Defending Academic Freedom

by Laurie A. Brand | published February 23, 2016 - 10:56am

Constraints on academic freedom or violations of it are not new in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, while there is certainly variation among the countries of the region, regime attempts to control what is studied, how it is studied, and what faculty and students may do and say both on and off campus have a long history.

While the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) was founded in 1966, its Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) was not established until 1989. CAF’s mandate is to monitor violations of academic freedom and, where necessary, to write letters of protest to the relevant authorities, both as a means of publicizing the violations and in hopes of generating some pressure for their redress. In its first decade, the committee’s interventions were limited, in part as a function of the size of the body, but also of the sources of information available.

As use of the Internet increased, however, and through it access to a range of official and non-official news sources, so did CAF members’—indeed, everyone’s—access to information about violations. The explosion in the use of social media in the mid-2000s has also enabled committee members to obtain information from the region and our contacts there much more easily than before. Closer to home, the impact of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the scholarly community’s reaction to it put increasing numbers of US (based) scholars into the sights of a terrorism-focused security state and its fellow travelers. Indeed, by 2007 the need to write regarding academic freedom violations in the US and Canada while maintaining our efforts vis-à-vis Middle Eastern cases led CAF to establish two wings—one covering the Middle East and the other North America. Concomitantly, the MESA board approved increasing the number of committee members. A review of CAF’s work reveals a jump from five or fewer letters annually before 2004 to an average of 20 letters per year in the period 2007-2015.

Many of the letters written about Middle Eastern cases in the last few years are directly related to the security deterioration and violence that has come to plague a growing number of countries since 2011. The scale of the destruction in the educational sector—as an integral part of broader society—has been all too clear, from Iraq to Syria and Yemen. In these cases, where documenting individual abuses is beyond the capability of the committee given the extent of the devastation, CAF has written several broad statements deploring the violence in the educational sector and its future implications.

As some Middle East Report readers who are also members of MESA know, in the first two months of 2016 CAF has already produced an unprecedented 16 letters, and others are on the horizon, including what may well be a series of interventions regarding US state lawmakers’ attempts to curb free speech regarding the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, directed at Israel.

The majority of our 2016 letters have so far been addressed to two countries. The first is Egypt, where the continuing uncertainty of the political transition in the context of a brutal military-security regime has produced a dangerous academic and research terrain in which former red lines are shifting or have blurred. The second, and the one that has triggered the unprecedented number of letters, is Turkey, where against the backdrop of an already clear authoritarian turn, the government has launched a wave of administrative, judicial and security assaults in the wake of the publication of the now famous Peace Petition regarding the escalating violence in the country’s southeast. The criminalization of all 1,128 academic signatories of this Petition, and the arrests, dismissals and threats to which the signers have been subjected, represents, at least in CAF’s experience, the broadest targeted assault against academics that we have ever seen.

There is no question that the increased access to information afforded us by various electronic media has played a role in driving the number of letters. There is also the human factor, however. CAF members are volunteers, all giving to this endeavor hours and hours of research and writing that could otherwise be spent on scholarship to advance their careers. CAF’s mission in the past and today attracts members who, for reasons of professional concern, personal commitment and deep moral outrage, have literally thrown themselves into the work of documenting what are increasingly broad and alarming threats, not just to academic freedom, but to personal freedom and, as we saw recently in Egypt, human life itself. The committee’s work is only as strong as the diligence and concern of its members, and in my experience over the past ten years as chair, its successive iterations have continued to grow in depth of commitment.

So, if it is to the tyrants of the region that we look as the source of our work, it is to committed academics like those currently serving on this committee who have embraced the growing need to defend colleagues, contacts and friends abroad that we can look for examples of some of the highest forms of professional and personal integrity that the academy can claim.

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