Muslim Students Association of the U.S and Canada

In The Memoires of Faramarz Fathnejhad

 The beginning of the seventies was the heyday for the economy of Iran before the revolution. Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was expanding his dictatorship more than ever with the wealth the excessive sale of oil had brought him. The dictator regime used to lock down all the opposition forces in prison for long times. Young opposition forces who were newcomers in the battle field believed that the reform was not an option for the regime and chose the path of guns instead of the law. The regime responded to them with widespread executions. Arrest and execution rate was so high that after 1965 no opposition voice could be heard anymore. The majority of the opposition forces were imprisoned or executed. Some had become silent or continued the fight abroad.
Outside the country, students primarily constituted the opposition forces. They pursued their goals in different groups and associations. One of the student associations in the US was the Muslim Students Association of the US and Canada. This association was one of the most powerful religious associations which covered activities of Iranian Muslim students. Dr. Faramarz Fathnejhad was an active member in this association from 1967 onwards. He received his Masters and PhD degrees in applied mathematics and  computer science in the U.S. Fathnejhad worked for the Interest Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the United States for a couple of years.
At present, aside from being a fulltime faculty in Urmia University and a guest lecturer in Amir Kabir University, he is the manager of the IT department of Iran Central Insurance Co.
The present interview was conducted in the last couple of working hours, on 20th January 2011, in his office.

Before the revolution, you were a member of the Muslim Students Association of the US and Canada. How come you went to the U.S for study?
The political situation was pretty suffocating in Iran at that time. One could be sent to jail for years, for keeping a Motahari or a Shariati book. After graduating from the College of Mathematics and Economics in Karaj (which became associated to the Tehran University afterwards) in computer and mathematics, I heard from some friends that the situation abroad was more favorable for political activism. Therefore, by mid May 1967, I sat for the Foreign Students'' Facility Exam and went to the U.S. to pursue my studies.
Did you manage to get a scholarship?
No. At that time, the ones subject to military service had to pass the MA national entrance exam to pursue studies inside the country. The ones, who wanted to study abroad had to take a special exam. There was only a three or four month gap between BA graduation and the exam. Fortunately, despite the lack of time, I managed to pass the exam. For the first two months, I went to a university in Florida which had a rather easy entrance exam. Then, I took a language proficiency test which enabled me to get accepted in The University of Illinois.  

How did you get involved in political activism there?
I was an active member of the Muslim Association in Iran. I was a member of the Mosque Committee as well as the Culture Committee. A couple of friends had gone to the U.S before me. They were already cooperating with the Muslim Students Association. For example, Kazim Danishgar, from Urmia, was one of my friends who had gone to the U.S two years prior to me. On top of everything else, it was of course my own interest in union activities which motivated me to join the Association.

1973 to 1977 were the peak of guerilla activities in Iran. Many guerilla forces with different inclinations were recruiting students. How was the situation in your college with regards to this issue?
 I was not active the first year. It was in the second year that I got acquainted with political issues and became a member of the Muslim Association. My college was more or less the same as other universities. One could easily see different political inclinations among the students. Our Association was very well connected to the students and professors of the Tehran University. Some of our friends were arrested which alerted us and we went on the lam for some time. 
Were the arrested members from a specific group?
They were members of the Muslim Association. But the issue is that all opposition forces, whether left or right, religious or secular, used to cooperate with each other before 1975. Although they all had different secret organizations of their own, the rallies were conducted collectively. In 1975, however, the Mujahidin organization split into two groups one of which under the leadership of Taghi Shahram in the name of progress, shifted their ideology from Islamism to Marxism. Out of a group of 20, 12 members suddenly joined the Marxists. However, the situation changed the next year. With the religious becoming more active, the number of the religious gradually became larger. In 1977, there were two religious groups with two hundred members altogether, in the college. The number of the members of Marxist groups hardly reached 18 in the very same year.

Do you mean that the students of the college were not receptive of the ideological shift of Mujahidin organization?
No. I mean that they harmed the opposition movement with this incident. Before that, all different groups cooperated with one another. But after the incident, they became disunited.

Didn''t any of these guerrilla troops try to take you in, throughout these years?
In our college, the Mujahidin organization was more active in taking membership. After the ideological shift in the organization, they contacted me a few times. However, since I was not interested in their mindset, I did not welcome them.

Freshmen were usually welcomed by the Student Confederation. Did they welcome you as well?
That''s right. As I mentioned before, I had a few friends who had gone to the U.S before me. They were waiting for me there. It was rather common for the older activist students to welcome the new ones, both within the country and abroad. They did so to gather more members. I, myself, was responsible for this in Iran, for a while. However, by the time I got to the U.S, the Confederation was not considered powerful anymore. The Confederation was once very powerful, years ago. However, throughout the time I was in the U.S, it was no longer influential because of disagreements and disunity. I believe that during its early days, the Confederation encompassed all political groups, religious and secular, nationalist and Marxist. They were extremely powerful and intensively fought the regime. Apparently, the same thing which happened in Iran happened in the U.S a couple of years before I went there. The disagreements between different groups were intensified and the Confederation had lost its influence. By the time I got there, the religious were operating independently and the disagreements within the leftists were many.

