The Islamic Shadow

Scholars at Risk: “When you cannot speak publicly about your field of study or publish your ideas, you are being tortured,” says Iranian sociologist Ali Tayefi.

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.

Ali Tayefi (photo: Teresa Grøtan)
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.

Poli­ti­cal fil­ter
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).

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