Monday, July 29, 2013

Post #428 -- Speaking in Tongues

The following piece, by Hamid Dabashi, appeared in the New York Times this week (Opinion Page):

Found in Translation

Though it is common to lament the shortcomings of reading an important work in any language other than the original and of the “impossibility” of translation, I am convinced that works of philosophy (or literature for that matter —are they different ?) in fact gain far more than they lose in translation.

Consider Heidegger. Had it not been for his French translators and commentators, German philosophy of his time would have remained an obscure metaphysical thicket.  And it was not until Derrida’s own take on Heidegger found an English readership in the United States and Britain that the whole Heidegger-Derridian undermining of metaphysics began to shake the foundations of the Greek philosophical heritage. One can in fact argue that much of contemporary Continental philosophy originates in German with significant French and Italian glosses before it is globalized in the dominant American English and assumes a whole new global readership and reality. This has nothing to do with the philosophical wherewithal of German, French or English. It is entirely a function of the imperial power and reach of one language as opposed to others.

I. The Mother Tongue

At various points in history, one language or another — Latin, Persian, Arabic — was the lingua franca of philosophical thinking. Now it is English. And for all we know it might again turn around and become Chinese.

In 11th century Iran, the influential philosopher Avicenna wrote most of his work in Arabic. One day his patron prince, who did not read Arabic, asked whether Avicenna would mind writing his works in Persian instead, so that he could understand them.  Avicenna obliged and wrote an entire encyclopedia on philosophy for the prince and named it after him, “Danesh-nameh Ala’i.”

Avicenna was of course not the only who had opted to write his philosophical work in Arabic. So did al-Ghazali (circa 1058-1111) and Shihab al-Din Yahya al-Suhrawardi (circa 1155-1208) — who were both perfectly capable of writing in their mother tongue of Persian and had in fact occasionally done so, notably al-Ghazali in his “Kimiya-ye Sa’adat” (a book on moral philosophy) and As-Suhrawardi in his magnificent short allegorical treatises. But in Avicenna’s time, Arabic was so solidly established in its rich and triumphant philosophical vocabulary that no serious philosopher would opt to write his major works in any other language. Persian philosophical prose had to wait for a couple of generations after Avicenna. With the magnificent work of Afdal al-din Kashani (died circa 1214)  and that of Avicenna’s follower Khwajah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Tusi (1201-1274) — particularly “Asas al-Iqtibas” — Persian philosophical prose achieved its zenith.

An illuminated 15th-century manuscript showing the philosopher-physician Ibn Sina, also called Avicenna, visiting a pharmacy. Avicenna (981-1037) lived most of his life in what is now Iran, where he wrote his million-word medical encyclopedia, al-Qanun, or the Canon. 
Archivo Iconografico, S.A./Corbis An illuminated 15th-century manuscript showing the philosopher-physician Ibn Sina, also called Avicenna, visiting a pharmacy. Avicenna (981-1037) lived most of his life in what is now Iran, where he wrote his million-word medical encyclopedia, al-Qanun, or the Canon.
Today the term “Persian philosophy” is not so easy to separate from “Islamic philosophy,” much of which is indeed in Arabic. This was the case even in the 16th century, when Mulla Sadra wrote nearly his entire major opus in Arabic. Although some major philosophers in the 19th and 20th centuries did write occasionally in Persian, it was not until Allameh Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) opted to write his major philosophical works in Persian that Persian philosophical prose resumed a serious significance in the larger Muslim context. (Iqbal also wrote major treaties on Persian philosophy in English.)

It is Amir Hossein Aryanpour’s magnificent Persian translation of Muhammad Iqbal’s “The Development of Metaphysics in Persia” (1908), which he rendered as “Seyr-e Falsafeh dar Iran (“The Course of Philosophy in Iran,” 1968), that stands now in my mind as the paramount example of excellence in Persian philosophical prose and a testimony to how philosophical translation is a key component of our contemporary intellectual history. If there were a world for philosophy, or if philosophy were to be worldly, these two men, philosopher and translator, having graced two adjacent philosophical worlds, would be among its most honored citizens.

II. Two Teachers

It is impossible to exaggerate the enduring debt of gratitude that my generation of Iranians have to Aryanpour (1925-2001), one of the most influential social theorists, literary critics, philosophers and translators of his time and for us a wide and inviting window to the rich and emancipatory world of critical thinking in my homeland. He is today remembered for generations of students he taught at Tehran University and beyond and for a rich array of his path-breaking books he wrote or translated and that enabled and paved the way for us to wider philosophical imagination.

