An Academic Blunder

The International Society for Iranian Studies (ISIS), defined on its website as “an academic society to support and promote the field of Iranian Studies,” has found itself in hot water lately. In its forthcoming conference in Santa Monica, California, it has included a paper by an individual representing “Ariel University of Samaria, Israel,” a “university” built on an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.

The history of “Ariel University of Samaria, Israel” and academic attempts to boycott it have been discussed recently in CounterPunch essays “Israel’s ‘Army-Owned’ University” and “The Two-Headed Monster” and need not be repeated. Suffice it to say that “Ariel College” began as a campus of Bar-Ilan University in 1982 on “Ariel,” the fourth largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Lately, the illegal campus was upgraded and given the status of a university by the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The upgrade created much uproar within academic circles, not only outside of Israel but inside the Jewish State itself.

Initially, ISIS’s inclusion of a representative of the illegal “university” in its conference had come to the attention of several academics, including a professor of religion and politics in England who had written to the leadership of ISIS and raised concerns about the legitimacy of “Ariel University of Samaria, Israel.” Instead of addressing his concerns, the ISIS leadership had tried to change the affiliation from “Ariel University of Samaria, Israel” to simply “Ariel University.” Disappointed by the act of concealment, the university professor in turn contacted a few other professors around the world. A group of eight academics then drafted a letter of protest and collected supporting signatures from other university professors, some very well-known scholars of the Middle East (a copy of the letter is available here).

The letter was mailed to the ISIS leadership and they were informed that more signatures are being collected. The response from ISIS was more cover up. They removed the link to the abstract of the paper affiliated with the illegal “university.” Attempts to view the abstract by following the old URL, would result in the message “ACCESS DENIED.” In the meantime, the eight professors secured signatures of well over 100 academics around the world. The letter, with new signatures, was resubmitted to ISIS.  The leadership of ISIS responded by stating that the “Iranian Studies is already subjected to a very intense scapegoating campaign from the Right” and that the “petition drive is further placing” ISIS “in a highly vulnerable situation.” “Anything that we do,” it was written, “will intensify the rightwing attack.” It was also stated that ISIS is “drafting a public statement that we will release as soon as it is approved by the Board.”

On March 2, 2010, ISIS finally announced its official position on the controversy (http://iranian-studies.com/announcements/516). The opening lines of the announcement, entitled “Scholarly Autonomy and Academic Civility,” were quite interesting. It began by stating that ISIS “has received a petition distributed by the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel [USACBI].” This was a misrepresentation of the letter of protest and an attempt to connect it to the campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. The intention was to discredit the letter among those who disagree with the boycott.  The academics who had drafted the letter, and collected signatures from other colleagues, had carefully avoided any reference to the general boycott, since some of the signatories even opposed it.  The letter of protest did, indeed, appear on the website of USACBI to alert its own constituency, but it showed no signatures.

The second sentence of the announcement was not much better. It was, once again, an attempt at concealment: “Academics leading this campaign are protesting against the inclusion of a scholar from Ariel University Center, a recently upgraded college located in the occupied Palestinian territories in the heart of the West Bank.” The sentence borrowed from the protest letter the expression “in the heart” of the West Bank, but then substituted “Ariel University Center” for “Ariel University of Samaria, Israel.”

The rest of the announcement was a mixture of incoherent, false, illogical and deceptive arguments intended to confuse the rank and file members of the organization, many of whom are sympathetic to the cause of the Palestinians.  For example, it stated: “While respecting the ethical position of colleagues who have called for the exclusion from our conference of a scholar teaching at an institution illegally established on confiscated Palestinian land, as an academic society ISIS does not regulate the institutional affiliations of its members.” But who had asked ISIS to “regulate the institutional affiliations of its members”? What does it mean to “regulate” such affiliations? Apparently, what the leadership meant to say was that ISIS does not inspect or police the institutional affiliations of its members.  But this implied that the leadership is either inept or ignorant. The affiliation of the representative of the illegal “university” was clearly listed on his abstract and in his curriculum vitae, which was attached to the abstract and posted on the Internet. Didn’t the leadership read the CV? Did they not know where “Ariel University of Samaria, Israel” is? Had they not heard of “Judea and Samaria”?

It is interesting to note that the CV of the representative of the “Ariel University of Samaria, Israel” spells out his research agenda: “The Development of the Mojahedin Khalq Organization and its struggle against the Islamic Republic of Iran, 1987-1997.” The history of the Mojahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) is well known and need not be repeated here. But as my 2003 CounterPunch essay “The Good Terrorists” and subsequent writings point out, prior to the overthrow of Saddam’s regime this cult made strange bedfellows out of the US, Israel and Iraq. Afterward, MKO became a tool in the US-Israeli policy of containment of Iran. It is this containment policy that explains the interest of the Israelis in MKO.

