Khatami Comes to Harvard


On September 10, the reality outside the Kennedy School at Harvard was a stark inversion of the usual scene, as former President Mohammad Khatami of Iran arrived to speak. When protesters appear at these events, they usually bear banners of peace or the occasional Palestinian or Lebanese flag, but today the protesters on the sidewalk, organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council, had engulfed themselves in a sea of blue and white Israeli flags. Members of the young Republicans and Democrats of Harvard, usually to be found among the audience inside and ever anxious to toady up to the celebrity of the moment, were now outside, making bipartisan common cause on the street to protest the invitation to Mohammad Khatami.

What had happened? The whole town, both on the Boston and Cambridge side of the Charles, had been thrown into a tizzy by Harvard’s invitation to Khatami. The most virulent local neocon columnist, one Jeff Jacoby whose words grace the pages of the Boston Globe, was apoplectic that a “terrorist” had been invited to dear old Harvard. (Jacoby, like Mike Barnicle before him, writes the same column over and over again, a column, which can be summarized as: Muslims are devils, America is great, Bush is greater, and Israel is greatest.) One columnist for the Boston Herald opined that the “Arab Lobby” (whatever that is) was in command at Harvard. The reliable Alan Dershowitz also in the Globe equated Khatami to David Duke, a comparison recently reserved for his fellow faculty member Professor Walt, co-author of the Mearsheimer and Walt paper exposing the role of the Israel Lobby in ginning up the war on Iraq. (Dershowitz allowed that Khatami should not be prevented from speaking but that Harvard should be more careful with its invitations.) Descending to new depths, Republican Governor Mitt Romney nursed his presidential ambitions by denying to Khatami the protection of the Massachusetts state police, leaving the State Department gendarmes and the Boston police to take up the slack. Romney is quite the sick puppy, sending a message that it is fine for every nut to go after a foreign dignitary not to his liking.

What had happened to so roil our fair city? This question can be addressed on many levels. But of one thing we can be certain. The visa granted to Khatami to visit five American cities was a defeat for the Israeli Lobby, and no corner of that amen corner was happy about it. At the national level, some neocons, as in the Washington Times’s editorial on the matter, sniffed that it was a minor event, which could not hurt. Others were furious, like Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations who noted in his column in the LA Times that the visa could only give aid and comfort to the “quartet of evil” in the Middle East: Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. (The axis of evil has now lost its Iraqi and North Korean members and, in a political tribute to the primacy of momentum and energy over mass, spun itself into a quartet.) The Khatami visa is the third major defeat for the Lobby. First came the Mearsheimer and Walt paper; next the defeat of the master of sanctimonies, Joe Lieberman, the Lobby’s favorite senator, in Connecticut by Ned Lamont, he of the Old Money; and now the visa given to Khatami. So however one interprets the visa, it was not something that the Lobby desired. It certainly does not make engineering an American attack on Iran any easier for them.

So whence cometh the visa? It was obvious from the outset that both President Bush and Secretary of State Rice had approved it, something which Bush openly but belatedly admitted. But why? Some say that Bush is trying to appear more peace like leading up to the mid-term elections. This hardly seems plausible since the visit will not register even a one on the political Richter scale. Others say that Khatami is a pro-U.S. mole on the Iranian political scene, but that too seems very far-fetched and not in accord with past attacks on him by the U.S. The third and most plausible scenario is that perhaps Khatami provides an avenue for backing off from a losing confrontation with Iran and perhaps also an aid in yanking free of the Iraqi tar baby. And if Khatami is a vehicle for turning away from war in the Middle East, the non-neocon political establishment a la Mearsheimer, Walt, Brzezinski, Lamont et al may be scoring a victory. It is too soon to say, but too few are asking the question. (In this I am not suggesting that the non-neocon imperialists are turning over a new leaf. In the end it cannot be left to them to be anti-Empire, but they may be useful allies in avoiding a harrowing string of wars in the Middle East which they see as a grave error for their Empire, benefiting only Israel.)

Khatami versus Huntington. Clash of Civilizations versus Dialogue of Civilizations.

