“Profile: Hossein Bashiriyeh” by Anna Koulouris
Despite having experiences that would enrage most people, Hossein Bashiriyeh, the new political science professor
at Syracuse University, has a humble and stoic attitude about life.
After teaching politics at Tehran University in Iran for nearly twenty-five years, Bashiriyeh took a 10-month leave of absence to do research at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. Upon returning to Iran in July 2007, he learned that he would be dismissed from his position on political grounds. “People in charge of the university had changed,” says Bashiriyeh. “They were planning for a second cultural revolution to further Islamify the universities so naturally they would not let someone like me to continue teaching at the university.”
Bashiriyeh calmly recounts the intellectual restrictions of Iranian university life: “It’s a theocracy – you need to have your beliefs checked. It’s not enough to be a Muslim – you have to be a certain type of Muslim.” Since he has tenure there as a professor, Bashiriyeh is still technically part of the faculty at Tehran University, unless decided otherwise in court. He could have explored continuing to work at a private university or at a publishing house, but he had already spoken with Professor Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the Middle Eastern Studies program at SU, about a possible position in the United States. The two had first met six years ago at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., but Boroujerdi had known of Bashiriyeh’s work for years. “He’s one of the two best known political scientists in Iran – he’s a household name,” states Boroujerdi. “Students admire him. He’s helped train a whole generation of scholars in Iran.”
After high school in Hamedan, Bashiriyeh earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Tehran University. Dur- ing master’s and doctorate work in England, he became highly influenced by British analytical philosophy. He studied political behavior at the University of Essex and political theory at the University of Liverpool. He was particularly impressed with Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century philosopher known for his mechanistic understanding of human nature and government and famous for Leviathan, one of Bashiriyeh’s numerous English to Persian translations.
In 1982, Bashiriyeh returned to Tehran from England to teach political science, political sociology and political philosophy to both undergraduate and graduate students. He supervised more than 30 doctoral theses, wrote 15 textbooks, and translated 10 books into English. And still, after 25 years of teaching, rising to the top rank of Middle Eastern scholars, Bashiriyeh was purged. “Two of my friends had gotten letters,” he says. “They told me it would be my turn next.”
Although he’s only beginning to study American politics in depth, Bashiriyeh believes that the U.S. has a strong political system, especially compared to Iran’s. He attended four conferences in the U.S. before coming to Syracuse, and his experiences in 2006 in Washington, D.C. also left a lasting mark, especially the visual impressions of its monuments and natural scenery. “The U.S. is the best example of rule of law I’ve ever seen,” he says. “This is the best thing about a democracy – not the rule of the people, because even the majority may get it wrong – but the rule of law, which is remarkable here.”
Bashiriyeh is a quiet-tempered man with a broad understanding of the function of religion. His family was originally Sufi – a minority sect of Islam that takes a mystical approach to understanding existence and one’s place in the uni- verse. Recently in Iran, Sufi homes and gathering places have been destroyed as part of ongoing discrimination.
Today, Bashiriyeh does not consider himself religiously devout. “I think religion is part of the history of man’s mind and consciousness – it’s part of our historical experience.... I think we’ve gone beyond that stage now in the de- velopment of our mind – it’s an element lying in the past.” The modernist theory of religion, an important topic in Bashiriyeh’s class on the sociology of Islamic fundamentalism, posits that humans, both individually and holistically, go through various stages of development. As society becomes more modern and informed, we tend to let go of religion and other traditions. Yet, failing to let go can lead to conflict and a religious backlash, as we see with fun- damentalism today.
However, this push away from religion still pains Bashiriyeh as he searches for an alternative. In a way, Bashiriyeh’s relationship with his father has driven this quest. The two men were very close. As Bashiriyeh recounts, his father – poet, writer, businessman, lover of music, and follower of Sufism – was very energetic and experimented with almost everything. This curiosity and intellectual thirst drove him to religious schools, to a lifetime of travel, and toward an unending quest for knowledge about meditation and Eastern philosophies. “He searched for a meaning of something all his life,” Bashiriyeh says.
Now, for Bashiriyeh, that “something” is fana, an Arabic word literally meaning to cease to exist or to pass away, or nothingness. The notion of nothingness is a Sufi understanding, although it is cohesive with Bashiriyeh’s lack of religion. Sufis strive to rid themselves of earthly desires and human attributes, typically through the use of music and meditation. “You can see there’s nothing worth knowing – you come to understand nothingness, more than anything, as the background of being,” he argues. “You can go beyond being.”
Despite being pained at the changes in Iran, Syracuse Professor Mehrzad Boroujerdi immediately recognized that Iran’s sad loss would be Syracuse University’s gain. His favorite aspects of Bashiriyeh’s work are the fluency of his translations, systematic organization and originality of his analyses. “We have a saying in Persian: when a tree is full of fruits, it has its head down,” says Boroujerdi. “Because of their knowledge they end up being very humble; he embodies that.”
Boroujerdi appreciates that teaching in the U.S. means keeping religious opinions out of the lesson plan, especially when you’re from the very controversial region of the Middle East. “He’s enough of a scholar to divorce whatever his personal beliefs are from what he’s teaching,” says Boroujerdi. “I know from experience when you stand in front of a group of American students who are watching your every move, they can have stereotypes.”
The series of events since 2006 hasn’t been damaging to Bashiriyeh – at least from the impression he gives. He didn’t care so much that he had to leave Iran. The reason he wanted to return in the first place was to see his family. After decades of reading about political ideals and theories of perfect government, it’s no surprise he’d be turned off by a corrupt system. “This extremism is a very modern development,” said Bashiriyeh. “Even during the prophet’s time there wasn’t so much surveillance.”
Although Bashiriyeh could leave Iran without overwhelming disappointment, the journey has still been tough, espe- cially for his young family. His wife was half-hearted about coming – having no friends or relatives nearby. “I under- stand now what it means to immigrate,” says Bashiriyeh. “You lose your network.” But Bashiriyeh’s humble attitude rejects the rhetoric of a victim. “I try to do my best; I’m just bearing the burden of life,” he says.