Widening the Tightrope: Public Spheres, Hegemony, and Khatami’s ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’
In 1997, the newly elected president of Iran, Mohammed Khatami, called for opening a ‘dialogue of civilizations’ as a response to Huntington’s prophecy of an inevitable clash between the ‘West’ and (the Islamic) ‘East.’ Many commentators have read this as an attempt on the part of Khatami to create a Habermasian international public sphere in which actors, through mutual recognition and rational discussion, can solve conflicts through breaking down ossified cultural and strategic essentialisms. Yet this account glosses over the particular political dynamics, both international and domestic, that Khatami was responding to with the call for dialogue. This paper re-frames Khatami’s push for the ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’ through a Gramscian lens as a counter-hegemonic ‘war of position,’ aimed both at American discursive political dominance internationally, and the religious conservatives’ discursive political dominance domestically. In both ‘discursive spheres,’ Khatami attempted to extend the space of legitimate political action beyond traditional structures of diplomacy (internationally) and Islamic governance (domestically) to include elements of society previously seen as politically ‘impotent’ in the face of inter-state/inter-cultural conflict (academics, religious leaders, civil society, etc.). Framing the 'Dialogue' project as a battle to re-negotiate the hegemonic terrains on which Khatami had to operate, instead of as an attempt to create an ‘international public sphere’ as a genuinely new kind of political space, better situates the project between both the political developments leading up to the reform movement taking power, and the hegemonic context of its dismantling by the re-assertion of American hegemonic discourse since 2001.
Keywords: Iran, Habermas, Gramsci, International Relations, Social Theory, Khatami, Politics
Postgraduate Student, Department of Development Studies