The following open letter was published in the November 1997 issue
of MESA (Middle East Studies Association) Newsletter . The occasion for
writing this open letter was the claim made by Abdulkarim Soroush, or his
promoters, in the previous issue of MESA Newsletter that Soroush was instrumental
in opening Iranian universities. The reply and correction of Professor
Anne Betteridge, Executive Director of MESA, was published in the same
issue of MESA Bulletin. -- Sohrab Behdad
October 7, 1997
An Open Letter to the Committee on Academic Freedom in the Middle East
and North Africa (CAFMENA) of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA).
I am writing this letter to you to express my appreciation for the effort
of your committee in defending the academic freedom of our colleagues in
the Middle East and North Africa. I would also like to congratulate the
committee for defending the academic freedom of scholars in the Middle
East and North Africa irrespective of the political or ideological orientation
of the scholars whose rights have been violated and the political disposition
of the governments that have violated these rights. The defense of academic
freedom and human rights is meaningful only when it is extended to all,
even, or perhaps especially, to those with whom we disagree. I am therefore
very pleased to see CAFMENA defending the academic freedom of Dr. Abdul-Karim
I find it delightfully ironic, however, that my association defends
a man who could but did not defend my academic freedom and human rights
and those of many of my colleagues and many more of my students when their
freedom and rights were brutally violated by the Cultural Revolution of
the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Spring of 1980 and the years that followed.
Worse, Dr. Soroush was one of the seven men appointed to the Council for
Cultural Revolution (CCR) by Ayatollah Khomeini. This was an especially
important body. It included members of the Revolutionary Council, former
and future candidates of presidency of the Islamic Republic, a future Prime
Minister, and one who served as the as the Vice President of the Islamic
Republic for many years. The charge of this council was Islamization of
Iranian universities and "selection and preparation of committed and
informed professors and other affairs related to the Islamic Educational
Revolution" (Keyhan, 24 Khurdad 1359).
Hence the CCR became the administrator of the affairs of the closed
universities; the dehumanizing and brutal process of purging and ideological
cleansing (paksazi) of the professors and students began in the Iranian
universities. Those were ugly years in the Iranian universities. I have
alluded to some of these events in my articles in the May 1995 issue of
the International Journal of Middle East Studies and the Fall 1997 issue
of Kankash. Dr. Soroush was in a position of responsibility when the Iranian
academic community was under the most serious intellectual, psychological
and even physical assault. I do not recall hearing a word of support from
Dr. Soroush. I said I find it delightfully ironic that my association
comes to the defense of a man who regards himself as an intellectual but
was a part of the machinery that destroyed an intellectual community.
Be it a reminder to those who may be in the position of power today. Be
it an example for those who have eyes and can see.
Looking at the program for the upcoming meeting of MESA in our recent
MESA Newsletter I was astonished to see Dr. Soroush being represented as
a person "who was influential in persuading the late Ayatollah Khomeini
to reopen Iranian universities following the 1979 Revolution." This
statement is incorrect and fictitious and has no place in the MESA program.
The 1979 revolution did not close the Iranian universities. It, in fact,
opened them as the Shah had closed them in the year before. The Cultural
Revolution of the Spring of 1980 closed the Iranian universities and Dr.
Soroush and his CCR was in charge of Islamization of universities.
This, I suppose, should be pointed out to the Program Committee as a
correction. But I think the issue is more serious than this and involves
the sensitive matter of academic freedom. The Iranian professors and students
who listened to Dr. Soroush's offensive ideological sermons in the Iranian
mass media in the early post-revolutionary years, and who have seen him
in action at the height of his power in the CCR would find it unconscionable
that such a serious offender of academic freedom be invited to speak to
an association that defends these rights. Are we supposed to consider
the little insertion that he "was influential in persuading the late
Ayatollah Khomeini to reopen Iranian universities" as a statement
of repentance? Where did he persuade anyone to open the Iranian universities?
Where was such "persuasion" stated? Where did he defend the
academic freedom or even the basic human rights of Iranian academics?
Did he oppose the Cultural Revolution and the activities of the CCR?
Did he oppose "ideological cleansing" (paksazi ideolozhiki)
of university professors and students? Would it be acceptable to any associations
of scholars of which you are members to invite the chief of cultural propaganda
of a blatantly oppressive regime to speak on any matter and further claim
that he/she was "influential in persuading" the Great Leader
to deal with his victims more humanely? As an Iranian professor, who taught
at Tehran University when Dr. Soroush was charging through the Iranian
universities with his ideological crusade, I find his presence at MESA
offensive, and his claim for being in it all for a good cause, deceitful
and opportunistic, at best. I think we should defend his academic freedom,
but should we celebrate his "accomplishments"?
With deep appreciation for the efforts of CAFMENA,
Department of Economics Denison University
Granville, OH 43023
A Founding Member of the Iranian Association of University Professors (Sazman-e
Melli-ye Daneshgahian-e Iran) and former President of the Middle East Economic
A further note:
Professor Anne Betteridge, Executive Director of Middle East Studies
Association, wrote in her letter of October 15, 1997 (published in the
same issue of MESA Bulletin):
"SSI would like to thank you very much for drawing the error in
the preliminary program text to our attention; it has been omitted from
the final program entry. You are absolutely right that such misinformation
has no place in the MESA program. Your letter reached us just in time,
as the program was delivered to the printer this morning. I have shared
information about the mistake with the panel organizers. They regret the
mistakeS, and have assured me that the error will not be repeated."