University In Exile

Project proposal v.1 | First published on January 27, 2022

  • Jonathan Michael Feldman, Associate Professor, Stockholm University, Department of Economic History & International Relations
  • Marlene Neumann, TCF e. V., PhD student at the University of Osnabrück, Migration Studies, Labour Market integration
  • Arman Torkzaban, TCF e. V., student, software developer, participatory social justice activist


The following is a proposal to support a feasibility study for a “university in exile,” by which we mean an institution that supports the various goals of diasporic communities related to education, democracy and equitable economic development.  These three goals relate to two key problems. The first problem is constraints on these capacities or goals in the “home environment” in which diasporas are classified as being immigrants or having an “immigrant background.”  For example, persons with immigrant backgrounds may be excluded from political participation (where there is a scarcity of politicians representing or advocating their needs), marginalised in the labour market, lacking capital or wealth, and may be excluded from mainstream culture or educational institutions. Or, immigrants are inserted into such institutions but mediated by power structures that fail to represent these persons’ economic or political interests.

The second problem relates to constraints on these capacities or goals in the “country of origin” or the countries from which immigrants or ancestors of immigrants come. For example, presently, there are pressing problems for immigrants (or their descendants) linked not only to Iran and Afghanistan but also to Nigeria, Russia, Hong Kong, and other countries. Our more extensive networks have links to critical activists or policymakers in all five countries.

The “university in exile” builds on previous models of formal universities or university programs established by exiles but also utilises other models that create economic and political power. These models include Scandinavian “folk high schools,” which make political powers, and university-based incubators or engineering and business schools, which can promote spin-offs and economic power.


With nearly 90 Million refugees by the end of 2021 (65.3 Mil., 2015 UNHCR), it is evident that the number of people who are forced to flee because of ‘persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order’ has massively increased in the past decades (UNHCR 2022). Among these refugees, some have been socially and politically active and fought for freedom in their countries, and continued to do so after their departure. However, once they find a new place to live, they face all sorts of struggles to adapt and survive in the contemporary context. The diasporas are dispersed, and continuing their political activism is challenging for the exiles. Nevertheless, if there is ever a chance to reform their countries of origin and open them up for change, a substantial hope to do so lies within the efforts of these exiles who can prepare and build an effective network for that.

Goals of the “university in exile”

The UIE, as a transnational transformative space, intends to be a hub for networking, studying, and exchanging innovative and democratic ideas that affect the deployment of human, technological, industrial, and financial resources to enable the exiles to promote and engage in reforming their countries of origin while maintaining the best relationship with the host country. A regime change, however, may offer many challenges and opportunities with central questions of reconciliation, constitutional change, and human and environmental rights. The UIE tackles these issues and opens the space to find possible solutions.

Tactical Objectives 

Our main objective is to design and offer programs targeting exiles. The final aim of the UIE is to establish an accredited institution in Germany that offers physical and online courses leading to academic degrees.

To gain the necessary experience for setting up such an institution and apply our ideas and findings early on, we begin with setting up courses and developing our programs incrementally.

We will follow two parallel processes, which will converge in the final concept of the UIE.

The first process is setting up courses and small educational centres to gain practical experience in the field of education for refugees. The first courses will be on language and computer science fundamentals. In this step, which we will take during the 4th quarter of 2022 and throughout 2023, we will acquire relevant administrative skills, experiment with course design techniques and best practices for pre- and non-university stages, and get feedback directly from our target groups.

As extensions to this effort, together with our partners, we will establish an elementary school in Indonesia (in the 3rd quarter of 2023, for young refugees) and open an academy for vocational training (throughout 2023, for adult refugees).

The academy targets the vocational training system in Germany, for which we will prepare our students. The system (Ausbildung) is unique and offers high quality practical education. To students it offers the possibility to follow an education in more than 300 different professions while working and going to school at the same time. In comparison to studying, students already earn a salary from the very beginning of their training. While studying at the University in Germany requires financial funds, which are unattainable for many refugees, the vocational training is possible with little financial investments. The requirements to start the training are language skills and a placement with a company and a school. At the academy we will train our clients in online language courses and with the help of our experienced colleagues at TCF we will support them throughout their way towards a successful admission in the vocational training system with professional orientation and application training. After finishing the training, the students will have a safe residence in Germany and the UIE can build on a network of professionals with different skills sets. 

The second process is research-driven and aims at drawing on the experiences of existing universities in exile as well as gaining a deeper understanding of the target diasporas, and it examines the idea of the university in exile as a reconstructive solution. A strategic plan for the University In Exile together with an outline for the research proposal will follow.

