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Iranian Students, Activists Condemn Planned Changes To Social Sciences

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (center) at a ceremony to swear in students of a military university in early November.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (center) at a ceremony to swear in students of a military university in early November.
Plans are afoot in Iran to bring the social sciences into line with Islamic teachings, leaving students like Sam worried.

Sam, a 29-year-old who studies social sciences in Tehran, believes authorities have targeted his field of study because it helps develop critical thinking.

"Social sciences are intolerable to religious [fanatics] whose most backward spectrum is currently ruling Iran," he says on condition that his real name not be used.

But Sam also says the efforts of Iranian authorities, who have announced changes to university social-science curriculums that they intend to implement over the next few years, will ultimately fail.

If the effort is intended to silence lines of thinking that could compete or contrast with officially sanctioned views, then Sam believes authorities must look far beyond Iran's universities.

"Today the creation of new ideas in Iran is not limited to universities," Sam says. "I can even say that in unofficial [structures] the creation and spread of new ideas is more widespread. The universities of Iran are today nothing more than publishing centers for degrees."

At issue is the way in which universities teach the social sciences, fields of study that include law, philosophy, management, political science, psychology, women's studies, and human rights. While the fields have achieved universal acceptance, Iranian authorities have announced restrictions on the university-level study of 12 social sciences designed to make them more palatable with respect to the Iranian republic's values.

Closing Ranks

Senior education official Abolfazl Hassani, announcing the restrictions in October, said that the curriculum of those dozen subjects is based on the Western school of thought and therefore not in line with Islamic fundamentals.

Hassani said no new departments relating to the 12 fields of study will be allowed to open, and 70 percent of the content currently being taught is slated for revision. The changes, intended to bring the courses into line with the religious teachings of the Islamic republic, will be finalized by the summer of 2011.

The announcement is seen as a response to criticisms of the social sciences voiced by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in August 2009.

Khamenei criticized the social sciences for engendering doubt about religious principles and suggested that the authorities look seriously into altering the curriculums of social science courses.

His criticism of the social science has since been echoed by other officials, including the head of Iran's Basij force, Mohammad Reza Naghdi, and the head of the country's judiciary, Javad Larijani.

Larijani has focused his criticism on psychology and sociology, which he says are incompatible with religious theories. Naghdi has gone so far as to claim the social sciences are the foundation of a "soft war" against the Islamic republic.

Criticism has also come from conservative figures such as hard-line cleric Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor, who has called university professors of law and political science "corrupt" and accused them of training many of those who played a key role in last year's "sedition," a term used by Iranian officials to describe the mass protests that followed Ahmadinejad's 2009 reelection.

Seeking Revenge?

Sam, the student from Tehran, says the offensive demonstrates the "very fragile" position of the social sciences in Iran. Yet he and other students who spoke to RFE/RL believe that authorities will ultimately fail in their renewed efforts to "Islamicize" humanities.

Recent graduate Said, who now has a management degree from Iran's Azad University, says the Islamic republic cannot put its own stamp on the social sciences because it lacks the resources to go it alone.

"Who have they had as a source or authority [on humanities] in the past 30 years that they could use now?" Said asks. "Those who cut [off] hands are now planning to alter [the teaching of] human rights. A group of their own people wants to dig up laws from 1,400 years ago and implement them."

"They can't do it," Said says. "We're not living in a time where they can stop people's ideas and actions."

Another university graduate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says that the campaign against the social sciences must be seen in the context of increased repression against universities, which were at the center of antigovernment protests in 2009. A former Azad University accounting and philosophy student who was among those arrested amid the unrest that followed Ahmadinejad's reelection, he says authorities are seeking revenge.

"We witnessed the social sciences and their products being put on trial," he notes, describing the current moves as politicians interfering in the academic sphere.

This, he predicts, will prompt a reaction from students and professors, giving the authorities an excuse to intensify pressure on academics who have criticized the establishment.

A senior member of Advar Tahkim Vahdat, the political committee of the alumni organization of Iran's largest reformist student group, says on condition of anonymity that changes to the curriculum of the social sciences could hamper the work of academics, leading them to leave the country to pursue their studies.

"A significant number of talented students will leave Iran," he warns, "and those who are interested in social sciences and can't leave the country will be forced to quit social sciences and become frustrated."

He says he knows many students of the social sciences who have already begun to brush up on their foreign-language skills so they can pursue their studies elsewhere. Others, he predicts, will continue their studies outside the university framework in Iran.

Possible Responses

Opposition figures have been vocal in condemning efforts to alter the way social sciences are taught, saying it is a sign of authoritarianism.

Earlier this month, former President Mohammad Khatami warned of unforeseen consequences.

"When in the Middle Ages sanctities were extended everywhere and to everything, man rebelled and reacted by putting aside all [religious issues] because even issues that were not holy had become holy during those times."

In July, opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi said that the "organized attack" on social sciences serves as a reminder of the "bitter experience of the former Soviet Union and other totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe that placed restrictions on the humanities." He added that totalitarian regimes that copy such methods would face a similar fate.

One of Musavi's advisers, Amir Arjomand, recently accused Iranian authorities of preparing an "academic coup" following last year's "election coup." Having fled Iran in recent months, he suggested during a speech in Berlin in mid-November that academics and intellectuals should launch an online humanities-based university for the people of Iran that would allow them to study social sciences at the international level.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.