There is great irony in Khatami showing up at Harvard since Khatami is the foremost international spokesman, opposing Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington’s view of “The Clash of Civilizations.” Huntington’s “theory,” which may be taken as the ur-document of neocon foreign policy made its debut in a 1993 paper in Foreign Policy, “The Clash of Civilizations,” followed by a book of the same name. This very phrase has been front and center in Bush’s speeches recently, including his pathetic discourse on the anniversary of 9/11. Two features distinguish Huntington’s “theory”. First it is marked by a bellicosity, which sees conflict and war as the inevitable result of differences. And second it postulates an unavoidable clash between the U.S./European “civilization” on one side and the Sinic (i.e., Chinese) on the other. In this clash, the Muslim “civilization” will be an inevitable ally of the Sinic (from which Japan is conveniently excepted). This of course is a very convenient view of the world for partisans of Oil, Empire and Israel.

Looking back at Huntington’s book in an essay in The Nation October 4, 2001, “The Clash of Ignorance,” well worth reading today, the late Edward Said noted how Huntington’s ideas were used to view the world in the wake of the events of 9/11:

“Most of the argument in the pages that followed relied on a vague notion of something Huntington called “civilization identity” and “the interactions among seven or eight [sic] major civilizations,” of which the conflict between two of them, Islam and the West, gets the lion’s share of his attention. In this belligerent kind of thought, he relies heavily on a 1990 article by the veteran Orientalist Bernard Lewis, whose ideological colors are manifest in its title, “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” In both articles, the personification of enormous entities called “the West” and “Islam” is recklessly affirmed, as if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly, with one always more virtuous pugilist getting the upper hand over his adversary. Certainly neither Huntington nor Lewis has much time to spare for the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilization, or for the fact that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of each culture, or for the unattractive possibility that a great deal of demagogy and downright ignorance is involved in presuming to speak for a whole religion or civilization. No, the West is the West, and Islam Islam.”

Conveniently for the Lobby, Wilson also claimed that, in the looming titanic confrontation between China and the West, the Muslim civilization would necessarily fall into the Sinic camp. This despite oppression of Muslims in China. But never mind that inconvenient fact; like those eager Harvard undergrad politicos, Wilson knew who buttered his bread. Armed with this “theory,” champions of the everlasting dominance of the American Empire and the control of that most precious resource, petroleum, could make common cause with Israel in going after the Arabs. With that common U.S./Israeli enemy put away, the Empire could then proceed to deal with “Sinic civilization.” Such are the “theories” that occupy the minds of Empire’s strategists. What great thinkers are these.

In response to this “theory” an Iranian cleric, scholar and political figure, Mohammad Khatami, put forward the idea of a “Dialogue Among Civilizations.” Wikipedia informs us that:

Mr. Khatami introduced the theory of Dialogue Among Civilizations as a response to Huntington’s theory of Clash of Civilizations. After introducing the concept of his theory in several international societies (most importantly the U.N.) the theory gained a lot of international support. Consequently the United Nations proclaimed the year 2001 (! ) as the United Nations’ Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations, as per Khatami’s suggestion. Pleading for the moralization of politics, Khatami argued that “The political translation of dialogue among civilizations would consist in arguing that culture, morality and art must prevail on politics.” Khatami has become an international personality, and he has gained much fame among intellectuals all over the world.

In fact Khatami was in the U.S. just before last Sunday’s Harvard visit to attend a U.N. conference on the Dialogue Among Civilizations along with Desmond Tutu and many others. And yet of Khatami the U.S. press had little to say other than he might be a supporter of “terrorism.”

So while Khatami is a cleric and many of his ideas are garbed in the rhetoric of religion, his fundamental view that dialogue is better than war is well worth heeding. And as an alternative to the neocons’ bellicose views on the inevitable Hobbesian Clash of Civilizations, it recommends itself highly.

JOHN WALSH can be reached at

* He did not include the shameful behavior of the establishment peace and justice complex at the time of the Khatami visit but hopes to comment on that in the near future. A video of Khatami’s speech and the Q&A session at Harvard should be posted soon on the Kennedy School’s web site soon.



John V. Walsh, until recently a Professor of Physiology and Neuroscience at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, has written on issues of peace and health care for the San Francisco Chronicle, EastBayTimes/San Jose Mercury News, Asia Times, LA Progressive,, CounterPunch and others.