Visiting Fellow Profile: A Conversation with Siavash Saffari.

Feb. 23, 2023

Every year, the Mossavar-Rahmani Center welcomes new scholars – among them, postdoctoral research fellows, associate research scholars, visiting fellows – bringing with them diverse perspectives and scholarly interests that embrace the Center’s interdisciplinary focus on diversity in research on topics related to contemporary Iran and the Persian Gulf region. This January, the Center welcomed Visiting Fellow Siavash Saffari. an Associate Professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations at Seoul National University, who is spending a semester with the Mossavar-Rahmani Center while on sabbatical. We sat down with Siavash for a brief conversation.

Why Princeton? And specifically, the Mossavar-Rahmani Center?

Primarily because the Mossavar-Rahmani Center is a dynamic hub of scholars who are engaged in cutting edge research on various aspects of modern Iran and the Persian Gulf region. Professor Ghamari-Tabrizi has done a fantastic job in bringing a very rich caliber of academics to the Center whose contributions inform my own research. Not just Professor Ghamari-Tabrizi’s scholarship, which is very informative for my work, but being present and engaging in conversations with him alongside the other fellows has been very beneficial for me. Weekly talks followed by Center lunches and informal conversations with colleagues have been helpful in thinking about aspects of my research that I had not previously considered. Additionally, the benefit of being at Princeton broadly speaking, is having access to the very rich Persianate archives and resources at Firestone Library, one of the largest collections outside of Iran of its kind; it is a gold mine for researchers focused on Iran.  

Can you tell me about your first few weeks on campus?

One of the highlights of my first week is that I saw a fox on campus; I grew up on the West Coast, in Vancouver, which had bears and coyotes, but there is almost no wildlife in Seoul aside from the random squirrel you might see once a year. Seeing deer, foxes, squirrels is a common occurrence here and a very pleasant departure from my campus life at home. Also, when I arrived on campus the first week, someone told me there’s lots of free food at Princeton, which I’ve since discovered as true. Moreover, at the Center, we’re treated to a weekly Iranian lunch which is not only delicious, but contributes to the feeling of a true cultural experience.  

What is your research focus?

My research is on the intersection of Islam and political thought in modern Iran. I look at how Iranian political thinkers since the late 19th century have engaged with Islam. My research follows two different tracks. On the one, I look at how religious thinkers in Iran, such as Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Shariati, interpreted Islam to address a number of modern issues including: colonialism, capitalism, gender issues and different governance models. On the other, I examine how secular thinkers – especially leftist thinkers – have approached Islam and its place in the modern world. 

At Princeton, I am working on two projects that follow these two paths of inquiry. The first looks at the development of Islamic Liberation Theology both inside and outside of Iran and considers how it is different from other forms of political theology in Islam. The second analyzes Iranian socialists and Marxists’ approach towards political Islam in 20th Century Iran. Why did some Marxist intellectuals see Islam as an obstacle to human emancipation, revolution and progressive values while other Marxists saw Islam as a potential source – of inspiration for emancipatory politics.

How did you first get interested in your research area?

I come from a politically minded family in which several members were involved in the 1979 Revolution in one way or another. Even though I was born after the Revolution, I grew up with continual exposure to Revolutionary discussions at family gatherings. Having lived in Iran until the age of 14, I was exposed to a religious government – the religious state of Iran after the Revolution. Later, when I started my education in Canada, I had questions related to the experience of the Iranian Revolution, how Iran ended up a religious state after the Revolution and how religion continues to be part of political life in Iran. Also, in my first year as an undergraduate, the 9/11 attacks happened. In the post 9/11 environment, a strong media and intellectual focus on Islam followed, and I questioned how Islam fit into the modern world, democracy, and human rights – those questions were front and center for me and set the foundation of my research interests.

Tell me about an interesting course you’ve created and/or taught?

“The course I’ve really enjoyed teaching recently (at Seoul National University) was a seminar course on Islam and Feminism,” said Saffari. Within the first week of teaching, a colleague walked into his office stating that she heard he was teaching a course on Islam and feminism, he said. “She was baffled because she didn’t think these two things went together, ‘Islam doesn’t allow feminism,’ she quipped, adding that the course would last a week.” 

When uninformed, people may have unexpected and funny reactions to topics that carry pre-conceived notions about it, such as Islam, Saffari explained. Teaching a course on what was a fairly new topic was a great experience, having exposed him to broader areas of research, he said. Moreover, the course drew an engaged group of South East Asian Muslim students who seemed to really enjoy it, adding to the interesting and pleasurable teaching experience.