Opinion

Western Universities’ Double Standards on Liberal Values, Academic Freedom

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

For centuries, Western countries have affiliated themselves with progressive human civilization and development, spreading liberalism and liberal values, as well as bringing their own version of democracy across the world. This notion is branded through methods of culture, politics, economics, religious freedom and more.

However, the imposition of Western concepts of liberalism and democracy has been under scrutiny for years, especially when this occurs in times of war against communities that do not necessarily choose to align themselves with such ideologies.

In recent days, the world has witnessed a display of double standards when it comes to liberal ideas and freedom of speech being practiced in academic institutions. Multiple academic institutions in the West have shut down individuals, faculty members, students, and entire departments for speaking up about topics that go against the political interests of the people in power or governments as a whole.

There have been multiple incidents of Western educational institutions participating in constraining narratives that go against the objectives of the ruling powers, in conflict with the need for academic freedom and freedom of expression.

Those incidents suggest that Western liberal values are conditionally employed in times and places that serve the interests of their founders and funding agencies, and that views are considered “hate speech” and inappropriate when they don’t match those interests.

This paper will present the case of the deterioration of freedom of speech in Western academic institutions in line with global events.

Serving Those in Power

Historically, academic institutions were created to lead and influence social order and change. Governments reflected their desire of social construction through the introduction, and later imposition, of schools and universities. At first, schools and universities were intended for the elites of a society. However, realising the power that academia holds in influencing thought and development, and realising the extent to which schools could influence the majority of the society, governments enforced compulsory education laws.

Academic institutions were designed to equip young people with the tools of development that align with the mission and objectives of the ruling power. This was especially true through the construct of the subjects taught at schools. While schools offered their students subjects of science and mathematics, they also offered history, theology, philosophy and more.

Furthermore, in many states across the world, schools offered different subjects to males and females in accordance with gender norms in the society. For instance, while male students were introduced to subjects that were deemed to be more masculine, such as technical courses, female students were steered to subjects that were perceived as more feminine, such as languages, domestic sciences, and arts. This construct continued at the university level, were in many countries, male students were admitted into medical schools and engineering schools, and female students were led to attend nursing schools or schools of education.

This close and specific construct of academic institutions brings up an important question regarding the role of academic freedom and integrity of academia within a society. Why is academic integrity perceived as more of a threat rather than an opportunity to a state? And when do academic institutions act against what they preach?

The Rise of Digital Media

Prior to what we know as the era of globalisation, the world witnessed a flow of scholars around the world. This allowed for the spread of ideas and influence not only on a local level, but also on a regional and international level. The speed with which knowledge and education spread increased as modes of travel modernised. However, the real revolution in knowledge and information spread occurred with the rise of the internet, media, and social media.

“A democratic state, where freedom of expression is the highest principle, does not shut out criticism or ideas just because they are uncomfortable for its authorities to hear. It confronts those ideas in public debate.”

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel

With the upsurge in social media use, governments and people of power could be faced with multiple accusations of not practicing what they preach when it comes to academic freedom and the spread of liberal values.

In times of war and conflict, people of authority, whether governments, political figures, or business leaders, are threatened by the loss of power. Therefore, they invest their assets and influence in maintaining the status quo, primarily through two domains, educational institutions and commercial enterprises. Educational institutions enrol hundreds of millions of students across the world; therefore, they have the power of influencing a vast amount of people across all sectors of a society.

This is where people of influence find that freedom of expression, academic integrity, and “liberal” or “progressive” ideas become a threat to power. “Politically correct” language becomes a critical tool for eliminating opposing opinions, and any speech that goes against that is categorised as hate speech and discriminatory language, depending on the motives and incentives of the person in power leading the narrative.

The Case of Norman Finkelstein

There have been multiple incidents of Western educational institutions participating in constraining narratives that go against the objectives of the ruling powers, in conflict with the need for academic freedom and freedom of expression. The backlash against Norman Finkelstein’s tenure bid at Depaul University, in Chicago, in 2008 is a case in point.

Finkelstein, a prominent political scientist of Jewish origin, faced severe consequences for expressing his thoughts on the Israeli regime at a number of American universities. Although those universities claim to protect freedom of speech and academic freedom, not only was Finkelstein denied tenure at Depaul University, but he was effectively barred from teaching again at any other American university.

Furthermore, when he tried to visit to Israel in 2008, Finkelstein was detained and interrogated, deported, and banned from the country for 10 years due to his academic teachings, The Guardian reported.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel criticised Finkelstein’s deportation, stating: “A democratic state, where freedom of expression is the highest principle, does not shut out criticism or ideas just because they are uncomfortable for its authorities to hear. It confronts those ideas in public debate.”

Although such incidents are common in Western universities, especially towards non-Western scholars and students, they have rarely received the media attention that they see today. This is for two main reasons: firstly, because social media platforms have elevated the spread of information, and secondly, because popular platforms such as X and Instagram are harder to control and censor than traditional media outlets such as television and newspapers.

“It is deeply disappointing that a globally respected academic institution like Texas A&M has fallen victim to such a campaign and allowed politics to infiltrate its decision-making processes.”

Qatar Foundation

Despite the fact that there is a strong movement on university campuses towards liberal and progressive ideas, such as the LGBTQ and feminist movements, reservations still exist in academia towards certain ideas. “Spreading hate” is a common phrase seen in public statements from academic institutions when fighting political notions that are unwanted. Academics, students, and departments that are accused of spreading hate, which in reality is only a form of freedom of speech, face expulsion and dismantling.

Cases in Switzerland and Texas

The University of Bern, in Switzerland, recently announced that it had closed its Institute for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Societies (ISNO) “in its current form”, pending a reorganisation. The decision followed an investigation launched last fall after a lecturer was dismissed without notice for praising Hamas’s October 7 attacks inside Israel. These actions demonstrate the extreme measures that academic institutions are willing to take in order to ban academic freedom and freedom of speech on their campuses.

In another extreme reaction infringing academic freedom, Texas A&M University abruptly decided to shut down its campus in Qatar, ending a 20-year relationship with its hosting partner, Qatar Foundation. This decision coincided with the events taking place in on the Palestinian-Israeli front, and with the role that the state of Qatar has been leading in efforts to bring peace to the region.

The Texas A&M University Board of Regents defended its decision, citing regional instability, and a Washington, D.C.-based think tank ratified that decision as being in line with “legitimate national security interests.”

Qatar Foundation, however, found the decision disturbing, saying it had resulted from a disinformation campaign. In a statement on X, the foundation said: “It is deeply disappointing that a globally respected academic institution like Texas A&M has fallen victim to such a campaign and allowed politics to infiltrate its decision-making processes.”

From firing faculty members, to expelling students and shutting down departments and campuses, Western authorities are fighting freedom of expression and thought through restraining academia. The direct attempt to impose certain ideologies, whether social, political or religious, is heightened with global events and changes, leading to the intimidation of certain political powers and governments.

As street protests around the world call for freedom of speech, certain powers practice the double standard of invoking liberalism to serve their own interests at the cost of allowing societies to progress.

Although attempts to control societies through thought and expression is an old practice, the methods used today are more rigorous and advanced.

With that being said, the spread of information witnessed today through social media, along with the documentation tools available to store information, make it all the harder for the censorship and containment of data, like those that policy makers in the West are attempting, to succeed.

For more case studies on the topics at hand, please see the articles and commentaries at the links below:

Mahjoob Zweiri is a professor of contemporary history and politics in the Gulf and director of Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University. Farah Al Qawasmi is a research assistant at the center.

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