Strategic Plan for University In Exile 

PhaseNamePurposeRelation to the Earlier or Later PhasesTimeline
1Literature Review and Theories; Initial contact databaseThis involves a review of the literature on (a) universities in exile, (b) “folk high schools,” (c) organising schools, and (d) technical universities that facilitate cooperative development as well as literature on potential long-term functions for such a university.  Among the various functions can be: a) training for political organising; b) specification of alternative models for social transformation; c) training on how to promote innovations, new business development, networked cooperatives; d) alternative models for capacities’ development and social inclusion; e) models on how to conduct “mobilisations” related to agenda setting, promoting green transformation, etc.  Some specialised literature on Afghans and Iranians in the diaspora could be useful.  The different models for (a), (b), (c) and (d) can be linked to questions for key informants, the interviews for phase 2.
Generation of core ideas presented to interviewees, focal groups, funders and the general public. 
The initial contact database involves identifying persons who could be part of interviews in Phase 2, focal groups in Phase 4, or outreach in Phase 5.
A kind of interview protocol is generated from the initial research (which is used in Phases 2, 4).
PhaseNamePurposeRelation to the Earlier or Later PhasesTimeline
2Empirical work including: (a) codification of experience in setting up new university programs, (b) interviews and (c) data collection.(a) There are various individuals who have established new universities or programs in the contemporary period (last twenty years or so).  Their experiences can be analysed through self-reflections, interviews and documents.  (b) The interviews centre on figuring out from relevant individuals in the Iranian diaspora what role the functions of a university in exile could perform (related to what was analysed in phase 1); how these tasks deemed relevant have or could be performed and who potentially could design, manage or implement the tasks.  Note in some cases we need not restrict ourselves to Iranians or those in the diaspora for interviews. For example, someone who has helped establish a political organising school in the U.S. can be interviewed.  Item (c) involves data collection on the numbers of Afghans and Iranians in different countries and some information on their professions, educational status and the like.   This phase is a kind of test of ideas which relates to Phase 4.  We gather contacts for the mobilisation in Phase 5 and the strategic development in Phase 6. 
PhaseNamePurposeRelation to the Earlier or Later PhasesTimeline
3CompilationThis links the results  from Phase I and Phase II into a series of reports in summary and longer versions. We present protocols to organise focal groups and scenario workshops. There may be some elaboration by these means:  1) A question and answer podcast; 2) A short video. These are the items that can be presented to the focal groups.  
4Focal Groups and Scenario Workshop with Constituencies and ChampionsFocal Groups
We test out ideas before the persons or constituencies who could help implement or finance them.  
These involve a series of panels with different kinds of individuals/groups. 
Scenario Workshops
We test out different models for such a university in exile vis-à-vis audience projections about future political, economic developments, e.g. total regime collapse, regime retrenchment and massive repression, etc.
We will figure out what ideas seem to work or have greater or lesser support.  This is very useful for Phase 5. We begin to engage the public.  We compile data that can be used to refine the initial research. 
PhaseNamePurposeRelation to the Earlier or Later PhasesTimeline
5Outreach/MobilisationWe gain support for the plan from a larger, general public.  This involves a conference where research and findings from previous phases is presented to a mass audience, with a remote audience, i.e. a hybrid conference.  We potentially invite the mass media.  This event might be timed to overlap with some other meetings to economise on time, travel, carbon footprint, etc.  In theory this meeting takes place in Germany or a simulcast with a twin meeting in Toronto, Canada. We gain more knowledge to identify potential persons who could be students, teachers, administrators or patrons.  We move from a database of potentially interested persons to actually interested persons.  We gather more data about what needs are or preferences for such a university. 
6Implementation Work I: Course DesignThis involves the design of various curricula that can be used in various courses. We can prepare drafts earlier but the full range of curricula must correspond to the research.
7Implementation Work II: Development of Board of TrusteesThis is to build a supporting intellectual, political and financial infrastructure.We start accelerated recruitment after Phase 4 (or during Phase 4).
8Accreditation phase– The purpose of the accreditation phase is to verify the equivalency of the intended study state study programs,- makes statements about the quantitative personnel requirements and- clarifies how these needs will be met.
The accreditation of the study programs is carried out by submitting an application to an accreditation agency approved by the Accreditation Council. The procedure is the principles of the respective agency. The basis of the accreditation decision is the basis for the preparation of the application for state recognition. 
9Application phase – state of Lower Saxony, North Rhine Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg,  

The Diaspora as a Problem of Reconstructionist mobilisation:

An Outline for a Research Proposal

By Jonathan Michael Feldman

1. Introduction

The following is an outline for a research proposal to study how political mobilisation of the Iranian diaspora can be conceived of as a problem of reconstructionist mobilisation. The proposed research will investigate the following primary research questions. First, “how do specific diasporas attempt to gain political, media, and economic power in their respective countries of origin?” Second, “what factors shape an orientation to the following orientations: (a) support for democratic, progressive change in Iran, (b) support for cultural activities and ethnic identity, (c) support for solutions mediated by established political parties, or (d) support for either ethnic or democratic engagement or de-alienation which diminishes the scope of intermediaries? Third, how has (c) been linked to (a) or (d)? Fourth, how could a university in exile contribute towards options (a) and (d) in contrast to the exclusive focus on other orientations, (b) and (c)? 

