Iranian Government Subdues Politically Charged Student Day With “Happy Shows”
Since its 1979 revolution, Iran’s Student Day has been marked with passionate speeches given in a less restrained political atmosphere on university campuses. But this year the government has tried to extinguish displays of political dissent by cancelling speeches that had permits while issuing them for “happy shows,” including musical concerts and stand-up comedy.
On December 6, 1956, three students who were protesting the British and US-backed coup against the country’s popularly elected government were shot to death by the Iranian military on campus. Officials have traditionally tried to use the occasion to boost the image of the Islamic Republic, which claims to protect the country from Western aggression, but their voices have been increasingly drowned out by calls for internal reform.
At Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology, speeches by student activists Ali Kamfirouzi and Hojat Sharifi were canceled by the Student Events Oversight Committee, and at Boushehr’s Open Islamic University, a speech by reformist politician Mohammad Javad Haghshenas was axed by the supreme leader’s representative on campus even though Haghshenas had a government-issued permit.
Speeches by former member of Parliament Faezeh Hashemi, the outspoken liberal daughter of former centrist President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and reformist Fatemeh Sadeghi, the daughter of the revolution’s infamous “hanging judge” Hojatoleslam Sadegh Khalkhali, were also banned at the University of Kashan.
The University of Shiraz meanwhile offered “plays, music concerts, games and competitions,” while the University of Urmia tried to entertain students with “fun shows, magic tricks, stunts and voice imitations.”
The growing campaign to silence political dissent on campuses is in line with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s frequent warnings that students should not become too politicized—in the “wrong” direction.
As the country’s most powerful official, the supreme leader can choose to exert control over all branches of government as well as the military and media. His frequent speeches are seen as directives for the direction of the country.
“University officials, senior administrators and academics must always ensure that the intellectual climate on campus remains in favor of Islamic revolutionary principles,” he declared on June 18, 2016. “Factions opposed to the revolution should never be supported.”.
On December 10, 2013, just a few months after the centrist cleric Hassan Rouhani was elected as president, Khamenei orated: “One of the things that prevents scientific progress is the politicization of the universities. Be careful. Don’t let universities become stomping grounds for political factions.”
“I urge university administrators and other officials to prevent campuses from becoming arenas for political activities and confrontation,” said Khamenei in a speech on May 25, 2014. “It would be mortal poison for scientific achievements.”
Rouhani received a boost during his presidential campaign after proclaiming that the “University of Tehran is not a military base” and calling for a less securitized political atmosphere on campuses. In practice, however, his government’s policies have remained closer in line with Khamenei’s wishes.
“A successful university is a university that debates regional and domestic political issues based on scientific analysis,” said Hessamoddin Ashena, the president’s cultural adviser, on March 2, 2015. He added that universities should be “policy centers, not political centers.”
Initially Rouhani tried to appoint moderates to head the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, which oversees universities, but his choices were rejected by hardliners in Parliament. Current Minister Mohammad Farhadi has accordingly steered policy away from Rouhani’s campaign pledges.
“Universities continue to grapple with a climate of threats and intimidation,” said 92 student organizations in an open letter to Rouhani on July 25, 2016. “The current climate is very dangerous because there is increasing apathy among students towards the upcoming presidential election [in May 2017].
“Unfortunately, it seems the needs of students and universities are not among the president’s priorities,” they said.