when academic freedom is violated, fear reigns — University Affairs
A physicist now working in Canada says he was arbitrarily fired from his teaching job in Tehran.
Qasem Exirifard is a physicist who made headlines six years ago when he was fired from Khajeh Nasir Toosi University of Technology in Tehran. This is because the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, which is responsible for assessing the qualifications of academics to continue teaching in Iran, had decided that the tone of his voice was too high and “effeminate”.
Today, Dr. Exirifard is a research associate in the Department of Physics at the University of Ottawa. Recently, he recounted the raw facts of the Kafkian situation that brought him to Canada.
Iran’s constitution, created in 1979 and amended in 1989, states that the country is an Islamic republic whose state religion is Twelve Ja’fari School of Shia Islam. According to Minority Rights Group International: “It sets the framework for a theocratic system of governance based on the principle of velayat-e-faqih (guardianship of the jurist), in which the Supreme Leader holds supreme authority. Being a theocracy, the central government exercises strong control over the education system. It finances, administers and supervises elementary, secondary and higher education, including the creation of curricula and the training of teachers.
All policies and regulations relating to education are directed by the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution (SCCR), a body appointed by and reporting to the Supreme Leader of Iran. The main objective of this council is to bring education and teaching into conformity with what it considers to be authentic Islamic principles.
As Amnesty International has pointed out, the SCCR has instituted increasingly strict rules for universities in the country: “In 1998, the SCCR approved a set of ‘Principles Governing the Islamic University’; these state that “monotheistic insight”, “spirituality” and “ethics” should guide all aspects of universities. Two years later, the SCCR approved a set of “Strategic Policies for the Islamization of Educational Centers” based on the principles prescribed by the SCCR. “Action plans” drawn up alongside these strategic policies called for the promotion of “Islamic faith and belief among students” in higher education and for universities to recruit and select “deserving and pious professors”. who adhere to the “fundamentals and ideals of the Islamic religion”. Republic.” A system of vigilance, control and disciplinary sanction has been implemented in each university, led by campus-based security units and disciplinary committees to effectively comply with “strategic policies”.
“I did everything I could”
It was in this education system that Dr. Exirifard started teaching at Khajeh Nasir Toosi University of Technology in 2014. But his contract was not renewed after his first year on the grounds that his voice would lead to ridicule in class. However, no student had commented on this.
After losing his job, he began teaching physics on the streets; between 2015 and 2016, he taught a total of 1,400 hours to anyone interested in learning more about the laws of the universe, quanta, the theory of relativity, and other topics. It was a form of political protest, in a country where protesting is not tolerated. He also went to court to challenge the council’s decision. But since judges are not independent in Iran, the court ruled in favor of the SCCR. Teaching has been banned in Iran. “I did everything I could,” he said, “but I couldn’t get my job back and I risked going to jail because of the way the system worked.” He left the country in 2019, going first to Italy and then to Canada.
Asked about the details surrounding his dismissal and its wider implications, Dr. Exirifard insisted on taking more interest in his current work, which has resulted in publications including one written with colleagues at the University of Ottawa, the Professor Ebrahim Karimi and graduate student Eric Culf, entitled Towards Communication in a Curved Spacetime Geometry. He also recalled the answer he gave concerning his religious beliefs and the place of God in his physics lessons, during a moral and religious evaluation in Iran: “I am only a physicist, a man of knowledge , a scientist. I only teach physics. I am not a leader who tells people what to think.
Dr. Exirifard also prefers to stay away from controversy over academic freedom issues in his adopted country. He spoke of the benefits of living in a society where opinions can be openly expressed and debated. “I enjoy living in a democratic country where science is respected,” he said.
The role of the academic community
Dr. Exirifard’s case is unquestionably a violation of academic freedom by international standards, including those set out in the report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in October 2020. The government of Iran has failed to protect institutions of higher learning as safe environments to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas. University autonomy is under threat in Iran due to the constraints of a theocratic regime.
However, there is an additional problem. The Iranian government also weakens the academic community in order to censor potential critics and exert greater control over knowledge. Indeed, Dr Exirifard claimed to have received “tremendous support” from colleagues and students following his dismissal, but “there is a difference between personal support and collective support”, a- he declared.
“At one point during the fight I had in court, I needed the professional support of the Physics Society of Iran saying that I could indeed teach physics, but the society refrained from provide their professional point of view. They did not want to contradict the assessment of the university, the council and the ministry, even though I was a long-time member of them,” said Dr Exirifard. “If they had given me that support, I would have had a good chance of getting my job back.”
When an academic community is endangered, social capacities are undermined. Academic communities are essential for protecting individual freedom and progress because of their abilities to question, innovate, find solutions, research and debate. And this is true in Iran, Canada and all over the world.
Catalina Arango is a project coordinator at the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Center and with Scholars at Risk. Isaac Nahon-Serfaty is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa and Academic Advisor to Scholars at Risk.