2. Theoretical Approach

This study is motivated by the following considerations. First, certain parts of the Iranian diaspora are subject to social exclusion, inequality, discrimination, and depressed economic conditions. Furthermore, some parts of the diaspora are separated from proactive organisations and strategies supporting equitable economic development. Second, Iran persists as a regime combining political repression and underdevelopment; sanctions as an attempt at regime change have not eliminated the fundamentalist government ruling Iran or the extension of its power in the Middle East. Third, there appear to be few bridges between diaspora communities on the one hand and effective attempts at changing the character of the Iranian society in a progressive direction. These factors point to both a socio-economic vacuum and an opportunity for forces championing an alternative to these outcomes.

Before addressing the reasons and proposed framework for this study, I will now define the four key terms deployed above. Turning first to the word diaspora, this concept can be defined as “any ethnic collectivity which lacks a territorial base within a given polity, i.e., is a relatively small minority throughout all portions of the polity” (Armstrong, 1976: 393). The problem in diasporic studies, however, is that this term can easily lose “its discriminating power—its ability to pick out phenomena, to make distinctions.” As Rogers Brubaker argued, “the universalisation of diaspora, paradoxically, means the disappearance of diaspora.” At the very least, diasporas involve populations that “to some extent” are “dispersed in space” and designate a “collectivity.” Another key element is an “orientation to the homeland.” In some cases, some scholars address the idea of recreating an ethnic culture in different locations (Brubaker, 2005: 3-6; cf. Armstrong, 1976; Clifford, 1994 and Safran, 1991). 

In contrast to these approaches to diaspora, I will use another approach developed by Stéphane Dufoix. According to Dufoix the diaspora can be defined in part by the relationship between the “home” country (or “homelands”) and the “host” country (or “dispersed populations”), with different kinds of relationships predominant in different kinds of diasporas. These permutations relate to conditions of social exchange which in theory provide a foundation for different kinds of social transformations. The phenomenon known as “diaspora” relates to these spatial relationships and exchanges. As Roger Waldinger explains: “Diasporas are of interest to states seeking to organise emigrants (and their descendants) into a collectivity that can be controlled and from which resources can be extracted.” The dispersed populations for their part (emigrants and descendants) are “eager to use the advantages acquired from residence outside the home state in order to gain leverage within the home state.” There are different modalities in the relationship between the home state and host states where such relationships vary from indifference, to solidarity, to active antagonism. These modalities can differ by geographic location and historical time period. According to this approach, “there are no diasporas, only different ways of constructing, managing, and imagining the relationship between homelands and their dispersed peoples” (Waldinger, 2008: xii, xv-xvi).

Dufoix defines three key permutations in these relationships which partially serve as the departure point for this study:

…[S]tate efforts to control and manage “their” diasporas; the long-distance nationalism of émigres (possibly directed against existing homeland states or regimes or oriented toward host states in support of homeland causes); and the Internet as a mechanism for building the “imaginary community” and doing so in relatively costless ways. In each case, the distinctiveness of the contemporary situation comes into view: dispersion, once a liability, is now a value to be put into play (Waldinger, 2008: xvi).

These possibilities correspond to potential proactive designs which could shape diasporic relations to support different kinds of socio-economic formations. These formations correspond to the remaining concepts that must be defined. 

A reconstructive mobilisation can be defined as a discursive and material transformation which engages the population to promote ideas or artefacts which reduces if not eliminates alienation: “Discursive mobilisations advance values or ideas but stop short of innovation and production system changes. Material mobilisations affect deployment of human, technological, industrial and financial resources” (Feldman, 2021: 121). Reconstruction itself corresponds to transformations based on material possibilities and socially transformative goals. The key reference point is de-alienation from intermediaries which constrain the capacities of subjects be they audiences, consumers, social movement participants, users, voters, or workers. Democratised intermediaries taking the form of cooperatives or media accountability networks can act as de-alienating or enabling intermediaries in contrast to alienating and dis-enabling intermediaries found in the typical large transnational corporations. One ideal cooperative design in economics involves the integration of three core functions: research and development (taking the form of universities and industrial laboratories); production (in which workers have ownership and control over the means of production); and finance (taking the form of an industrial development bank). Reconstructionist thinkers have proposed various institutional innovations to extend subjects’ capacities in a democratic and often decentralised fashion including alternative schools, civilian or sustainable conversion of firms or universities and community-run media platforms (Feldman, 2002; Feldman, 2021; Goodman, 1967; Melman, 2001).  

