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Norway's shame: educational discrimination against Iranian students

Iranian students are being systematically discriminated against by the Norwegian government. This is a closed minded approach that goes against long term European interests.

For several months now there have been disheartening reports from Norway that Iranian students are being denied residence permits and visas due to international sanctions, even though their areas of expertise do not appear to pose any security threats to European interests.

The same happened two years ago in the Netherlands. In response, I argued that Iranian students should not be seen as posing a threat, that those accepted in European and American graduate degree programs include the brightest minds from Iran, and that the international sanctions imposed on Iran did not even include the option of such blatant educational discrimination. Iranian students in the Netherlands were not merely targeted because of the sanctions, but found themselves caught up in a broader, xenophobic political context that fed bias against them.

Fortunately, though to no avail for those who lost scholarships or hard earned savings, the Dutch government responded positively to criticisms and a Supreme Court ruling that confirmed allegations of discrimination.

In Norway, unsurprisingly, bias against Iranian students has grown since the 2013 rise of a new conservative government. Such allegations of discrimination go against the international image of Norway as an open, inclusive society. Rather than going through similar legal procedures as in the Netherlands, the Norwegian government should reassess its interpretation of its implemented policy concerning the admittance of Iranian students. When it does reject students’ applications, this should be based on transparent and concrete reasoning. A secretive attitude of the immigration authorities will only reinforce accusations of arbitrary discrimination.

A glance at the students’ Facebook pageStop Educational Discrimination Against Iranians (SEDAI), shows massive academic support for their cause. Among the supporters are the usual critical academic superstars, such as Noam Chomsky: “We call upon the Norwegian government to withdraw the unjust decision and to put an end to discrimination in education”. But also Gunnar Bovim, rector of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), who has said that “We may lose the battle for the best brains”, because the PhD students whose visa applications were rejected are “the best qualified applicants for their positions”. That this is not an exaggeration is clear from the many prestigious positions in western universities and companies occupied by Iranian migrants over the past decades.

For example, among the studies that the Norwegian Security Police Service (PST) has concerns about is mathematics. Is training students in graduate level mathematics really that dangerous? Imagine that because of fear and bigotry, rather than genuine security threats, a European country turns away the next Maryam Mirzakhani, born and raised in Iran and since this year the first woman ever to win the prestigious Fields Medal (often said to be the Nobel Prize of mathematics). Such would be a loss for all, and this from the country which is famous for the most prestigious award in natural science.

In addition to being supported by a wide variety of academics, the students have gathered support from Norwegian citizens as well. On 20 August, two copies of over twelve thousand signatures were submitted to the Norwegian government, to a political adviser at the office of Prime Minister, as well as to a Member of Parliament. On Facebook, the SEDAI campaign requested “the Norwegian authorities change the unfair decisions limiting the educational opportunities for Iranian nationals and to care about so many people in Norway and abroad who gave their signatures to the petition and keep watching the developments closely.”

Europeans must not underestimate the negative publicity caused by their governments’ discriminatory policies. The Netherlands, for example, has again welcomed Iranian students to its universities, allowed their employment after graduation and grants citizenship to those with five years of work experience. Many take advantage of these excellent opportunities, but there are also badly needed and brilliant young scientists and scholars who choose to leave. For example Kambiz (pseudonym), who graduated in one of the most complex areas of expertise at Delft Technical University, told me that among his reasons for leaving the Netherlands after several years were a closed minded attitude towards migrants.

In the Netherlands, Kambiz felt, he would never be really respected for his talents and achievements, perpetually remaining an outsider. And all of this despite this young man’s very open attitude towards the country, its people, places, language and achievements. Other European countries such as Norway should reconsider how toxic such discrimination policies are, pushing away potential contributors to their societies and unnecessarily feeding resentment.

That the sanctions are indeed being disproportionately applied to students, by which I mean that there is no relation with nuclear weapons technology, is clear from the many stories available on SEDAI’s Facebook page. The page, which currently has three thousand likes, has posted information about various cases of Iranians who appear to be rejected by immigration authorities in an arbitrary manner. Take for example Vahid Rasoulzadeh, a student working on offshore technology, who had to appeal a decision by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration to be able to pursue his educational goals. In the meantime, he had to wait for over a year in Norway without being allowed to work and was not able to travel to visit family.

