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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: San Francisco State University’s Dr. Mahmood Monshipouri and the Imperative of Researching and Teaching Human Rights in the 21st Century

By Tania Jiroudi, Center Summer Intern

“My area of specialty and research has always been 100% focused on human rights,” emphatically says San Francisco State University Professor Mahmood Monshipouri. These simple words carry a powerful message, and are quintessential to understanding Monshipouri’s work. Named the “2022 Distinguished Scholar of the Year” at San Francisco State University, where he teaches International Relations, Monshipouri has a decades-long career dedicated to human rights issues, the Middle East, migration, and climate change.

Born in the southern Iranian city of Ahvaz, Monshipouri moved at the age of 16 to Tehran to further his education. There, he received his high school diploma and bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education. While studying in Tehran, Monshipouri became interested in political science and later pursued a master’s degree in the subject. This set the foundation for what would later become his remarkable career in international relations. Around the time he was completing his masters’ program, however, the 1979 Iranian erupted, prompting his desire to leave the country. Monshipouri says he was among the last generation of Iranian students to get a visa at the American embassy before it closed. Monshipouri’s life changed dramatically as he moved from the capital of Iran to Athens, Georgia to pursue his doctorate at the University of Georgia.

“Life as an immigrant to a new country is never without challenges,” says Monshipouri, but being an Iranian during the Hostage Crisis exacerbated those challenges and it expressed itself in great hostility toward Iranian students like Monshipouri. He describes the way that young Iranians felt confined to their homes and also limited their interactions with non-Iranians. “We (Iranians) struggled with everyday tension and fear,” he adds. For students like Monshipouri who were working tirelessly to adapt to the new academic system, language, and way of life, this was especially disheartening. He describes the situation as having “left a really bitter taste in his mouth.” Eventually, says Monshipouri, he “slowly and steadily learned how to work the system, but, at the same time, the outside world, the ambience outside school, in shopping centers and other places was extremely stressful. Somehow we managed it and life went on,” he says. While describing this difficult time in both his personal life and for Iranians as a whole, Monshipouri compares his experiences as a young Iranian immigrant to those of Arab immigrants at the time of 9/11. He describes what he believes to be a “collective psychological punishment” meted out on ethnic and immigrant groups when a larger historical tragedy occurs.”

In 1986, Monshipouri finished his doctoral dissertation and went on to teach at universities in Michigan, Connecticut, and Southern California. During his time in Connecticut, Monshipouri also served as a visiting fellow at Yale University. While living in Southern California, he came across a teaching opportunity at San Francisco State University that Monshipouri felt really encapsulated key aspects of his career. He thought to himself, “that’s me” and in March of 2007 he began his teaching career at SF State.

Since then, Monshipouri has kept a busy schedule and is currently the head of the International Relations department at SFSU. Aside from lecturing at UC Berkeley in his free time, Monshipouri is also the author of 13 books, with his 14th title currently in the works. This new book focuses on climate change and forced migration in the context of the Middle East, highlighting extreme weather patterns, droughts, soil drying up, sandstorms and other environmental issues within the region that have contributed to subsequent humanitarian crises. “Water is not the only reason that could lead to a conflict,” Monshipouri states, “but it exacerbates it, aggravates it, and really intensifies tensions in the region.” In addition to this, climate change has also been a big cause of migration within the region. This forced migration began with internal displacement, or people moving from different regions within their country in order to escape the effects of climate change and poverty. “Now, as global warming continues and tensions within the Middle East grow, people are being forced to move across borders which is only further adding to the global refugee crisis,” he adds. With his forthcoming book, Monshipouri hopes to shed some much needed light on these issues and spread awareness of their significance within the region.

Alongside studying climate change and migratory issues, Monshipouri’s expansive career has also included researching social movements in the Middle East in the age of globalization. In his 2014 book, Democratic Uprisings in the New Middle East: Youth, Technology, Human Rights, and US Foreign Policy, Monshipouri reflects on the Arab Spring uprisings which took place in the early 2010’s. This series of protests inspired Monshipouri to make three trips to Egypt. “I thought, something profound has happened here and I need to capture that,” he says. Monshipouri visited Tahrir Square in Egypt, and as he was talking to the people there, felt that he was watching history unfold. “People ask me ‘you wrote the book and you were optimistic about change, but, what happened?” Monshipouri recalls, “but I saw things in Egypt that I could not believe I was watching with my own eyes. Egyptian people made a point to the rest of the world. They said we are like you, we have the same aspirations and same determination, and it was a major victory for the youth,” he says. Monshipouri then references an old Egyptian saying: “When the fear factor is broken, there is no turning back.” He believes that the fear factor was broken in Egypt that day, and it led to a significant historical moment. Monshipouri ends his account of the protests in Egypt with a powerful statement, “Those things have value in and of themselves, although the political outcome may not be in sync and in line with the demands that people are making.”

Outside of his research and academic work, Monshipouri’s identity as an Iranian American is just as multifaceted as one would expect. An avid sports fan and music enthusiast, Monshipouri makes sure to maintain a balance in life by taking time to unwind. From watching American football to playing soccer, he sees sports and competition as a way to distract himself and re-energize.“When I think so long and hard that I even forget my social security number,” Monshipouri says, “sports for me is to sit down and watch people physically and mentally competing on a different level.” The act of watching such a popular American sport alongside playing the most beloved sport in Iran, can be seen as one of the many ways Monshipouri works to blend his Iranian and American identities. “A portion of me has evolved and become American, but there is still a part of me that is Persian and a very proud one,” he shares. Monshipouri says he also distracts himself with his love of Iranian music. He explains that keeping up with the music, watching Iranian television/sports, and calling old friends are the ways in which he deals with the emotional isolation and feelings of longing often felt in diaspora. Monshipouri equates it to missing “the half of you left behind.”

Monshipouri believes it is important to bring together the Iranian diasporic community by reminding them of their identity and working together to keep tradition and culture alive. “We have a culture we are proud of and we would like to maintain that,” Monshipouri continues, “so let’s hold on to the good things and pass them along to the next generation,” he adds. While explaining how Iranians can convey the best of their culture to their children, Monshipouri describes what he sees as a “third identity” within children of Iranian immigrants. “Children of diaspora don’t necessarily accept the identity of their parents, don’t accept the identity of the country in which they are growing up, but they develop their own peculiar third identity,” he states. The rejuvenation of certain traditions, customs, understanding of folklore, and literature within the diaspora community, he says, can help young Iranian Americans maintain a sensible balance between their heritage and the environment in which they live.

As a young Iranian who immigrated to the United States to pursue his education and dreams, Monshipouri faced many hardships in his academic path. However, his dedication and passion towards human rights persevered and he was able to build an exceptional career and life. Now, Monshipouri uses these experiences to aid and support students in their own academic journey. As an educator for the past 41 years, Monshipouri takes pride in his love and passion for teaching college students. He describes interacting with students as the joy of his life and maintains that he would like to continue teaching in some form past retirement. However, he believes his students also teach him just as much. “Teaching is my life-line and life-love,” he says, “and I would like to continue to stay in touch with students and work with them beyond their time in the classroom.”

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