The conference was organised under the aegis of President Khatami. It was associated with his initiative that the UN declares 2001 as the Year of the Dialogue of Civilizations, and was coordinated by the Mufid University in Qom, the ideological “stronghold” of the Islamic rule in Iran. Invited from abroad were, altogether, about 20 scholars from the USA, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, Bulgaria, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Nigeria.
The proceedings of the conference were covered by several TV stations from Iran and other Islamic (Arab) countries. No “Western “ media coverage, at least to the best of my knowledge, was being done. The conference was opened with an address of President Khatami, read by one of his advisors. The opinion was largely shared among the foreign participants that this event was part of the electoral campaign of the President – he applied as a candidate for the next presidential elections (for 08.06.2001) at the first day of the Conference.
The organisation of the Conference did not include theoretical discussion. The papers (about 25) were assigned about 30 min. each and together with the relatively short proceedings (eight sessions of about 90 min. each) this left no time for questions. No other than plenary sessions were organised, and as a result the proceedings were reduced to a sequence of monologues. Also out of the Hall I didn’t notice any informal professional contacts among the local scholars and the participants from the West. This was due largely to language barriers – almost no of the local scholars appeared to speak English, the contact with us was maintained by several English-speaking Master or Doctoral students.
Conceptually most interesting was the contrast (not controversy, because no mutual criticism was exercised) between the reformist and the conservative views, expressed in the papers of the Iranian colleagues – clerics almost all of them. In one or another form an idea, formulated by President Khatami, played a pivotal role for the considerations of the reformists: co-operation with other nations, and consequently, inter-civilizational dialogue are indispensable for the development of Iran – hence opening towards the non-Islamic world will be taking place sooner or later. If the Islamic institutions in Iran ignore these processes, let alone, oppose them, other social forces within the country will assume leading position in the communication and co-operation with non-Islamic nations. If the Islamic institutions want to keep their leading role in Iran, they should assume such a position also with regard of the inter-civilizational dialogue. This reformist logic – to improve the international status of the country without making substantial compromises with Islamic faith – was characteristic for the “liberal” papers.
The themes of the reformist papers were in the domain of human rights, humanisation of punishment in Islamic law, citizen’s security in the Islamic System, freedom of religion and belief. A tendency to emphasise the rationalistic and pragmatic elements in Islam (often at the expense of rather biased comparisons with Christianity) was manifest in most of them. At the other pole were the conservative views, such as the one that a person who performs active apostasy against Islam is committing eo ipso a moral suicide, or that among all kinds and levels of freedom, the freedom to worship Allah is the highest one and it should be the point of reference from which to evaluate all claims for human rights and liberties.
Symptomatically, no women were included as speakers in the Program. Actually, in its provisional version there was the name of a lady, a Finnish scholar, but she didn’t arrive. Iranian women were present as audience, but they were sitting separately, all wearing chadors, and in the breaks rarely contacting male participants, especially foreign ones.
It must be taken into account, however, that generally the presentations of the Iranian scholars were at a good theoretical level, and, especially the reformist ones, culturally open for mutual understanding. The papers, which kept to an entirely Islamic discourse (i.e. refusing to accept any argument, which does not originate directly or indirectly from the Holy texts of Islam) were rare. Though there were few opportunities for talk with Iranian colleagues, they seemed to be genuinely interested in exchanging views with us and didn’t show any prejudice. Among the foreign participants the impression was shared that the leadership of the Mufid University, which is the most important religious university in the country, tends to side with the reformists, i.e. to follow President Khatami’s line. This could explain also why precisely this University was assigned the task to organise the Conference.
My personal participation in the Conference, which was supported financially by the International Policy Fellowships Program, was very useful for me and directly related to my policy research, which concerns the education of Islamic minority children in the Balkans. Although the Islamic minorities in the Balkans are very much secularised and religion shapes their lives not directly, but more as a culture-general factor, the proceedings of the Conference were quite relevant, as they were a demonstration of the limits of flexibility of Islam.
I presented a paper focusing on the role of the public sphere for intercultural dialogue. It is available via a hyper link from my activities’ report.