Having been exposed to both scholastic and modern educational systems, and widely and deeply educated in Iran (Tehran University), Lebanon (American University in Beirut), England (Cambridge) and the United States (Princeton), Aryanpour was a cosmopolitan thinker and a pioneering figure who promoted a dialectical (jadali) disposition between the material world and the world of ideas. Today, more than 40 years after I arrived in Tehran from my hometown of Ahvaz in late summer 1970 to attend college, I still feel under my skin the excitement and joy of finding out how much there was to learn from a man whose name was synonymous with critical thinking, theorizing social movements and above all with the discipline of sociology.

Aryanpour was the product of many factors: Reza Shah’s heavy-handed, state-sponsored “modernization”; the brief post-World War II intellectual flowering; travels and higher education in Iran, the Arab world, Europe and the United States; the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s; and finally the C.I.A.-sponsored coup of 1953, after which university campuses in his homeland became the primary site of his intellectual leadership of a whole new generation. He was a pain in the neck of both the Pahlavi monarchy and of the Islamic Republic that succeeded it, making him at times dogmatic in his own positions, but always path-breaking in a mode of dialectical thinking that became the staple of his students, both those who were fortunate enough to have known and worked with him directly and of millions of others (like me) who benefited from his work from a distance.

Aryanpour was sacked from his teaching position at the theology faculty in 1976, retired in 1980, and just before his death on July 30, 2001, one of his last public acts was to sign a letter denouncing censorship in the Islamic republic.

His legendary translation of and expanded critical commentary on Iqbal’s “Development of Metaphysics in Persia” became the first and foremost text of my generation’s encounter not only with a learned history of philosophy in our homeland, but also with a far wider and more expansive awareness of the world of philosophy. It is impossible to exaggerate the beautiful, overwhelming, exciting and liberating first reading of that magnificent text by a wide-eyed provincial boy having come to the capital of his moral and intellectual imagination.

Born and raised in Punjab, British India (Pakistan today), to a devout Muslim family, educated by both Muslim teachers and at the Scotch Mission College in Sialkot, Iqbal grew up multilingual and polycultural. After an unhappy marriage and subsequent divorce, Iqbal studied philosophy, English, Arabic and Persian literatures at the Government College in Lahore, where he was deeply influenced by Sir Thomas Arnold, who became a conduit for his exposure to European thought, an exposure that ultimately resulted in his traveling to Europe for further studies.

While in England, Allameh Iqbal received a bachelor’s degree from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1907, around when his first Persian poems began to surface. As he became increasingly attracted to politics, he also managed to write his doctoral dissertation on “The Development of Metaphysics in Persia,” with Friedrich Hommel. Reading “Seyr-e Falsafeh dar Iran,” Aryanpour’s Persian translation of Iqbal’s seminal work, became a rite of passage for my generation of college students attracted to discovering our philosophical heritage.

We grew up and matured into a much wider circle of learning about Islamic philosophy and the place of Iranians in that tradition. There were greener pastures, more learned philosophers who beckoned to our minds and souls. We learned of the majestic writings of Seyyed Jalal Ashtiani, chief among many other philosophical sages of our time, who began to guide our ways into the thicket of Persian and Arabic philosophical thinking. But the decidedly different disposition of Allameh Iqbal in Aryanpour’s translation was summoned precisely in the fact that it had not reached us through conventional scholastic routes and was deeply informed by the worldly disposition of our own defiant time. In this text we were reading a superlative Persian prose from a Pakistani philosopher who had come to fruition in both colonial subcontinent and the postcolonial cosmopolis.  There was a palpable worldliness in that philosophical prose that became definitive to my generation.

III. Beyond East and West

When today I read a vacuous phrase like “the Western mind” — or “the Iranian mind,” “the Arab Mind” or “the Muslim Mind,” for that matter — I cringe. I wonder what “the Western mind” can mean when reading the Persian version of a Pakistani philosopher’s English prose composed in Germany on an aspect of Islamic philosophy that was particular to Iran?  Look at the itinerary of a philosopher like Allameh Iqbal; think about a vastly learned and deeply caring intellect like Amir Hossein Aryanpour.  Where is “the Western mind” in those variegated geographies of learning, and where “the Eastern mind”? What could they possibly mean?

