Khatami in Melbourne
Khatami in Melbourne
19 Feb 2009
Professor Joseph Camilleri
First published in The Age 18 February 2009
An audio version (MP3 6.3MB) of this opinion piece read by Professor Joseph Camilleri is also available.
Mohammad Khatami, widely regarded as the leader of Iran’s reform movement, has announced his candidacy for the presidential election to be held this June. Next month he will be visiting Melbourne at the invitation of the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University.
With his immaculate clerical robes, genial smile and learned oratory, the 65-year-old scholar-politician presents a striking contrast to the hard-line and populist incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Khatami’s decision to stand again for president has been the subject of rumour and speculation for months both inside and outside Iran. It comes at a critical moment for Iran itself, for its relations with the United States, and for the wider relationship between Islam and the West.
Mohammad Khatami has been a high profile national and international figure since he won a landslide victory in the 1997 presidential election, a feat he repeated in the 2001 election.
His eight-year presidency (1997-2005) had mixed results. On the one hand, he introduced a number of social and political reforms. He initiated city council elections, stressed respect for the rule of law, acknowledged the voices of civil society and their right to criticise high ranking authorities, allowed newspapers to publish a range of political views, and appointed the first woman to a cabinet post since the 1979 revolution.
A few of Khatami’s initiatives have survived despite the conservative tide of the last few years. But most of his attempted reforms were effectively strangled, even while he was in office, by a clerical class that remained firmly in control of the State. Under Iran’s constitution, the Spiritual Leader and the Council of Guardians wield greater power and authority than the President and the Parliament. Not surprisingly, many reformers were either muzzled or barred from running for public office. Some were jailed or even assassinated.
By the time Khatami left office Iran’s reform movement was divided and disillusioned. Some believed that Khatami had been stymied by a political and legal apparatus that was inimical to reform. Others felt that either because of weakness of character or political misjudgement he had been unduly timid in confronting the clerical establishment and unable therefore to mobilise at all effectively the broad popular support he enjoyed. Since Ahmadinejab’s election reformists have been increasingly marginalised.
Khatami’s period of office was nevertheless significant in that a highly respected figure of the Islamic Revolution had articulated a powerful and coherent message in defence of democracy and human freedom, one that clearly resonated with women, young people and a large majority of Iranian society.
Just as significant, though generally ignored by the Bush Administration, was Khatami’s opening the West. He pursued an active diplomacy with Western Europe, visited the United States, strongly condemned terrorism, mended fences with Arab neighbours, and seemed prepared to curb Iran’s uranium enrichment programme.
But Khatami’s most enduring contribution then and since has been his advocacy of ‘the dialogue of civilisations’. In his writings and widely quoted speeches delivered primarily in European capitals and in New York, Khatami propounded a discourse sharply at odds with two other discourses that held sway in the United States.
He took issue with post-Cold War American triumphalism – and the belief that Western theories and practices were now supreme. At the same time, he challenged the notion of an actual or impending ‘clash of civilisations’ and advanced instead the idea that all the world’s cultures, religions and civilisations have much to learn from each other, and that humanity’s capacity to meet the challenges of the 21st century will depend largely on such mutual learning.
He successfully proposed to the Organisation of Islamic Conference in 1997 adoption of the principle of dialogue among civilisations. He then gained the unanimous acceptance of the idea at the 1998 UN General Assembly, which went on to declare 2001 as the Year of Dialogue among Civilisations and to adopt the Global Agenda for Dialogue Among Civilizations.
Numerous governments and international governmental and non-governmental organisations have since adopted the principle and organised forums, colloquia and conferences. Centres and institutes have been established in several countries, and a few governments have even gone so far as to adopt ‘national action plans’.
Significant as the organisational impetus he has given to the concept may be, Khatami’s most notable contribution lies in the intellectual domain. It is his understanding of the dialogical process that has captured the imagination.
For Khatami, dialogue is the common search for truth, in which participants refuse to fudge or evade the differences that separate them. In ‘dialogue’ listening becomes at least as important as speaking. Dialogue becomes an encounter across cultural, religious, philosophical, ethical, and political boundaries. Each participant, each culture, civilisation, political system listens to the other, becomes open, even vulnerable to the other. In this sense, those who engage in dialogue are participants in a journey of self discovery. They mutually transform each other and in so doing become agents in the creation of a habitable future worthy of the human imagination.
This is no doubt the discourse that Khatami will want to expound during his visit to Australia. Some may be inspired by it, others may remain sceptical, but few will question its sincerity or potency.