Seventeen months since violent repressions extinguished the latest set of hopes for liberalization in Iran, two minor but resonant diplomatic victories have just been scored over the Islamic Republic. On Tuesday, UNESCO withdrew its endorsement of a World Philosophy Day to be held in Tehran, citing vague conditions that the host country had failed to meet. Then, on Wednesday, the United States successfully backed an effort to block an Iranian seat on the board of UN Women, a new body devoted to gender equality. A clear message was being sent: Iran’s dismal record on intellectual freedoms and women’s rights cannot receive the international community’s sanction.
Diplomatic isolation and sanctions are powerful tools — I applaud Vice President Biden for his public commitment on Tuesday to seek alternatives to warfare against Iran. But for a people whose history of both intellectual achievement and women’s empowerment dates back millennia, these paired international rebukes constitute a further tarnishing of an already shattered reputation. As the demonization of Iran continues unabated from Bush’s “Axis of Evil” platitudes, and Israel girds its well-armed loins, we might do well to remember another era when possibility, not entrenchment, was the more vital paradigm of relations between these now disparate nations.
In 1962, an Iranian intellectual named Jalal Al-e Ahmad visited the teenaged state of Israel. Al-e Ahmad is known mostly for a tract he published the same year, entitled Gharbzadegi (“Occidentosis”). The book decried the soullessness of Western modernization and called for Iran to adopt a new regime of indigenous, Islamic reform. It was to prove a vastly influential thesis — in 1964, Al-e Ahmad visited Ayatollah Khomeini and presented him with a copy, saying, “If we continue to join hands we will defeat the government.” Only one of them would see that victory — Al-e Ahmad died in 1969 (poisoned, his widow claimed, by agents of the Shah) — but his ideological influence persists.
But for a man who wrote that Western modernity was the “murderer of beauty and poetry, spirit and humanity,” Al-e Ahmad’s writings on Israel are shockingly appreciative. Especially exciting for him was the way in which Israel had managed to infuse a timeless heritage with modern political vigor — an alternative model to the “nihilistic” mechanisms of progress he saw in Europe and America. While chastising the Jewish state for its “flaws” and “contradictions” in its treatment of the Palestinians, he wrote that Israel was “the herald of a future no longer far off,” “the best of all exemplars of how to deal with the West.” Invoking ideas of the “guardians” from Plato’s “Republic,” Al-e Ahmad compared Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan to biblical patriarchs. Referring to Mossad’s hunt for Eichmann, he saw it as a “miracle,” flouting international law but spectacular nonetheless, the work of “those who march onward in the name of something loftier than human rights declarations” — a fierce and spiritual justice.
Al-e Ahmad was neither a Zionist nor an anti-Zionist. Perpetually self-critical, he would have rejected any such labeling. Rather, he was a progressive intellectual in search of a road that his country could take without sacrificing its soul. As both Ali Mirsepassi and Samuel Thrope (whose work I am indebted to here for many of the above translations and observations) note, it was the idealist collectivism of the kibbutzes that first attracted the young Iranian, halfway on his journey between Communism and Islamism. Fourteen-year-old Israel was inspiring the ideological progenitor of the Iranian Revolution to wonder about a different future for his people.
Granted, this was before the Six-Day War poisoned Israeli relations with the Muslim world and accentuated the Palestinian refugee crisis; before the first generation of prophetic Israeli leaders died and made way for their successors, born after independence; before Khomeini’s rhetoric had conflated Israel and America into a single serpent threatening to devour the Muslim elect.
And, needless to say, it was before an Iranian-sponsored terrorist organization bent on Israel’s destruction held a fiefdom in southern Lebanon; before 75 percent of Americans supported pre-emptive nuclear strikes on Iran; before Israel forfeited much of its global political capital with the blockade in Gaza.
But Al-e Ahmad’s essay reminds us of the latent possibility for alternatives — to imperialism, to hatred, to conflict. The UNESCO World Philosophy Day — whose opposition was organized largely by Iranian thinkers in exile — reminded the world of the strength of Iran’s intellectual tradition; likewise, Shirin Ebadi’s continued heroism reminds us of the struggle for gender equality around the world. In the same way, the writing of a man who inspired the most anti-American revolution in history suggests that things might have gone differently. As the apocalyptic rhetoric builds on all sides, as determinism and stereotype craft bombs and barriers, let’s remember that Muslim intellectuals once saw Israel as the Middle East’s city on a hill, that Iran and philosophy were not always antonyms, and that the simple act of reflective writing can craft national destinies.