"Scientists are defenceless"

Play focuses on refugee academics

Office of the Iranian Supreme LeaderIranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prepares to deliver his Friday prayers sermon, at the Tehran University campus, Iran. Behind him stands President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

By Thomas Blondeau

What happens when academics are persecuted for their work and their opinions? Mare talked to two exiled scholars: “Their system of intimidation is very effective.”

“I found my wife covered in shards of glass – in the street where I lived, two car bombs had gone off. Enough was enough. My first duty was to my family. My wife and two children went to live in Syria as, at the time, it was safer there.” Dr Salah Al-Zuhairy, a microbiologist, is relating his experiences. After Saddam Hussein had been deposed, Al-Zuhairy though it might become safer in Iraq, but his hopes were short-lived.
Because of the uncertainty and dangers of the situation, he always had his bags packed and ready. However, sending his family to safety in Syria was not a long-term solution. He was awarded a prize, and when the attention focused on him, he was warned not to become too conspicuous. Finally, after an attack aimed specifically at him, the biologist wrote to American and European foundations asking to be able to continue his work in more peaceful surroundings.
The Foundation for Refugee Students UAF helped him find a place at Delft University of Technology. As part of the international foundation Scholars at Risk network (SAR), UAF set up a programme in the Netherlands to protect persecuted scientists and this partnership now offers scientists the opportunity to (temporarily) continue their work in the Netherlands.
The scientists’ stories provided the inspiration for a musical play called De Verboden Wetenschapsmonologen [The Forbidden Science Monologues]; the production is touring almost all the major university towns from 22 March to 3 April, with a varying cast of players. John Leerdam, an MP for the PvdA, is directing the play, which was performed on at Leiden’s LAKtheater.
Surprisingly, Al-Zuhairy is involved with biotechnology and recycling - not very politically sensitive subjects on the face of it. “You would think, but since 2003, 1,500 scientists have died in Iraq, sometimes as random victims on the street and sometimes because we are conspicuous. We are defenceless, we don’t have any weapons.”
Other scientists were unable to publish freely. One Iranian, currently working in Leiden in Middle Eastern Studies, left his country after the elections in 2009, when the ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected. This was followed by protests, and the universities, particularly the Social and Behavioural Sciences and the Humanities, were regarded as significant critics of the regime. The Iranian scientist wants to cooperate with the interview, but has elected to remain anonymous, because he does not want to cause trouble for his relatives at home.
“The social influence and scope of the Humanities in Iran is considerable, which is incomparable to the situation in the surrounding countries, with the exception of Turkey. The Humanities hardly exist in Saudi Arabia. The Iranian government viewed departments like mine as the major driving force behind the unrest, which was evident in the collective trials after the uprising. And I can’t say it’s not entirely untrue (smiling). What we do in science there does not please the authorities. Anyone who follows the Philosophy of Enlightenment and consequently assumes a large degree of man’s self-determination, reason, doubt, etc. - well, the regime can’t really cope with that.”
Like many of his colleagues, on an academic level, he joined one of the protest campaigns after the elections. “I wasn’t so much politically as theoretically active: I was involved in developing arguments to support the need for change. Mark you, within the system, not even against the system. But that landed us in hot water. We didn’t want a revolution. The fathers of the last great revolution in Iran have been murdered, or they’re in prison or stay out of politics altogether. We, the generations that followed, now know that a revolution is a quick way of changing things, but one that can’t last. But we do want to change Iran’s politics, Iran’s democracy. We still hope that the two faces of the regime –Islamic and Republican – can be reconciled, although the minimum conditions for that are crumbling further and further away.”
After the elections, the government decided to freeze the critical departments of the universities by reducing the curriculum and the numbers of students. “Yes, there are researchers still working in those fields in Iran, but they keep a very low profile, because they could easily lose their jobs. I felt very restricted in what I could publish.” And as before, after the previous large revolutions in his country, a flood of emigrants left, the largest in eight years, and he was one of them.
Is he still in contact with his colleagues back home? “Yes, but not on a regular basis. The use of Internet is monitored and it’s very limited, often with the aid of Chinese, Russian and European companies. Much is filtered and email accounts are hacked, but there is always a way of getting in touch with each other.”
Is a return out of the question? “I don’t have an easy answer to that. Their system of intimidation is so effective because there is no logic to it. You can’t rely on previous experiences. Some colleagues who were accused of very serious matters have returned to Iran, without any problem. But after a few months, the accusations start again: ‘You were abroad, you’ve been in contact with our Western enemies, now you’re constructing a network ...’ Building networks, that’s what they arrest you for. But on the other hand, there are people who were hardly at risk at all who were arrested as soon as they arrived at the airport. You can’t predict what will happen, which is why it’s so intimidating.”
With the PVV’s success in the elections, the Netherlands has lost much of its reputation as a good host. Has he noticed any differences? “On a personal level, I haven’t experienced any disadvantages, but as an academic, I’m worried about these developments, which you can see in France, Germany and Austria as well.
“Initially, this policy will only affect immigrants, but eventually, all of society will feel the impact, as this undermines our own values. This European phenomenon is used by regimes like Iran for propaganda purposes: ‘This is Europe now, this is what happens with democracies, is that what you want?’ It’s detrimental to democracy all across the globe.”

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