Twenty years ago, I was a sophomore in Tehran Polytechnic. In addition to being one of the most prestigious universities in Iran, our campus was also known for its lively political and intellectual environment. The student organizations, on both the left and the right, were highly active — too active for my taste — but the progressive left was particularly hot on campus. These were years of gradual cultural and social opening in Iran. Almost two decades after the revolution, a new generation of young students with a more liberal outlook, and tired of the narrow and rigid revolutionary discourse, were trying to assert themselves on the political scene.
It was a captivating environment and I was immediately drawn into it. We spent countless hours with my friends reading, discussing and debating how the current state-sponsored reading of Islam needed reform. Reform was imperative, the left firmly believed, for a more pluralistic, inclusive, free and just society that they envisioned for Iran.
One of the most important intellectuals at the time that inspired us was Abdol-Karim Soroush, whom I personally consider a mentor. He was one of the main ideologues of the Islamic Revolution who had a gradual change of heart as he saw the revolution eat its children one by one, lending his powerful pen to the reformists. He wrote eloquent, yet very controversial books about the idea of reform in Islam, and because of those books and his popularity among reformists, the religious establishment, and most notably the Supreme Leader of Iran, considered him a dangerous threat to their legitimacy. They were determined to suppress his voice but there was not a quick, legal way to silence him. What they could do easily, however, was to unleash the extensive regime propaganda machine and direct the right-wing student organizations, which often had direct or indirect ties to the office of the Supreme Leader, to do whatever they can, not to let his voice be heard. After a couple of disturbing incidents on other campuses, which included chairs being thrown at him while speaking, our reformist student organization decided to invited him on campus to speak. I would never forget that day. Campus gates were shut close with only students and faculty let in. There were huge protests going on outside the gates, the participants were mostly members of the paramilitary Basij force affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards joined by other right-wing students. The situation was tense and many of us were scared to death. Half an hour into the scheduled time, the power was cut off from the auditorium and none of the panelists showed up. After much wait, the organizers announced that due to the protests outside, and the tacit collaboration of the administration and the campus police who eventually had to answer the Supreme Leader and his puppets, Soroush was not able to pass through the gates and give his lecture in person. The organizers, however, managed to put him on a phone speaker, amplified through the mosque megaphones that are usually used for announcing the call for prayers. Unlike Middlebury students in yesterday’s event, the opposing students were decent enough to let the others hear his speech through the speakers.
Soroush continued to receive death threats until he felt it was best for his safety to leave Iran. Where did he take refuge in? The United States of America. Why? Because he knew that his freedom to write and speak would be protected by values enshrined in the constitution of the United States.
Ten years after that incident, I faced a somehow similar decision: After finishing my PhD in the study of religion in America, I had to decide whether to go back to Iran and teach there or seek a teaching position in the U.S. It was a hard decision, but at the end of the day, it was about freedom of speech: I knew that if I wanted to teach about religion from a humanistic perspective in Iran I’d have to deal with a barrage of attacks that, in essence, accused me of “hate speech.” They would say that I hated Islam/religion because I taught there was a human side to it, that I insulted Islamic sanctities because I demonstrated to my students how they were human constructs, that I was an atheist bent on destroying the faith of my students. I knew that I could freely teach, write and educate in the U.S. I knew no matter what, my speech would be protected both by the First Amendment in public space and by the tenure system in academia.
As I sat in McCullough Student Center on Thursday, unsuccessfully trying to watch the live stream of Charles Murray’s speech in the middle of student protests, fire alarms going on and off, and the live stream being cut off, I saw the frozen face of a man with whom I deeply and fundamentally disagreed. As events unfolded, however, I could think less and less about my disagreements with him and more and more about how much the student protestors — who could afford to ignore Middlebury College President Laurie Patton and Professor Allison Stanger’s open and strong invitation for civic engagement and rhetorical resilience — took the tremendous amount of freedom that they had for granted. A freedom that, even after the loss of thousands of precious lives in its pursuit, still looks like an elusive dream in many countries across the globe.