The term intermediaries corresponds to the established or incumbent actors who organise the capacities of the audiences, consumers, social movement participants, users, voters, or workers. The term de-alienation corresponds to the result which occurs when a set of alienating intermediaries is replaced by a set of de-alienating ones, where de-alienation is defined as the condition which links decision-making and responsibility, limits bureaucracy and administrative overheads, and reduces surplus hierarchy. De-alienation involves eliminating so-called “middle men” or the intermediaries that use their control over a resource and institutions, such as the resource of land and the institution of rented housing, to extract a surplus profit over and above the needs of adequately maintaining and reproducing the institution or related service. In contrast, social housing and housing cooperatives would eliminate the incumbent landlord and replace her or him with a system of collectively owned and controlled housing. This process is not limited to housing but corresponds to other spheres including cooperatives organising the economic capacities of so-called “subaltern” groups (cf. Feldman, 2002; Melman, 2001; Nembhard, 2014: Scanlon et al., 2014). The mobilisation of different forms of power to promote social transformation can be found in Marxist approaches to social movements (Feldman, 2016).

3. Motivations for the Study I: The Crises in Iran and Diaspora 

The Crises in Iran

There are several factors which explain the importance of such a study. These centre primarily on the need to address multiple crises in both Iran and the Iranian diaspora. There are three core crises facing Iran. First, the system has become increasingly repressive, militarised and faces ongoing security challenges. There have been periodic restrictions on the distribution of information. For example, the government repeatedly has “restricted or completely shut down mobile communication systems, including mobile phones, text messages, and the internet.”    In addition, “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces have moved into Iran’s political sphere, with four of the seven candidates in the 2005 Iranian presidential election (including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) having served in the IRGC.” Extreme Shi‘ism which could lead to greater religious violence and conflicts between Shi‘ite and Sunni communities within Iran. The country is plagued by separatist movements in various regions including “Baluchestan on the border with Pakistan, the Kurdish regions in the west, the oil-rich areas with an Arab ethnic minority, and more recently, the northwestern provinces (bordering Azerbaijan and Turkey)” (Ziya, 2021).

Second, the country has experienced extreme underdevelopment linked to administrative corruption, underinvestment and sanctions. Aside from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy by depressing trade and oil imports, increasing inflation and the budget deficit. This problem manifests itself in a scarce and crumbling infrastructure, drought, poverty, inequality and extensive illiteracy (involving about 9 million persons). Recent studies found that about 30% Iranians are “below the ‘absolute poverty line’” with some suggesting that 78% of Iranians lived below the poverty line in mid-2020. Despite these factors, the political leadership wants to nearly double the Iranian population.  One measure of inequality is that “the cost of buying 1 square metre of a house in the north of Tehran is equal to two years of income for an average worker” (Ng, 2021; Ziya, 2021). A review of Iranian conditions last year found that: “the prices of the items in the basket of consumer goods for people’s daily needs have increased by 10 to 50 percent,” “the cost of living in Iran” had increased by 32 percent. Moreover, “most people” were “in dire need of food, housing, medical care, clothing and necessities of life,” with their situation deteriorating daily. Some claim that “the number of people below the poverty line in Iran in 2020 had reached 36 million,” with former parliamentarian Shahab Naderi claiming that 80 percent of Iranians lived below the poverty line. Poverty has also been feminised, with women more likely to have lost their jobs (Women’s Committee, 2021). 

Third, the country is experiencing a migration crisis linked to a massive “brain drain.” The Turkish Ministry of Interior General Directorate of Migration Management states that about 53,176 migrants were stopped from January 1st to June 16, 2021. This figure represented half of the 122,302 registered cases in 2020, however, and was “a major drop from the 454,662 migrants stopped in 2019” (Al Jazeera, 2021).  In the fifteen year period inclusive of 2021, “a large part of the intellectual class (students, professors, and elites)” had left Iran, i.e. between 150,000 and 180,000 persons (Ziya, 2021). Another study, published in 2020, “identified around 110,000 scholars of Iranian descent affiliated with universities and research institutes outside of Iran.” This study found that “the total number of Iranian-born emigrants increased from about half a million people prior to the 1979 revolution to 3.1 million in 2019, corresponding to 1.3% and 3.8% of the country’s population, respectively.” This study found “the tendency of students for returning to Iran has declined from upward of 90% in 1979 to less than 10% today” (Azadi et al., 2020: 3).

The Diasporic Crisis

While migrants from Iran have largely escaped repression and often poverty, they can suffer from various problems. Parts of the Iranian diaspora correspond to populations which are subject to social exclusion and discrimination. One concern is “Iranophobia” in which Iranians in the diaspora fear retaliation because of increased tensions between the United States and Iran (Sadeque, 2020). This problem, faced for example in the U.S., revolves around a few, isolated, incidents. In contrast, others point to structural differences between wealthier and poorer Iranians, even in an advanced welfare state like Sweden (Khosravi, 2018). Other Iranian diasporic communities suffer from more direct threats of repression or potential infiltration from organised crime: “recent speculation of an increased Iranian secret service presence in Turkey has fomented concern among Iranian dissidents, pushing them out of Turkey and further into Europe” (Mengü, 2020). News reports discuss arrests of drug rings linked to Iranian spies and kidnapping of Iranian dissidents linked to separatist insurgencies (Daily Sabah, 2020). Iranian refugees in Turkey, of which there are about 39,000, live in fear of both surveillance and arbitrary deportations, with leading activists like Maryam Shariatmadari targeted (Sahinkaya and Jedinia, 2020). Iranian repression of Iranians outside Iran and repression of Iranian-based relatives of Iranian dissidents living overseas illustrate two ways in which the Iranian state exercises social control over the diaspora (Hakakian, 2021; Lipin and Sharafi, 2020). 

