As an academic in Iran, one has to choose: either teach and publish the way the clergy see fit – or leave the country.
Sociologist and asylum-seeker Ali Tayefi chose the latter. “I left my identity. I lost my life and my family.”
He has been in Sweden for the past four years. He hopes he can stay on, or go somewhere else that’s safe. He does not want to go back to Iran, because he is afraid he will be put in jail. Swedish authorities are not of the same opinion, and Tayefi is presently an illegal immigrant in Sweden. “The Swedish judge asked me: ‘Why did you write something critical when you knew it was forbidden?’” Ali laughs dryly.
“I must follow my conscience and my heart. I have an obligation to my society.”
Recently he got in touch with Scholars at Risk, which is trying to help him to the USA. So is the American president of the organisation Sociologists Without Borders. But there are some serious obstacles, not least of which is that his passport has been confiscated.
UNISLAMIC STATISTICS: Sociologist Ali Tayefi could not live in the oppressive academic environment in Iran. “I could not publish a book on the brain drain. I asked my publisher why. He asked the Ministry of Culture. They just said that it was un-Islamic. Everything must be drawn from the Koran.” (Photo: Teresa Grøtan)
Ali Tayefi seems disillusioned. He has not seen his two children, now aged ten and 12, for four years. He does not speak much Swedish. Instead he is absorbed in Iranian academic life: Tayefi is the president of the Iranian branch of Sociologists Without Borders and runs two blogs about the situation in Iran (see his Sociology of Iran blog, in Persian).
Live two lives
The most recent protest against the Iranian regime occurred in October this year, as the Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presided over the ceremony opening the new academic year at the University of Tehran. Students called him a “dictator” and chanted “Death to the dictator!” They also protested against the imprisonment of student leaders. Only last year two students died in Iranian prisons.
According to Ali Tayefi, the fundamentalists in Iran want an Islamisation of the universities. They spread a dark shadow over the academic institutions and try to restrict academic freedom. “The academics have to assimilate to survive. Many try to teach secularism and democracy to their students in secret. In class they teach the way the clergy see fit, but in their free time they find other ways to meet and talk to the students.”
As a student, Tayefi was an active leader in demonstrations against the regime. Tayefi is a sociologist, but was never able to finish his PhD. His articles have been censored. Of the five books he has written, four are banned. Newspapers and magazines he contributed to have been closed down. He has never been able to get a permanent job. “I have encountered so many restrictions,” he says. For Tayefi it is clear this is because of his engagement in socio-cultural and political issues in Iran.
In 2003 the climate in Iran became increasingly hostile and oppressive and he left, after having been in Sweden and Germany to speak about the situation back home. Three months after his departure, the two people he travelled with, a professor at the University of Tehran and a journalist, were arrested. One of them now lives in exile in the USA and the other has “adapted” to the system.
Ali Tayefi is upset with the Swedish immigration authorities. He is tired of being suspected of coming to the country for the money. “I do not have an economic problem. I have an ideological problem with the Islamic regime.”
It is freedom that he seeks. Freedom to express what he believes is right. Freedom to publish results from his research on the social situation in Iran. Tayefi has done studies on prostitution, on street children, on violence against women and on the brain drain; there are 5.000 Iranian professors in the USA and Canada, yet only 1.800 in the whole of Iran.
He characterises the oppression of academics, journalists and writers as a form of torture. “When you cannot speak publicly about your field of study or publish your ideas, you are being tortured,” Tayefi says.
After the revolution in Iran in 1979, the universities were closed for three years, during which time all academics who did not agree with the revolution were dismissed. Many went to the USA or to Europe. According to Tayefi, there is a political filter for all people who seek a job in academia in Iran. “You are questioned about everything: your political ideas, your family, your opinion on Islam, your ethics, morals, your background in education and work and so on.” If your answers are not in accordance with Islamic ideology, you will not get the job.
Scholars continue to be pensioned off if they are found to have un-Islamic views. The Islamic theocracy is trying to impose its worldview on academia. According to Tayefi, the clergy, who also are in charge at the universities, believe all new science is Westernized. The intelligence apparatus, which is large and powerful in society at large, is particularly active in the universities: “The clergy do not trust the academics. They are prejudiced,” Tayefi says.
Ali Tayefi does not doubt that the political climate will change in Iran. Eventually. “History proves that science will win in the confrontation between science and religion. The religious way of thinking cannot survive in academia.” And he believes in the new generation: “Many young people have a new vision and are in conflict with the old men who are in control of society. The young people today live with so many restrictions. Many do not understand the revolution; they do not want Islamic thought,” Tayefi says. “They have new ideas about equality and social justice. The system cannot control all ideas and record all activities. This is my hope.”
Teresa Grøtan is the editor of Global Knowledge magazine, where this article was first published (no.2, 2007).