The case of “Seyr-e Falsafeh dar Iran” was prototypical of my generation’s philosophical education — we read left, right and center, then north and south from the Indian subcontinent to Western Europe and North America, Latin America and postcolonial Africa with a voracious worldliness that had no patience for the East or West of any colonial geography. We were philosophically “in the world,” and our world was made philosophical by an imaginative geography that knew neither East nor West.

Works of philosophy — and their readers — gain in translation not just because their authors begin to breathe in a new language but because the text signals a world alien to its initial composition. Above all they gain because these authors and their texts have to face a new audience. Plato and Aristotle have had a life in Arabic and Persian entirely alien to the colonial codification of “Western philosophy” — and the only effective way to make the foreign echoes of that idea familiar is to make the familiar tropes of “Western philosophy” foreign.

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York, where he lives with his family. He is the author of numerous books on the social and intellectual history of Iran and Islam, including “The World of Persian Literary Humanism.”

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Post #427 -- Humanity Asserts Itself

I received this notice from someone at the White House earlier today (links not active):

U.S. Treasury Department
Office of Public Affairs

CONTACT: John Sullivan, Treasury Public Affairs (202) 622-2960 


WASHINGTON – Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury took actions to reinforce longstanding U.S. Government efforts to ensure that our extensive economic and financial sanctions on Iran – adopted to encourage Iran to comply with its international obligations – do not impede Iran’s humanitarian imports. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) expanded the list of basic medical supplies authorized for export or reexport to Iran under an existing general license by adding hundreds of items; OFAC had previously issued specific licenses authorizing the export or reexport of these items. OFAC also issued further clarifying guidance on existing broad authorizations and exceptions applicable to the sale of food, agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices by non-U.S. persons to Iran.

“Today’s action to expand the general license for the export of medical devices to Iran reflects an important element of our sanctions policy. Even as we continue to implement and enforce our rigorous sanctions regime against Iran, we are committed to safeguarding legitimate humanitarian trade,” said Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen.

In today’s action, OFAC expanded the list of basic medical supplies authorized for export or reexport under an existing general license, originally issued in October 2012, to encompass a broad range of medical supplies and devices, including electrocardiography machines (EKGs), electroencephalography machines (EEGs), and dialysis machines, along with other types of equipment that are used by hospitals, clinics, and medical facilities in Iran. These items, which were previously eligible for specific licensing from OFAC, can now be exported without prior approval from OFAC. Exporters are also still encouraged to apply for specific licenses for medical devices that may not be included in today’s expanded list.

Even as the U.S. and international sanctions have tightened, the Treasury and State Departments have had extensive discussions with foreign pharmaceutical and medical supply companies that sell, export, and get paid for exports to Iran, as well as the foreign financial institutions involved in those transactions, to ensure that the exemptions from our sanctions are understood. Medicine and medical supply exporters reporting barriers to trade have repeatedly pointed to obstacles placed by the Government of Iran, including the Central Bank of Iran’s failing to allocate sufficient foreign currency. The Central Bank of Iran has access to sufficient foreign currency funds outside of Iran – which are otherwise usable only to fund bilateral trade – to finance the import of medicines and medical equipment.
As OFAC has made clear in its Clarifying Guidance: Humanitarian Assistance and Related Exports to the Iranian People, issued on February 6, 2013, and in the Iranian Financial Sanctions Regulations (31 C.F.R. part 561) (IFSR) [*1], foreign financial institutions may process transactions for the purchase of humanitarian goods including, food, agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices, using funds in Central Bank of Iran accounts without being subject to U.S. sanctions. Today’s Guidance on Sales of Food, Agricultural Commodities, Medicine, and Medical Devices to Iran is meant to ensure that all parties to these transactions fully understand the broad humanitarian allowances embedded in our sanctions laws.

For a link to the expanded List of Basic Medical Supplies authorized for export or reexport to Iran issued today click here

For a link to OFAC’s Guidance on Sales of Food, Agricultural Commodities, Medicine, and Medical Devices to Iran click here

For a link to OFAC’s Clarifying Guidance: Humanitarian Assistance and Related Exports to the Iranian People click here

For a link to OFAC’s Iranian Financial Sanctions Regulations click here


[*1] See in particular IFSR section 561.203(g) and Note 2 to IFSR section 561.203. See also Question 314 on the list of Frequently Asked Questions posted on OFAC’s Web site

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Post #426 - A Critical Moment

Here is a brilliantly-done video promotion, urging sanity and prudence in taking the next step vis-a-vis Iran:

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Post #425 - Voices Matter

Check out this channel for making your wishes known:

Post #424 - It's All Connected

This letter was written by the principle organization working in the American Jewish community to seek a sustainable peace in the Middle East:


Ahmadinejad is on his way out.

