Faculty members and students in Iraq and Iran continue to face a severely repressive climate, two exiled scholars said Saturday during a panel discussion held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association. The scholars called on faculty associations around the world to do more to promote academic freedom in the Middle East.
More than 300 Iraqi university professors have been assassinated by sectarian militias since the U.S. invasion in 2003, said Abdul Sattar Jawad, a visiting fellow at the University of Mississippi.
"The campaign to eliminate intellectuals—the people most needed to rebuild the country—continues unabated," said Mr. Jawad, who taught at Al-Mustansiriya University and edited a newspaper in Baghdad before fleeing in 2005. He added that Iraqi universities are foolishly enforcing a mandatory retirement age of 63, a policy that he said is tearing the country's best-trained generation from academic life.
Conditions are not much better in Iran, said Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a research associate at the Five College Women's Studies Research Center, in Massachusetts. Ms. Haghighatjoo served in Iran's parliament during the reformist period that began in the late 1990s, but she left the country in 2004 as the regime intensified its harassment of scholars and journalists. She also previously taught psychology and counseling at the University of Tehran and Shahid Beheshti University.
"The cooperation of university chancellors with government security forces has spread insecurity and terror on campuses," Ms. Haghighatjoo said. She cited several well-publicized arrests of dissident scholars. But she added that there have been hundreds of quieter cases in which faculty members have been forced into retirement and student activists have been denied diplomas.
Both Mr. Jawad and Ms. Haghighatjoo have been assisted by the Scholars at Risk Network, a nonprofit organization based at New York University.
The network's director, Robert J. Quinn, said during the panel discussion that even though most universities in the Middle East are closely intertwined with authoritarian governments, he has some hope that chancellors, deans, and department chairs there can be encouraged to protect the autonomy of the academic sphere.
In March, the network helped to sponsor a regional conference on scholars' rights in the Middle East. One product of that meeting was a new organization known as the Arab Society for Academic Freedom.
Mr. Quinn added that one of the greatest international threats to academic freedom was the prospect that authoritarian governments would invest only in science and technology education, shutting out politically sensitive fields in the humanities and social sciences. He said that when American universities open campuses overseas, they must refuse to provide a science-only curriculum.
In August, The Chronicle published a three-part series on academic freedom in Iran:
- Among Scholars, Resistance and Resilience in Iran
- Growing Isolation Frustrates Iranian Academics
- Iran's Million-Student Alternative
In 2007, The Chronicle examined the state of academic life in Iraq: