Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a package on the prevalence and consequences of academic self-censorship in Arab higher education, based on a survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media and the Scholars at Risk network. See other articles and commentaries in the package at this link.
Academic freedom has a great significance in promoting the scientific research movement and its development, however, it appears to be only a recent issue in Arab culture. Academic freedom is rarely discussed outside the communities interested in education philosophy, yet it is a societal issue whose effects go beyond the walls of the university and extend to the public areas.
Due to the new reality of universities in Tunisia and in the Arab world, this issue is doubly important since a new generation of academics who are no longer interested in research has been produced in recent years, and the university itself has become at best a source of livelihood, or obtaining a pension that helps meet daily needs. Most professors’ aspirations are limited to conducting and to publishing traditional research for the sole purpose of professional advancement.
While the situation is such, it is no longer weird for the Arab academic to stay away from the concerns and ideas that occupy other academic communities around the world. Chief among these is the issue of academic freedom, an idea that has deep roots in the West. The American Association of University Professors first published its Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure in 1940, but the organization’s discussions on the subject go back decades before that date. And centuries earlier, Leiden University, in the Netherlands, was established in 1575 on principles that laid a foundation for establishing the traditional scientific research method.
In our Arab world, however, the matter of academic freedom has not been a subject of concern except in light of the eruption of crises related to the freedom of scientific research or the independence of universities.
Arab academic practices have been distorted accordingly, historically as well as cognitively, to a limited understanding of the university teaching process. It is also seen as a profession similar to all other professions and thus subject to the rule of work accomplished.
Fear of Seeking the Truth
Under these conditions, university professors have learned to ask themselves a fundamental question: Does the professor’s relationship with the lesson content and students represent a faithful translation of government policies that choose the curricula for higher education and define its aims and mechanisms? Governments are the sources of universities’ budgets, which enables them to tighten their grip on academic policies and remove all issues that they consider as a threat to their existence.