Since 2002, UNESCO is holding a World Philosophy Day each year in November. – That’s a nice idea because philosophy is much underrated in public debate.
This World Philosophy Day is hosted by a different country each year. – That’s fine because UNESCO is an organisation of the United Nations and philosophers can certainly learn from an international exchange.
This year, UNESCO has asked Iran to host the World Philosophy Congress. – Why on earth??
Persian/Iranian philosophy has undoubtedly contributed to debate and advancement of philosophy over the centuries. Unfortunately, since 1979 those Iranians who are continued to be interested in a free and open-minded debate of philosophy have to do this in the confines of their homes or in exile – or else risk persecution and prosecution, violence and torture, imprisonment and death at the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
UNESCO says that philosophy provides the conceptual basis of principles and values on which world peace depends: democracy, human rights, justice, and equality. How on earth can UNESCO officials speak about world peace, democracy, human rights, justice and equality and then come up with Iran of all countries as the venue? A country that supports terrorist organisations in Gaza and Lebanon, a theocratic government that rigs elections, allows no free press, where people are being arrested, imprisoned, tortured and executed by hanging and stoning, a government clinging to power by shooting peaceful protesters in the streets, a society that does not extend the most basic freedoms to the female half of its population and where an inhumane interpretation of Islam governs daily life. UNESCO, you must have had a terribly narrow shortlist for this event.
I would love to attend the conference in November, to debate philosophy and to visit a country again that I have already visited twice and whose people, nature and history would offer enough fascinating inspiration. Only, I am a bit scared that this trip might end up similar to my last visit to Iran: That I will be kidnapped in the middle of the street by agents of the Intelligence Service, pushed into a car, blindfolded, taken to Evin prison and kept without any outside contact for a week in solitary confinement, only interrupted by aggressive interrogations.
But maybe that was the idea behind it: To give me a week without any interruption, without being distracted by chores like work or nuisances like phones and e-mail. Isn’t that perfect to ponder philosophy? And judging by all the people whom I have met who have been to prison in Iran, the level of debate would be quite high because this country is one where the smartest people are in prison while the most close-minded ones are running the country. – Unfortunately though, solitary confinement is not a good thing to get a discussion going. And concentration is neither helped by the screams and the weeping heard from neighbouring cells, nor by the constant fear of mistreatment and torture (which I was only spared because I was a foreigner).
I saw the Iranian government’s violent crackdown of absolutely peaceful protests myself. I witnessed the police brutality done to others and myself. I saw riot police charging into crowds with motorbikes. I saw police chasing bystanders into corners to beat them up with batons. – That makes one wonder how the Islamic Republic will react to debate of political philosophy, to the ides of Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill or Henry David Thoreau.
Asked if UNESCO believes that Iranian philosophers will be able to speak freely in Tehran, its spokesperson Sue Williams said, “We haven’t had any feedback suggesting that this will not be the case.” Well, the feedback you get depends of course on whom you ask.