HE Khatami’s lecture

Friday 3 November 2006

The following lecture was given by HE Mohammad Khatami at the University of St Andrews on Tuesday 31st August 2006.


In the Name of God

Mr. President Ladies and Gentlemen Dear colleagues

Conferment of an honorary doctorate is an honor to me especially because I see that my request for dialog has been hailed by scientists, intellectuals, academicians and politicians. I first extended such an invitation during a speech at the United Nations where I was representing the people and government of Iran as the elected president of the Iranian nation. Ever since, many significant incidents have taken place in the world. Not only have any of those incidents not cast any doubt about the need to have dialog but they have clearly placed before our very eyes the essential need to dialog. Perhaps today all of those people seeking out peace and justice do stress the need to talk.

In spite of appearing as an obvious, easy, routine, recurrent and undeterred issue at the first glance, dialog is a complex, late- to-arrive and novel subject that hits snags interminably. Sometimes it tends to be impossible. When one concerns the essentiality of dialog, they should also be concerned, simultaneously, about the likely troubles and obstacles facing them in realization of dialog. Otherwise, dialog will either turn into a monolog in the absence of an interlocutor or ends up in silence due to the prevalence of disappointing atmospherics.

Living on a border between haplessness and hope will save us from plunging into either disappointment or excessive optimism. Numerous generations to come should take relentless efforts in order to be possibly able to dilute the thick walls that separate worlds of humans and help sounds and messages to pass through this thick and condensed wall.

Where does this problem come from and what are the roots? How can that be overcome? The history of philosophy has witnessed the efforts great intellectuals have taken, to answer such questions. Some of these intellectuals have been engaged indirectly to answer such questions by pursuing their philosophical work.

What Plato narrates from Socrates’ discourses, indeed, paints an image of one of the world’s greatest philosophers – one who would involve himself in dialog with others in order to get to know himself, others, the world and God.

Dear friends

Perhaps it would not be inappropriate for me to pursue the discussion with a little debate on the issue of understanding. We see the earth, skies, seas, mountains, waters, soil and trees. We know them and broaden our understanding of them by researching, analyzing and examining. Yes, we get to know and delineate the world by discovering the relationship between cause and effect, by realizing the mechanism of activity and by understanding the relationship between objects and the way they affect one another. All these will lead us to develop knowledge of the world..

We know the world and objects but do not realize them. Human and God can be realized and such realization is made of language, by language and in language. Without language, realization is not made and language is not merely “saying¿ but saying that is pursued by hearing. A word said but not heard does not make language. Therefore, realization is made through dialog. Yes, poets understand mountains, birds and water because they converse with them.

Our poet says: I saw a poet in conversing

He would address lily as thou

Yes, we can address the lily but in fact that is possible only when the flower is personified. Personification is nothing but to gain qualifications to be addressed as an interlocutor. It is with discourse that humans are matter- of-factly realized and humans can only be addressed by God or fellow humans. Meanwhile, it is also humans and God or things that have become humanized or associated with God that can be addressed.

Addressing is only made through discourse and discourse is only made in language and with language. The language that shares common roots with the sounds animals make but is of a significantly different nature. The distance between sound and discourse marks the distance between animals and humans. The general commonalities that languages share, both in terms of wisdom and numerous similar functions stem from the common humanistic nature of humans. Their difference, however, stem from their historical, geographical and civilizational differences as well as due to their different social and cultural experiences. And since we grow inside cultural and lingual surroundings rather than outside them, realization of this point that the cultural and lingual surroundings of fellow races originally differ from our history, culture and language is extremely difficult. Nonetheless, we may accept these differences, while interpreting them in the context of cultural and religious pluralism. When starting political, economic and social ties, we may act in a way as if such differences never existed. Admitting to differences in words is not necessarily translated into profound realization of such differences emotionally and rationally.

Realization of others’ language is indeed an effort to understand others in their own context rather than turn them into someone in our own context. Now we can simply see how strenuous and difficult dialog with others is and that dialog would not materialize unless human ethics and values are used – the ethics that, like theoretical wisdom, is shared by humans in terms of its major perspectives. And human rights can be spoken about only when there are presumably common absolute ethics.

In dialog, it is not merely the other that is discovered. The other is discovered and stabilized with my address and I get to know of myself and become self- conscious by addressing you. Self- consciousness is the process for my stabilization. Therefore, not only the other but “I” become “I” by addressing the other. This is where the profoundness of this comment becomes clear that “the principle issue of human’s creation is the human to human connection¿.

But realization of human to human connection has been classified into two categories since old times: individual relationship and collective relationship. The collective relationship falls into two general forms: “we” and “here” on one side, and “they” and there” on the other side.

Individual relationship depends on emergence of the individual and the individual is not solely a philosophical or mathematical concept. It is also a social and historical concept. Therefore, it cannot be said that the individual has existed since humans were created.

Ontologically and epistemologically speaking, the individual as an individual human, preceded the general human, at least in the tangible world. Of course this Aristotle’s theory has a strong rival theory, which believes in general priority of external pluralistic objects. However, priority of individual to human in mathematical and philosophical context is different from priority of individual to human in social and psychological context. The individual in the latter sense is a product of the modern age and its date of birth date is clear. Prior to this period, the individual did not exist and the members of human community would realize themselves as members of a tribe, village, town, religion, and recently nation. There has not been a clear border between “me¿ and “us¿. “I,¿ indeed, was the place where “we¿ was received and realized. It has been said that emergence of the individual and individualism and expansion of an economy that is based on free market has led to a reduction in violence. The birth of the individual naturally becomes simultaneous with a reduction of the extent of “we” to family.

