The history of the propaganda apparatus of the Islamic Republic is as long as that of the republic itself. Its output was intensified during the Iran-Iraq war in an effort to mobilize the public to play its part in fighting the war, and its expansion has been consistent over the years.
Many media outlets in the Islamic Republic are tools for propaganda, so driven by ideology that they cannot be considered to be media in the proper or normal sense.
In this series, IranWire will study the propaganda apparatus of the Islamic Republic, from satellite channels to Friday prayer pulpits to the so-called "educational and research" institutions like Al-Mustafa Al-Alamiyah International University, which have both domestic and international functions and use missionaries and “training experts” to deliver their messages.
The second article details how Friday prayer services in Iran, which were not an organized phenomenon before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, are controlled by the state and used to amplify pro-regime messaging.
The third article examines the Al-Mustafa Al-Alamiyah Society, which is also referred to as the Mustafa International University, and its remit to spread Islamic Republic-style Islam around the globe.
The vast Al-Mustafa Al-Alamiyah University is international in focus, and its main goal is to recruit Muslims living outside Iran to follow pure “Mohammadian Islam,” an interpretation of Islam that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini used to distinguish "his" type of Islam from other readings.
The institution goes by the Arabic translation of the Prophet of Islam, Mustafa, in order to appeal to Arabs and non-Iranians and build a more intimate relationship with them.
Speaking about the establishment of the university, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stated that its duty was to strengthen the presence of religious scholars throughout different regions, responding to the needs of these specific communities “according to the diversity of these needs and by providing comprehensive programs tailored to these needs."
The Soviet Patrice Lumumba University: The Model for Al-Mustafa Society
Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky from Nigeria, Sheikh Baqir al-Nimr of Saudi Arabia, Ahmed Sambi, the former president of Comoros, and leaders of Yemen’s Houthis, including Hussein Badruddin Houthi and Abdul Malik Houthi, are all graduates of the Al-Mustafa University or society.
Comparisons could be drawn between the Patrice Lumumba University, also known as the People’s Friendship University, during the Soviet era, which aimed to train leaders to shape the world in the image of Soviet ideology.
As part of this comparison, it should be noted that the philosophy behind the establishment of this large university and its promotion of Mohammadian Islam goes back to the idea of "exporting the revolution." But since the inception of the Islamic Republic, officials have been aware that the process of exporting the revolution was problematic. They soon realized the way the revolution had been won in Iran could not be replicated in other countries in the region. They had to look for another way.
This other way was the establishment of a university — Al-Mustafa — to execute the "soft" export of the Islamic Revolution under the pretext of spreading pure Mohammadian Islam. If the Islamic Republic’s hardware was lacking something, this was the software it needed to push the revolution further afield, recruiting converts as it admitted students from all over the world to learn at the institution.
The Islamic Republic's project of training foreign students to export the revolution is evident in the large budget allocated to the university. Although exact figures are not available from the university's overall budget, the Eghtesad News website announced on April 22, 2018 that Mustafa University had received a budget of 8.248 billion tomans [$330,000] in April 2018. Meanwhile, the University of Tehran, Iran’s most prestigious university, had received an amount of about 1.250 million tomans [$50,000] in the same period.
History, Scope and Objectives
Prior to the establishment of Al-Mustafa University, two institutions were in charge of training foreign students, the World Center of Islamic Sciences and the Organization of Seminaries and Religious Schools Abroad. Given that the missions of these two institutions overlapped, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution decided in October 2008 to merge them, and Al-Mustafa University in Qom was born.
The university has 170 affiliated educational, training and research bases in Iran and other countries, and there is scope for further development if necessary. Students study at the university at three levels: Bachelor's, Master's and doctorate degrees. Its teaching staff numbers over 2000 people.
The university combines seminary and humanities courses, and graduates are eligible to wear a turban and don the formal dress of a Shia cleric.
Iranian branches of the university are located in the cities of Mashhad, Tehran, Isfahan, Gorgan and Qeshm. According to university officials, its list of sites abroad includes Lebanon, India, Indonesia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Ghana, Malawi, Cameroon, Congo, Madagascar, Argentina, and Brazil, although the list is possibly even more extensive.
