On The Moral Hazards of Field Research in Middle East Politics

By Sheila Carapico, University of Richmond

* This memo was prepared as part of the “Ethics and Research in the Middle East” symposium 

American political scientists studying the Middle East face ethical dilemmas not shared by most of our disciplinary colleagues. Sometimes – perhaps unexpectedly – our presence in countries or communities experiencing repression and/or political violence puts our local colleagues, hosts, or contacts at risk by association. The massive U.S. military footprint and widespread mistrust of U.S. policies and motives multiplies the risks to our interlocutors.

The trademark methodology of American Arabists is fieldwork, meaning, in political science, in-depth interviews, participant observation, data collection, document-gathering, opinion polling, political mapping, and recording events. As sojourners but not permanent residents, we rely heavily on the wisdom, networks, and goodwill of counterparts “on the ground,” particularly other intellectuals.

In any environment where agencies of national, neighboring, and U.S. governments are all known to be gathering intelligence, our research projects may look and sound like old-fashioned espionage. Even under the very best of circumstances (which are rather scarce) a lot of people are wary or suspicious of all Americans, including or sometimes especially Arabic speakers who ask a lot of questions and take notes. Immediate acquaintances probably grasp and trust our inquiries. Their neighbors or nearby security personnel may not. It is common knowledge that at least some spies and spooks come in academic disguise and that some U.S.-based scholars sell their expertise to the CIA or the Pentagon. Instead of treating whispered gossip as the product of mere paranoia or conspiracy theories, we need to recognize its objective and sociological underpinnings.

I reflected some years ago on the complex ethical implications of scholarly detachment, engagement, activism, or even espionage in an age of U.S. interventions and constant surveillance by regional governments of foreign and citizen researchers. Recently some POMEPS colleagues raised important normative considerations. In this memo I offer some anecdotal examples of the moral hazards of political research in Middle Eastern countries – how the burdens of our apparent risks may be borne by Arab colleagues.

U.S. passport holders do face occasional threats to personal safety; witness the intimidation, expulsions, and sentencing of international news reporters. State Department travel advisories are the rule rather than the exception. With extraordinarily rare exceptions, however, the perils braved by scholars who know the territory well enough to “blend in” are the “first-world problems” of a sudden departure or denial of a visa. Benefits of media attention, grant or job opportunities, lecture invitations, interest from publishers, and so forth back home usually make it worth our while. Unfortunately the real costs and liabilities may be borne by local residents to whom we owe but may pay scant thanks.

Sometimes we are literally imposing. Our interview schedules may depend on investments of time by busy professionals. When I approached officers or employees of civil society organizations in Jerusalem, Ramallah, other West Bank towns, and Gaza, almost everyone who granted me an hour assumed I had some project or funds to offer. Otherwise, with all due respect, they had other priorities than contributing to my study of their donors.

Later I sat on the other side of the desk, as head of the political science department at the American University in Cairo. One newly arrived graduate student opened her interview by asking whether I had “written anything?” – as if dictation notes were preferable to a Google search. Now, senior scholars should mentor newcomers; but her closing question, “Are there Egyptian professors I should speak with?” gave me pause. Would I ask my junior faculty, or their underpaid counterparts at the national universities, to give this researcher part of their day?

More importantly: Our actions may heighten risks to scholarly or activist colleagues of harassment or worse. Unfortunately this can be true even when we are trying to share rewards like funding, international conference invitations, or credit for research assistance. Almost everywhere, police states monitor visitors, whom they talk to, whom they work with, and their local sponsors. In the old days independent researchers were so few that each was assigned a supposedly clandestine observer. There is a perhaps apocryphal story of a scholar who noticed the same gentleman in every cafe and on every outing until finally he suggested that they share taxi fares; soon, they noticed another agent tailing both of them. I can personally vouch for instances when faculty at Sanaa or Aden universities took foreign scholars under their wings and were called in for extended questioning, or got ominous phone calls asking what their visitors were up to. Now, in the days of electronic eavesdropping, dissident intellectuals may come under additional suspicion for their overseas communications.

Already sticky wickets get thornier in times of U.S. military operations, civil strife, or mass upheaval. In April 2003 (during the invasion of Iraq) when colleagues in Sanaa invited me to lunch, a Jordanian news reporter objected to “breaking bread with an agent of imperialism.” Day in and day out friends were called upon to defend me.

During Egypt’s 18-day popular uprising in 2011 I and other foreign faculty at AUC went to Tahrir Square regularly, in pairs or small resident-expat groups, but most of us refrained from asking to join Egyptian activists who really were taking great risks. Western companions could easily have compromised their safety and/ or security.

After Mubarak’s resignation dozens of U.S. and European colleagues – from Egypt specialists and Middle East hands to experts in comparative transitology not familiar with the region – flocked to Cairo for the “Arab Spring Break.” So many enthusiastic visitors contributed to a heady sense of newly open intellectual space, but they also imposed on bilingual Egyptian intellectuals, who had political or writing projects of their own. Many of the U.S. and European scholars talked more than they listened. Afterwards, citing Edward Said’s notion of “permission to narrate” and sometimes Frantz Fanon’s comments on the diagnostic elements of colonial medicine, several of them wrote or spoke thoughtfully but critically. See, for instance, Mona Abaza’s column for Ahram Online on academic tourists and Egyptian service providers; Rabab El-Mahdi on Orientalizing the Egyptian uprising; and Naira Antoun on a Cairo University symposium “Narrating the Arab Spring.” In the end, the short-term visitors who published articles and books about the uprisings were more likely to thank Egyptian scholars in the acknowledgements than to cite them in their bibliographies. The ubiquitous expression “Arab Spring” was coined in English and doesn’t make much sense in Arabic.

As that euphoric spring semester ended, and during the troubled three years since then, space for either political research or public dialogue has narrowed in almost every Arab country. Academic sojourners and even some long-term expats came home, fewer ventured to fewer countries, and there are no revolutionary tourists anymore. Our colleagues and associates are still there.

The level and nature of U.S. involvement in recent events and their antecedents varies tremendously, but everywhere there is suspicion. Moreover, perhaps ironically, the fewer American civilians there are, the more widely they are assumed to be undercover agents. Between security organizations’ efforts to intimidate my colleagues and the U.S. drone war, I’ve been wary of visiting Yemen in recent years. The professional benefits of going would almost certainly have outweighed the miniscule likelihood of physical harm to myself – because both parts of this equation count on the kindness of colleagues, contacts, and hosts. Now that almost all Western civilians have left most of the country, both the moral and the personal hazards are greater. Although it’s been reported that all researchers and journalists have left, in fact the Yemenis remain.

Before concluding it is important to consider a complication, because college professors have a responsibility to serious political enquiry, to contribute to the production of knowledge in our field. If political scientists who devote years to studying languages, countries, institutions, and patterns stay away for whatever reasons, coverage of developments in Iraq, Yemen, Israel/ Palestine, and other parts of the region falls to U.S. commercial media and/or security reconnaissance.

One way of addressing both the moral hazards of field research in times of crisis and our responsibility to foster accuracy of public discourse is to be doubly attentive to scholarship and opinions published by colleagues in the region. Reading, citing, publishing, and assigning materials written in English or available in translation (the volume is considerable) might sometimes be the least we can do, so to speak, which makes it all the more important.

Sheila Carapico is a professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond. She chairs the Middle East Research and Information Project’s board of directors. 

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