by Johanna Seibt ( © 2009)

In brief:

Seyyed Mohammad Khatami is known worldwide as politician, but he is also one of Iran’s renowned scholars and political thinkers. Based on extensive study of Western political philosophy he developed, like other Iranian reform thinkers, a conception of Islamic democracy, which in 1997 found broad support among Iranian voters, especially among women and young people. He was elected president of Iran for two terms (1997-2005) and in this office—with limited political powers and thus with limited success—pursued a course of liberalization and reform. The Global Dialogue Prize acknowledges Mohammad Khatami’s work in developing and promoting the concept of a “Dialogue Among Civilizations and Cultures” as model for international relations. Mohammad Khatami transposed Daryush Shayegan’s notion of intercultural dialogue into political theory, as a counter concept to Samuel Huntington’s slogan of the “clash of civilizations”. In 1998 the United Nations responded to the proposal by Mohammad Khatami and proclaimed 2001 as a “Year of the Dialogue of Civilizations”. Since that time the model of dialogue has been an integral part of the self-conception of the UN and it has become the explicit mission of several of the most powerful global NGO’s, such as the Alliance of Civilizations.


Seyyed Mohammad Khatami was born 1943, Ardakan, Yazd Province, Iran (Persia). While Mohammad Khatami is publically best known for his political efforts to decrease international tensions and support constructive interactions between ‘West’ and ‘East’, he is also one of Iran’s well-known philosophers. He published about 20 books in Persian, English, and Arabic, mainly in the field political philosophy.

As son of a religious teacher Khatami began his studies at a traditional madrasah (religious school) in the holy city of Qom. However, he also received degrees in Western philosophy from Esfahan University and studied for an MA degree in Educational Sciences at the University of Tehran, both secular institutions. He returned to Qom to study for seven year Islamic Sciences and completed courses at the highest level (Ijtihad). Between 1978 and 1980 he was Chair of the Islamic Centre in Hamburg, Germany. In 1980 he became a member of the Iranian parliament and, in 1982, he took on the office of Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. In 1992 he resigned from this post in protest against restrictions on the artistic freedom of expression. During the years between 1992 and 1997, when he was Head of the National Library of Iran, he wrote in-depth studies of Western political philosophy and developed his own theoretical vision for an Islamic democracy. In 1997, running on a platform of liberalism and reform, he won the election for president in a surprise landslide victory with 70% of the vote, advocating freedom of expression, governmental transparency, tolerance, civil society, free market, and constructive diplomatic relations. Even though most of his reform efforts were thwarted by conservative clerical forces, who jailed also many of his supporters, Khatami was re-elected in 2001 with a similarly high majority.
Mohammad Khatami’s role in Iranian national politics is unrelated to the Global Dialogue Prize, which is an award for research and research communication, not for political lifetime achievements. Khatami received 7 honorary degrees (three from European universities) and several other international distinctions from within and outside academia. In awarding the Global Dialogue Prize to Mohammad Khatami the committee honors his efforts in developing and promoting the notion of a “dialogue among civilizations” as a model of international relations. Mohammad Khatami’s concept of a “dialogue among civilizations” transposes Daryush Shayegan’s idea of a dialogical constitution of the cultural agent into political theory. In 1998 Mohammad Khatami famously called on the United Nations to proclaim a “Year of the Dialogue Among Civilizations”, counteracting Huntington’s polarizing rhetorics of a “clash of civilizations”. The UN responded positively to the proposal, designating the year 2001 for this purpose, and established a committee  to realize Khatami’s ideas concerning a list of measures that would alleviate cross-cultural misunderstandings and insecurities, and promote global peace. In September 2001 the UN strongly confirmed its commitment to the model and measures of dialogue in three days of joint debate and consideration, and the notion of dialogue has been a key concept in the terminology of international politics ever since. Intercultural dialogue has become the explicit mission of a number of high-profile international NGO’s, most notably the Alliance of Civilizations, consisting of twenty former heads of states, where Khatami has played  an active and leading role since 2005. He is also the founding director of the International Institute for Dialogue Among Cultures and Civilizations in Tehran, with a European branch in Geneva, the Foundation for Dialogue among Civilizations, in Geneva and has been organizing workshops and conferences in close collaboration with the Oslo Centre for Peace and Human Rights.