Were there any relation between the Iranian Muslim students and the Muslim students from other countries?

Yes. A division of Muslim students, descending from the Confederation, had started a movement. As in, they had formed a group which took in all Muslims: Shiite, Sunni, Iranian, and non-Iranian.

How many primary Iranian groups were active in the U.S when you arrived?
 There were at least five independent groups; The Muslim Students association of the U.S and Canada, the Tudeh party, a group called Mianeh and also a group called "Sis". I don''t remember what the acronym stood for. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the fifth group.
Didn''t any of these groups disturb one another?
No, not before the revolution; they used to attend one another''s sessions and listen to each other''s arguments. However, after the revolution, due to the agitations in Iran, the situation changed. Many groups started to throw tantrums and ruin the order of other group''s sessions.
How did you find Iranians, regarding their political lives?
By the second month of my arrival, I settled in a small town called Carbondale in Illinois. Despite the small size of the town, there were more than three hundred Iranians there, of whom 120 were activists. Actually, all the five groups which I mentioned earlier had representatives among them.

How was the situation with the Muslim Association, by the time you arrived in the U.S?
The Muslim Association was just developing. It had just departed from the Confederation.

Why? Was there a problem?
The problem was the U.S government. If they found out that we were a member of the Association, they would harass us with different excuses.

Do you mean it was legally not allowed to be a member of the Association?
No, but the U.S government was not very fond of the Association.

Could you give an example of the government''s harassment please?
For example, if there was any terrorizing incident in the U.S, the core members of the Association were the first suspects.
Why the Association? Was the Association known to be behind such incidents?
No, it was just an excuse to harass us. That is why the membership in the Islamic Society was secretive. For example, if there were a hundred Muslim students in a city, three or four were core members and the rest were considered as ordinary members.

On what basis was a member considered to be a core member?
The most important determining factor was the rate of activity. Meaning, every six months, or sometimes and in some states once a year, there was an election in which the members themselves would nominate the active members as core members. The core members were elected through secret votes.

Were you also a core member?
Yes, before I got there, there were three core members. Six months after my arrival in Carbondale, I was elected as the forth core member.

Sometime after 1965, the Muslim Students Association split into two groups. A majority group followed Dr. Ibrahim Yazdi and the late Dr. Chamran and a minority followed Mr. Ali Jamali. Which group did you follow?
That''s right. I was a follower of Mr. Yazdi. Jamali''s people approached me, indeed. But, I found their views less compatible with mine.

Ali Jamali and his group were very religious too. So, what caused the disagreement between you?
They had decided to call the movement "the Muslim Encounter Movement". And they indeed acted in line with this name. They were more enthusiastic about political activism than theoretical engagements. Although they strongly believed in Islam, they lacked proper theoretical knowledge and background. However, this did not stop them from commenting on every single issue. Experience has proved that the ones with less theoretical knowledge are more action oriented and prone to corruption. Although the people in the Muslim Association were also active and had intense revolutionary inclinations, taking any action for them was subject to improving their theoretical knowledge. Therefore, I got more interested in the Muslim Association.

Apparently, in some States, the Muslim Association used to propagate Islam and introduce it to people from other religions in the U.S. Did you do the same thing in Carbondale?
We had cultural interactions with Americans. However, since we had no clergymen among us, these interactions were limited to introducing Islam. Never did we try to invite people to Islam and encourage them to convert. In fact this only became a part of our agenda mostly during and after the revolution.

In the process of the revolution, some members of the Muslim Students Association went to Neauphle-le-Château. Were you among them?
Yes, some of the members went there voluntarily and accompanied Imam. By that time, the Muslim Association had some members back in France who were pretty close to Imam. And the Association was in its most powerful and active state. Sometime after Imam''s stay in Neauphle-le-Château, we found out that he had decided to go back to Iran. Therefore, all the core members suddenly decided to go to Paris.

How many core members were there altogether?
I don''t know the exact number. But there were a couple of hundreds. There was a meeting held, through which it was decided to consult Imam about this decision. Therefore, a panel of seven members was set to leave for Paris. They went to Imam and presented the decision. In response, Imam said:"No, the ones who can stay should stay and peruse their studies and continue doing other political and cultural activities. But those who don’t think they can stay and do both things should return”. The panel returned and delivered Imam''s massage. About fifty members went to Neauphle-le-Château. I was among the ones who stayed. I was in charge of the State Association. Therefore, I stayed there until I finished my studies.

Interviewer: Hadi Abedi
Translated by: Jairan Gahan

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