News & Reports

Academic Freedom Project Highlights Arab, Turkish Cases

A report published this week on attacks on faculty members, students and staff in higher education institutions worldwide highlights the effects of the continuing political turmoil in Turkey and, in cases from the Arab region, the impact of repressive government action.

The report, titled Free to Think 2018, was produced by the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project of the Scholars at Risk Network, a non-profit organization based at New York University. The report analyzes 294 reported attacks in 47 countries that occurred between September 1, 2017, and August 31, 2018.

“Turkish authorities have continued their campaign of sweeping and targeted actions against the country’s higher education sector, aimed at silencing and removing individuals from academia who have endorsed a petition critical of state military actions or who have been accused of association with groups disfavored by the government,” the report states. “These actions include imprisonments, prosecutions, dismissals, expulsions, and travel restrictions against thousands of scholars, administrators, staff, and students.”

In the West Bank, the Israeli administration has imposed restrictions on foreign scholars working at Palestinian higher education institutions. Visas for some have been denied, shortened or not renewed, while other scholars have been subjected to restrictions on movement within the West Bank and demands for financial bonds of up to 80,000 shekels (roughly US $22,000).

In July 2018, Birzeit University issued a statement saying, “Since the beginning of the current academic year, scores of foreign passport holders, many of Palestinian origin but without residence documents, living and working in the occupied Palestinian territory have been denied entry in the country, or have had their visa renewal applications refused by the Israeli authorities. At Birzeit University alone, we have 15 foreign passport-holding faculty members whose requests for visa renewals have been refused or significantly delayed.”

Mouin Rabbani, senior fellow of the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington D.C., noted in an interview that this was not the first time that the Israelis have used foreign faculty at Palestinian universities as a pressure point.

“After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Israeli administration told foreign faculty that they would have to leave,” Rabbani said. “However, George Shultz [the U.S. Secretary of State] took a firm public position against the measure, saying that it was an unacceptable infringement of academic freedom. The Israelis then reversed course.”

No comparable diplomatic reaction has been made to this year’s Israeli action, Rabbani said. “Now with Trump in the White House, they feel they can get away with anything. They feel they have unconditional support from the current administration.”

Elsewhere, the report details the cases of women academics in Saudi Arabia who were arrested in connection with their work campaigning for civil and human rights in the kingdom, notably to oppose the ban on women driving cars and the guardianship system (which requires a male relative’s permission for decisions on such matters as travel or medical treatment). Those arrested included Eman al-Nafjan, an assistant professor of linguistics; Aziza al-Yousef, a former lecturer in computer science at King Saud University and Hatoon al-Fassi, a prominent scholar of women’s history (See related article, Women and Islam: A Topic that Troubles), and others. “The scholars and activists are being held in unknown locations without access to family or legal counsel,” the report said.

Women’s history scholar and activist Dr. Hatoon Al-Fassi was detained by Saudi authorities in June 2018 amidst a government crackdown on human rights defenders.

Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization based in Lebanon, said in an interview that the aim of the arrests was to “dismantle the human rights movement in Saudi Arabia.” He noted that the Specialized Criminal Court, established in 2008 to try terrorist suspects, was now being used mostly to try human-rights activists.

The arrests were having a chilling effect on academic life, Ibrahim said. “The role of the university is to have responsibility for showing how the society can change and achieve prosperity. The effect of these arrests is to limit the contribution that universities can make to political life, and to make people afraid. Even before this wave of arrests, the civil space in Saudi Arabia was shrinking; now it has shrunk to nothing.”

In another case from the Arab region, the report notes that Egyptian authorities detained Walid Salem, a doctoral student at the University of Washington in the United States, when he returned home to visit. Salem was charged with “spreading false news” and being a member of a terrorist group.

“The charges are apparently connected to Mr. Salem’s research activities concerning judicial independence in Egypt; he had just concluded an interview with a prominent law professor at the time he was detained,” the report said. Salem was held in isolation for four days without access to a lawyer before he was arraigned in court, also without counsel. Mr. Salem remains in prison.

In a written statement, Victor Balta, public affairs spokesman at the University of Washington, said, “in a case such as this one, our paramount interest is the safety of any member of our community, whether student, faculty or staff. The University would do everything in its power to contact the appropriate authorities in an effort to advocate for and protect a student.”

The Scholars at Risk report urged governments everywhere to stop using false imprisonment as a tool to silence students and scholars; to stop using lethal violence against student protestors; to stop restricting the travel of scholars, and to stop using other means from shutting down debate and the expression of ideas. Governments, the report said, have a right to protect national stability and security, but should not use those concerns as a “pretext for interfering in the peaceful exercise of academic freedom.”


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