Emerging Challenges facing Academic Advocacy

By Laurie Brand, University of Southern California

*This memo is part of POMEPS Studies 24: New Challenges to Public and Policy Engagement. Click here to download the entire publication as a free, open access PDF and to see each of the individual memos.

Academics working in the field of Middle East Studies in the United States have long been attuned to the many problems faced by our MENA colleagues, most of whom live and work under authoritarian political systems. We understand that we have ethical responsibilities to them, and indeed, to all of those with whom we interact or who assist us when we conduct our research: to respect privacy or even anonymity of sources; to do no harm, either through acts of commission or omission; to present ourselves and the purposes of our research honestly; and to accurately report and assess with integrity the material we have gathered. Because of our position of relative privilege, many of us feel a need, indeed an obligation, to expand the realm of our ethical responsibilities by more actively supporting our MENA colleagues’ rights to academic freedom.

As we look to the potential impact of the Trump administration on the region and on our commitment to academic freedom, the emerging challenges to fulfilling these responsibilities seem clear, both at home and abroad. In the region, there has been a marked deterioration in status and freedoms of the academy in the past several years, yet Trump has signaled a preference for dealing with autocratic leaders and shown little interest in defending human rights or democracy in the region. At home, the Trump campaign mobilized fear of, among others, Middle Easterners and Muslims, in ways which potentially threaten academics and students. In such circumstances, we should all be willing to engage in advocacy work to defend vital academic freedoms: convening or participating in programs on or off campus that seek to counter misrepresentations of the MENA region and its peoples; standing up both within the university and in our communities when students or colleagues are harassed or threatened; and speaking out when policy initiatives at the local, state or national level seek to repress those who are exercising their right to freedom of expression.

The tools at our disposal for influencing developments in the MENA region have always been limited, as few autocratic governments are sensitive to the concerns of foreign academics. Yet the voices of academic associations, often in conjunction with other organizations concerned with human rights more broadly, can have an impact. Since 2006, I have chaired the Middle East Studies Association (MESA)’s Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF). CAF writes letters in support of members of the academy—faculty, students, and staff— who have been threatened, dismissed, arrested, or jailed for exercising their freedom of academic expression. In 2016 alone, it wrote 50 letters to government or university officials in eight MENA countries, and in the United States, Canada and Italy. It also makes an annual Academic Freedom award to a person or group whose work or case has been particularly important to the cause of academic freedom in the previous year.

While there are many abuses and violations of freedom in the educational sector in MENA countries, CAF has limited its purview to the university level. There are two wings of the committee—one, dealing with cases in the MENA region, and the other, which was established more recently, with those in North America (and occasionally Europe). In its early years, most of the cases CAF adopted were of individual scholars, generally someone who had been dismissed from his/her post or imprisoned for something spoken or published that was deemed offensive or threatening by the regime. However, as our access to information from the MENA region has increased dramatically thanks not only to the internet, but also to social media, more cases have come to our attention. In addition, there is no question that mass movements for political change in the region, whether the Green Movement in Iran or the more recent uprisings that were collectively called the Arab Spring— not to mention coups, invasions, and civil wars —have led to a dramatic increase in the numbers of cases we have seen.

As a result, many more of our letters today concern groups of people — whether tens to hundreds of Egyptian students and faculty dismissed for purported membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, or thousands of Turkish faculty, staff and students affected by dismissals and university closures for purported ties to the Gülen movement. Other letters address conflict situations, such as the impact on the educational sector of the spring 2011crackdown on the opposition in Bahrain, the assaults by the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition in the destruction of Yemeni educational facilities, and the threats to Palestinian universities and student mobility posed by the Israeli occupation.

The recent deterioration of conditions in Tukey and Egypt led CAF in 2016 to further expand its activities. First, in the wake of the murder of Giulio Regeni, an Italian Ph.D. student who had been conducting research in Cairo, we urged the board of directors of MESA to issue a research advisory for Egypt, which remains in place. In the case of Turkey, the committee sent a record number of letters, triggered first by the government’s labelling as traitors those scholars who signed the January 2016 “Peace Petition,” a statement that criticized the Turkish government’s gross human rights violations in the Kurdish region and called for the restoration of the peace process through political negotiations. However, as the assaults against academics and other members of civil society have increased, particularly following the failed coup attempt in July 2016, CAF’s letters have developed into a critical archive of the breadth and depth of the authoritarian repression of the academy by the Turkish state.