From the “clash of civilizations” to the “dialogue of civilizations”

In the early 1990s much of Western political thought was in the grip of the idea of “cultural identities,” a concept imported from ethnography and sociology. A ‘cultural identity’ so-called refers to a fixed set of values, beliefs, and practices shared by the members of a culture. Differences in cultural identities thus seemed to support the idea of a necessary clash of cultures, especially when cultures had reached the full-blown stage of a “civilization”. In 1992 (and more extensively in 1996) Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington thus could reach Western readers with the striking thesis that the post-Cold War political order would be characterized not by ideological conflicts but by a “clash of civilizations”, i.e. by conflicts based on cultural differences. Since Huntington’s thesis increasingly influenced the theory of international relations, and was used by some as theoretical legitimization for aggressive international politics, Western critics soon pointed at empirical and conceptual deficiencies of Huntington’s line of thought. Much more effective, however, in neutralizing Huntington’s thesis was Mohammad Khatami’s strategy of introducing a powerful counter-concept: the idea of a “dialogue of civilizations” (later also “dialogue of cultures and civilizations”). From 1998 onwards Khatami presented the counter-vision of “a process between and within civilizations, founded on inclusion, and a collective desire to learn, uncover, and examine assumptions; unfold shared meaning and core values; and integrate multiple perspectives through dialogue” (Global Agenda for a Dialogue Among Civilizations, 2001).

Dialogue—a new paradigm of international relations

The notion of a dialogue of civilizations had first been propagated in 1977 by Daryush Shayegan, then director of the Iranian Centre for the Study of Civilizations (1976-1979). Khatami adopted Shayegan’s notion as well as some of the theoretic underpinning of the concept: intercultural contact is bound to modify the ideas and values in any of the cultural systems that are in contact and thus the insinuation of immutable cultural identities is misleading and dangerous. However, while Shayegan used the structural model of dialogue in a new theory of cultural subjectivity, offering dialogue as a new root metaphor for the cultural self-understanding of individuals and societies, Khatami employed the dialogue model as centerpiece of a new paradigm of international relations.

The new “paradigm of dialogue” calls for re-valuations and reconceptualizations in various areas of political thought. There is a rich research discussion on almost any of its aspects (see ‘resources’) but Khatami also offered generally accessible expositions of the basic ideas at the level of ‘research communication’ (for the following see Khatami 1999). First, the paradigm of dialogue includes an account of political communication that stresses the role of “active listening”. Second, the new paradigm ties politics closely to ethics, championing moral virtues and psychological dispositions such as “modesty, commitment, and involvement”. Some of these attitudes are requirements of the communicational form of dialogue. In contrast with  diplomatic negotiation, “dialogue among civilizations cannot take place without sympathy and affection, and without a genuine effort to understand others without the desire to vanquish them”(ibd.33). Third, the paradigm of dialogue also amounts to a new stage in the development of theories about human rationality and knowledge. This is the technical, metaphilosophical sense of Khatami’s notion of dialogue as a new stage in the ‘dialectics of rationality’. “[The axioms of dialogue] are not compatible with the dogmas of positivism and modernism and they are not in so much agreement with the extreme skepticism of the post-modernists either” (ibd. 30). In other words, the structural model of dialogue replaces so-called ‘modern’ thinking, i.e., the trust in ready-made universal values and truths, as well as the ‘post-modern’ relegation of such universal values and truths to mere elements of a “grand narrative”. According to ‘modern’ thought in the tradition of the European Enlightenment, universal truths are pre-existent and discovered by rational discourse. Since cultural conflicts seem to disprove the Enlightenment conception of universalist rationality, post-modern philosophers concluded that universal truths are non-existent and arbitrarily postulated as part of a discourse. Khatami seems to embrace here the conception of ‘dialogical truth’, a further development of the Habermasian discourse-theoretic conception of truth, according to which universal truths are neither pre-existent nor fictional but ‘appear in the course of dialogue’. Fourth, the paradigm of dialogue includes a thesis about the dynamic constitution of value and truth, including religious truths: “Religious faith, which is nothing other than giving an affirmative answer to the divine call form the bottom of one’s heart, should not be considered as something unchangeable, and lacking dynamism. Also, our understanding and interpretation of religion should not be at odds with the spirit of faith, because such a disparity will be an obstacle in the way of dialogue among religions, which itself is the first step in the realization of any viable peace…Faith should flow like a river in order to exist; there can be little hope for a stagnant swamp”(ibd. 32). Fifth, the paradigm of dialogue includes a model of peace that is not guaranteed by power but by “the rational maturity of human beings” (ibd.). Finally, the paradigm of dialogue not only pertains to form but also implies content. It is a precondition for dialogue to make global justice an issue, and it is a consequence of the dialogical stance to make “lasting peace between man and nature…a top priority”. The Western “disentchantment of nature” has created global environmental problems that in the long run can only be solved by means of intercultural dialogue.