Iran’s belligerent, anti-Semitic president will soon be replaced with Hassan Rouhani, who ran for and won the Iranian presidency on a platform of “constructive interaction with the outside world.”
The surprising election results present a new opportunity for serious diplomacy-- an opportunity a bipartisan group in Congress is today urging the President not to miss.

Ask Representative [name of my congressman] to join Representatives Charlie Dent (R-PA) and David Price (D-NC) in supporting a renewed diplomatic effort to resolve the nuclear crisis with Iran.

Let’s not be naïve. We don’t know if diplomacy will work. President-elect Rouhani too has sent mixed signals about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains in charge.

That's why meaningful sanctions remain in place and President Obama firmly states that “all options are on the table.”

But we’ll never know if diplomacy will work to ensure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon unless we seriously test Iranian intentions.

Ask Rep. [name] to stand with those who support a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis by signing the Dent-Price letter today.


Dylan Williams

J Street Director of Government Affairs

Read more about J Street at

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Post #423 - Is the Emperor Actually Clothed?

The following article was published by The Tablet (London) on 6/29/13:
Is the West wrong on Iran?

By Jonathan Shaw

We are all prisoners of our own prejudices – dangerously so in the case of the Middle East. The popular press portrays Iran as the principal security threat to the UK, suggesting that its acquisition of nuclear weapons is inevitable, triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and, at worst, spelling destruction for Israel. These questionable assumptions have led us to a posture at odds with the UK’s national interests. At worst, they may lead us into the very war these interests dictate we should avoid.

I say this in the light of personal experience. In 2007 I commanded the British-led division in the Iraqi city of Basra (not far from the border with Iran) where I faced the challenge of extracting the Coalition (mainly British) forces from the city. Crucial to success was an attempt to read the future, a future in which we would have no part. This forced us to look at the powers at play in the area and to identify their motives and objectives.

I was living within the Shia population of Basra. As I also had access to diplomatic telegrams from the British Embassy in Tehran, I had an unusually informed perspective on Iran and its motives. What I learnt then still seems relevant to the debate now about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

British Christian children tend to be brought up in a cultural tradition that is rooted in the Old Testament and our classical education. The former leaves us with an instinctive sympathy for Israel and the Jews as victims; the latter makes us absorb a Greek view of the ancient world which portrays the Persians as “the enemy”. When considering modern Iran, these twin prejudices reinforce themselves and make it easy to discount contrary evidence.

Iran throughout history has been driven by an urge for cultural recognition, and for respect of its regional status. It is intensely aware of its cultural and religious isolation. Iran is the only dependably Shia-run state (Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are highly contested) and Shias are regarded as apostates by Wahhabi Salafist interpretations of Islam, such as those dominant in Saudi Arabia.

Iran has suffered Western interference. The UK-inspired US overthrow in 1953 of the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh and imposition of the increasingly tyrannical Shah earned the UK the epithet “Little Satan”. To this day the UK is deemed guilty by association for the actions of the Great Satan, the US. Our current support for “democracy” is seen as hollow and hypocritical by regional observers, especially in Iran.

Iran is surrounded; to the west by Iraq, historically run by Sunni Arabs, then latterly by the US, and to the east by Sunni in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran’s incentive for securing its borders and creating buffers from aggressors is clear.

The West has been cold to Iran’s overtures of support. Having backed the US in its condemnation of 9/11 and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, Iran found itself weeks later castigated as being part of the “axis of evil”. This not only showed a lack of gratitude for Iranian support to the US, it also discredited the reformist movements within Iran and their argument that it was possible to trust the West.

When I was based in Basra, I found Iranian interference in the city (and Iraq more generally) to be carefully calibrated, enough to make the Coalition uncomfortable but always with the desire to sustain majority Shia rule and economic prosperity. I recognised the huge Iranian investment in Basra’s prosperity, prompted by comments from Arab friends who had advised that the way to deal with Iran was to trade with them, and bind them into mutually advantageous commercial arrangements. Basra represented just such a commercial arrangement, as evidenced by the fact that no one ever bombed the oil pipelines in the south, in stark contrast to the US-run areas; not because UK security was better but because the internal dynamics of the population were different. By seeing Iran as the enemy, the Coalition missed the cohering effect of Iran on Iraq, and its limiting effect on intra-Shia violence. Basra has turned out to be the relatively stable and commercial success we predicted, but it took the Coalition in Baghdad by surprise.

