The key word here is “global”. The rules of democracy were developed in the 19th and 20th centuries to permit peaceful changes of government within nations. Despite permitting many great advances, they were not always successful – the failures are notorious, from the American civil war to Hitler.
The passions that democratic politics ushered in then were played out within nations. In the 21st century, the arena of democratic argument has become global. The last century should be a warning. If we want to avoid decades of what we can describe only as global civil war, we need to make international democracy work.
This demands that we engage with those we find abhorrent from very different cultures. Welcome to global democracy? Welcome to listening to views you’d prefer not to exist!
This is what we have found at openDemocracy, an independent, London-based current-affairs website and forum of dialogue, which went online in May 2001.
We have published nearly 4,000 articles in this period – many of them concerned with the issues raised by the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent “war on terror”, and many written by writers, scholars and journalists belonging to the Arab and Muslim worlds.
“Democracy is a political ideology forced on society. Democracy will not work until it disarms itself, and begin to see its other face. That face is called Theocracy.”
We are committed to the creation of spaces for dialogue in an era where neocon and bin Ladenist and other fundamentalisms are trying to close them down.
It is considerably easier for us to attempt this than for those on the front line of repression, as the recently released Iranian philosopher, and one of our contributors, Ramin Jahanbegloo, has discovered.
When he was arrested this April, he was accused by Iran‘s intelligence minister, Mohseni Ejhei, of being connected to plans for a peaceful revolution: “The US has been organising for a soft or velvet revolution for many countries around the world, including Iran, and Jahanbegloo was part of that preparation.”
Jahanbegloo’s release on August 30 was followed by an interview in which he appeared to recant some of his earlier activities and views. OpenDemocracy has been cited as one of the places where his work was published, and indeed we are proud to be associated with the work of a scholar who has worked hard for dialogue.
In his contribution to a round-table discussion after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran in June last year, Ramin gave warning against Iran‘s “resurgent authoritarian populism”.
He foresaw “a significant turning back of civil society’s important gains of the last several years, paving the way eventually for a full-spectrum Islamic society based on sharia law”.
He wrote: “A cloud of uncertainty has been cast over the fate of civil liberties in Ahmadinejad’s Iran. Yet opportunities abound among Iran‘s young population.” They, he felt, would resist the government’s efforts to homogenise Iranian society.
In a short, subtle, learned and radical critique of the United States, Ramin expressed his horror at the crude American vision of “its century” of world leadership
For openDemocracy, however, what Ramin wrote about politics was less important than his commitment to dialogue.
The senior editor, Danny Postel, who knows him personally, says: “Ramin’s defining passion is engagement. Many of his books are conversations with other thinkers, from Isaiah Berlin and George Steiner to Ashis Nandy and Daryush Shayegan.
“The notion of a ‘dialogue of civilisations’ has become something of a buzz word, but Ramin is one of the few people actually to practise it: acting as a philosophical ambassador between Iran and the rest of the world.”
In his first article for openDemocracy, Ramin was a contributor to a series called Letters to Americans that we ran in the months before the United States presidential election in 2004.
In a short, subtle, learned and radical critique of the United States, Ramin expressed his horror at the crude American vision of “its century” of world leadership. He proposed that a shared global journey of exploration was needed. This would supersede that of Columbus, and would to reinvent America itself, making it part of a global commons.
Such ideas are probably incomprehensible to the charlatans currently in power in Washington and Tehran and, indeed, their “agents”.
Ramin Jahanbegloo’s contributions are part of openDemocracy’s wide-ranging engagement with Iran. We published many articles about the country during the last years of the Khatami reformist period, and in the first 15 months of the Ahmadinejad government.
The powers that seek to crush independent thought and discussion, especially across frontiers of geography and mind, are on the rise
Most of our contributors have been (exiled) Iranians – almost all critical of the administration, but with a diverse spread of views; we have also published articles that promote understanding of Iran‘s historical experiences and regional thinking. And we published a petition calling for Ramin’s release signed by more than 400 scholars and writers.
Whatever the circumstances of his supposed recantation, what can be said with certainty is that the powers that seek to crush independent thought and discussion, especially across frontiers of geography and mind, are on the rise.
This creates greater responsibility on those who seek to uphold independent thought and argument and encourage “velvet revolutions” or what we call democratic reform.
In particular, it places on us a responsibility not to be intimidated or allow our advocacy of democracy and fundamental rights to be silenced because the White House, quite implausibly, claims that it likes them too.
In openDemocracy we will continue our modest contribution in this spirit of engagement with issues of democracy, human rights, and civic and human equality.
[Anthony Barnett is editor-in-chief, of openDemocracy – www.opendemocracy.net]
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.