Iran’s intellectuals left in cold by populist president

London Edition 1

Iran’s intellectuals left in cold by populist president As leader approaches first anniversary he has confounded the belief that rule had to be based squarely on elites, writes Gareth Smyth


TEHRAN – Mohsen Kadivar is one of many intellectuals in Iran sensing a chill wind since the election a year ago on Saturday of fundamentalist president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad.

A philosopher and cleric, Mr Kadivar argues Islam is not threatened by critical or western thought and this, he feels, puts him at odds with Mr Ahmadi-Nejad.

“As a fundamentalist, the president is opposed to intellectuals, who ask questions,” he says. “His style is dogmatic – the opposite of analytical or critical thinking.”

The stark gap between Mr Ahmadi-Nejad and Iran’s intellectuals cannot be reduced to the long-running conflict between conservatives and reformists such as Mr Kadivar.

Even conservative intellectuals are uncomfortable. In April, Emad Afroogh, head of parliament’s cultural commission, said he was “sounding the alarm” over the government “ignoring” intellectuals, experts and clerics.

For Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has confounded the central assumption of Iranian politics – that rule had to be based squarely on elites.

Before he was overthrown by popular revolution in 1979, the Shah of Iran relied on generals, affluent westernised kravatis (tie-wearers) and Americans cocooned in leafy north Tehran. After the Islamic republic was established in 1979, new elites emerged based on religion, politics and rising oil income.

It was remarked that a new “thousand families” had replaced those who ran Iran under the Shah. Despite often lively elections and increasing literacy, few doubted the elite led and the mass followed.

“I never thought someone who couldn’t communicate with the elites could do this (become president) as Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has done,” says Nasser Hadian, politics professor at Tehran University and a school friend of the president. “I thought the Iranian public would always look to an intermediary level for guidance on who to vote for. All of the elites opposed him, from the super-secular to the super-religious.”

Speaking directly to Iranians en masse, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has used simple language evoking popular, organic religious belief. His populism, whether on redistributing wealth or trumpeting Iran’s right to nuclear energy, has unnerved Iran’s ayatollahs and bankers as much as its professors and diplomats.

Whereas his reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, spoke in the universities of a “dialogue among civilisations”, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has on provincial trips addressed huge crowds of people feeling neglected by central government.

Reformist intellectuals say this hides the stifling of dissent. Hamid-Reza Jalaipour, sociology professor at Tehran University, feels the government is tightening restrictions on academia and threatening social science, politics and theology.

“For the new president, concepts like civil society, individuality, freedom, and parliamentary democracy are not reliable for ‘real Muslims’,” he says. “Whereas for us, these concepts are universal, even if some emerged from western universities.”

The government has controversially replaced the election of university presidents by professors with appointment by the minister of higher education – a staunch supporter of the president.

One academic says he has been refused permission by a new, appointed university president to travel to Europe and that his lectures are being videotaped to check if he is “undermining Islam”.

April’s arrest of Ramin Jahanbeglou, director of contemporary studies at Iran’s Cultural Research Bureau, has also spread concern.

No charges have been brought, although Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, the intelligence minister, said he was detained because of “contacts with foreigners”, a possible reference to attending conferences in the US and Europe.

Intellectuals also say restrictions on newspapers and books are increasing. “With papers, it’s now a matter of a phone call rather than anything in writing,” says one. “Newspapers close to the reformists are being monitored very closely.”

Supporters of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad argue dissent weakens the country at a time of western pressure over Iran’s nuclear programme. But Mr Kadivar argues alienating intellectuals will instead undermine Iran: “Without intellectuals, there is no knowledge, no science,” he says. “And this means the future of our country cannot be in our own hands.”



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