Iranian universities are undoubtedly experiencing their hardest period since the Cultural Revolution of 1980-1982.All this is taking place in the name of “Islam” or “religion,” with little attention paid to the complexities of their definitions, nor indeed to those of “non-religion,” “non-Islam,” or “secular.”This is perhaps because what has ruled Iran since 1979 is not “Islam” as a “religion,” but “Islamism,” a political ideology, which cannot escape from its essential character of selectivity, generalization, and, as a result, simplicity and simplification.However, this ideology did not simply favor “traditionalism.”That is, through the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iranian Islamists “did not seek to turn the clock back.”The Islamic Republic maintained more or less the same modern institutions, but attempted to mix their modernity with Islamic tradition and Iranian culture. This mixture, which I refer to as “cultural nationalism,” emphasizes the superiority of the Iranian nation based on ideas of traditional culture, which present a different face of modernity.
After the 1979 revolution, Iran did not replace modern universities with the traditional seminary schools of hawzehs or madrasahs. It maintained the same modern universities, but attempted to add a flavor of Islamic tradition to them. This essay focuses on attitudes towards the Internet — an example of high modernity — in a major Iranian university and examines views of modernity in an Islamist context and to what extent they differ from the rest of the world.
Attitudes towards the Internet
My findings were shaped by participant observation and interviewing 30 post-graduate students and seven academic staff from different faculties of the University of Tabriz, situated in northwest Iran, in the spring of 2002. The main variables were as follows: the Internet as a value system; the necessity of the Internet; causes of Internet establishment; the pleasant parts of the Internet; access to the Internet; and the effects of the Internet. The six main implications of my findings follow.
First, with reference to the question of “Internet as a value system,” none of my informants had absolute negative attitudes towards the Internet. But although the majority of them (59%) viewed the Internet positively and as a provider of easy and convenient access to scholars, scientific resources, and communications, some others (41%) described it as a hybrid phenomenon. They had no doubt that the Internet was useful, and indeed necessary for the development of science and knowledge in the present world. But, in their view, the Internet also contained some negative aspects with respect to culture and morality. Nevertheless, only a few of them wanted to regard it in the context of an ideological contest that could pave the way for the “penetration of the strange culture” (nofuz-i farhang-i biganeh), usually signifying Western culture. In the opinion of some others, this “penetration” could be a positive aspect of the Internet, bringing Iran to “universalism and humanism.”
Second, all my interviewees confirmed the “necessity of the Internet,” while some of them regarded universities as being “nothing without the Internet.” They offered the following reasons for this assessment:
a) access to up-to-date academic books and journals;
b) the desperate need for acquaintance with the world’s scientific development;
c) the necessity of communication and avoidance of isolation.
My informants regarded the Internet as a new technology that has widely replaced the traditional methods of acquiring information, such as university libraries.
Third, globalism was mainly regarded as a major “cause of establishing the Internet” in Iranian universities. For them, Iran had no choice other than “imitating universal phenomena, such as the Internet.” In this regard, they raised two key points:
a) after more than 20 years of ideologically oriented policies, “it was time to take science into account” to tackle the country’s social, cultural and economic problems; and
b) the society was exhausted of ‘being isolated from the rest of the world.’
Fourth, a large majority of my interviewees (89%) mentioned that the availability of scientific resources and papers was the most “pleasant part of the Internet.” Only a few of them said that they also enjoyed using the Internet for leisure and news. Not surprisingly, my informants did not trade, advertisement, and sex in response to this question. (Use of the Internet for the latter purpose is illegal in Iran, and use of the Internet for trade is highly inconvenient, given the scarcity of credit cards in Iran.)
Fifth, all of my informants suggested that they had the capability “to access the Internet.” However, they complained about the lack of continuous access. They attributed this problem to the ignorance of the university authorities about the significance of the Internet; the lack of understanding by the government of the status of the Internet in Iranian society and among Iranian families; financial shortcomings for adequate service and/or misuse of the budget for ideological purposes rather than educational purposes; the lack of training courses for the use of the Internet; insufficient attention to the humanities and hence less access by humanities and social science students to the Internet; restricting access to the Internet to daytime owing to the fear of immoral interactions between male and female students during vacations and nights; and censorship of certain sites for both political and moral reasons.
Finally, apart from one respondent, all viewed the “effects of the Internet” as positive and its use for academic purposes as very useful and necessary. The impact of the Internet on scientific production in the university, particularly in post-graduate studies, was emphasized repeatedly. However, when asked about the non-academic uses of the Internet, the respondents offered differing views, as was clear from their comments on the “Internet as a value system.”
Islamic ideology, particularly the lack of a clear definition for what has come to be known as making universities “Islamic” (islami kardan-i daneshgah-ha) and ambiguous aims such as “the Unity of Seminary and University” (vahdat-i hawzeh va daneshgah) have caused uncertainty and complexity in the post-revolutionary life of Iranian universities. Indeed, various post-revolutionary Islamic authorities have, with differing degrees of emphasis, tried to act as a “switchman” to direct the “vehicle,” in Weber’s terminology, of social institutions, particularly universities, towards Islamic particularism and cultural nationalism. But, as this research shows, and the current President Mahmud Ahmadinejad admits, this objective is not easily achievable. Nevertheless, according to the findings of this research, post-revolutionary university staff and students, at least with reference to those of the University of Tabriz, welcomed both communication and information technologies and presented concerns regarding the restriction of access to these technologies. Through these technologies, they appreciated the value of science and universalism in the sense of feeling interconnected with different cultures and societies. In brief, post-revolutionary Iran has certainly modernized its society, but it has done so in a way that challenges the way that modernity is perceived in the West.
.One hundred and nine university professors have protested Ahmadinejhad’s policies on universities in an open letter to him, citing three major concerns: a) disregard for the principle of the ‘independence of universities’ and the endangering of the position of institutes of higher education by authorizing the interference of non-higher educational institutions in higher educational affairs; b) transformation of university culture and functions by imposing non-democratic and non-scientific procedures and policies on universities; c) reduction of professors’ and students’ participation in university life by forcing ‘prominent professors’ to retire and appointing non-elected chancellors. PDEN (Political Department of Etemad Newspaper). “Negarani dar bareye ayandeye daneshgah” [“Concerns about the Future of Universities”], Rouznameye Etemad: Onvan [Etemad Newspaper: Headline], October 15, 2008, http://www.etemaad.com/Released/87-07-24/default.htm.
. In the early days of his presidency, Mahmud Ahmadinejad addressed a gathering of so-called “young scientists” thus: “Today students should protest and shout at the President, asking why some liberal and secular professors are still present in the universities … Colonialism is seeking the spread of its own secular system.” While he admitted that it was not easy to change this system, he said: “Such a change has begun.” “Ahmadinejad: daneshjou bayad az hozour-e ostad-e secular dar daneshgah faryad bezanad” [“Ahmadinejad: A Student Must Shout [at the President] due to the Presence of a Secular Professor in a University”], Rouznameye Shargh: Sotun-e vizheh [Shargh Newspaper: Special Column], October 15, 2006, http://www.sharghnewspaper.ir/850615/html/news.htm.
. L.B. Brown, Ideology (London: Penguin Education, 1973), p. 11.
. S.A. Arjomand, “Traditionalism in Twentieth-Century Iran,” in S.A. Arjomand, Ed., From Nationalism to Revolutionary Islam (Albany: SUNY Press, 1984), pp. 195-232.
. S. Bruce, Fundamentalism (Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2000), p. 54.
. H. Godazgar, The Impact of Religious Factors on Educational Change in Iran: Islam in Policy and Islam in Practice (Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008), pp. 67-75.