For some time now, Iran has been clamping down on the social sciences and invoking the names of various social scientists in their show trials of reformists. The Chronicle of Higher Education has suggested that the underlying reason for this is that the Iranian government wishes to clamp down on efforts to justify any civil society independent of the government. This very plausible argument roots the Iranian government’s motivations in raw secular politics.
Now, however, Iran is banning universities from opening new departments in twelve fields and further announcing that curricula in these fields will be utterly revamped, all on the grounds that these various fields are Western or else are being taught from a Western perspective. An official of the Ministry of Education explained that “The content of the current courses in the 12 subjects is not in harmony with religious fundamentals, and they are based on Western schools of thought.” In other words, these subjects are purportedly un-Islamic. Apparently this follows remarks last year by Grand Ayatollah Khamenei that these subjects can lead Muslims to doubt their faith.
The particular social sciences in question include law, philosophy, management, sociology, psychology, political science, women’s studies, and human rights.
I rather wonder whether this will eventually lead to an increase in the number of terrorists and extremists. There has been much discussion in recent years about how a disproportionate number of terrorists are engineers. Gambetta and Hertog’s “Engineers of Jihad” got the ball rolling. (It’s important to note that their paper was not just talking about Sunni Muslim extremists and that, in fact, most of its data came from well before 9/11.) British intelligence several years ago also observed that “extremist recruiters” on college campuses in the UK were focusing on people in the engineering and IT fields.
Now, it’s not clear which direction the causal arrow points. Do people become radicalized because they are engineers? Or do they become engineers because they are radicalized? Or, for that matter, do they become radicals and engineers because both phenomena are caused in parallel by some other variable?
If, however, the answer is the first of these three, that radicalization is a result of being an engineer, I rather wonder if the impending eviscerati0n of Iranian social sciences isn’t going to lead to another wave of terrorism. More generally, might it lead also to a future wave of particularly doctrinaire Iranian government officials. (Ahmedinejad was trained as an engineer, by the way.) After all, some proportion of those students who can’t study the social sciences will go into engineering.
As an aside, it’s interesting to compare Iran’s view that these sciences are un-Islamic with the views of Sayyid Qutb (a Sunni Arab) and his acolytes in the al Qaida world. Qutb wrote in Milestones that some sciences such as psychology were un-Islamic, essentially because these sciences spoke about the soul, which was an intrinsically religious topic. Other fields, however, were just fine because technical knowledge, he thought, was neither good nor bad, neither Islamic nor un-Islamic. Indeed, his various followers have gone on to use this understanding in their pursuit of the jihad. Abu Bakr Naji, for instance, urged jihadists to read books on management. Quite a number of jihadists have talked about political science. (In fact, I have argued that the default jihadist view of the Christian world has strong realist elements to it.)
In any event, the Iranian government is clearly shooting the country and the Iranian people in the foot . The only question, really, is whether this should evoke in us feelings of pity or also feelings of alarm.