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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