Isaiah Berlin has been called one of the greatest political thinkers of the 20th century. He contributed extensively to the history of ideas, and highlighted the relationships between men and their institutions. This past Thursday, PEN Canada hosted a night of dialogue and debate between two self-styled “Berliners”: Ramin Jahanbegloo and Michael Ignatieff (Jahanbegloo wrote Conversations with Isaiah Berlin and Ignatieff wrote Isaiah Berlin: A Life).
Ignatieff, a former candidate for Canadian Prime Minister and current Massey College fellow and U of T professor, joined his long-time friend and colleague, Jahanbegloo. One of U of T’s own resident political philosophers, Jahanbegloo has been a firsthand victim of political oppression within the Middle East. A victim of political persecution himself, he once did time in the world-famous Iranian Evin prison under the accusation of spying and planning a “Velvet Revolution.” The talk, “Liberty and the Arab Spring” used the philosophy of Berlin as a springboard to discuss the current situation in the Middle East.
Prior to the talk, Jahanbegloo sat down for an interview with The Varsity.
The Varsity: Tell us a bit about PEN Canada and where this idea for a talk about Berlin today came from.
Ramin Jahanbegloo: This is a series [“Ideas in Dialogue Series”] suggested by the board of PEN, and Michael and I signed up for the first talk without any hesitation. We both wrote two complimentary books on Isaiah Berlin. While my book was more philosophical, Michael had a much more private look at his life. We’re discussing a man that we cherished, and we now want to present him to young Canadians, and somehow relate him to the events happening today.
TV: Although many say Berlin was a moral voice advocating pluralism, there have been critics who have accused him of being too much of a pacifist. How is Berlin relevant in this atmosphere of protests?
RJ: Well, Berlin was what I like to call a “spectator engage.” He had connections within the British Foreign Office in Moscow, and he was able to influence European politicians and the stands they took against the Middle East. In fact what is noteworthy about Berlin are his extensive travels throughout the Middle East.
Berlin was like the encyclopedia of the 20th century. He knew every great mind and activist of his time, from Albert Einstein to Ben Gurion to Ezer Weizman. These were the great thinkers and shapers of the 20th century.
He knew several European languages, and in this way he was able to talk to different figures from all these different countries, and work on their thoughts.
His famous essay, “The Two Concepts of Liberty,” was one of the most influential for theorists and thinkers.
TV: What would Berlin say about the recent storming of the Israeli Embassy by the Egyptian protesters on September 9?
RJ: He was very suspicious of monistic views. Who would want a one-way solution to anything? But more importantly, Berlin hated violence. Considering his experiences with the Russian Revolution of 1917, you could even say he was allergic to violence. You can only imagine what his thoughts on this Egyptian event would have been.
There is such a thing as democratic passion, something Berlin appreciated. These passions exist in civic movements and tyrannies. When they’re not enlightened, they turn into violent movements. The attack on the Israeli Embassy, especially in regards to our upcoming debate on Thursday, would not be looked upon kindly by Berlin.
TV: Could this be a signal of the faults within Arab nationalism?
RJ: There’s a problem with nationalism in that it’s based around antagonism, and this is one of the problems Berlin had with the whole concept. There have to be non-violent resolutions to conflicts. There’s a saying: “When you have a house on fire, you don’t keep your brother inside,” and this concept applies to the Israeli–Palestinian issue. Berlin spent most of his life surrounded by people pushing the Zionist cause, but even he reflected in the last month of his life and opted for a two-state solution.
TV: Tell me about your relationship with Isaiah Berlin, and why you’re doing this talk with Michael Ignatieff.
RJ: Well, there is a sort of triangle at play here. There’s a friendship between all three of us, and this triangle is one of dialogue and peace. There is a moderate and dialogic aspect to all our lives. Michael says we are both “Berliners.” This of course is a play on the famous JFK speech, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” (I am a Berliner) [which he gave when he visited] West Berlin after the erection of the Berlin Wall.
…Ignatieff and Berlin are both political philosophers, and both have dedicated much of their lives to enforcing dialogue across different cultures. Berlin himself was a famous Zionist, yet he travelled extensively across the Middle East and was open to other views. Berlin even visited Iran as the President of the British Council. He told me about his visit to the city of Mashhad in one of our conversations. He described to me his visit to the shrine of Imam Reza and how frightened he was by all the religious procession around it. Religious processions were very strange for Berlin. You see, Berlin was not a religious man. He was a Zionist, but he was not blindly accepting of all the policies of the Israeli government. He was very critical of individuals like Ariel Sharon.
TV: It seems as if the same history that went into making the state of Israel in 1948 will be made with this week’s Palestinian bid at the UN General Assembly. Has history come full circle?
RJ: Yes, today we’re back to those same debates that plagued the world and the UN in 1948, when the state of Israel was created. But there has to be a civilized way for two nations to find peace.
TV: This whole concept of the “Arab Spring” seems at odds with the Israeli-Palestinian debate. In fact, with recent events such as the storming of the Israeli embassy by Egyptian protestors, some have even signalled the beginnings of an “Arab Autumn.” Would you agree with the name the “Arab Spring”?
RJ: We shouldn’t talk about it as the “Arab Spring.” Iranians, Turks, and Israelis have also been involved in this. This is a long process of freedom in the Middle East, and a new effort towards state building, in contrast to traditional authoritarian models. This is a paradigm shift towards a less violent and conflicting relationship between a people and a government.
And as for labelling it as an “Arab Autumn,” it took the French Revolution 200 years to fully complete itself, and it saw many smaller revolutions. These movements are about the political education of the masses. It’s a fight against fanaticism and monistic views. Isaiah Berlin wanted to end negative liberties as imposed by the state, and end negative thoughts within the people.
“Liberty and The Arab Spring” will air on TVO during the fall season.