As we will see, diasporas could conceivably contribute to reform in Iran. There is a problem, however, in how modernity and the “limits to the West” create challenges for social change. In the immediate years after the 1979 Revolution, a kind of depoliticization of the diaspora became apparent. A report in 1987 noted, “some Leftists in Iran who travel abroad express dismay at the disillusionment, depoliticization and anti-socialist sentiment they encounter among many exiles.” Nevertheless, a potential foundation for social change existed as “groups of former comrades,” based on political organisations of the past, met “as friends in weekly or bi-weekly discussion groups” (Moghadam, 1987: 27). More recent studies show how Iranian media in diasporic nations like Sweden may emphasise cultural as opposed to political programming, however (Ahadi, 2016).

Much like the history of modern Iranian domestic politics, the diaspora is defined by political fragmentation and scalar differentiation. For Iranians, this problem relates to a separation of spaces of the “homeland” and “host nation” alluded to earlier. Iranian diaspora, like other diaspora communities, differ by various intersectional categories, age of arrival in the “host” country, whether the individual was born in the country of ancestors or the host country of their relatives, and various aspects of biography and commitments. The first general question is whether the individual in such a community is oriented towards Iran, life in the host country, or some combination, with these corresponding to different spaces. For example, in the early to mid-1990s, there was “a division within the Iranian population in Sweden between, on the one hand, those who still see themselves as political exiles and, on the other hand, those who have begun to concentrate on the task of building a diaspora Iranian community” (Graham and Khosravi, 1997: 117-118). 

These spaces can correspond to various forms of alienation, or a feeling of being separated or cut off from integration or resources such that a return to the home country need not lead to de-alienation. For example, “it is far from self-evident” that Iranians who remain in Iran “are at home and are secure in that state” in contrast to those in the diaspora. One reason is that Iran “had become a foreign and alien place” for many individuals who became exiles. Problems developed with the long-term war with Iraq or from the course of the revolution. Therefore, “alienation from a homeland can begin even before exile” (Graham and Khosravi, 1997: 125).

4. Motivations for the Study II: Transnational Networks and the Political and Economic Vacuum

While much is known about the aforementioned crisis, there is a kind of political and economic vacuum when it comes to addressing these. First, in many ways the diasporic community is under-mobilised and a comprehensive and comparative approach to studying political action by the Iranian diaspora does not exist. A gap can be seen not only in the absence of a comprehensive diasporic survey using a common methodology, but also in how each diaspora is analysed with respect to different forms of capital and their exchange (or conversion) and extension. This system allows for leverage in one sphere (such as media) to be parlayed into power in another sphere (including political or economic power) (cf. Bourdieu, 1986; Feldman, 2002; Feldman, 2016).

 One arena for understanding the extension of capital in diasporic communities is to analyse different spatial-scalar relationships, with possibilities for progressive change at different scales. First, at the local space of the diasporic community, a core problem relates to social inclusion which can be defined on political, economic, social and cultural terms. This framework is utilised in various ethnic and migration studies (Dukic et al., 2017; Ghorashi, 2021; McAuliffe, 2008). In some cases, action at this scale is based on the opportunity costs anticipated in returning to Iran. An early study of the Iranian diaspora in Sweden argued that “a return to Iran for many women would mean a return to a more traditional and inferior social status, as well as having to abandon involvement in feminist activities and organizations.” In addition, “women often have bitter memories of being arrested, insulted, or discriminated against by the authorities” (Graham and Khosravi, 1997: 122). In essence, given the choice between “voice” (or changing Iran in Iran) and “exit” (or leaving Iran), many will choose the exit option because of constraints on the ability to achieve preferences in Iran (cf. Hirschman, 1970). The problem, however, is that exit from Iran need not guarantee a voice in the host country. The de-politicization of emigres may result from a lack of motivation or apathy. Nevertheless, apathy can result from the failure of political engagement to produce results or as part of an unconscious recognition that one is powerless (Davidson, 1969; Dewey, 2015; Feldman, 2021). In contrast, utopic and critical thinkers argue that spaces for change exist if they are understood and acted upon (cf. Feldman, 2002; Feldman, 2021).

Second, we have the space associated with the “home” country itself, i.e. Iran.  Diasporic communities may be relevant for efforts to change policies or regimes in the “home country” or land where a person with an immigrant background has ancestral links (Kaldor, 2006; King and Melvin, 1999-2000; Ziegler, 2006).  The absence of such change may again reflect the lack of consciousness or awareness about capacities for action. Here the research agenda should be to analyse historical examples of such change spaces and compare these with the agenda of various diasporic groups. 