In the case of Hamideh Kaffash, the appeal made by her Norwegian university (NTNU) was rejected. According to SEDAI, this was “without a concrete reasoning”. Kaffash’s story, that she has not been allowed to pursue a PhD in material engineering, was covered by BBC.com, which cites her saying that her research project is aimed at “reducing CO2 emission in ferromanganese production … It’s a project which will benefit the environment and is now being applied in Iran.” Jostein Mardalen, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, was quoted saying that the decision of the Department of Immigration “is baseless and wrong.”

Not only are visa applications rejected, the current situation is also applicable for all Iranians who migrated with their families to Norway and already have a permanent residence status. Mahtab Emamy Frooshany, for example, who is living in Oslo with her family, failed to be admitted for a master’s program solely due to her nationality. Her university education department informed her that she was “not considered eligible for admission to the Master in Systems Engineering with Embedded Systems because you are an Iranian citizen”.

She appealed twice and received a final rejection letter from the Ministry of Education in June, stating that “Internationalization of higher education is high on the agenda in Norway, and we are pleased to welcome Iranian students to Norway. However, universities and university colleges have a duty to prevent illegal transfer of knowledge relevant to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” The letter adds that these “regulations are applicable also for students with permanent residence in Norway.”

What was so dangerous about her following a master’s program in embedded systems engineering? First of all, this particular branch of engineering is indeed used for developing control systems for rockets, and this could be a reason to deny certain types of knowledge to certain students or researchers. But embedded systems engineering is also used for everything ranging from pacemakers, cell phones, and airbags. Would a graduate student really acquire information and training so sensitive that it would facilitate creating weapons of mass destruction? Moreover, as the Dutch courts recognized earlier, in a globalized world any citizen can sell information to another nation’s government. Discrimination based solely on citizenship is highly questionable as an effective strategy of protecting security interests.

What are the broader implications of treating Iranian students with so little courtesy? Over the past years, the economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and the European Union due to worries over Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon have slowed down the progress and emancipation of young Iranians seeking to broaden their horizon. In their country, the middle class is becoming ever more an aspiring middle class that has the spirit required for real cosmopolitanism but not the cash nor the visas required to increase its freedom of movement.

Having struck the Iranian currency hard, in some cases evaporating life savings and dreams of pursuing higher education outside Iran, ordinary citizens have become victims of political power struggles. Students as far apart as the United States and Malaysia have had to give up their studies, sometimes when only one semester was left to be completed, returning to their country with empty pockets and without a degree. That these bright students should in addition continuously worry about visa applications and residency permits rubs salt in their already badly hurting wounds.

These people do not only come to countries like the Netherlands and Norway for work and study, but also for their cultures of tolerance. As I wrote earlier, it is imperative that the door for exchange of good intentions, beyond technical know-how, stays open. Education and cultural exchange are among the best ways to establish such meaningful ties. Of course, very complex political problems remain outstanding, but burning bridges between Iran and the western world will help no one face the challenges that lie ahead. We merely need to recall the very long history of European-Iranian educational relations to realize the fundamental transformations of the past decades.

During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, the great Iranian statesmen Amir Kabir created the first modern Iranian college and sent out a few dozen students to bring back western knowledge to Iran. Today, thousands of students travel to Europe and North America every year and thousands more dream of doing so. Their purpose is no longer mere imitation, bringing back (potentially sensitive) knowledge and not adding anything of major significance. Today, they are excellent contributors to European universities and often after graduation to European companies as well. Such a time requires going beyond simplistic prejudiced thinking in ‘us’ and ‘them’ categories, letting go of fears and instead engaging with each other in dialogue, exchange, and in the process also transformation.

For the sake of a safer and more stable world, Iran and the West must transcend mutual enmity and fear. Appreciating Iranian students is a modest starting point for us here in Europe to help achieve that historical milestone.

About the author

Pooyan Tamimi Arab studied Art History and Philosophy in Amsterdam and New York. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Cultural Anthropology department of Utrecht University, writing a dissertation on the use of loudspeakers for the Islamic call to prayer in the Netherlands.

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