When the enemy is at the gate

June 9, 2006

Demonised by the media, Iranians in the UK often feel compelled to defend their homeland even when they disagree with its theocratic Government. Anthea Lipsett reports

Amir Keshmiri came top of his year in mechanical engineering at Manchester University. This would entitle him to the pick of research projects, were it not for the fact that his PhD focuses on heat transfer - and that he is Iranian.

"There are projects with Rolls-Royce, British Energy or nuclear reactors, but I couldn't choose them because of my nationality," he says.

Keshmiri has been restricted throughout his higher education in Britain. His undergraduate interest in aerodynamics (he holds a single-engine pilot's licence) was quashed because, as an Iranian, he is excluded from studying certain areas.

And he is not alone. As president of Manchester's Persian Society, Keshmiri hears of the problems other Iranian students face. For instance, engineering students were banned from taking part in a project that involved making water missiles. "The head of department told them that they have enough missiles in their country already and that he couldn't give them the authority," Keshmiri says.

He adds that he has never encountered direct racism, but claims that people react differently towards him when they find out he is Iranian. "People are scared and immediately think that you might be a suicide bomber, terrorist or al-Qaeda member. Normal people who watch TV and read the news here perceive Iran to be that way. They are almost brainwashed."

Most of the Iranian students The Times Higher spoke to have enjoyed their experiences of university life in the UK. But they find the media's simplistic portrayal of Iran irritating. The newspapers are awash with stories on Iran and the escalating nuclear threat its theocratic Government poses. Rather than portraying Iran as a beautiful country with a rich cultural history, the stories tend to focus on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, its hardline President. He has publicly denied that the Holocaust happened and has been intent on building a nuclear programme for Iran since he came to power last August.

Shirin Sedagh, a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, says: "It's frustrating that the country is constantly being defined by this nuclear issue and the comments and statements of a leadership that isn't always in accord with what the [Iranian] public wants.

"It's very tedious the way the media demonises Iran. It's depicted as a country that is unique in censoring the press, but that's prevalent in a lot of countries that deem themselves to be democratic and devoid of censorship."

Sedagh's own experiences of working as a journalist in America and Europe opened her eyes to what she sees as the hypocrisy of the Western media. "To a large extent, journalists censor themselves because they want to keep, and advance in, their jobs. It's the same wherever you are in the world.

"In some ways, Iranians are more free to say things than people in the West," she says, adding that at least it is very clear in Iran that some things are forbidden, such as insulting religion or the leadership of the country. In the West, she says, journalists are not sure how far they can go because censorship is less clearly defined.

In common with other Iranian students, Sedagh finds herself defending a Government she would not ordinarily agree with. "Most educated people wouldn't support a theocracy, but because of the accusations that are hurled at Iran I find myself defending a leadership I wouldn't fully support out of a sense of decency."

Keshmiri agrees. "When people attack my country's policies, even though I don't want to support (those policies), I want to defend my country."

While the university environment tends to be more progressive, Sedagh finds the lack of an authentic Iranian voice in the media frustrating, and says it reduces the Iranian viewpoint to one politician rather than 70 million people trying to live their lives. "We aren't all terrorists," she adds.

That is, however, often how Iran and Iranians are perceived in the UK. Haleh Afshar, professor of politics at York University, has not returned to Iran in 30 years, but she has noticed how recent media coverage of Iran has affected her treatment at passport control.

"I have held a British passport for 30 years but they still check me out. It's been worse in the past few months. Every time I come into England there's this whole palaver. I feel I'm being treated like an alien enemy, and it's not agreeable."

Students will be so used to this kind of treatment that they will not even notice, she says.

Afshar is also annoyed by the prominence the UK media gives to groups entirely opposed to the Iranian Government. "A lot more time is given to those who want to topple the Government. Those who criticise Iran and America, who have a balanced view, don't have media value so in a sense we feel silenced. Those represented are from the two extremes, and the general message the media conveys is, 'bomb them or shoot them'. I feel silenced as never before."

For Afshar, the only way forward is "sanity", by which she means a more balanced portrayal of Iran in the media.

"I have been teaching for 30 years, so on campus people see me for who I am. But there's a stereotype of Iranian women wearing the veil. Those who don't are mistrusted by the Iranian and the British communities."

Now even Asian students are keen to distance themselves from Iran, she says. Many make a point of telling people they are not Iranian. "We are seen as the enemy, so they want to dissociate themselves from us."

But Afshar's main concern is that Iran's treatment in the West makes it difficult for Iranians to improve their country's human rights record.

"There's a considerable number of us in the UK who oppose the regime. But the way Iran is being treated now makes it so much harder for international resistance to develop. When the enemy is at the gate, you can't fight your own Government. The ability for those of us defending human rights to work with similar people in Iran is curtailed. It's absolutely appalling."

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