Third, we can consider the relationship between these two spaces, potentially leading to a transnational transformative space. In one variant, we have had diasporic groups who have promoted the idea that there is a “zero sum game” between these two spaces. For example, at one point Mujahedin-e Khalq-e Iran in Sweden was described as having “no interest in learning the Swedish language or facts about the country.” During an anti-racist campaign in the Fall of 1994, when some Iranian organisations “were engaged in a campaign to combat racism in Sweden, Mujahedins claimed that such matters divert[ed] attention from the ‘real’ duty, namely the removal of the Islamic regime in Iran” (Graham and Khosravi, 1997: 118). 

This last approach contradicts the potential linkages between diasporic groups and social change agents in Iran. During the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran activists mobilised not only by referring to “the historic and contemporary framework of Shi’a Iran,” but also “by adopting elements from selected political frameworks of analogous social movements across the globe.” Therefore, “activists sought to align their movement’s frames with those of both indigenous (national) and global (transnational) symbols, norms, values, and related discursive concepts” (Drissel, 2017: 140). 

The research question posed by the trajectory of the Green Revolution concerns whether or not there are other ways to link diasporic and Iranian communities, e.g. through coordinated labour actions, boycotts and corporate campaigns against arms exporters and suppliers of surveillance equipment, and systems to fund indigenous, Iranian social change spaces. Despite the presence of transnational social change and human rights groups, there does not appear to be any mechanisms providing comprehensive media, economic or political linkages among diasporic groups and conditions in Iran. Nor are there comprehensive entities to cultivate the development of the capacities of members of the Iranian diaspora, aside from utilising existing socio-economic development mechanisms.

Some argue that diaspora communities can “have both a transnational and a local agenda—to influence domestic politics as well as foreign policy in their homelands and host countries” (Cohen and Yefet, 2021: 686). This space centres on reform or regime change. Such changes may involve a trans-scalar or global space, where diasporic communities are linked to each other or the home country, Iran. In contrast, one can conceive of how capacities developed in the diaspora could be transferred to Iran or vice versa. For example, Iranians in Sweden have used their knowledge of Farsi and contacts in Iran to build businesses in the host country which involves sales to the home country (Feldman, 2006). 

Foreign developments can also influence local diasporas. For example, in The Iranian Diaspora, Mohsen Mostafavi Mobahser argues that diaspora Iranians “have perturbed and unsettled ties with their homeland and their counties countries,” as well as being divided “politically, ethnically…and religiously.” For conditions within the diaspora to improve regarding such divisions and problems, “political and diplomatic relations between Iran and the Western world need to change” (Haghighat, 2020: 380). This assessment begs the question regarding how foreign developments, for example U.S. foreign policy, has created both openings and closures for democratic engagement in Iran. For example, while the fall of Reza Shah in 1941 created an opening for pluralism and democratic or liberal nationalism, the coup in 1953 created a closure. Similarly during the Kennedy and Carter administrations, social change openings occurred in Iran, even if the Eisenhower coup created closures (Ashraf and Banuazizi. 1985; Moaddel, 1992). An exclusive emphasis on imperialism has helped displace the complicity of domestic forces in Iran, potentially legitimating or helping to reproduce domestic repressive apparatus (Banuazizi 2021; Moghadam, 1987). Research can investigate how Iranians in diasporic communities work to alter the foreign policies of key actors in North America, Europe or elsewhere. 

Local diasporas can influence Iranian developments. Historically, various social, economic or political circles of Iranians in the diaspora have had a dramatic impact on Iran. For example, “the earliest account of a European parliamentary system was probably the detailed account of the British parliament in the memoirs of Mirza Salih Shirazi, who had spent four years in England at the end of the Napoleonic wars studying languages, natural philosophy and printing” (Hairi, 1977: 13 as cited in Tabari, 1981: 56). More recently, some have argued that “key characteristics of modern Iranian nationalism, during the Pahlavi monarchy and persisting under the Islamic Republic, are traceable to a decisive encounter with interwar German intellectual trends.” These factors include “the German Countermodernists’ negative or ambivalent stance toward modernity, seen as a condition of crisis, a challenge that needed to be met and surpassed.” In addition, “the crisis of modernity” has been framed “as a crisis of ‘the West,’ defined as a decadent and predatory global civilization dominated by the United Kingdom, France, and the U.S.” In addition, Western civilization was linked to “an evil triad of soulless ‘materialism,’ exploitative capitalism, and the deceptions of liberalism and socialism posing as popular sovereignty.” German represented “an alternate normative model to the modern world, hence the notion of German ‘countermodernity’” (Matin-Asgari, 2014: 49). In addition, dissident intellectuals like Ali Shari‘ati cultivated an ideology that attempted to link anti-capitalist and anti-monarchical sentiment with religious ideas based in part on his years in exile in Paris, with influences from a variety of intellectuals including Franz Fanon, George Gurvitch, and Jean-Paul Sartre (Rahnema, 2014). 

