Ehsan Naraqi, the advisor to the former UNESCO director-general Federico Mayor, believes that although Iran has ranked second among the Muslim nations in terms of publication, it has hit the bottom of the list in terms of international recognition. It has led to American universities have dropped Iranology from their curriculum despite the West’s interest in getting acquainted with Islam.
Q: What is your general assessment of the cultural situation in Iran?
A: The present period is similar to the Constitutional era when a new sort of thought emerged. In September 1941, we witnessed a new move that was quelled after police intervention.
Q: Do you think that we created a new thought during the Constitutional era?
A: We devised modern thoughts. For example, the late Naini wrote the book “Tanbihol-Ummah va Tanzihol-Mellah” (Punishing the ummah and purifying the nation in dealing with the Constitutionalism and freedom seeking. Our thinkers could think and took the pens. They aimed to Islamise the Western freedom. Drawing out the Constitution and conforming it to Islamic teachings need thought. During that era, both the traditionalist scholars and the revisionists were involved and they had dialogue.
Q: Why couldn’t the ground get prepared for new thoughts and everyone was expecting a social development?
A: Because thought needs appropriate ground. In September 1941 when a social movement arose, the Communists came to the front and confined the thinkers within a particular way of thought they could not evade. In August 1953 when the totalitarian system was spearheading the nation, the Communists were the only opposition party. The Iranian revolution contained a series of ideals: freedom-seeking thoughts, constitutionalist thoughts and Islamic thoughts. Since Feb 11, 1979, Iran has had better opportunities for giving rise to new ways of thinking. The youth had become disenchanted with Communism and instead become fond of Islam. Under the Islamic establishment, many books have been translated. A large number of dailies, weeklies and monthlies have flourished and hit the bookstalls, indicating a unique emergence of new thoughts. It is not restricted to the writing and we have seen the process in such other fields as arts, architecture, music and sculpture. Rigid-minded thoughts can never stop such a move. Iran has outstripped Egypt in the field of publication and it may lag behind Turkey soon. Iran ranks second among the Islamic states in terms of publication. But it is only a statistical assessment and Iran has not gained a satisfactory international recognition and it has been relegated to the bottom of the list. Foreigners have little knowledge about the Iranian authors. To me, an international fair should be set up to showcase the Iranian artistic and publication works. Iran’s culture has got a bad impression abroad.
Q: Foreign publishers have apparently become interested in Islamic books.
A: It happened after the September 11 attacks (against the United States).
Q: What aspect of Islam has attracted them?
A: It is the Islamic culture that is interesting for them not jurisprudence and the religion. Many do not know that Mowlavi was Iranian and above all he was a Muslim! However, fourteen hundred copies of his Mathnavi have been sold in the United States. Anyhow, Iran has not well revealed itself in the cultural area. We should have centred on Islamic culture that is general.
Q: Your pre-revolutionary works and activities indicate that you had an international view to the issues. I agree that we failed to do many things we could do. But, what can we do for the moment to revive our culture in the world?
A: We should introduce our humanism to the world. We should focus on the human and mystic aspects of Islam. I think that Dr Abdolkarim Soroush has managed to do so. All his works have been translated into the Turkish language.
Q: Translation of Soroush’s works into Turkish is perhaps because Turkey is in the transition period and Soroush’s works contain constructive instructions for the Muslim Turkish intellectuals who are locked in a traditionalism-modernism showdown. But, these works do not serve the Westerners. Of course they are helpful, as they have expressed Islam delicately. The foreigners have further seen a revolutionary Islam rather than the spiritual elements of Islam. An Islam combined with culture, philosophy and mysticism is very similar to Western humanism. A person of any religion is interested in Hafiz and Mowlavi. They are our assets.
How do you assess the communications between our thinkers and the Arab intellectuals?
A: Arab intellectuals value the Iranian thinkers and hold high respect for them.
Q: I have concluded from your comments that you propose the strategies of Occidentalogists for introducing Islam to the West.
A: Yes, since they have done too much on the religious and jurisprudential aspects.
Q: You have published two books over the past two to three years and you have another one in the process of publication. It is clear that you know the publication market well. How is it from your point of view?
A: Pretty good. The Iranian population has risen to 70 million from 35 million over the past thirty years. The number of literate people and also the universities has increased, all boosting the book market. I think that this is a new cultural movement and would not be suppressed by elimination of someone from the political scene, because one or tow persons have not founded it. Of course there are executive problems. For instance, if a book that has been published ten times has to receive permit for an eleventh edition, the author, translator or the publisher have to devote time for getting permission.
Private publishers publish more books than the governmental publishers. Compare the number of private and governmental publications while taking into account their facilities. I think that the publications should be privatised. Moreover, the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry should support the authors and translators and provide them with their necessaries. Some European-based Afghan thinkers told me that they wish an exhibition would be held to display the books written by Afghan authors during the 23 years of the war in that country. I think that the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry can serve the Afghans and hold an exhibition titled “Afghanistan in Exile”. Doing such things does not sound odd for us. Several days ago, Mr Khatami awarded an American for translating the Persian book “Haft Peykar” (the seven bodies).
Anyhow, whenever I come to Iran I get acquainted with new publications I have not heard before. This shows that this generation is in the process of development and regardless of all the obstacles it is trying to get acquainted with the outside world. Translation of some books is too hard and needs enough knowledge. These translations show that our younger generation has undertaken relentless efforts to remove the obstacles on their way.
Q: We know that the motto of “Dialogue Among Civilizations” has come to the limelight for several years and even the Year 2001 was named after this initiative. But, the world is facing certain conditions hindering possibilities for understanding and dialogue. What role can the thinkers play to bridge the gap between the nations?
A: The Westerners have come to the point to know Islam. It was highlighted after the September 11 tragedy, but agents like Zionists are trying to portray Islam and Iran negatively. They want to show Iran like a Taliban-style establishment whose people are violent and without any culture. Despite all these obstacles, Mathnavi-e Mowlavi has been published in the United States with a circulation of 14 million. It shows that the American people are fond of knowing these thoughts. Now, Dr Soroush’s courses in Harvard University are among the most attractive courses. Such discussions can persuade the Western intellectuals to turn to Islam. But, unfortunately, Iranology has been ignored to the extent that three Iranology seats have been dropped from the American universities. It is due to lack of any help and support. But you can see Arabs and Turks who are seeking to obtain a seat.
Arabic, Persian and Turkish have respectively been the three languages of the Islamic civilization, but now Turkish has snatched the ball from the Persian language. As soon as the students start studying Turkish in Europe and the United States, the Turkish government invites them and helps them improve their linguistic skills, but we never do so. All Iranology courses have been closed down. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance as well as the Foreign Ministry should follow up the matter.
Highlighting the Persian language outside Iran can help us improve the Islamic culture, but we have neglected this important issue. The Islamic Republic should not hesitate in training Iranologists in Europe and the United States. The United States would welcome the move as the American society is multinational.
Bonyan; Persian Morning Daily
Saturday, February 26, 2002, Vol. 1, No 4.