Dialogue and the self-understanding of the UN

In a speech before the United Nations General Assembly on September 21, 1998, Mohammad Khatami –then President of the Islamic Republic of Iran—proposed to the United Nations (UN) to proclaim a “’Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations,’ in the earnest hope that through such a dialogue the realization of universal justice and liberty may be initiated.” Shortly thereafter the General Assembly declared 2001 as  the “United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations.” Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed a personal representative for the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations and selected a group of 20 “Eminent Persons”, consisting of Nobel Laureates, former heads of state, and other distinguished individuals, to “ assist his personal representative in examining how confrontation and hostility in world politics could be replaced by discourse and understanding” (see Smith 2003, 555). After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, “issues associated with the Year of Dialogue among Civilizations immediately assumed a more prominent place on the UN’s agenda across the 56th Session of the General Assembly” (Smith 2003, 557). During two full days of plenary debate more than 60 speakers (including the secretary-general, the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, more  than 50 member states, and eight members of the Group of Eminent Persons) discussed the role of dialogue, based on two documents, the report of the Group of Eminent Persons titled Crossing the Divide: Dialogue among Civilizations, and the Global Agenda for Dialogue among Civilizations, a draft resolution prepared by President Khatami. This debate stimulated a more extensive reflection on the future role of the UN in promoting the Dialogue of Civilizations, with three main models being discussed. On the one hand, the UN could continue its previous role as passive framework, i.e., as a forum where dialogue is facilitated and grievances can be aired; on the other hand, the UN could also become an active framework, as “catalyst and participant in the process of building mutual understanding and reconciliation”, especially by facilitating the interaction between states and NGOs; finally, the UN could be an “autonomous actor” in promoting dialogue, especially also by providing social and economic assistance, by grassroots work in post-conflict areas, and by the greater involvement of the person of the secretary-general (cf. Smith 2003, 559-565). As the recent years have shown, the UN increasingly has adopted the last one of the three roles.

The program of the dialogue of cultures and civilization not only fostered a clearer vision of the UN as global organization, it also provided a root metaphor for individuals employed at the UN to understand their own mind-sets: “The final chapter of Crossing the Divide observes that the community of international civil servants who make up the Secretariat already represent the embodiment of a “dialogue mindset.” They are, by their very nature, inclined to view the perception of diversity as an opportunity for learning, not as a threat to one’s own identity. … There is some scholarly evidence, albeit rather dated, that all participants in the political processes of the UN and other international organizations, including the representatives of member states, do experience a learning process while engaged in multilateral diplomacy. Even more encouraging is the fact that this may be true for participants who only spend a limited amount of time at a multilateral conference. Therefore, as more and more states join the UN, as the number of NGOs involved with its work increases, and as the UN Global Compact Initiative gains additional participating businesses, the community of those individuals with a dialogue mindset centered around the UN will become an ever more important phenomenon in global politics” (Smith 2003, 566).

Promoting the dialogue mindset

After the end of the second term of his presidency in 2005 Mohammad Khatami continued to promote the dialogue mindset at the level of global NGO’s. He plays an active role in the Alliance of Civilizations, consisting of twenty former heads of states, and is the founding director of the Iranian International Institute for Dialogue among Cultures & Civilizations with a European branch in Geneva, Switzerland listed as Foundation for Dialogue among Civilizations. Since 2007 the Foundation collaborates closely with the Oslo Centre for Peace and Human Rights, and partly also the Club of Madrid, organizing dialogue-seminars and conferences with academics, politicians, and religious leaders on questions of extremism and tolerance, religion and politics, equality, women’s rights, and peace. For example, in October 2008 Khatami organized an international conference on the position of religion in the modern world. Among the invited speakers were Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, former Norwegian Prime Minister, former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, former Swiss President Joseph Deiss, former Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio, former Irish President Mary Robinson, former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former UNESCO director general Federico Mayor. In recognition of his efforts in promoting dialogue as a paradigm of international relations and as a mindset for political action, Khatami received many distinctions and awards (including seven honorary doctorates). Most recently, in 2006, the University of St. Andrews bestowed on Mohammad Khatami the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, conferred to recognize Mohammad Khatami’s work in building interfaith relations and his NGO work in promoting the dialogue among civilizations.

