Laureation address for HE Khatami

Tuesday 31 October 2006

The following laureation address was delivered to HE Seyed Mohammad Khatami by Professor Michael Bentley (School of History) prior to the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws being conferred upon him.

** Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present His Excellency Seyed Mohammad Khatami for the Degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

His Excellency’s address has anticipated or implied much that needs to be said about him: a taste and aptitude for ideas, a commitment to dialogue between cultures and a firm belief in the possibility for peace in the world. These may be taken to represent the leading themes of an unusual life.

Born in 1943 in central Iran, Mohammad Khatami was educated in traditional theological schools in Qom and at the Universities of Isfahan and Tehran where he complemented his religious education, unconventionally, with studies in Western philosophy.

After the revolution he prosecuted that western dimension by leading the Islamic Centre in Hamburg where Khatami became further acquainted with European and especially German philosophy, with Kant at its centre, and the tradition of hermeneutic enquiry found in authors from Schleiermacher to Gadamer and Habermas. He then returned to Iran where he was elected as a parliamentary deputy and then became Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance until, in 1992, he became head of the National Library of Iran, a position that brought him great satisfaction. Without political commitments he was able to indulge his passion for books, learning and travel, not least to the British Library in London. These years brought reflections, perhaps with echoes of Heidegger, on the characteristics of a technological and globalizing society. Then, too, he participated in the intellectual movement which argued that antagonism with Western ‘culture’ was meaningless and that critical engagement with it would bear better fruit. He was much taken with opposing Samuel Huntington’s thesis about the clash of civilization and worked out his own prescription for dialogue and empathy rather than conflict, a view he could press to some effect as Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. In the wider field of international relations his conviction involved dealing more sympathetically with the western intelligentsia and in writing his many books. So active has Khatami’s public life turned out to be that we readily forget that he is the author of an impressive range of publications dealing with both philosophical issues and the challenges facing an international community riven by cultural division and mutual mistrust.

But then, in 1997 – suddenly, dramatically and with an extraordinary level of support – he became President of the Republic. No more abstraction or persuasion: he could now achieve change. At home he made the parliament more reformist in ambition. Abroad, he became the first post-revolutionary leader to visit Europe. There were state visits to France, Italy, Spain Germany, Switzerland. In France he made a point of visiting the Panthéon – no place, you may think, for an Iranian cleric. He compensated by making himself the first world leader since the Enlightenment, and almost certainly the last, to ask the Pope to pray for the soul of Jean- Jacques Rousseau. More prosaically he went to New York to play his part in the United Nations and succeeded, magically but now tragically, in having the year 2001 declared the Year of Dialogue among Civilizations. His Excellency did not make it to the United Kingdom during these tours but Prince Charles met him in Teheran: the mountain coming to Mohammed, as it were. In 2001 Mohammed Khatami was again elected to serve his people having already having been voted in an internet poll the most popular Iranian of the twentieth century.

The career and intellect of Mohammad Khatami offer hope that trans-cultural communication should not be seen as an idle aspiration. He is the sort of moderate Muslim leader with whom the West is now, all too belatedly and often incompetently, wishing to engage. He believes in intellectual contact and argument and has held consistently that, without criticism and scrutiny, thought becomes dogmatic and fossilized. In the political sphere he has advanced human rights and freedom of speech within the Islamic framework that is so important to him; he has condemned all use of violence. He has outlined a conception of civil society and Islamic democracy. He has reminded the West that the divorce of liberty from spirituality will leave both impoverished. All these insights animate the Foundation for the Dialogue among Civilisations, based in Geneva and Tehran with outreach offices in Paris and Vienna and which His Excellency now leads in a role that returns him full-circle to those ideals about society, religion and the promotion of understanding between peoples that have characterized a lifetime’s commitment to understanding between peoples.

When universities honour people of other faiths, cultures and value-systems, they invite the criticism that they are lending their imprimatur to regimes or ideologies which are deemed unacceptable. That is understandable but it is also an error of judgment. Our University cannot offer – His Excellency would not expect – endorsement for each of his beliefs or for actions carried out in his name. What we can and should offer is acknowledgement of a courageous stand against insularity and congratulation on real and persistent efforts to reach out and engage with nations of the West who often cleave to aspirations very different from his. In a world racked by fear, suspicion and terrorism it becomes more important, not less, to discover dialogue and to recognize the achievement of those who, often at considerable risk to themselves and their families, continue to help in promoting it.

Vice – Chancellor, in recognition of his outstanding achievements internationally, I invite you to confer on His Excellency Seyed Mohammad Khatami the Degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

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