Interview with Nader Hashemi

The Georgetown professor of Middle East and Islamic politics talks of hating his parents’ return to Iran after the 1979 revolution – and crediting it with his life’s mission of advancing democracy and human rights

November 23, 2023
Nader Hashemi

Nader Hashemi is associate professor of Middle East and Islamic politics at Georgetown University and director of its Alwaleed Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Previously he was director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver.

Where were you born?
Hamilton, Ontario, to Muslim immigrant parents from Iran.

But raised for a time in Iran?
Yep, everyone’s shocked by that – we were moving in the opposite direction to most people. But one has to remember the context: at the time of the 1979 revolution, this was a brutal pro-American dictator [the Shah] installed by the CIA, then toppled in a widely popular revolution. My father thought this would be a great opportunity to go back to Iran, because it looked like there might be a chance for democracy. I was about 13 when we landed in Iran. That was my life for three years – I eventually moved back to Canada to finish high school, along with my sister, because the Iran-Iraq war was in full swing and, if I turned 18, I would have been drafted into the army. Moving to Iran as an early teenager was a difficult adjustment, because I wasn’t fluent in the language, and I wanted to do what young kids do at that age.

How has this shaped who you are?
I was raised in between two worlds – my parents’ world and my Canadian surroundings. This naturally produced a series of moral and intellectual tensions in my life related to reason versus revelation, religion and modernity, Islam and human rights, the problem of authoritarianism in the Muslim world and Western support for this authoritarianism, and the meaning of secularism. I was a rebellious kid, and I hated our move. Looking back, I was incredibly lucky to have that experience. There were no security concerns in terms of our personal safety, even though we landed in Iran about a few weeks before the start of the Iran-Iraq War. I remember that, during the first few weeks after the war started, we were living in an apartment building and had to have all the lights turned off because of fears about bombing raids. That was a bit of a shock, having grown up in Canada. Overall, however, it meant having the opportunity to be exposed to a developing society with all of its challenges – a revolutionary society, a society that was in the full flow of debates on what the relationship between tradition and modernity means, and between religion and democracy, between Islam and the West.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was confused. I started out in the sciences and engineering but quickly switched to the social sciences. History, political science and philosophy were my passions. I was also a political activist on Nicaragua, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Israel-Palestine.

What main research question are you working on these days? 
I’m working on the problem of authoritarianism in the Middle East and its destabilising effects, not just within the societies of the Middle East, but globally. 

And what has that shown you? 
The big-picture conclusion is that much of the instability in the region today is a function of authoritarian rule, and this clashes with a widely held view in Washington DC that these authoritarian regimes, notwithstanding their internal repression, are ultimately agents of stability. Look what’s happening right now: Antony Blinken is going around the region trying to manage this crisis in Israel-Palestine, and he’s visiting one authoritarian dictator after the other, all of whom are US allies. If one examines their internal policies, you’ll see that much of the instability – the corruption, the economic conditions, the unemployment, the frustration – is really a function of failed authoritarian policies. 

What’s the role of universities in a moment of crisis like this? 
Universities have to be guided by a deep commitment to equality. So either you don’t say anything, you don’t issue statements on any issue of global or national concern, and you say “that’s not our job; we’re just going to support faculty and students, let them have these debates and discuss these issues within their own units”; or, if the university is going to speak out on global issues – in this case, Israel-Palestine – then it has to demonstrate a deep commitment to the suffering of all people who are connected to this conflict, both Israeli and Palestinian. 

You apparently left the University of Denver after some comments in which you acknowledged just the possibility that Israel might have had a role in the stabbing of author Sir Salman Rushdie. What did that show you?
First, I don’t believe Israel had a role in the attack on Rushdie. My words were twisted and I was subjected to defamation campaign, including from my own university. The key lesson from this scandal is that academic freedom on Israel and Palestine is under threat, even more so when university officials refuse to robustly defend it.

Do you have an academic hero?
John Sigler, the late professor of political science at Carleton University. My mentor at Carleton, John was an intellectual superstar, a brilliant scholar and a generous human being. John was also a brilliant teacher who inspired his students and deeply cared for them. His moral example as scholar, public intellectual and educator is part of my DNA. I think of him every time I step into a classroom.

What do you do for fun?
I play acoustic guitar. I’m not a good guitarist, campfire quality at best. Jim Croce, America, John Denver, Abba, the Bee Gees, John Mellencamp, Neil Diamond, Gordon Lightfoot – the music of these artists was the background to my life growing up in Canada. And the Beatles. Always the Beatles. I love playing their songs. Singing, however, is a different matter entirely.

Tell us about someone you admire
Narges Mohammadi. She’s a political prisoner in Iran’s Evin prison and I’m in total awe of her courage, sacrifice and determination in non-violently resisting political tyranny. She has been separated from her children and publicly defamed by the Iranian regime, yet she continues to resist in prison by mobilising her cellmates and issuing pro-democracy statements. I was thrilled to learn that she was awarded the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize.


1986-90 BA in political science, University of Western Ontario
1992-95 MA in international affairs, Carleton University
1999-2005 PhD in political science, University of Toronto
2003-04 Adjunct professor of political science, University of Waterloo
2004-05 Adjunct professor of political science, Toronto
2005-06 Research affiliate, Centre for Middle East Studies, Harvard University
2005-07 Postdoctoral fellow in political science, Northwestern University
2007-08 Visiting assistant professor of political science, University of California, Los Angeles
2008-23 Assistant, then associate professor of Middle East and Islamic politics, University of Denver
2009 Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies
2012-23 Director, Centre for Middle East Studies, Denver
2023-present Associate professor of Middle East and Islamic politics, and director of the Alwaleed Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University


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