Reform efforts in Iranian national politics

The Global Dialogue Prize is awarded to Mohammad Khatami for his achievements in developing and promoting the idea of a dialogue of civilization as a paradigm of international relations. Even though the award is not related to Khatami’s conception of religious democracy, nor to his role as politician in the national politics of Iran, it might be useful to add a few pointers on the latter.

“We are by no means doomed to dissolve into modern civilization, but we cannot ignore its many great scientific, social, and political achievements” (Khatami 1999c, 84). Khatami’s political philosophy is mainly concerned with the task of devising a conceptual platform from within an Islamic framework for the basic political ideas of modern democracy: subjectivity, freedom, civil society. There are no obvious analogues to these terms, given the different histories of thought and given the different political histories which led to a stagnation of Muslim political philosophy after al-Farabi (Khatami 1999b). For example, the Western secular notion of subjectivity as developed during the European Enlightenment, as the autonomous foundation of moral freedom, human rights, and the right to citizenship, can play certain roles in political reasoning that cannot be directly performed by a notion of “mediated subjectivity”, i.e., the view that individual humans acquire power only by a temporary appropriation of the features of God (Vahdat 2001, ch. 4). Khatami’s political philosophy, like other proposals for religious democracys, thus can be characterized in terms of its transpositions and redescriptions of fundamental concepts of modern democracies. “Freedom, Khatami points out, should not be considered a mere political slogan: “Freedom means the freedom to oppose.” The state has the duty to provide the conditions for its opponents to have the freedom to express their opposition peacefully.”(Vahdat 2004, 651). Khatami combines a commitment to freedom of thought with commitment to pluralism: God has “created humans different. . . . Those who wish to homogenize society, especially with directives and from above, are moving in a direction opposed to the course [intended by] creation” (Khatami 2000, 60, quoted after Vahdat 2004, 658). “This frame of mind allows Khatami to propose a level of tolerance toward different and unorthodox ideas and practices hitherto not tolerated by the Islamic establishment in Iran” (Vahdat, ibd). Another distinctive element of Khatami’s political thought is the emphasis on people’s rights to political and social participation, while decreasing the role of the state in economic and cultural spheres. Khatami pronounced formally that the right to citizenship should be extended to non-Muslims and he took an explicit stance on women’s rights (Vahdat ibd, 659), based on a view of gender equality: In order to have a better future, the women of our society should abandon the notion that woman is the second sex and man the first sex and superior. Of course, woman is woman and man is man and any attempt to ignore the differences between them is an injustice to women, men and to society. Women and men are different, but woman is not the second sex and man is not the superior sex. They are both parts of the same humanity; each occupies her or his own particular position [in society] and both are dignified humans. We desire a proud society and only proud women and men can guarantee such a society. In the past it was presumed that men were superior to women in creation and that religion had endorsed this [alleged superiority]. It was because of this erroneous view that women, men and society were all oppressed” (Khatami 2000, 121, quoted after Vahdat 2004, 660).

Even though Khatami’s impact on Iranian social thought and political culture is frequently acknowledged, he was not successful, however, in realizing during his presidency the political reforms he envisaged and announced. As commentators have pointed out, there are both practical and theoretical reasons for such failings. However, commentators also point to some important achievements: “During Khatami’s two terms in office, the dissemination of democratic ideas, through the burgeoning of a freer press, became widespread and many channels for the deepening of these ideas, as a result of liberal policies toward book publications, became available, despite the intense efforts of antidemocratic forces to suppress them. The impact on people of hearing their own voices demanding individual and citizenship rights cannot but have honed the desire for more democracy” (Vahdat ibd. 664)