New wave of “reforms” hitting political science in Iran causes uproar among scholars

Recent planned reforms to Islamise political science in Iran has professors in an uproar and afraid that the discipline will be irrevocably damaged.

In a recent interview with Tasnim News Agency Manouchehr Mohammadi, head of the political science group at the Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute, laid out the proposed plan for reforming the political science discipline in Iran. Mohammadi completed his graduate work at the University Wisconsin-Madison and the University of South Carolina in international relations (IR). the Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute which employs Mohammadi is headed by the arch-conservative Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, who is also the nominal head of the hardline principalist Persevering Front of the Islamic Revolution (PFIR) parliamentary faction. Mohammadi laid out the trajectory of the planned reforms which willsee the political science discipline in Iran become more Islamic from the bachelor to doctoral level.

Echoing past statements by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Mohammadi expressed his belief that the basis of political science in Iran is “materialistic and secular” because of Western influence and that it should be based on an Islamic “ontology and epistemology”:

“At the beginning of this task we came to the conclusion that, undoubtedly, the texts that existed in the West and we used translated versions of were based on the materialism and secularism of the West and had a positivist approach, but the Islamic Revolution and its victory in Iran showed that materialistic analyses do not achieve results.”

He said that the body responsible for planning the reform had pursued three different paths for the bachelor, master, and doctoral curricula respectively. The bachelor in political science will focus on teaching different Western and Islamic theories, as in the past. A new component of the revised bachelor curriculum will be critiques of Western theories from both Western and Islamic perspectives. The revised master program will follow the same trajectory, except that students will additionally be required to formulate Islamic theories. The doctoral program’s main emphasis will  be on formulating Islamic political science theories. From the interview it appears that the changes will be implemented gradually, although the details remain vague.

In terms of the content of the revised political science curriculum, Mohammadi said that bachelor students will have to take mandatory Islamic and general courses, but that they will also be able to specialize and pursue their interests through elective courses. While he did not specify, general courses appear to refer to courses which have Western theory and content. In terms of the mandatory Islamic courses, he explained that:

“For example the first course that we presented was a “Koran and Politics” course, which has extracted politics from the Koran and defined how the Koran views governance and politics. Or in the “Political Legacy of the Prophet” or the “Political Thought of the Imam [Khomeini] and Leader [Khamenei]” courses. These courses are examples of mandatory Islamic courses that strengthen the Islamic viewpoint of students so that when students want to confront Western science they will be strong.”

He went on to say that for the master and doctoral political science programs, students will be able to select from four specializations, including “Political Studies” (presumably Western theory), “Islamic Political Studies”, “Iranian Political Studies” and “World Studies” (presumably international relations). It appears that comparative politics, which is a staple of Western political science, will not exist as a stand alone specialization but may nonetheless persist under the the new specializations. Mohammadi noted that only students with a background in the Islamic seminaries will be admitted to the “Islamic Political Studies” graduate program.

On the dichotomy between the “Western” and “Islamic” inherent to the proposed reforms, Mohammadi said that: “Our basis is Islamic. This perspective does not reject the materialist perspective, however, it does not see all life as being based on this [materialism], the role of God in human life is an component which exists in this [Islamic] perspective.” To illustrate his point, Mohammadi asserted that Western political science theories could not explain such events as the victory of the Islamic Revolution, the crash of the Delta Force helicopters sent to rescue American hostages at Tabas in 1979, Iran’s recapture of Khorramshahr in its war with Iraq, and how the Islamic Republic had survived numerous “plots” against it in the last 35 years.

Mohammadi also explained that professors will be forced to follow political science textbooks very closely and will have little room to deviate: “We will not let professors go to class without a textbook and we will mandate that the professor teach with that textbook, if s/he wants to say something on the side, that is alright as long as the textbook and syllabus are not put aside.” Sources for the Islamic Political Studies textbooks will include Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi-Amoli, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, and Abdol-Hossein Khosrow-Panah, all from conservative end of Iran’s clerical spectrum.

Mohammadi’s claims about Western political science, the arguably artificial dichotomy between Western and Islamic science, and nature of the coming reforms, are deeply problematic to say the least. Rather than laying a rigorous foundation for an Islamic political science in Iran, by emphasizing critiques of Western political science the reforms appear to be designed to immunize Iranian student from Western thought. And in fact the innumerable problems with these reforms has created an uproar among Iranian political scientists, with 160 of them writing an open letter to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani objecting to its trajectory. Their letter read in part:

“That which has been done under the label of reforming the topics and syllabi of political science has been done so with the minimum participation and concurrence of the political science faculty and credible and authoritative scientific institutes in the domain of political science and could create serious harm, limitations, weaknesses, and holes,” such that when this is implemented it will do “irrevocable damage in the field of political science.” With the reforms set to go into effect this coming september, the signatories of the letter are calling for a one year delay in the implementation so that experts would have a chance to review and modify the reforms.

Signatories to the letter included such high ranking scholars as Seyed Davoud Aghai, Seyed Rahim Abol-Hassani, Ghasem Eftekhari, Ali-Reza Behesthi, Sadegh Zibakalam, Ahmad Sayi, Seyed Hossein Seifzadeh, Davoud Feirahi, Hatam Ghaderi, Abdol-Ali Ghavam, Mohammad-Javad Gholam-Reza Kashi, Elaheh Koulaei, and Ahmad Naghibzadeh.

Despite plans to Islamize university curricula since the Iranian Cultural Revolution of the early-1980s and numerous similar attempts afterward, higher education authorities have consistently failed to achieve any substantive level of success, particularly in social science disciplines like political science. The current reform plans appear as doomed to failure as previous ones, being vague, highly disruptive, and expending considerable resources all for an uncertain outcome. Rather enhancing the quality of political science education in Iran, they seemed design to implement political and ideological goals which will be harmful to high-quality and objective academic teaching and research in Iran. This is reflected in the concern of the Iranian political scientists who have written to Rouhani, and should be taken seriously by higher education authorities, lest political science in Iran is further harmed and interest by students to study inside the country further diminished. This story is unlikely to end here with the start of the university semester rapidly approaching in September, and IranPolitik will be following this story and providing updates as it develops.