Monday, 7 September 2009

The Supreme Leader, Philosophy, and Social Science

Last week the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made remarks at Tehran University, that indicated a problem with the teaching of humanities and social sciences in Iran. "Many of the humanities and liberal arts are based on philosophies whose foundations are materialism and disbelief in godly and Islamic teachings" he is reported to have said, adding that he wanted a review of any subject that "promotes doubts and uncertainties". According to some reports he specifically singled out philosophy and sociology as subjects that he is particularly concerned about. Apparently around 2 million students are currently majoring in human sciences and Iran is, after all, a country where more than 60% of the population is under 30.

Since the Supreme Leader made his remarks the Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies has been given the task by the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council of revising the curriculum in the dangerous subjects with the head of the Institute, Hamid Reza Ayatollahi, indicating he would pursue this matter. One of the factors that may have prompted the original remarks - apart of course from the participation of students in demonstrations against the flawed election earlier this year - was likely the show trial of Said Hajjarian who, in his "confession", indicated he was "misled" by the works of Talcott Parsons, Max Weber and Jurgen Habermas.

It is hardly a new accusation against philosophy in particular that it "corrupts youth" and certainly it engages with "doubt and uncertainty" rather than simply trying to suppress it. Such engagement is, naturally, anathema to someone who, by contrast, promotes dogma, a term that evidently has a positive valuation for him. The idea of the office of the Supreme Leader promotes the view that someone has access to truth in an eminent way and that this access is precisely not open to "doubts and uncertainties". There can, when it comes to serious challenge to the authority of the Supreme Leader and his particular interpretation of sacred texts and divinely mandated laws, be no option other than to suppress dissent. After all, such dissent is, simply by definition, wrong!

This view is precisely the same as the one that condemned Socrates for promoting unbelief and which was the basis of a Royal decree in Prussia forbidding Kant from publishing on religion. Numerous similar episodes are familiar to us all (such as the expulsion of Spinoza from the Jewish community or the more recent fatwa against Salman Rushdie issued by - who else - Ayatollah Khomenei!). The struggle for free speech and the right to cast doubt on whatever we please has been a long one in the states of the West and one that should win the support of all those who think that teaching and thinking in a way that remains open to doubt is to be encouraged not suppressed. As Kant wrote, in words that remain as relevant today as when he published them in the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781:

"Our age is, in especial degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit. Religion, through its sanctity, and law-giving through its majesty, may seek to exempt themselves from it. But they then awaken just suspicion, and cannot claim the sincere respect which reason accords only to that which has been able to sustain the test of free and open examination." (A xi n)

It may well be that Max Weber, Jurgen Habermas, Talcott Parsons, and many others from the social and human sciences, in addition to philosophy, promote views that require searching questions that are often uncomfortable but such enquiry is the basis of a life worth living, not one that requires unconditional submission to self-selected leaders who apparently can read God's intentions in all matters from the growing of beards to the understanding of the relationship between desire, fantasy and action. Such leaders are supreme only in being ridiculous and scorn is all they deserve. Iran's future lies in being republican in the true sense, that which involves embrace of constitutions that meet the condition of a public will not private revelations.

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