversial figure in the Iranian public sphere because he supported the Iranian regime and attacked many dissidents. I support him because we cannot engage in dialogue with someone in prison; there is no use of condemning someone who is already suffering. What we need to do if we find individuals who are what I call philo-tyrannical—in favor of tyrannies—is support and defend anybody fighting them. It is not because we don’t agree with someone that we should not fight for their rights.
TV: If you could speak to Derakhshan now, what advice would you offer?
RJ: I would say that he needs to fight mentally and to build up his future in a more ethical way. I would suggest he do some readings and writings in prison if he can, and to somewhat revise his own ideology.
TV: You talk a lot about bridging cultures. What does this mean for you?
RJ: I wrote a book called Clash of Intolerance where I explain that there is no such thing as clashes because of culture. The clashes come from intolerance inside those cultures, from people who do not respect each other, from lack of understanding.
We need to replace hostility with hospitality. When you are a host for another culture you try to understand that culture and try to enrich your culture from that culture. This is what we try to do in Canada.
Canadian multiculturalism, if done in the best way, should be an inter-cultural dialogue and not separate communities, but support learning and listening between communities. Creating bridges is replacing the culture of monologue and intolerance with a culture of dialogue and respect.
TV: Is Canada a multicultural model for you?
RJ: In comparison to what is going on in Europe, certainly, but not in comparison to what is going on in India. India has been living with its diversity, which is much more profound than in Canada. India has never had a problem including a new religion into its culture.
I do hope that Canada also becomes like this, where cultures truly intersect and enter a dialogue together, and do not necessarily have a superficial meeting at the economic level.
TV: A lot of your work deals with India. Where does your passion for India come from?
RJ: My passion started about 30 years ago. I used to find books on India in the libraries of my parents, and at around age 12 I used to try to read them. I have been travelling to India practically every year for the past 20 years and I lived there for two years. It is a country I take very seriously. I say either I was born Indian in my previous life, or will be born Indian in my next life.
TV: Who or what was your inspiration for your philosophy of non-violence?
RJ: My most important role models are the three non-violent thinkers: Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Dalai Lama. I was very lucky to meet very interesting people who were my professors or whom I worked with, and among these I can name Cornelius Castoreadis, Paul Ricoeur, and Isaiah Berlin, with whom I [wrote] a book.
TV: Considering your philosophy, how do you feel about Obama increasing troops in Afghanistan, and his proposed closure of Guantanamo Bay?
RJ: I am very much against sending troops to Afghanistan and very much in favour of closing Guantanamo. I think these kinds of prisons are not useful at the level of making things more human. They create more cruelty and violence. There is no way you can handle Middle Eastern conflict with violence. In the long run, all the actors in this game have to find a way to sit down and dialogue together on non-violent ways of constructing democracy.
TV: In interviews you talk about Gandhi’s “democratization of democracy.” Is this the democracy you want to see?
RJ: Yes. I think the most important aspect of Gandhi’s view is that he tries to take democracy further and make it more participative and deliberative. Gandhi says that we need to bring more ethics into politics, and this aspect is related with the fact that you need to make citizens responsible for their own destiny. It is not that democracy is given from above—[rather], it is a work that comes from the bottom. He tries to talk about shared sovereignty, a shared fate: citizens have to educate themselves on how to handle democracy and its future.
TV: You talk about how you want dialogue as democracy in Iran. How do you think dialogue can be created between Iran and the West? Why has it not happened?
RJ: It has happened at the level of civil society, but not at the level of governments. Governments have political ambitions, and most of the time they put political ambitions before the common good. We have to pay attention to the fact that we need to deconstruct politics as not just politics among leaders, but among everyday citizens.
TV: You gave a speech on Thursday at a U of T graduation. What was your key advice for the graduates?
RJ: The idea that graduation is a beginning in life. I was telling the students that they need to think of their future work in a responsible way and that university has always been a shared horizon of dialogue in a very cosmopolitan civic space.
Life is like reading from one chapter to another while not knowing what will happen in the next chapter. I told students to start writing their new chapters, because if you stop writing you will never make history.
TV: Where do you think the roots for dialogue come from? How early should we begin teaching this concept?
RJ: I believe we can begin teaching non-violence as early as primary school. We should, especially [in] Canada, teach the spirit of tolerance to children of eight to10. They are very perceptive and can understand stories about tolerant figures. Later on, you can talk about peace and why it is so important. Canada is a salad bowl of cultures, and each of these students would understand who they are standing next to. They should not take it for granted.