Kaveh Afrasiabi: Vilification of a Scholar

Reza Esfandiari writing from Manchester, England

It was the Roman poet Terence who famously wrote “veritas odium parit” – “the truth gives birth to hate.” A popular Turkish proverb also remarks that “if you speak the truth, make sure to keep a foot in the stirrup.” This could not be closer to reality than in the case of Dr Kaveh Afrasiabi, a widely respected and independent-minded political scientist who has worked at Tehran university and various American educational centres that include Boston and Harvard and who now stands accused of daring to speak the truth that few want to hear. Despite being a prominent advocate of interfaith discussion and cultural exchange between civilizations both before and during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, and going as far as to set up an NGO in support of it, Dr Afrasiabi is now subjected to abusive ad hominem attacks and slandered in the blogosphere as being a puppet for a hardline Iranian regime and apologising their every sin. Despite the fact that he has championed the democratic and human rights of the Iranian people at numerous conferences and seminars, and has served as a U.N/UNESCO consultant on religious and political dialogue, he is portrayed as an opportunist in America and a stooge of alleged paymasters based in Tehran. However, ever since he sued Harvard University a decade ago over the egregious violation of his civil rights and took the matter to a jury trial and eventually to the United States Supreme Court whilst acting as his own attorney. He has continued to win both admiration for his courage but also scorn in the high places that felt threatened by him. Professor Noam Chomsky no less has described his battle with the university as a "sad and shameful chapter in Harvard’s history." Indeed, amongst serious scholars and journalists, Dr Afrasiabi’s contributions are regarded of great value and indeed indispensable to anyone interested in understanding contemporary Iran and the Islamic world, including many issues that those in the Iranian regime would prefer not to discuss. His peer-reviewed articles include those in Middle East journal Telos, Harvard and Brown university political and theological reviews, as well as an exhaustive number of op-eds in newspapers such as the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington post, Der Tagespiegel and The Asia Times, to name but a few, are cited in dozens of scholarly books on the Middle East and enjoy a global readership. He is also an internationally recognized prolific author of several books notably the acclaimed “After Khomeini:

New directions in Iran’s policy” (Westview Press, 1995) described by professor Ervand Abrahamian of Baruch college as a "must read for academics and policymakers." His novel concerning women and the Islamic Revolution “Diaries and Jallad” (Astro's Press, 1998) has been referred to by Professor Peter Chelkowski of New York University as "easily the best, most imaginative novel of its kind." It is of no surprise, therefore, that American TV networks see him as an important consultant on Iranian and international affairs, especially due to his considerable expertise on the Iranian nuclear program, and not someone just parroting a script sent from Tehran. This is a man whose academic freedom, and quite often vigorous defense of it, is hardly in any question by those who really know him. His critics, however, dismiss this as the behaviour of someone hedging their bets and having “a finger in every pie”, but the reality is that it reflects that of a genuine polymath with scholarship ranging from theology, politics and international relations, feminism, fiction, poetry and ecology. Clearly, such tremendously diverse academic and scholarly pursuits, coupled with a determination to candidly speak his mind on any issue, makes Dr Afrasiabi a unique character in academic and media circles. At times, his visceral and scathingly critical views on the subject of foreign (mostly British) interference in his native Iran serve to distinguish him from more languid commentators who tow whatever line the organisation backing them supports. In this respect, he shares a popular street sentiment and nationalism with most Iranians and not those scholars who are all too happy to cosy up with the ranks of the British Establishment in the hope of securing their favour. But it is in recent months that he has incurred the sustained ire of all those in the media and the Iranian expatriate community who have insisted that the June election was “fraudulent” and “rigged”. His vociferous and tireless defense of the official election results has brought him unduly bad attention but such accusations have to weighed against the fact that he actually bothered to examine the evidence which he has demonstrated comports to a natural outcome. He rightly has dismissed the spurious allegations of fraud this time round just as they were made the first time Ahmadinejad was elected. Yet despite the fact that no real evidence of foul play has been forthcoming and that the results of two scientific polls conducted by American organisations (TFT and WPO) showed that the incumbent had indeed won by a landslide, he was accused of helping to prop up a “fraudulent and illegitimate government.” But Dr Afrasiabi took the pains to remind audiences in the West that the people of Iran are not represented by the more visible residents of Shemiran and Niavaran in the North of Tehran but by the largely unseen millions who inhabit the countless villages, towns and cities outside of the capital. In this respect, Dr Afrasiabi is not a “regime apologist” but rather the voice of the silent majority of Iranians inside Iran whom the Western media has chosen to ignore both before and after the June poll. Even so, he has since called for national reconciliation among the various competing factions and for the Iranian

Government to adopt much of the social and political platform of the Green movement as well as to release all prisoners accused of inciting sedition and to respect the rule of law. But it is his reaction to the PBS-BBC documentary “A Death in Tehran”, which has rankled his critics the most. Despite being interviewed by the producer and director of the film, Monica Garnsey, his comments were censored out in large part because they challenged others presented in the documentary, in particular Dr Arash Hejazi whose contradictory statements were not mentioned or scrutinised in any way - he was just allowed to talk about himself as a man of integrity and as a witness to state-sponsored brutality. Dr Afrasiabi rightfully concluded that Hejazi was more interested in contacting the media than in saving the life of Miss Agha-Soltan or honouring her right to privacy in death violated so callously by the filmmakers who surrounded her during her last moments. He also presented new evidence taken from a series of emails he had with an LA Times correspondent that described a different eyewitness account, notably from the music teacher, of what actually happened in the side street where Neda was killed. However, the producers of the documentary were not prepared to allow for any dissent or questioning of their narrative that was so unashamedly propagandist and biased in nature that even BBC Persian TV was reluctant to air it. What Dr Afrasiabi insisted on was that his participation would not be for the purpose of making the film appear objective but that it was on the premise that it actually would be objective, critical and discerning. Moreover, when the interview was conducted in September it was made clear to him that the film was going to be about the post-election unrest in general and not focus on the death of Neda Agha-Soltan. This is admitted by Iason Athanasiadis, one of the consultants of the PBS-BBC film who has since come out trying to deny that he himself was appalled by the direction the documentary took and the lack of journalistic standards applied in it. Neither was Dr Afrasiabi aware that one of the associate producers of the film was Kelly Niknejad who heads “Tehran Bureau”, a front for the Green movement. The simple truth is that those who cannot debate him vilify Dr Afrasiabi – this was apparent when Dr Ali Ansari of the pro-establishment British think-tank, Chatham House, walked out of a live discussion on PressTV concerning the Iranian election results. The latter was simply eviscerated by the former and cried foul and left. Likewise, anyone who fears having to defend their analysis of events in Iran has every reason to smear people like Dr Afrasiabi as the only way in which they can get their message across without being taken apart intellectually and exposed for what they are. Whatever his faults and failings, Dr Kaveh Afrasiabi’s commitment to the scientific method, to freedom of speech and to academic discourse makes him a scholar of worthy repute. His profound experience and knowledge is also something which people would be foolish to ignore especially when it becomes more imperative each day that accurate analyses of the situation in Iran are presented and discussed.

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