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Iran announces plan to purge universities of Western influences

Humanities curricula will be revised to bring them more in line with Islamic principles, an official says. Critics say the move is based on 'fascism and totalitarianism.'

September 07, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — A hard-line deputy of Iran's supreme leader announced steps Sunday to purge Iranian universities of Western influences even as the government faced accusations of "fascism and totalitarianism" leveled by the country's former president.

Hamid Reza Ayatollahi, head of a government body that oversees universities, announced a plan to revise humanities curricula to bring them more in line with Islamic principles.

"Many of the syllabuses taught to students majoring in humanities are not in line with Iranian and Islamic culture and therefore their revision is a must," Ayatollahi said in a statement published by Iranian news agencies.

A committee has been established to "eliminate certain curricula and replace them with Islamic materials," he said.

The effort stemmed from a speech last week by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said that humanities courses result in "disbelief in Islamic and divine teachings" and are mostly based on "materialist philosophical concepts causing misgivings about religious principles."

Critics derided the purge as another in a 30-year series of ill-fated attempts to impose on Iranian society the puritanical values of hard-liners who dominate political life.

"Certain individuals reject liberalism, but their opposition is based on fascism and totalitarianism," former President Mohammad Khatami, a prominent reformist, said in comments published on his website Sunday. "Assailing an aspect of the Western experience by insisting on a more dangerous and worse view is doomed."

He was speaking to a group of reformist scholars.

It remains unclear whether the purge was in response to the unrest that followed Iran's disputed June 12 presidential election, which saw conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared the winner, or was planned earlier. During a trial last month of reformists politicians, one defendant purportedly testified that social scientists such as German philosopher Juergen Habermas had corrupted Iranian intellectuals.

Purges of secular and moderate scholars were also carried out during Ahmadinejad's first term.

"It is not first time that human sciences are under attack in Iran," said Yousef Moalli, an Iranian analyst and lawyer. "In the past years, dozens of professors in political science and law were forced to take early retirement, immigrate abroad or take no-return sabbatical leaves."

The purge could backfire. In addition to lowering Iran's educational standards, purging curricula of Western literature and social theory could further alienate the mostly middle-class youth inclined to study humanities and further radicalize a previously apolitical segment of the population dragged into political life by this year's presidential election.

Iran analysts also describe the move as an attempt by Khamenei to show hard-liners he's trying to do something to stop cultural changes that have highlighted the chasm between a ruling class of Islamic fundamentalists and those in Iranian society longing for Western-style freedoms.

Authorities also worry about campuses turning into hotbeds of political activism and apparently have begun to weed out students suspected of political activity.

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daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.

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