Colleagues ‘distraught’ at Australian academic’s detention in Iran

Episode spotlights concerns for safety of scholars who visit repressive regimes

September 21, 2019
Kylie Moore-Gilbert

Colleagues of a young Australian scholar have expressed shock over her detention in Iran, in an episode that could curb academic fieldwork in the country.

Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne, has been held for a year on allegations of espionage. There are conflicting reports about her situation, with one Iranian official claiming that she had been jailed for 10 years while another said that she was yet to face trial.

David Malet, a security specialist at American University in Washington DC, tweeted that he was “very distraught to learn Kylie Moore-Gilbert has been in solitary confinement for a year” and faced a 10-year sentence.

“I served on Kylie’s dissertation committee,” said Dr Malet, who previously taught at the University of Melbourne. “She’s a wonderful person and a serious scholar, not a spy.”

Dr Moore-Gilbert is believed to have been arrested in the city of Qom, renowned as a holy site for Shia Muslims.

The Australian reported this week that Qom’s University of Religions and Denominations, where Dr Moore-Gilbert had taken an “intensive course on Shia studies”, took photos of her during the course and used them in promotional materials on its website. She was arrested shortly after completing the course, it said.

Australian officials have been tight-lipped about the detention. Trade minister Simon Birmingham said that the government had a policy of “restraint” in public commentary around individual cases. “Often that is the best way to provide support,” he told the ABC.

The University of Melbourne said that it was maintaining close contact with the government and Dr Moore-Gilbert’s family. “We believe the best chance of securing Kylie’s safe return is through diplomatic channels,” it said.

“This is a sensitive matter and the university will not be providing further comment.”

Its statement contains a link to the Australian government’s travel advice website, which advises would-be visitors to “reconsider your need to travel to Iran due to the risk that foreigners including Australians could be arbitrarily detained or arrested”.

Considered the world’s largest centre for Shia studies, Qom is a magnet for scholars as well as pilgrims. The Australian Academy of the Humanities declined to comment on the risks of conducting field studies there, saying that it “does not have a formal position on this situation”.

Enrica Fei, a doctoral student in Islamic studies who met Dr Moore-Gilbert at a 2019 International Political Science Association forum, said on Twitter that the Australian was “a lovely, humble woman and bright academic”.

“I wondered for months why she’d stopped replying to my emails and never met in the UK, as we’d agreed,” Ms Fei tweeted.

A native of rural New South Wales who completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Cambridge, Dr Moore-Gilbert specialises in Middle Eastern politics with a focus on the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

As an undergraduate and Cambridge Union member in 2011, Dr Moore-Gilbert scored a brief interview with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange after a talk from which journalists had been excluded. “He spoke about the role of Wikileaks in the current unrest in the Arab world,” she reported in the Western Advocate newspaper of her hometown of Bathurst.

“He said…he had leaks which proved that the Australian government had been collecting information about its citizens and was giving it to the American security services. Meeting Assange in the flesh was a wonderful if somewhat nerve-racking experience…opportunities such as this are one of the big bonuses of going to a university such as Cambridge.”

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