These precedents clearly show how Western-based ideas, mediated by Iranian interpretations and intellectual circles rooted in the West, proved influential in Iranian-based realities. More significantly, such precedents provide a template for exploring how a more contemporary organisation of ideas and education in the diaspora could provide a transformative basis within both Iran and the diaspora itself. 

5. The University in Exile as a Reconstructive Solution

There are several ways in which a university in exile, comprised of members of the Iranian diaspora and others, could promote progressive solutions to the problems enumerated above. Our research would involve a multi-phase process of identifying the concrete ways in which diasporic institutions function, constraints or limitations to their function in a reconstructionist sense identified above, and explore how different models for alternative education, centred on a university in exile, could address these constraints and limitations. We will build on different models of education as well as the key issues suggested by Iranian and diasporic history.

There are four key roles that a university in exile could play. First, such an institution can serve as a way to organise and rescue academics and intellectuals who are repressed by the Iranian regime. This aspect corresponds to the Islamic Republic’s repression of independent thinking within Iranian universities, initiated by the so-called “Cultural Revolution.” As Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s leader, explained the goal was to restructure “higher education based on Islamic culture” (Ghamari-Tabrizi, 2018: 225).  The Cultural Revolution was prefaced by Khomeini’s goal to “purge the professors associated with the West and the East.”  The universities were closed for three years. The revolution’s goal was not just to Islamize the social sciences and humanities curriculum, but also to expel “students, faculty, and staff affiliated with the opposition groups.” The resulting purge led to some 57,069 students to be expelled “and an unknown number never allowed to enter university from high school” (Safshekan, 2017: 244-245).

A key figure in this revolution was Abdol-Karim Sourush who had exulted “in the disappearance of his philosophical rivals, through execution or exile. Soroush “lent significant weight and legitimacy to” the Cultural Revolution “and thereby emerged as an influential intellectual of the new republic.” Sourush’s earlier career was based on debunking Marxism as Stalinism, but he was servicing a regime that linked a discourse of anti-imperialism, attacks on the monarchy and social justice to repression of the left and Western influences (Ghamari-Tabrizi, 2018: 223-226). Thus, “the regime censored newspapers, books, movies, and the airwaves; rewrote textbooks to eliminate favourable depictions of the monarchy and secular heroes; banned the use of European personal names; and removed from public places any references to previous monarchs – even distant ones” (Abrahamian, 2018: 182). By Sourush’s later admission, “at least 700 out of a total of 12,000 university professors and lecturers were…dismissed by the Purging Committees.” This repressive movement “drained universities of nearly all politically active students and organisations who had championed the struggle for social justice” (Safshekan, 2017: 245). 

This history suggests the need to explore models for incorporating dissident students and faculty. In the United States, “the University in Exile” which was created in New York City by the New School for Social Research’s first President, Alvin Johnson, in 1933. The history of this effort has been studied by Judith Friedlander in her book, A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and its University. In this initiative, scholars fleeing Nazism in Germany contributed to forming the New School’s Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science in 1934. This initiative was primarily aimed at rescuing individual scholars and was incubated by a contact network forged by Johnson through his work as founder and editor of the Encyclopaedia of the Social Scientists. Johnson’s initiative helped save the lives of almost 200 scholars. An underlying principle of the original University in Exile was to prevent the dilution of enlightened German culture through its dispersal to multiple universities. Instead, Johnson attempted to build a critical mass in one or multiple locations which gathered related exiled specialists (Friedlander, 2019). A contemporary assessment concluded that the founding exiled faculty at the New School, “seventeen men and one woman, for a first-class German faculty in the political and social sciences, a better group of scholars than was ever assembled at any single university in Germany” (Mason, 1937: 197).

Second, a university in exile could contribute to overseeing national development in Iran, if the regime in that country collapsed. 

{Similar to the main objective of the CEL, an effort from east-european dissidents, done with assistance of} the U.S. and France, which covered the period of the 1950s. This initiative was The Free European University in Exile Inc. (FEUE Inc.), based in New York, which had a joint entity called the Collège de l’Europe Libre (CEL) based in Strasbourg-Robertsau, France. One goal of this Cold War effort was to train future leaders if the Soviet Union’s control in Central and Eastern Europe collapsed (Durin-Hornyik, 2019). The FEUE was created in 1951 for Communist exiles. This initiative was shaped by the logic of Cold War politics, however: “‘Rollback’ and ‘liberation’ were much-used terms in the U.S. politics of the early 1950s.” In a memo, George Keenan, head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, envisioned the creation of a focal point to support “national hope and revive a sense of purpose among political refugees from the Soviet World.” Such a focal point could “provide an inspiration for continuing popular resistance within the countries of the Soviet World” and “serve as a potential nucleus for all-out liberation movements in the event of war” (Scott-Smith, 2014: 77-79).

