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November 4, 2010

Iran in Ottawa

Reuel S. Amdur

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Dr. Saeid Ameli, dean of the faculty of global studies at Tehran University and the keynote speaker at the Ottawa conference called for the media to stop its general negative representation of his country.

More generally, he would like to see a more respectful kind of communication.  Iran, he said, has its own culture, and we should no more talk of liberalizing Iran than we would talk of Islamicizing Germany. 

The Ottawa conference on “just and sustainable peace” (held on October 28) created a decidedly unpeaceful uproar, even before the event took place. 

The session was organized by two Green Party candidates and two past candidates.  Party leader Elizabeth May condemned the event, which included three Iranian academics. 

At the event itself, several members of the Iran Democratic Association demonstrated out front.  One of the organizers, Green Party candidate Paul Maillet, justified the event by saying, “The people you want to talk to are the people with whom you have differences.”

Dr. Hassan Hossieni, a professor in Ameli’s faculty, called attention to what he called “exceptionalism and exemptionalism.” 

Western powers want to impose rules on others but do not want to abide by any themselves.  He spoke of his faculty’s contribution to peace.  Studies of other countries are taught in the language of the country and using texts from the country.  One of the texts he uses is a work by the late American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset.

Canadian professor Dr. Nasir Islam, in what was perhaps the most thoughtful presentation of the evening welcomed the opportunity to engage with Iranian academics. 

He spoke of the one-sidedness of the reporting on Afghanistan, representing the interests of the occupiers.  Islam also condemned “the arms bazaar,” in which billions worth of arms are sold to poor countries.  In the last two years, the U.S. has sold $1.8 billion worth; Britain $2 billion, China $1.5 billion, and France $3 billion.  These countries are benefitting from war, and while the large powers are mainly insulated from the consequences of their behavior, the poor suffer.

Dr. Islam remarked that he could not imagine the West Bank settlers leaving.  It is up to the international community to see to it. The failure of the First World to act in this case reflects the fact, he argued, of selectivity on concern for human rights.

There is concern about human rights in Iran but less in India, where Kashmiris live under repressive laws and a long occupation. Finally, he took aim at India and Pakistan for their expenditures on atomic weapons.  “They can’t feed their own people.”

According to Dr. Ameli, social sciences are Western.  It is necessary, he argued, to replace them with culturally relevant Iranian social sciences.  However, science progresses by an accretion of studies, not by throwing out everything that went before and starting afresh. 

It makes sense to encourage an Iranian addition to the corpus of social science, but simply throwing out everything that has gone before can hardly be justified.  There is, it appears, to be an official social science, just as there was a Soviet biology.

The truly interesting feature of the remarks by these two Iranian academics is the lack of congruence.  Is Hossieni smuggling social science in by the back door, knowingly or not?  As for eliminating Western influence, Ameli would not likely apply the same principle to atomic physics.

Ameli also called for imposition of punishment for insulting any religion.  The application of this idea would be extremely dangerous.  On a simply rational level, are religious ideas not to be subject of debate and criticism?  Then there are the consequences. Laws to implement such a policy would give religious authorities power to punish those with whom they disagree.  If you reject a particular doctrine, are you then attacking religion?  Egypt provides an example of what clergy can do when they get legal power to impose religious purity.  Because Islamic scholar Nasr Abu Zayd expressed religious views that were objectionable to the religious authorities, he was declared by the courts to be a non-Muslim and his wife was ordered to divorce him.  They fled the country.

One additional problem with punishment for insulting religion.  UN Human Rights Rapporteur Asma Jahangir said that in Pakistan someone wanting to take the property of a Christian could denounce the person for insulting Mohammed, even when the charge was false. 

Incidentally, Hossieni complained that when he and the other two Iranians landed in Canada, three different Canadian government agencies questioned them and reviewed their laptops to see what they were going to say at the conference.

The conference was useful for what was beneath the surface.

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