UNESCO’s 9th annual World Philosophy day has been hit by controversy after one of the keynote speakers pulled out of the event, due to be held in Tehran on 18 November.Writing in Frankfurter Allgemeine, the German philosopher Otfried Höffe explained that his decision was the result of political interference by the Iranian government. President Ahmadinejad replaced Gholamreza Aavani – head of the Iranian Institute of Philosophy and director of the Iranian Philosophical Association – as the head of the organising committee, with Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a regime insider. Also placed on the committee was Djavad Larijani, chairman of Iran’s Human Rights Commission, which Höffe describes as a “dementia machine” whose work consists solely of “the systematic denial of human rights abuses in Iran and the condemnation of human rights violations in Israel and the United States.”
Meanwhile, a better qualified potential member of the committee, Mohsen Kadivar, is currently in the United States, prohibited from entering his home country.
Höffe expressed regret at the necessity of his decision, saying “No institution is better suited to address the rash claim of a clash of civilisations than World Philosophy Day.” But the fact that it is being held “in a country with an unpredictable dictatorship” means he cannot go. “Under current circumstances it betrays World Philosophy Day’s duty to maintain free discourse in all cultures.”
UNESCO main partner with academic philosophy is the International Federation of Philosophical Societies (FISP), whose president, William McBride, told tpm, “I respect Höffe’s reasons for not going to Tehran in November. FISP will not be convening as a group on the occasion of World Philosophy Day there. On the other hand, there are reasons why some FISP Steering Committee members may wish to attend and participate – for example, in order to show solidarity with Iranian philosophers – and I feel that the decision to do so is and should be theirs as individuals.” McBride himself has declined his invitation but will not be drawn on his reasons.
FISP secretary general Luca Scarantino was an advocate of holding World Philosophy Day in Iran, arguing in January 2009 that “times of openness and sharing do not turn up every day.” Scarantino told tpm, “We should work to increasingly include the scholarly communities of the Muslim countries within such international bodies like FISP and other international federations in the humanities.” FISP has recently admitted two new societies from Iran, both led by Gholamreza Aavani.
However, Scarantino says he is “very sympathetic” to Höffe’s article, and asks “To what extent can a philosophical event or discussion disregard the political conditions in which it is to take place without modifying its own nature? I think that there is no general answer to this question. Each situation is different, and the same discussion, or even speech, can take a very different meaning according to the context where it takes place. … This is why I would certainly not blame those colleagues who, having mulled over the same problem, have come to different conclusions than Höffe and myself.”
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