The German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, has spoken out in favour of an institute at Potsdam University in eastern Germany cooperating with an Iranian centre in Qum, provided that “genuine academic activities” are pursued.
The Potsdam institute recently came under fire for maintaining links with alleged supporters of the Iranian regime.
Potsdam’s Institute of Religious Studies (RWI) engages in inter-religious dialogue and academic cooperation with Shiite theologians at the University for Religious Denominations (URD), Iran’s centre for religious theology.
An exchange programme for doctoral students is also run. Media reports based largely on claims by German-Iranian sociologist Wahdat-Hagh accuse the URD of being part of the totalitarian dictatorship in Iran.
Wahdat-Hagh, who is a member of the German federal parliament’s committee on anti-semitism, recently told Israel’s Jerusalem Post that the “URD is a propaganda academy and worse than the Marxist-Leninist Institute in the former German Democratic Republic, and the University of Potsdam is currying favour with the totalitarian dictator in Iran”.
In a series for the German political journal Jungle World, Wahdat-Hagh maintains that the URD is in fact an Islamist elite training centre, and claims that “centres like the URD serve domestic and foreign policy for the purpose of spreading state doctrine abroad and asserting it in Iran”.
“This is an insinuation that cannot be proven,” says Potsdam religious scholar Johann Evangelist Hafner. He explains that the RWI sees the URD as an institution dedicated to research and teaching on today’s religions and displaying an openness to other ways of thinking that is unusual for Iran.
Hafner stresses that Qum is the country’s only university approaching other religions from a neutral standpoint. Some URD lecturers hold fellowships at Harvard University in the United States or are doing sabbaticals at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy.
As a further example of the URD’s liberal attitude, Hafner refers to a congress on “figurations of evil” in Potsdam in September that will be attended by representatives from Qum. One lecture is to focus on the holocaust as a symbol of evil.
“If the scholars from Iran were really so indoctrinated by the state as Wahdat-Hagh claims, they would not expose themselves to this,” says Hafner.
Commenting on indirect allegations of the University of Potsdam being anti-Semitic, which he calls “absurd”, Hafner notes that “no other university in Germany is making such efforts to advance Jewish theology and Jewish studies as the University of Potsdam is”.
Hafner recently asked the DAAD to give its assessment of the URD. “I don’t want to rely on our mainly positive impressions but also wish to consult the views of an academic organisation operating internationally,” he argued.
The DAAD runs a programme supporting German-Iranian university cooperation. An institute at the University of Paderborn, in North Rhine-Westphalia, is also involved in a collaborative programme with Qum that started in 2010.
“No doubt there is a difficult situation in Iran. The country’s official policy is highly problematic, and international links are under considerable pressure,” said the DAAD president, Margret Wintermantel.
“Especially in this situation, it is important to maintain the few existing channels of communication with Iran,” Wintermantel said. This is why the DAAD is also supporting German institutions engaging in academic cooperation with the country.
It is believed that academics linked by common subjects are ideal candidates for dialogue, and that this also holds for theologians from Potsdam and Qum engaged in their joint project. Again and again, the organisation has experienced academic exchange being effective as a means to tackle intransigent ideologies.
Responding to Hafner’s request, Wintermantel stated: “We recommend that cooperation be continued as long as genuine academic activities are possible. Instead of being discredited, those engaging in efforts to maintain this necessary dialogue ought to receive encouragement to do so.”
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