Iranian Universities: Apostates and Dissidents Need Not Apply

When Columbia University president Lee Bollinger chastised Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prior to his address on September 24, he cited a litany of evidence marking the Iranian strongman as a “petty and cruel dictator.” Yet Bollinger failed to highlight an issue that should have elicited outrage from a leading figure of academia: the discrimination directed at minorities and dissidents by the higher education system of the Islamic Republic.


A degree is rarely an end in itself. From Morningside Heights to Tehran, young people view these credentials as tickets to gainful employment and enhanced social standing. Denial of access can therefore carry a lifetime of negative consequences – which makes it such an effective means of oppression. Americans understand this reality all too well. Who does not look back in shame at the segregated South, where governors from a certain political faction fought the enrollment of black students at state universities?

While U.S. academic institutions now bend over backwards – some might say too far backwards – to promote a diverse campus, their Iranian counterparts proceed from a very different set of ideals. This is particularly apparent in the vexing maze of barriers deployed to thwart the matriculation of Bahais, adherents to a faith that the mullahs deem illegitimate.

Bahais comprise Iran’s largest non-Muslim minority. They worship one God but recognize a broad series of divine messengers spanning Eastern and Western traditions. Though the sect is peaceful and shuns politics, Bahais have long been persecuted as apostates from Islam. Repression has escalated in recent years, possibly due to the ascendancy of the Hojjatieh, a secretive and militantly anti-Bahai organization that coalesced in 1953; Ahmadinejad is often reputed to be a member.

Iran’s educational establishment contributes to this campaign. Just days before the Columbia fiasco, Human Rights Watch noted that 800 of the 1,050 Bahais who took the summer 2007 standardized entrance exam have been unable to obtain their scores, thus halting the application process before it begins. “One student said that an official told him they had ‘received orders from above not to score the tests of Bahai students.'” Another official remarked that a student “would be able to receive his test scores only if his family renounced their faith.”


This episode is just the latest in a series of indignities suffered by Iranian Bahais who simply desire to learn. Prior to 2004, exam forms had mandated that students identify their religious affiliation from a list of pre-approved options. “Bahai” was never among them, resulting in rejection by default. While this requirement was dropped and 178 Bahais enrolled in the fall of 2006, at least seventy had been expelled by the following February. Finally, Bahai academies that aim to circumvent the state system are subjected to frequent raids and property seizures.

The paper trail places these actions in their proper context. A 1991 memorandum distributed by the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council proclaims that Bahais “must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies.” A leaked 2006 letter from the headquarters of Payame Noor University conveys similar instructions to its regional branches.

Religious issues alone do not drive academic discrimination in Iran; the freedoms of expression and association are treated with equal contempt. Western institutions commit their own sins in this area, enacting speech codes and other instruments of ideological control. However, outright denials of access based on political views remain thankfully rare in this part of the world. The Islamic Republic is not so gracious toward its nonconformists.


Two blatant examples come to mind. First, students protesting the closure of a reformist newspaper were violently suppressed in July 1999. An unknown number were killed and others were dispatched to the notorious Evin Prison. Second, Iranian higher education has witnessed a rolling purge since the election of 2005. This has included forced retirements, the installation of a cleric at the head of Tehran University, and Ahmadinejad’s call for students to oust secular professors.

Away from the cameras, real or imagined dissidents face an array of more subtle obstacles. An October 2006 HRW backgrounder catalogs seventeen students barred from either completing their degrees or registering for programs to which they had been accepted. Sixteen of them are known activists or members of pro-reform Islamic Student Associations; the other happens to be the daughter of a persecuted intellectual. Dozens more were suspended for up to two semesters by campus disciplinary committees.

The motive underlying these exclusions is made clear by the scores of students who have been allowed to register only after signing a pledge “to observe all ideological, political, and moral regulations within the current legal framework, in particular the university’s disciplinary regulations. I understand that in case of any instance of acting against the terms of this commitment letter, the relevant officials are allowed to cancel my registration and to prevent my further education.”


In a way, the students who have been expelled, intimidated, or otherwise kept in limbo are the fortunate ones. The HRW report lists thirty-five campus activists who were sentenced to fines, imprisonment, and even lashings by the Iranian Judiciary during the 2005-2006 academic year. More recently, eight student journalists were jailed in the run-up to Islamic Student Association elections this spring. Another group of students was detained in July for protesting the aforementioned arrests.

Such incidents expose the true character of the Islamic Republic, a dystopia where the educational establishment is wielded as a weapon against undesirable sects and individuals. They also underscore the confusion plaguing Western universities. Boycotts against Israeli schools are the cause du jour for campus progressives, but the overt persecution of Bahais and student activists in Iran is an uncomfortable truth to be dropped down the memory hole.

A quote from the Columbia event provides a fitting capstone: “In a university environment we must allow people to speak their mind, to allow everyone to talk so that the truth is eventually revealed by all.” No, these words were not uttered by President Bollinger in solidarity with young Iranians, or even in defense of the controversial invitation extended to their leader. Instead they came from the “petty and cruel dictator” himself – a man who is clearly unconcerned about irony.


That Ahmadinejad would attempt to becloud the repressive policies of his government is understandable. But must he insult our intelligence while doing so?

David J. Rusin holds a Ph.D. in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Pennsylvania. His interests include foreign affairs and security policy. He may be contacted at [email protected].


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