Conversation with Tooraj Atabaki, professor of Social History of the Middle East and Central Asia in Department of History at University of Amsterdam about the 2012 Iranian Studies Conference in Istanbul
For centuries numerous experts on Iranian studies in Iran and all over the world have studied topics on Iranian art, history, language and politics and published their studies in various articles and books.
Since 45 years ago, a group of graduate students in the United States founded the Society for Iranian Studies. They aimed at creating a space to exchange the knowledge and scientific achievements of scholars and Iranian studies researchers in the fields of human and social studies including literature, history, sociology, anthropology and economy. The society boasts over a thousand official members to date and having stretched its reach beyond North America and Europe, a few years ago, it amended its mission statement renaming itself as the International Society for Iranian Studies to include Iran scholars from Far East, Central Asia, Middle East and North Africa.
One of the achievements of the society is the “Iranian Studies” magazine and its biennial conferences.The ninth biennial of the International Society for Iranian Studies will be held this year in Istanbul from August 2 to 5.
Tooraj Atabaki, Professor of Social History of Middle East and Central Asia in University of Amsterdam, a senior research fellow at the International Institute of Social History as well as an active member of the International Society for Iranian Studies, describes the society as follows: “The Society for Iranian Studies is a large academic umbrella organization which has managed to gather all those who are involved in studying the culture, literature and history of the Iranian civilization and to connect them across the nations. Even many individuals in administrative roles have been able to refer to the published studies of this society and learn from them which can be cited as one of the great achievements of this society.”
Turkey’s Wealth of Archives
The Society for Iranian Studies biennial will have over 250 speakers on 125 topics this year. The topics range from Iranian history to current sociopolitical and economic situation of the country; from gender, violence and the women’s movement to resistance, and recent political movements; from literature, poetry and ancient art to contemporary Iranian identity and its role in today’s society. Music and ancient artifacts have been consistent topics in these conferences over the years. Even diverse topics such as animals in Iranian history and the famous Lalehzar neighbourhood of Tehran are on this year’s agenda.
One of the focuses of the conference is on Turkey, Ottoman history and Iran-Turkey relations. This focus on Turkey has several reasons: primarily the conference is being held in Istanbul and there is also a large Iranian community in Turkey. According to Tooraj Atabaki, however, the main reason for this focus is the 50-year Iran-Turkey relations.
“Turkey is one of the countries that is of vital importance to Iran scholars. Turkish sources about Iranian history are plenty and we always encourage Iran scholars to avail themselves of the vast heritage of documents and texts in Turkish archives which can enlighten many historical issues regarding Iran.”
The Conference is taken to the Middle East and North Africa
In the past, save in 2006, the conference for Iranian studies was always held in North American cities. The society has chosen Turkey as this year’s venue and will continue to look at other countries in Far East, Central Asia, Middle East and North Africa for the next conferences, in order to widen its network of researchers and make it more accessible for participants from Iran and Central Asia while also availing itself of the historical resources of these countries. Tooraj Atabaki maintains that holding the conference in these countries, while benefiting the Society for Iranian Studies with new resources and researchers, will also focus attention on the researchers in these countries who sometimes do not have the opportunity to travel abroad for the conference.
Independence from Political Biases
Since the establishment of the Society for Iranian Studies, Iranian politics and society have undergone many changes. The society has continued with its research, compilation and exchange of knowledge despite these changes. Tooraj Atabaki boasts about the society’s continuity despite all these changes saying: “This society does not follow any political ideology; therefore it continues its program despite fluctuations in the political arena. In regional studies, there are few associations where members of varying political views work side by side with tolerance and do not allow political biases result in the omission of one of their peers.”
Despite insistence by the International Society for Iranian Studies that it is independent from political biases, the Iranian government allots the week before the Society’s biennial conference to statements and announcements in opposition and denouncement of the conference. On July 16, Keyhan daily described the conference as the “Zionist trap for Iranian professors” and urged the minister of science and security officials of the country to be on alert regarding participation of Iranian universities and scientific groups in this conference.
According to Professor Atabaki, this is not the first time conference participants are facing such opposition in Iran but in recent years, government opposition has reportedly become more organized and effective. He adds: “I am truly sorry! It is as if we are to build a high wall around Iran to stop its scholars and scientists from reaching their peers in similar fields. The nature of knowledge seeks exchange of ideas and critique of those ideas by others in the field. It is a great insult to Iranian scholars when they are treated like minors unable to decide for themselves whether they are being subjected to cultural invasion or not. If we can sit side by side with tolerance, which we have done to date, and if we can create a dialogue, perhaps this scholarly tolerance could become a model of social behaviour for us in general.”
Photo: Tooraj Atabaki
[translated from the original in Persian]