It would be no surprise if Iran did harbour ambitions to have nuclear weapons. It lives (like Israel) with the ever-present fear of an existential threat and any aspiration it may have to nuclear weapons will be unaffected by President Hassan Rouhani’s recent election.

That said, seasoned observers question if Iran is really intent on becoming a nuclear armed power (and in this context it is worth remembering that the region is already nuclear armed, with both Israel and Pakistan – the Sunni bomb – possessing nukes in contravention of the non-proliferation treaty of which they are not signatories). But even if Iran was intent on creating the Shia bomb, the doctrine and reality of the ownership of nuclear weapons are that it is defensive, not aggressive (with the single exception of the two US bombs dropped on Japan in 1945). Just as Israel has not used its nukes to obliterate its opponents, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs interlocutors to whom I have spoken accept that the Iranian Government is highly unlikely to launch a nuclear attack, recognising that to do so would be to sign their own death sentence. But “Why should we take the risk?”, they then ask.

And here is one of the cultural challenges of the region – an Israeli aversion to risk that is understandable given its history but unsustainable as a guide to foreign and security policy. Israel’s risk-aversion sits uneasily with the dominant risk-management tradition of international diplomacy.

A more interesting question is whether the region would calm down if Iran was accepted as having no nuclear-weapon ambitions. I suspect that little would change. Israel would still feel threatened by Iran as the sponsor of opposition to Israel from Syria and Hezbollah, while the Sunni Gulf states would still feel threatened by the Shia minorities (or majorities, in the case of Bahrain) in their midst, which they see as being provoked and encouraged by Iran. From this perspective, it would not be surprising if both Israel and Saudi Arabia see the Iranian nuclear issue as a useful tool for keeping the US and the West engaged on an anti-Iran ticket that goes far beyond the nuclear issue itself. For them, an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be hugely advantageous, quite beyond any short-term effect on the nuclear facilities. For to counter the Iranian threat of retaliation by blocking the Straits of Hormuz, the US would have to devastate Iranian conventional capability, particularly in the coastal region. This would have the potential drastically to adjust the military balance of capability in the region, to the advantage of Israel and the Gulf states.

One of the mysteries of the UK’s current posture is its apparent pursuit of policies that are at odds with its security threat analysis. Throughout my time in the UK’s defence-planning milieu, the direct threats to the UK came from extreme Sunni groups; I cannot recall a single Shia threat to the UK mainland.

While we may sympathise with the domestic threats faced by Israel and the Sunnis, it is hard to see why they should override our own domestic interests or priority given to countering Sunni extremism, which receives its ideological and financial foundation from sources in Saudi Arabia and, increasingly, Qatar. It is this that makes our current policy in Syria so inexplicable. Not only is it uncertain that intervention would make things better, but it is clear that the leading force within the opposition are a group who have openly committed themselves to the cause of al-Qaeda. It is far from clear to me – and, it would appear, to many MPs – why we intend to support a group allied to our greatest threat.

We need to face facts. Iran’s position in the Middle East resembles Germany’s in Europe: too large to sit comfortably in the neighbourhood, but not large enough to demand inevitable dominance. It was only after appalling conflicts in Europe that we reached the accommodations enshrined in the EU that bound Germany into stable relationships. If we are to avoid similar bloodletting in the Middle East, we should recognise that Iran has valid concerns – and not seek to threaten and marginalise it.

The liberation of the US from dependence on Gulf oil should give it the courage to take a detached view of the region and withdraw its unquestioning support for Israel and Saudi Arabia on this issue. Denied US military muscle to achieve their aims, they might then be forced to accept Iran as a legitimate state in the region and to begin the creation of trust, without which the world is doomed to perpetual conflict.

In recent elections, the electorates of both Israel and Iran have rejected some of the more bellicose candidates for office. Perhaps this is a propitious time for the international community to look afresh at the legitimate aspirations of all in the region before an unchallenged conviction that Iran is by definition “the enemy” leads us over the abyss into a war that is certainly not in the interests of the UK.

[Major General Jonathan Shaw was Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Global issues) and served as General Officer Commanding Multi-National Division (South East), Iraq, 2007.]