While some strive to throw Catalonia’s political process into the snake pit that Europe’s populist movements dwell in, other observers abroad understand it as a passionate, democratic struggle. Iranian-born philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo is a Canadian citizen who was educated in France following the European philosophical tradition. He is the director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies at Delhi’s Jindal Global University. Jahanbegloo has studied interculturality and non-violence as civilising mechanisms, with Gandhi as his main reference point, together with Martin Luther King and Václav Havel.
On the evening of October 1 2017, upset by the images of Spanish police violence outside Catalonia’s polling stations, Jahanbegloo wrote an article for this newspaper entitled Homage to Catalonia: an Obligation to Disobey. This is the piece’s closing paragraph: “So what does the Catalonian referendum show us? That the attempt at containment of the vital public space of citizens of a city, a region or a country as the exemplification of a shared community marks the decline of a democracy, which can no longer think in terms of freedom as “thick action”. As a result, if Catalonians are disobedient to the Spanish constitution, it is not only to practice self-development and self-transformation of Catalonia as their preferences, but also to tackle the shortcomings of the Spanish democracy. This is the point where critical thinking and dissenting action are blended in order to explore new vistas of change and exchange for Spanish, European and the larger humanity’s common life in a time when populism and mass immaturity are holding each other in sway. This is where a look back at George Orwell’s “decency of human beings” becomes a call to political wisdom and the process of democratising democracies around the world.”
As a philosopher, Jahanbegloo is devoted to improving democracy and he regards free thinking as a permanent expression of dissent. A former political prisoner in Iran and a man of multiple identities, Jahanbegloo was back in Barcelona this week and we had a relaxed chat over a cup of coffee. A relentless supporter of non-violence, he believes that “violence destroys democracy” and that “PM Rajoy took away his own legitimacy when he used violence against the people”. Jahanbegloo, author of Celebrating Diversity, is familiar with the Catalan issue and believes that Catalonia must draw a distinction between two levels: “Living together in the public sphere” —he argues— “is not about cultural identity because there isn’t one single identity but plural identities across the world”. And he emphasises that “putting up a wall around you is your defeat”.
Jahanbegloo has observed many civic struggles the world over and is monitoring Catalan politics closely: “I adore this passion for freedom at a time when complacency, conformity and apathy are leading to the downfall of democracy”. Nine months after Catalonia’s self-determination referendum and after a thousand political adversities, I asked Jahanbegloo how Catalan president Quim Torra and Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez ought to approach their first face-to-face meeting. Jahanbegloo is certain that dialogue is the only useful instrument for conflict resolution: “They should not speak for the news outlets; instead, they should talk to each other transparently and not dwell on slogans but go to the bottom of the issue: democracy and the release of the Catalan prisoners. He is deeply disturbed by the nine Catalan prisoners currently held on remand: “I cannot abide by that. The only instance where political prisoners are conceivable is in the case of crimes against humanity”. And he concludes that “you cannot lock someone up because of their views. There is no divine regulation that decides who is a heretic. We are all heretics, if we wish to have a critical mindset, myself included. Gandhi was a heretic, as were Martin Luther King, Buddha, and Christ. It sounds like blasphemy, but they will succeed if they think about dialogue and democracy rather than violence and politics”.
The key to the prison
Following our conversation, I caught the images of a visibly upset president Torra leaving the Puig de les Basses facility where he visited Carme Forcadell and Dolors Bassa, whose imprisonment he called “indecent”. Torra holds the keys to the Catalan prison cells, but he has learnt that the Spanish State bars no holds and will resort to violence as and when necessary, so it is time for the independence movement to adopt a fresh strategy. It is time to prepare the ground for a future strategy that still rests on a democratic majority, dialogue, non-violence and useful disobedience without pointless gesturing. The only items available for a journey inspired by Gandhi are a democratic passion, majorities and respect for the truth.