Ali Khamenei pays personal special attention to the institution. Occasionally, he personally extends invites to students to join. The university says it strives to provide the best facilities and services to students, including scholarships to pay tuition fees, housing loans, personal loans, accommodation, health services, educational and training counseling, practical and skills training for the spouses and children of students, sports facilities and special education for students’ families, and pilgrimage recreational camps.
Ayatollah Alireza A'rafi was the dean of Al-Mustafa University from 2008 to 2018. In addition to this position, he has held important positions and jobs within the government of the Islamic Republic, has held membership in the Guardian Council, was the Imam of Friday prayers in Qom, was a member of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, and a member of the Qom Seminary Lecturers Association. This long line of influential positions he has held in the Islamic Republic indicates that the role of dean at Al-Mustafa University is also a highly influential and important job.
According to the university, to date, 50,000 seminary students from 122 nationalities have been recruited so far. It says its graduates, which so far number 25,000, are currently in employment in their home countries.
In addition, Al-Mustafa University graduates are in constant contact with each other through the Al-Mustafa Alumni Association, even after returning to their home countries. In this way, the university — or “society” as it also known — continues to supervise its members even after they have left, running the alumni like a global network. The university's official website states it has an "effective" and "role-creating" presence in strategic areas of the world through its alumni. Graduates are also invited to Iran to share their most recent experiences.
From Saudi Arabia to Nigeria
Al-Mustafa University is an important component of the Islamic Republic's propaganda abroad. Its students are trained not only to study religious sciences, but also to gain political power in their own country. Among the university’s alumni, two names stand out: Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky from Nigeria and Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr from Saudi Arabia.
Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky was initially a Sunni Muslim. With the rise of the Islamic Revolution, he was initially influenced by the founder of the Islamic Republic, converted and became a Shia Muslim. He then traveled to Iran to continue his education. Upon his return to his country, he embarked on an elaborate, even extravagant, project to convert Nigerians to Shia Islam, founding the Islamic Movement of Nigeria and putting himself forward as the Nigerian Ayatollah Khomeini. He is a member of the Ahl Al-Bayt World Assembly, an organization established by the Islamic Republic to bring together the world's Shias.
According to Zakzaky’s wife, 12 million people have become Shia Muslims in Nigeria through his efforts.
But some of Zakzaky's activities to convert Shias provoked controversy in Nigeria. In 2014, the Nigerian military launched a massive crackdown, during which hundreds of his supporters were killed, including his three sons. Zakzaky and his wife have since been jailed.
In a meeting with Zakzaky in 2014, Ayatollah Alireza A’rafi, Al-Mustafa University’s president at the time, said: "The global movement of the Al-Mustafa Al-Alamiyah Society, despite all its problems and the hostilities against it, continues with strength, and Al-Mustafa in Nigeria is one of our excellent representations. We hope that this representative will be able to make the most of your presence as has been done in the past."
However, despite his important position among officials of the Islamic Republic, following the severe crackdown on Zakzaky and his followers, they have done very little to defend them, in word or action.
Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr (1959-2016) from Saudi Arabia was another graduate of Al-Mustafa University. He advocated for the overthrow of Al Saud, Saudi’s ruling family, and was eventually sentenced to death and beheaded.
Although the Islamic Republic did not react seriously to the crackdown on Zakzaky and his supporters, the execution of Sheikh Nimr did have an impact on relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. After crowds attacked Saudi diplomatic buildings in Tehran and Mashhad, relations between the two countries became severely strained; shortly afterward, they were severed.
After Sheikh Nimr's execution, Iranian state media falsified the title "Ayatollah" for him, despite the fact that Sheikh Nimr never continued his education at higher seminary levels. By bestowing this title on him, the Islamic Republic intended to give the impression that Riyadh had executed a Shia source of emulation.
Considering the above two examples, it is clear that the purpose of setting up and establishing Al-Mustafa University was not simply to teach Islamic sciences to students, but also to use them to extend the Shia hegemony of the Islamic Republic throughout the world, even if this influence is through the use of violence and an aggressive strategy of overthrowing pre-existing political or religious authorities.
Read other articles in this series: