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The Struggle for Liberal Education in Iran Under Islamist Rule

Seven months after the murder of Mahsa (Jina) Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s religious police, the Iranian people remain in open revolt against the country’s autocratic clerical government, marking the most significant challenge to its authority since 1979. As the regime has struggled to contain the protests, it has launched progressively wider and more intense campaigns of retribution against those it considers responsible for the unrest.

Although the regime has avoided responsibility for the recent poisonings of hundreds of schoolgirls across Iran—and has even blamed the protesters themselves for the attacks—the act fits the pattern of pro-regime vigilantes attempting to intimidate one of the protests’ strongest groups of supporters. As a group, educated women and girls within Iran are far more liberal than other strata of Iranian society, and remain overwhelmingly opposed to mandatory hijab laws and other social restrictions.

In spite of systemic changes by the post-1979 clerical government intended to “Islamize” Iranian schools, the country’s education system remains significantly Westernized. The liberal agenda of schools and universities poses an existential threat to the Islamic Republic, and over the past forty years, its forces have periodically suppressed freedom-seeking students with extreme measures.

The Roots of Liberal Education

Modern education, rooted in the philosophy of the Age of Reason, has played a crucial role in shaping Iranian attitudes toward liberalism. The liberal movement, which emerged in Western Europe during the late 17th century, repudiates the notion of rulers ordained by God; it views humans as inherently free individuals who enter into a social contract with their government to benefit from the rule of law and collective living.

Crucially, liberalism rejects religious and pseudo-religious exclusivist and authoritarian interpretations of power and instead takes an empirical and inductive approach to politics. By placing the individual, rather than the state, at the center of the political landscape, liberalism has been at odds with authoritarian and totalitarian systems—and liberal governments have defeated absolute monarchism, fascism, Nazism, communism, and extremist Islamism at every turn throughout modern history.

Modern education first came to Iran in the early 19th century, when Abbas Mirza, the Crown Prince of Fath Ali Shah Qajar, sent a few Iranian students to London to study Western sciences, arts, languages, and literature. However, liberal education was not established in an organized manner until around half a century later, when Amir Kabir, the first chancellor of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, founded the Dar al-Funun School in Tehran in 1851.

The Dar al-Funun School was modeled after modern European schools and offered instruction in new sciences in the military, medical, and industrial fields, as well as European languages, art, and literature. The school’s faculty consisted mainly of European professors, and over the next 50 years, Iranian graduates of both the Dar al-Funun and European schools joined the faculty. Graduates of the school played a crucial role in Iran’s 1906 Constitutional Revolution, an essentially liberal movement that transformed the country and its politics in the early 20th century.

The Golden Age of Iranian Academia

With a significant rise in the number of Europeans and Western-educated Iranians in the country and the ascent of pro-Western authoritarian Reza Shah, compulsory public education was introduced in Iran during the Pahlavi era. One of the most significant academic developments during Reza Shah’s reign (1925-1941) was the establishment of Tehran University, the first comprehensive institute of higher education in Iran.

The golden age of Iranian academia occurred between the end of World War II and the Islamic Revolution. During the early years of the Cold War, as the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an ideological battle to win the hearts and minds of the Third World nations, the United States pushed for the development of a Western-friendly modern higher education system in Iran. This effort began with President Truman’s Point Four Program and continued through similar sociocultural programs to prevent Iran from drifting towards communism.

Many modern universities were established in Iran during this period, with active assistance from well-known American and European universities. The academic highlight of this era was undoubtedly the Pahlavi University of Shiraz, established in the early 1960s with direct cooperation from the University of Pennsylvania. It became the largest state-sponsored center for world languages and literature, as well as liberal arts, in the years leading up to the fall of the monarchy and the rise of the theocracy in Iran.

Liberalism Under Siege

Since 1979, the Islamist regime ruling Iran has followed in the footsteps of other authoritarian governments by vehemently opposing liberalism. Over the past four decades, the Islamic Republic has instigated overt and covert “cultural revolutions” in education, and has launched comprehensive propaganda programs in the press and the media, in an attempt to “de-liberalize” Iranian society.

The Iranian regime’s recent “Look to the East” policy, which includes a comprehensive security, military, and economic treaty with China and Russia, aims to deepen the country’s cultural partnerships with the other two autocracies and starve out the remaining vestiges of liberalism in Iran. This policy will likely increase the regime’s opposition to the country’s Westernized schools and universities.

Although ties between Iranian and Western educational institutions were largely severed in the wake of 1979, liberalism had already taken root and spread across Iranian society, leaving an indelible mark. In the four decades since, the intense hostility of the Islamists towards liberalism has failed to eradicate it from Iran.

While leftist groups initially led academic resistance in the early years of the Islamic Revolution, later freedom movements, such as the Student Uprising of 1999, were driven by students with liberal values. In recent years, liberal students and academics have been a driving force behind mass movements against the regime, including the 2009 Green Movement and the current protests.

Keeping the Beacon Alight

Unfortunately, with the Islamic Republic’s estrangement from the West and the rise of China and Russia in the Middle East, liberalism in Iran is under a greater threat than at any time in its modern history. China’s plan to turn Iran into a satellite state and its primary outpost in the Middle East by isolating it from the West poses a significant risk. The Islamist regime, losing support among its people, may give in to Chinese demands to maintain power.

To prevent Iran from becoming another North Korea, the beacon of liberalism must be kept alight in Iran. The U.S. and other Western democracies must invest in promoting and developing liberal values in Iran through modern technologies like the internet, satellite television, and media. Liberalism can inspire the Iranian people to resist both native Islamism and foreign despotism. In doing so, it will remain the most powerful force for change in Iran.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Politics & Governance
Country: Iran

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Dr. Reza Parchizadeh (@DrParchizadeh) is a political theorist, security analyst, and cultural expert. He holds a BA and an MA in English from University of Tehran and a PhD in English from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), all with honors. He wrote his master’s thesis on Middle Eastern history and Orientalist philosophy; and his doctoral dissertation on political thought and cultural studies in the English-speaking world, and defended both with distinction. His major areas of research interest are medieval and early modern political thought, Protestant Reformation, Renaissance Literature, British Empire, Film Studies, Middle East Studies, Chinese Studies, Japanese Studies, Russian Studies, Security Studies, Foreign Policy and International Relations. Dr. Parchizadeh is on the editorial board of Journal for Interdisciplinary Middle Eastern Studies at Ariel University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Department of Middle Eastern Studies. He is also an international committee correspondent for World Shakespeare Bibliography, the prestigious joint project of Johns Hopkins University and Shakespeare Association of America that constitutes the single-largest Shakespeare database in the world and is published by Oxford University Press. Currently, he serves on the editorial board of the international news agency Al-Arabiya Farsi.


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