When news broke that Iran had incarcerated Haleh Esfandiari in a notoriously brutal prison in northern Tehran on May 8, politicians, including the presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, spoke out for the Iranian-American scholar’s release. So did a coalition of faculty members, with a letter to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
And just as academics began stepping up their public criticisms of the Iranian government’s actions on Monday with an additional flurry of letters and petitions, reports surfaced that Esfandiari — director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington — had been charged with “seeking to topple the ruling Islamic establishment.” Despite the escalations and some calls for an academic boycott, no serious plans for the latter seem to be in the works so far.
The Wilson Center said it doesn’t know if the charges are formal. “This is very disturbing,” Lee H. Hamilton, the institution’s president and director, said in a statement. “Haleh has not engaged in any activities to undermine any government, including the Iranian government. Nor does the Wilson Center engage in any such activities. The charges are totally unfounded, and without any substance whatsoever. There is not one scintilla of evidence to support these outrageous claims.” The center, though partially funded by the federal government and nominally a part of the Smithsonian Institution, is nonpartisan and widely considered independent.
The allegations that Esfandiari was somehow backing an American agenda to attack the Iranian government from within also raise academic freedom concerns. Even a presumption that a scholar’s work is not independent and part of a national agenda could undermine academics’ work on the Middle East, suggested Jonathan Knight, who directs the program in academic freedom and tenure at the American Association of University Professors, which released a letter to Ahmadinejad on Monday urging Esfandiari’s release.
“Now that view” — that someone is “doing the bidding of the American administration” — “should be very worrying to any scholar who writes an article or affiliates with a project that can be interpreted by Iranian authorities as hostile to them,” Knight said.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
From Inside Higher Ed::