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Iran: Muscle Power vs. Brain Power - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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What are the duties of a true believer on the first night of his burial? How did Ayatollah Dast-Ghayb achieve martyrdom? What was the name of the lion who cried over Imam Hussein’s martyred corpse in the desert of Karbala?

These are some of the questions that young Iranians must answer before gaining admission to higher education.

The new interview system is part of a project designed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to “cleanse” Iranian higher education from what he regards as “the polluting influence of the Infidel”.

He says he wants to create “a truly Islamic university.”

One may wonder why the Islamic Republic, established 28 years ago, has not already done so.

During the past quarter of a century an estimated 10 million Iranians, including Ahmadinejad, have graduated from the nation’s 170 universities and centres of higher education. Should we regard them as products of the “satanic culture of the West”?

The radical president refers to his “academic cleansing” policy as ” The Second Islamic Cultural Revolution.”

The first “Islamic Cultural Revolution” was launched in 1980 by Khomeini who closed all centres of higher education for two years. A committee was created to “cleanse” the universities. Its members included the current “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi, and former presidents Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami. Its secretary-general was one Abdul-Karim Sorush, subsequently recast as the” Martin Luther of Islam”.

The committee purged over 6000 university professors and lecturers, virtually destroying the Iranian academia. Dozens of academics were executed as hundreds fled into exile. The committee also expelled thousands of students on charges of monarchist or Marxist tendencies. It also censored or totally re-wrote dozens of textbooks to conform to the Khomeinist ideology.

When the universities were reopened two years later, the committee tried to fill them with students and teachers sympathetic to Khomeinism. The trick was to allocate special places for members of The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and children of families believed to be loyal to the regime.

Further, it established a black list of authors and writings that has since become longer each year, reminding one of the worst days of the Inquisition in medieval Europe. The madness of censorship, supervised by the so-called Ministry of Islamic Orientation and Culture, reached a new peak this week when a new volume of Rafsanjai’s memoirs was banned! The lesson is simple: if you ban someone, someone will ban you! (I must acknowledge a personal interest: my name and all my books are on the black list!)

However, more than two decades of purges and “cultural cleansing” did not prevent Iranian universities from becoming major bastions of opposition to the Khomeinist ideology.

Under Khatami’s presidency, Iran experienced the largest and longest student revolt in its history. Khatami crushed the revolt through the IRGC with mass arrests and the expulsion of thousands of students.

Ahmadinejad launched his second “Islamic Cultural Revolution” last year by appointing a semi-literate mullah as Chancellor of Tehran University, the first time that a cleric was put in charge of the nation’s oldest and largest centre of higher education.

According to Ghulam-Hussein Hadad-Adel, Speaker of the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament, “the enemies of Islam are targeting the universities” with a view to encouraging reform.

The ruling establishment is clearly nervous about what would happen at universities when the academic year begins this month.

The purge ordered by Ahmadinejad started last July with the replacement of over 20 college deans. In almost every case, a bona fide academic was pushed out in favour of an IRGC member.

According to reports, scores of professors and lecturers have been told that their services are no longer required. The purged teachers include individuals who had previously served as members of the Islamic Majlis or, in two cases, as ministers in pre-Ahmadinejad Cabinets.

At the same time, dozens of academics have been arrested, including some returning from scientific conferences abroad. Among the latter are professors Hussein Bashiriyeh, Saeed Shahandeh and Hadi Samati.

An unknown number of students have been arrested throughout the country. In Tabriz, capital of the East Azerbaijan province, all seven members of the students union were picked up and taken to an unknown destination last month. The families of two of them Goshtasp Vaseqi and Muhammad Aslani claim that they may have died under torture. In Tehran over 150 student activists have been “disappeared” in recent weeks.

As part of the purge, 30 privately owned colleges have been shut and their assets seized. Thirteen others are under investigation. The moves could affect some 100,000 students whose studies will be interrupted.

Serving notice that any protest on the campus will be crushed, a special force, known as the Ashura Brigade, commanded by IRGC veteran General Qassem Kargar, has been assigned the task of “ensuring a peaceful atmosphere” at centres of higher education.

Ostensibly mandated to enforce the Islamic Dress Code, enacted in May 2006, armed guards are posted at all centres of higher education to prevent anti-regime demonstrations.

“Cleansing” the universities through expulsions and arrests may be easy for a government prepared to use force against un-armed civilians. However, when it comes to the content of education, things are not as easy as the Tehran radicals might wish.

A report prepared for Ahmadinejad claims that at least 40 per cent of the textbooks in use in Iranian universities do not conform to Khomeinist dogma. The problem for the authorities is that it has alienated the Iranian intellectual elite.

No Iranian author, academic or scientist of note would be prepared to participate in the so-called “Islamic Cultural Revolution.” Efforts to find somebody to prepare a cursus on Khomeini’s supposed “philosophy” have provoked only derision among intellectuals approached to assume the task. After months of efforts to prepare a special course on Ahmadnejad’s denial of the Holocaust, the committee charged with the task has produced nothing but a slim pamphlet that consists almost entirely of translations from Western “negationist” writers.

Iran today is a society whose “muscle” power is at war against its “brain” power.

Hadad-Adel says the Islamic Republic must prevent “dangerous thoughts and ideas”.

But, who decides what is dangerous?

In fact, the central role of the university is to allow dangerous thoughts and ideas to be expressed and measured against other thoughts and ideas. The imposition of a uniform mode of thought and prefabricated ideas is better suited to a concentration camp than a university campus.

The first “Islamic Cultural Revolution” failed to subject generations of Iranians to mass brainwashing in the name of education. The second one will also fail. One national characteristic of Iranians is curiosity, and a taste for different and dangerous thoughts and ideas.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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