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.
“Public (including classroom) discussions of political or religious issues, preaching, and group worship—other than Islam—are prohibited.”
So went a faculty handbook of a Saudi university to which I once (unsuccessfully) applied for a job. A social studies department there was looking for a historian. During the interview process, I asked how other subjects like international relations were taught without discussing “political issues.” One of the professors told me about an informal agreement between him and his students: “I want to keep my job. You want to keep your scholarships,” he would say. “Do we understand each other?”
While this arrangement may have worked for him, are there any other ways not to get in trouble as a lecturer?
Tacit Codes of Restraint
I have come across few universities that were as frank in acknowledging limits of discourse as this particular one. However, higher-education institutions everywhere are constrained by the legal and social environments in which they operate.
Working at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar since 2013, I have been fortunate to enjoy tremendous academic freedom. I have never been told what topics I could or could not talk about in the classroom. Nevertheless, as an employee of the Commonwealth of Virginia and as a resident of the State of Qatar, I am bound by both American and local laws. Moreover, I have an obligation to create a safe learning environment in which students of diverse backgrounds and identities feel supported and included. This also means respecting the culture of my Qatari hosts.