In addition, for the first time CAF members drafted additional documents that we hope can be of use to our Turkish colleagues seeking work outside their homeland: a letter of explanation of the conditions surrounding the purge of the academy, so that Turks forced to leave would have a document from a scholarly association outlining conditions in Turkey for those unfamiliar with recent developments; advice on how to apply for posts in foreign academic institutions; and information for North America- and Europe-based scholars on how to work with Scholars at Risk or the Scholar Rescue Fund to help find temporary academic homes for MENA colleagues abroad. Unfortunately, the new administration’s promised tightening of controls on entry into the United States, combined with apparent affinities between the incoming US president and his counterparts in Egypt and Turkey, do not bode well for the United States to serve as a refuge for persecuted scholars, or for expecting pressure from a Trump administration on such leaderships to respect human rights, including academic freedom.

The second broad area of concern will be academic freedom for Middle East Studies academics in the United States. Violations at home are hardly new, but they seem likely to escalate in the coming years. Those working on various aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict have long felt pressures both implicit and explicit regarding which kinds of research questions about it may be posed, how the parties to it may be portrayed, and what kinds of criticisms of Israel and its policies are deemed acceptable. At stake have been the things most basic to the practice of our profession: possibilities of being hired, obtaining grants, being published and securing tenure. The incoming president’s positions on Israel seem likely to contribute to a narrowing of the realm of what is viewed as legitimate discussion and debate on Israel/Palestine.

This threat is perhaps clearest in the current battles surrounding the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. As BDS has gained momentum in the past several years, efforts on various campuses and by a number of scholarly organizations to join the BDS movement have made the university a key field of contestation. Islamophobic voices and organizations already see the new administration as friendly to their discourse and programs, and the intersection of these groups with those already hostile to demands for Palestinian rights is likely to produce an even more sinister atmosphere. The website Canary Mission, which defines itself as a database “created to document the people and groups that are promoting hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on college campuses in North America” has developed a reputation for online harassment, primarily of members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a major organizational proponent of BDS, labelling them as terrorists or supporters of terror. In addition, while not focused on BDS, the new website Professor Watch is reminiscent of the various attempts at intimidation of the early to mid-2000s by such websites as Campus Watch and David Horowitz’s 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (2006), in the context of efforts by academics to speak out against US policy in the Middle East during the George W. Bush administration. Those initiatives were magnified by the administration’s own efforts to harass, intimidate and silence its critics inside the academy.

To date, several U.S. state legislatures have attempted to outlaw support for BDS in one form or another, usually as part of a bill aimed at what many academics and legal scholars find to be a disturbingly broad definition of anti-Semitism. A bill along these lines was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives on December 1, 2016 (HR 6421), but it was referred to the House judiciary’s subcommittee on the Constitution and civil justice three weeks later, and its future in the 115th Congress is uncertain. Indeed, it remains to be seen how these issues will be dealt with by the administration of a president who, on the one hand has voiced strong support for extreme right wing Israeli positions, yet on the other counts among his closest advisors and most ardent supporters people who have used racist, including at times anti-Semitic, discourse.

Third, the broad threats posed by the new administration to non-Middle Easterners demand solidarity with other communities facing intimidation as well. The decisions already announced by some universities to declare themselves sanctuaries to protect undocumented students is one of the most prominent efforts to date, but one could imagine similar efforts if the new administration should move ahead with its threats to compile a registry of Muslims (see Bali essay in this volume).

The sources and nature of the harassment or intimidation faced by faculty and students have certainly evolved over time. What should not change is our insistence upon upholding academic freedom for all, and our willingness to defend, in whatever ways we can, those who are in the sights of a repressive MENA government or whose work may fall outside the boundaries of hegemonic discourses in the United States under the new administration. Indeed, it is a responsibility of those of us who have tenure, who are the least vulnerable, to take the lead in defending our junior and/or less secure colleagues. We need to think of academic freedom as indivisible. Compromising it in one place, whether in North America or the Middle East, by needs compromises it elsewhere. None of us can afford to be complacent, particularly given the challenges that lie ahead– certainly in the MENA region–but clearly at home as well.

Laurie Brand is the Robert Grandford Wright Professor of International Relations and Middle East Studies at the University of Southern California. She is also the Chair of the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom.