Idea Center for Arts and Culture, LLC

Idea Center for Arts and Culture, LLC The Idea Center for Arts and Culture (IDEACAC) facilitates cultural dialogue and a local level understanding of the non-Western world. Mehdi Khalaji, CEO

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, known for his work on hermeneutics, or interpretation, writes in his magnum opus, Truth and Method: "To reach an understanding in a dialogue is not merely a matter of putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one's own point of view, but being transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were."

One hears in this language an echo of the earlier thinker Martin Buber's "I and Thou" relationship, and the transcendence that can be achieved through empathic communication. Central to the overarching message here is the role of perspective, and perspective is intrinsically linked with culture, or all the convictions and conventions that make up our individual and social lives. Culture is both a producing engine and a product of socioeconomic and political structures, relations, and entities. Therefore, an understanding of the culture of an "other" is essential to understanding her experience of the world. A misunderstanding of culture, by comparison, can lead to a failure of communication, and—in the worst instances when communication stops—violence. I was born to a religious family in Qom, Iran, the theological center of Shia Islam. Despite the Islamic Republic's ubiquitous presence in news headlines over the last thirty-five years, Qom, I was shocked to learn, is virtually unknown in the West. My awareness of this gap in the Western mind was reinforced by my years as a student of Islam in Iran and Paris, as a journalist in Iran and the West, and about a decade's work at a prestigious Washington, D.C., think tank, where I focused on Iran and Shia Islam in the Middle East. A great number of policy makers and journalists, I observed daily, lacked a basic knowledge of the cultural and historical contexts they discussed. Failures of communication, and policy, were therefore inevitable. Having inhabited two worlds, East and West, and traveled in more than thirty countries over four continents, I began to notice cultural walls that, despite their prominence and thickness, were invisible to many—not only to policy makers, businesspeople, and other leaders but also to ordinary people. Take the Yazidis, for example, who were recently targeted by ISIS militants: many in the Middle Easthad never heard of this ethnic group before its moment in the news this past summer. Another example: the meaningful distinctions between Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis, of which many in the region are unaware. Westerners, for their part, often do not perceive how non-Westerners constantly redefine their identity and rewrite their history, and how various historicizing mechanisms affect people's social, economic, and political choices. The role of the Orthodox Church in Russia's current political-economic scene, for example, cannot be compared to what it was just a few decades ago. Art and culture also have a huge impact on non-Western societies, an often underappreciated reality. Soft power matters. Interestingly, leaders across the Islamist spectrum—from the Shiites of Iran to Salafists in various locales—all appreciate the significance of soft power and firmly believe they are engaged in a cultural war against the West. When they see native-born intellectuals and artists spreading secular-liberal values through their work such as tolerance, freedom, fairness, justice, and human rights, they see unpaid agents of the West. Miniskirts, Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei once said, are a greater threat to Islamic ideology than bombs. I agree with him. In countries or territories ruled by fundamentalists, obscurantism, or the prevention of the spread of knowledge, can only be uprooted through exposure to free, liberal cultures and their values. The invariable challenge that arises from this discussion is how to make different cultures accessible; how to break down the walls; how to clear the ground for true communication that leads to alliances and cooperation rather than discord, misunderstanding, and war. The "age of extremes," as the twentieth century was known, an age of radicalization and ideologization, has persisted and even hardened into the twenty-first century. Whether religious or atheistic, all radicals are somehow inspired by Karl Marx's doctrine that "the philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." Trying to change the world without understanding it, as we have seen too often, leads only to tragedy. Perhaps more than ever before, we must learn that understanding itself is changing. These are the reflections that have led me, after years in the seminary, academia, the press corps, and the Washington policy community, to create an organization that focuses on culture and the arts and serves diplomats, politicians, entrepreneurs, and even charities. Yet my ambition in creating the Idea Center for Arts and Culture goes beyond this pragmatic step: it is to help overcome the hatred, violence, and illusions spurred by obscurantism—to spread the ideas of artists and intellectuals and therefore to promote openness, inclusion, and peace. Still another critical element of this project involves language. Over fifteen years in the West, I have noted the respect with which fluent, eloquent speakers of European languages are embraced by the media and policy community. Often, avowed experts on Islam and the Middle East speak nothing but English. This favoritism has a dear cost. Outside the West, individuals who do not speak English or other Western languages have invaluable perspectives on their societies, but these perspectives have too often remained inaccessible because untranslated. The Idea Center will therefore adopt as a central mission the translation and dissemination of ideas from analysts, academics, and writers who do not speak English. The center's translators are eager and prepared to break down these barriers to local knowledge. This practice of translation also resonates with the principle that began this discussion. Communication can only occur when distinct individuals engage in a dialogue. For this to happen, native voices must be given their due, without the gloss of interpretation or representation. In this wide-ranging translation effort, of course, we will enlist more than just "primary sources," calling on reliable content in everything from print to social media. As for the center's name, idea is a powerful word without equivalent in non-Western languages that comes from the philosophical Latin videre, "to see." Seneca used the word as a translation for Plato's Greek idein,which means "visible form, aspect" and later meant "distinctive form, essence." Since Plato, the word has been widely used by philosophers and loaded with different meanings. In philosophy, it was placed at the junction of objectivity (the "idea" in Hegel) and subjectivity ("ideas" in Locke and Kant) and at the crossing point expressed in Descartes by the "objective reality of the idea." In aesthetics, the word is also rich, sometimes indicating the relationship between an image's surface and an underlying reality or model. By choosing idea as our organization's name, we invite our interlocutor to "see," to question the dichotomy between objective and subjective, to discover the boundaries and possibilities of "seeing" and creating "ideas," and to get closer to the "other" by seeing her, not just looking at her. Rimbaud says, "I is an other." One who does not see the other is blind to his own "self." The Idea Center welcomes the input of any artists or thinkers who see merit in our project. We do admit a special regard for those who have inhabited more than one cultural world and whose work reflects multiplicity and a desire to build bridges between cultures. My great hope is for the Idea Center to connect unconnected people, to facilitate interaction between and among artists from different lands, and to therefore offer a forum for fresh, stimulating artwork and ideas. Such a community will in turn help promote clearheaded, effective policy and business endeavors and, I am convinced, become a home for all those who believe culture matters.


1430 K St NW
Washington, DC


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