There are contemporary stereotypes about Iran that do little to enhance its rich culture and civilisational prowess. The most damning is the one that paints Iran as a country ruled by regressive mullahs pulling its citizenry back to medieval totalitarianism and feeding off a never-ending pool of hatred towards the ‘Great Satan’ that sits more than a continent away. It is true that the ‘Great Satan’ itself has played a large role in this depiction of the Islamic State. But there are two pointers that suggest that the blame lies as much, if not more, with Iran itself: one, the stereotype is not untrue; two, those who rule Iran revel in this very stereotypical depiction. The latest case in point is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for a purge of "liberal and secular teachers" from Iran’s universities.
Iran’s rage against liberalism can be traced back to its years under the Pahlavi dynasty. The pro-Western and Westernised Shahs and their increasingly corrupt and inept administration culminated in the backlash that was the Islamic Revolution in 1979. But for a generation that has never experienced first-hand the radicalisation under Ayatollah Khomeini, liberalism and openness in the social and political arena seems the most natural way forward. Unfortunately, it has served Tehran’s hardliners to keep the bogey of Western antagonism against Iran alive. The US, on its part, has only made things easier for those launching the latest campaign to rid liberals from Iranian campuses. It serves Mr Ahmadinejad’s purpose to make Washington send stern notices to Tehran. It serves his purpose even better to cock a snook at the US.
Iran’s crackdown on teachers comes at a time when the nation’s populace has rallied around the combative president in the name of national pride and a general unwillingness to mock at Washington’s labelling it as a ‘rogue State’. But the Iranian people are clear-headed enough to know when the country’s hardliners are using them and when this exercise becomes a downright abuse. Standing up to a bully is something that Iranians know well. This week they should recognise one when the bully is from within their own country.