“We¿ in the first step is no longer a tribe or town, believers in such and such faith, or citizens of such and such country. “We” comprises members of a family who share a life as a household and all they are concerned about is how to guarantee the interests of the household. The new individual is less concerned about the interests of compatriots, fellow citizens or fellow believers in a common faith. “Others,” however, are out of the individual’s heart because they do not share a house with the individual. And even if they do, their presence is not as colorful as it used to be. It is said that the wealth, well- being and merriment of the family are the main values that the new individual holds. Therefore, realization of others as enemy is a faint subject as much as their presence is not an issue. They are not enemies because they are not there at all.

The individuals’ realization of citizenship, too, is proportionate to their general individual concept. The new citizens are less interested in acquiring fighting skills, which is why hatred toward violence is on the rise and compassion toward others has become more profound. When the huge walls of tribes and cities collapse and the borders of anyone’s world are not compatible with the borders of their belief – when the world is a place for different humans with different colors, religions and cities – violence gets undermined.

The last point that should be added to these assertions is that liberal democracy is said to be directly related to expansion of industry and a reduction in violence. The new individual is tolerant and would not beat his rival up over religious convictions or cultural differences.

The birth of the new individual, which means a new “we” is born naturally, leads to the birth of a new “they”. Like the individual, “they,” too, is a historical, relative, psychological, philosophical, political and geographical concept. The characteristic of “they” geographically is that “they” reside in “there” and “there” is a place outside our borders.

Nonetheless, expansion of the living area of “they” is totally dependent on the expansion of the living area of “we”. When “we” is a village, “they” would be all those people living outside the village. And when “we” is all the people living in Asia, “they” would be the people living in other continents.

What causes us not to take the claims of individualists seriously and doubt their optimism that expansion of individualism is directly related to a decrease in violence? Optimism, if stems from a superficial glimpse at history and politics, is not only provocative but also dangerous.

Dear friends

Following the expansion and development of prevailing social ideologies in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, who could predict the likelihood of an escalation in religious fighting in Europe in the final years of the 20th century, as a consequence of which men, women, children and the elderly would be but safe and houses, markets, mosques and churches would be subject to attacks and destruction? Where were those tolerant and civilized people who had expanded the borders of their being and absolved themselves from violence before the new individual was born?

Liberal democracy has had a very significant achievement, especially in our time: transforming crime to a static event. Aided by satellites and the very highly advanced telecommunications technology, they have been able to turn the painful air strikes against cities and the killing of the innocent children, women and men into a very picturesque image, which is nice and appealing to watch over afternoon coffee following a day of hard work.

We should wake up from the optimism of the new sociological time, we should ask about the reasons for violence in today’s world, we should ask about the reasons for re-emergence of religious wars. We should get to know how come we talk of crusades at the beginning of the Third Millennium in the name of civilization and human rights. We should conduct research about the philosophical roots of new identities and the way in which they are established. We should learn why seven centuries after nonsense bickering and debates we are reckoning that “our religion” is the faith of Logos and compassion and “their religion¿ is one of violence and insanity.

Distinguished professors

Dear students

Esteemed audience

Human’s soul is probably the most complex of all beings in the world. Understanding the human’s soul does not come by only through analysis and statistics or by focusing on positivism, pragmatism and behaviorism. Solutions to the calamity humans suffer today will not be made by reducing religion to a social institution or through simplistic individualist assertions. Of course, on the other hand we should avoid accepting any prepared simplistic prescription too.

The path to knowing history, society and politics is an endless and dangerous road which should be trodden with short but sensible steps. History of thought and philosophy has made us pessimistic about all forms of simplistic glance. We cannot simplistically speak of an end to history as liberalism cannot be introduced as the sole image of wickedness or the sole symbol for perfection of social thought. This path is not easy to tread and a very significant point is that realization of peace, security and justice is not conditioned on total understanding of history and society theoretically and philosophically.

If “the other” is the one living outside “my” borders, can “I” not be expanded to the extent so it could also include the land and being of “the other”? “I” and “we” can be not intersecting circles but consist of aliquot circles so slipping from one to the other would not necessarily need violence and bloodshed.

Dear friends

Our world is being threatened by all kinds of conflicts. Unfortunately, religious confrontations should be added to this list. There are calls for religious wars today but I want to finish my speech with a comment from the great Imam of Muslims.

Imam Ali (peace be upon him), in a letter he wrote to one of his friends Malik ibn Ashtar when sending him off on mission to assume authority in Egypt as governor, tells him that people should be treated compassionately because “they either share a religion with you or are created the same way as you are”.

Sharing a religion and homogeneity in creation are two overlapping circles. He speaks of the two circles as if moving from one to the other is not only possible but also ethically essential. If someone does not share their religion with me, they are definitely respectable and entitled to receiving compassion as human beings. The call by our Imam is clear. He recommends not only tolerance but something beyond that: profuse compassion. One can live inside their religious, geographical and political borders but extend love profusely. Borderless friendship will save the world.

Thank you

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