Third, an alternative model for a University in Exile, free from Cold War associations, can be found in the Highlander Folk School which was founded in 1932. This school, founded by Myles Horton (a white man) and Septima Clark (an African American woman) attracted many of the U.S. civil rights movement’s significant leaders. Its goal was to prepare leaders for a more democratic South and change U.S. policies which constrained democracy by excluding African Americans and more generally the poor. Horton travelled to Denmark in 1931 to learn about Danish folk high schools. He wanted to learn from such schools about how to eradicate poverty and preserve cultural heritage. During the Great Depression, the school promoted political organising, knowledge about New Deal benefits, and ideas similar to contemporary notions of self-reliance. Later Highlander championed desegregation and integration by educating civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. participating in Highlander workshops in 1957. Organising workshops discussed political tactics like sit-ins as well as “boycotts, picketing, prayer-ins, and selected buying.” In the context of African American exclusion from political representation, Highlander supported voter education and registration in addition to efforts to enlist sympathetic whites to act as bridges between the civil rights movement and the broad white public (Hughes, 1985: 243-246, 248-249).

The Highlander model is directly applicable to the problems of social exclusion facing some members of the Iranian diaspora. In the Iranian context, such a school might help focus on advancing particular tactics to compensate for historical weaknesses in the student movement (Safshekan, 2017). A school helping to showcase specific tactics like boycotts is also relevant for Iranian-diasporic relations. The following item highlights the potential relevance of an educational space which deliberates upon tactics vis-à-vis the home state. In 2012, a European Union news organisation addressed the question of banning sales of telecommunications equipment to Iran, something which Sweden apparently “lobbied to drop” on a “humanitarian” basis. One source argued that the Iranian diaspora in Sweden needed to “keep in touch with their families back home.” Sweden objected to the telecommunications ban. A spokesperson for Ericsson, Fredrik Hallstan, suggested that his company’s equipment was not relevant to concerns about spying on Iranians living in Iran, by stating: “We don’t sell surveillance equipment [to Iran]. We sell standard equipment for mobile telephony. If I call you, then the radio station knows where you are, so Yes, you can use it to locate people. But there is equipment out there which is much better for that kind of thing and we are not selling it” (Rettman, 2012). The previous year, however, Swedish Television (SVT) noted how the Iranian opposition movement was monitored “with the help of…Swedish Ericsson’s products.” SVT cited Bloomberg reports which show that “Ericsson, British Creativity Software LTD and Irish Adaptive Mobile sold surveillance equipment to the Iranian regime.” These companies sold this equipment during the October revolution. At this time, 

“hundreds of people were convicted by Iranian courts for demonstrating.” One arrested opposition journalist, “who was arrested after protesting against the regime,” claimed “that the police used his own communication via phone calls, text messages and emails as evidence” (SVT Nyheter, 2011).

Finally, a university in exile could act as an economic development mechanism to support economic development in both Iran and the Iranian diaspora. For example, scholars analysing the potential role of the diaspora in relations between Palestine and the global knowledge economy illustrate how the diaspora can act as a development agent. The university can become a key agent linking such spaces because centres of higher education “will become more crucial as the economy and society become more reliant on knowledge.”  The knowledge economy is linked to migration “as expatriates have played a critical role in accelerating technology exchange and foreign direct investment in the economies of India, China and Israel.” Persons in the diaspora “have frequently taken the role of pioneer investors at a time when major capital markets regarded these economies as too risky.” The university can serve as a hub “to attract the human capital from the entire world” through persons in the diaspora (Mervat et al., 2013: 615, 617-619; see also Kuznetsov and Sabel, 2006; Martin, 2003). In cooperative models, universities can serve as “anchor institutions” which can “provide a partially guaranteed market” for cooperatives (Alperovitz et al.,  2010). Educational spaces have also been transformed into industrial cooperatives (Whyte and Whyte, 1991). Therefore, a European-based university program could back the social economy or cooperative sector in Iran.

These models for a university in exile raises key questions for various Iranian diasporic communities across the globe. These can be formalised through an interview protocol given to a number of national and local organisations, with a follow up study of a focal group of key activists and scholars. These questions centre on the utility of each model and how these models could respond to key challenges facing Iran and the diaspora.  These key challenges are not simply the problems enumerated above in the discussion of specific crises. They also extend to specific teleological goals such as: (a) balancing secular and religious interests, (b) extending democracy throughout the political, media, cultural and economic spheres; (c) figuring out how capacities and resources through power bases in audiences, cultural and political networks, and diasporic links could be leveraged to support alternative, democratic institutions; (d) building a local or national economy which is more resilient to the challenges of capital flight, social exclusion, imperialism and ecological devastation; and (e) creating a hub and resource linking reconstructive social change to students, activists, scholars and new generations.


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