Three years and three reminders: Iran must free American citizen Xiyue Wang | Opinion

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By Jonathan C. Rothermel

This past Aug. 7 marked the three-year anniversary of the unjust detention of an American citizen in Iran. For most Americans, it’s just another day, but for Xiyue Wang and his family it is yet another year apart.

Wang, a Princeton University doctoral student, had been gathering archival research for his dissertation in Tehran, Iran. Despite having prior approval from the Iranian authorities to access publicly available files focusing mainly on Eurasian history of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, he was detained and later charged with espionage. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

His family, particularly his wife, Hua Qu, and now six-year old son, Shaofan, are anxiously awaiting for his release.

While Xiyue Wang languishes in an Iranian jail, Americans owe it to him to heed a few reminders. First, Americans should never take the freedom to pursue knowledge for granted.

Americans cannot always rely on the media to inform them. Finding multiple sources and asking critical questions help Americans make informed decisions. Sadly, in many parts of the world, an informed citizenry is considered a threat.

According to an annual report by Scholars at Risk, there were 294 attacks on university communities in 47 countries, from September 1, 2017, to August 31, 2018.

Some governments will do whatever they can to filter or even block access to information. For example, a younger generation in China is growing up having no idea what happened in Tiananmen Square just over 30 years ago. The Tiananmen Square massacre has essentially been ‘erased’ from Chinese search engine results.

Second, the ability to understand and empathize with others is a fundamental principle of the democratic process.  It is important to seek other viewpoints in order to find common ground.

This is an especially important reminder as America enters into an already divisive electoral cycle. Some are already disgusted with the vitriol between President Trump and the vast field of Democratic contenders.

Wang grew up in China and immigrated to the United States in 2001 with his mother. He became a naturalized citizen in 2009.  He worked hard and was a voracious learner of languages, including Persian, Turkic, Russian, and Pashto – what better way to create bridges among people.

While most Americans view Iran an enemy and will not attempt to understand – let alone appreciate – Iran’s rich history, Wang looked beyond Iran’s geopolitical mask to learn more about its history, people, and culture. It is unfortunate that the leaders of Iran could not see that they had more to gain by allowing Wang to continue to conduct his research rather than use him as a bargaining chip.

Finally, Americans disagree with one another on a range of topics, but most Americans will agree on this: ‘leave no American behind.’

Many covet US citizenship because of the protection and privileges afforded to it by the US government, and it is ingrained in the American psyche to never abandon its citizens.

The US government understands the importance of securing the release of Americans held abroad even if the risks are high.

During the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80, the media relentlessly kept the fate of 52 American hostages in the public spotlight. The ABC News program “Nightline,” featuring news anchor Ted Koppel, included a daily tally of the hostages’ ordeal. It was a poignant topic during the 1980 presidential election, and some argue that President Jimmy Carter’s failure to secure their release cost him re-election.

Even U.S. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was criticized for his conduct leading to his 5-year captivity by the Taliban was freed after President Obama controversially agreed to a prisoner swap of high-level Taliban leaders.

The bottom line is that Xiyue Wang is an American citizen, and Americans should not forget him.

Despite the growing tension in US-Iran relations, they should demand that the US government remains vigilant in securing his release.

America is a great nation, and what makes it great is its freedom to pursue knowledge, its democratic values, and its steadfast devotion to its citizens.

To find out more on how to advocate for Xiyue Wang, go to the Scholars at Risk website.

Jonathan C. Rothermel is a history professor at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pa. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary page. 

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