The announcement then goes on to discuss how “rigorous,” “blind” and “stringent” the peer review process of ISIS is. The papers for the conference, the announcement states, are only “selected on the basis of their scholarly merit alone.”

ISIS, of course, had by now hidden the abstract of the paper entitled “The Hojjatiyeh: The Real Bringers of the Islamic Revolution of Iran.” The readers were denied access to it and could not judge for themselves the “scholarly merit of the paper.” Had they had access to the abstract, they could have seen that the “paper’s main questions are: Who are the Hojjatiyeh? . . .  Does nuclear Iran represent their main goal? How does it do so? Why should the West as well as the Islamic Republic fear this group? Do they represent any threat to the Middle East, or maybe to the world itself?”

A cursory check of “Hojjatiyeh” on the Internet shows that the above questions are answered on numerous trashy, gossipy and pro-Israeli websites. Indeed, one of the most popular websites on the subject matter, after Wikipedia, reads “Ahmadinejad’s Connection to the Hojjatiyeh Movement: The Terrorist Nightmare.” It covers the same ground as the “scholarly” abstract that ISIS accepted after “rigorous,” “blind” and “stringent” peer review. Is that why ISIS is hiding the abstract?

The arguments of ISIS’s announcement get even better. “ISIS,” the statement reads, “does not discriminate on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, religious belief, gender, sexual preference, political persuasion, or institutional affiliation.” But who had asked ISIS to discriminate? What does criticizing ISIS’s decision to give legitimacy to an illegitimate “university” and, by extension, legitimacy to the military occupation of a people’s homeland, have to do with discrimination?

Then comes the one-two punch part of the announcement: “Having experienced the politicization and ideologization of our field of scholarly inquiry and having witnessed sustained profiling of our colleagues in different national contexts, we are committed to the scholarly autonomy of our society,” reads the statement. It further reads: “The International Society for Iranian Studies firmly believes that scholarship is not politics by other means, and scholarly societies cannot be substitutes for political parties and political campaigns.” Even though deceptively and intentionally unclear, these statements seem to imply that ISIS is a politically neutral organization. But can a Middle Eastern organization remain politically neutral when it comes to the brutal military occupation of Palestine? Is ISIS a politically neutral “scholarly” organization when it includes a paper from “Ariel University of Samaria, Israel” that deals with “nuclear Iran” and its “threat to the Middle East, or maybe to the world”?

Actually, the ISIS leadership has never been politically neutral. Its non-neutrality and political preferences are well exhibited on its website by the inclusion of a huge and glaring emblem of the Achaemenid Empire.

The last two lines of the “Scholarly Autonomy and Academic Civility” are intended to give the knockout blow:

We stand firm against the attempts by any government to dictate the principles of research in the humanities and social sciences and to regulate and control academic and scholarly inquiry. While respecting the work of political pressure groups and recognizing their significance, we likewise remain fully committed to the scholarly autonomy of our society, and we disapprove any attempt to use it as a venue for the advancement of political agendas, regardless of how justified those agendas might be.

Which government has tried to “dictate the principles of research” to the ISIS leadership? Do the original eight professors who drafted the letter of protest, and the subsequent hundred other professors who signed it, represent a government? Which government do they represent? Who are the “political pressure groups” that are using ISIS “as a venue for the advancement of political agendas”? Are the independent scholars whose signatures appear on the letter of protest a political pressure group?  What is their “political agenda”? Is defending the human rights of a people under military occupation, or protesting against giving legitimacy to a “university” built on an occupied land, a political agenda?

The leadership of ISIS has committed a grave blunder by including in its upcoming conference a paper from “Ariel University of Samaria, Israel.” Subsequently, it has committed more blunders by trying to hide the affiliation, conceal the abstract of the paper, obfuscate the issue by writing an incoherent, false, illogical and deceptive “announcement” against those who have criticized its actions and asked it to correct its ways. These blunders, unfortunately, were expected. While the rank and file of ISIS consists of scholars who, like many other academics, are troubled by the plight of the Palestinians, the leadership of ISIS still represents mostly an old guard of conservative individuals with little or no sympathy for a people living under occupation. The time has come for the rank and file to ask some serious questions from the ISIS leadership.

SASAN FAYAZMANESH is Professor of Economics at California State University, Fresno. He is the author of The United States and Iran: Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment (Routledge, 2008).  He can be reached at: sasan.fayazmanesh@gmail.com.



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Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno, and is the author of Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy.” He can be reached at: sasan.fayazmanesh@gmail.com.

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