The Perils for Academic Freedom in the Arab World
Calls for change have swept across the Arab world
since the uprisings erupted over two years ago. While the process and
struggle for political and social freedoms continue, freedom in the world of
academia has become a recent, although not new, target in the region.
In late February, a conference on the status of higher education in the Arab world, titled "Education for What? The Future of Arab Universities,” was scheduled to take place in Dubai. The conference was expected to launch a new magazine covering Arab higher education. Al Fanar, Arabic for “lighthouse,” is the project of Alexandria Trust, based in the United Kingdom and founded by Egyptian businessman Salah Khalil. According to the Alexandria Trust’s website, their intent is to, “seek out or conceive strong projects which respond to demonstrable need and have the prospect of achieving real impact on educational reform and development in the Arab region.”
The magazine, however, did not debut at the conference, because the conference never took place. Its cancellation was part of a domino effect that started with the banning of an academic who attempted to enter the United Arab Emirates in order to speak at a different conference.
Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, was traveling to the United Arab Emirates to participate in a conference co-sponsored by LSE and the American University of Sharjah, titled “The New Middle East: Transition in the Arab World.” Ulrichsen’s research paper was titled "Bahrain's Uprising: Domestic Implications and Regional and International Perspectives."
Upon entering the airport, Ulrichsen was pulled aside, interrogated, denied entry, and sent on a plane back to London (Ulrichsen wrote an article for Foreign Policy detailing the event of his interrogation). Unfortunately for Ulrichsen, the United Arab Emirates had decided at the last minute that there would be no discussion about Bahrain at the conference, and later explained that “Dr Ulrichsen has consistently propagated views opposing the Bahraini monarchy, and the UAE believes it is unwise at this sensitive stage in Bahrain’s national dialogue to promote non-constructive views on the situation in Bahrain expressed in another GCC state.”
In response to the decision to ban Ulrichsen, the LSE canceled the conference, and in a statement explained that, “the decision was made in response to restrictions imposed on the intellectual content of the event that threatened academic freedom.”
The domino effect, however, does not stop there. In response to this chain of events, Khalil also canceled the conference that was scheduled to take place days after the conference by the LSE and American University of Sharjah. On why he decided to cancel the conference, that was slated to launch the magazine Al Fanar, Khalil stated, “We can’t talk about upholding academic freedom and launch in Dubai. I don’t think it sends the right message.” Despite Khalil’s decision to cancel the conference, Al Fanar still launched on schedule and debuted March 3.
This succession of events points to a number of problems concerning academic freedom in the Arab world, with freedom of expression being most prominent. Khaled Fahmy, who was supposed to attend the conference in Dubai, wrote an article for Ahram Online, in which he said, “We have to remind ourselves of the dangers of violating academic freedom under the pretext of protecting national security.”
Despite the cancellation of these two conferences in Dubai, one conference focusing on higher education in the region recently took place in Tunisia. Under the title “The University and the Nation: Safeguarding Higher Education in Tunisia and Beyond,” the conference was organized by New York University’s Center for Dialogue and Scholars at Risk Network, with the intention of exploring the role of new and reformed constitutions in the Arab world in protecting and managing academic freedom (download the conference program here). Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk, said that the conference also sought to see “what higher education institutions can do to contribute to society.”
Higher education plays a significant role in the process of ensuring freedom. As the events in the United Arab Emirates demonstrate, as well as other restrictions on academic freedom that persist across the region, the ability to speak freely in academia remains at risk.