TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Purge in Iranian Higher Education: Islamic Fascism and its Gleichschaltung

The process by which the Nazis rapidly removed potential regime opponents from the universities and the civil service came to be known as Gleichschaltung. Sometimes translated as “coordination,” the term is much harsher: all concerned are made the same, arranged in a single order, forced into uniformity. All that is different is made identical, and that which is non-identical is eradicated

The Associate Press now reports that Iranian President Ahmadinejad has called for a purge of secular and liberal faculty from the universities. In fact, precisely such a purge of liberals and leftists took place in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979—which makes it even more curious that parts of the western left somehow still look to Iran as a positive anti-imperialist force—but some reformist elements have later reemerged. The current call for renewed attacks on intellectuals indicates an effort to amplify the regime’s extremist position. It surely shatters any hope that the recent release from prison of critical intellectual Ramin Jahanbegloo (discussed here on August 31) would initiate a liberalization.

“Iran’s hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called on Tuesday for a purge of liberal and secular teachers from the country’s universities, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported in another step back to 1980s-style radicalism. . . . Ahmadinejad complained that changes in the country’s universities were difficult to accomplish and that the country’s educational system had been affected by secularism for the last 150 years, but said ‘such a change has begun.'”

This surely is an uncanny parallel to aspects of European fascism, an effort to roll back what is presented as centuries of modernization. Of course, such an appeal for a “return” does not necessarily mean a bona fide retrieval of traditionalist patterns: but in the name of an instrumentalized traditionalism, a brutalizing and unfree modernity begins to unfold. This emphatic anti-liberalism coupled with Ahmadenijad’s signature anti-Semitism certainly corroborates the “Islamic fascism” thesis.

“Earlier this year, Iran retired dozens of liberal university professors and teachers. And last November, Ahmadinejad’s administration for the first time named a cleric to head the country’s oldest university in Tehran amid protests by students over the appointment.

“The developments followed a campaign promise by Ahmadinejad for a more Islamic-oriented country. He took office last August.

“Since then, Ahmadinejad also has been replacing pragmatic veterans in the government with former military commanders and inexperienced religious hard-liners.

“Ahmadinejad’s aim appears to be to install a new generation of rulers who will revive the fundamentalist goals pursued in the 1980s under the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.”

This point is another parallel to the Arendtian totalitarianism account. The radical movement seizes power, until power begins to seize and then corrupt the movement. A normalization threatens: the regime may become bourgeois—unless vehicles of constant reradicalization and “permanent revolution” are developed. The regime does not pursue stabilization but, on the contrary, permanent movement in order to avoid the corrosion of normalcy. In the meantime, intellectual life is crushed and careers ruined.

Will the intellectual public sphere in the West take notice? Will European universities protest? Rhetorical questions are perhaps inappropriate to the tragedy of this situation. Still one cannot but wonder whether the European philosophers, who were so offended by US security measures, or the proponents of boycotts of Israeli universities care at all about the plight of scholars in Iran. Probably not. So much for internationalism, even within the academic guild.

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