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Threats to Academic Freedom in the Middle East

RoundTable IX-3, sponsored byMESA Global Academy, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

RoundTable Description
This roundtable is based on a forthcoming roundtable in the International Journal of Middle East Studies penned by six displaced scholars affiliated with the MESA Global Academy: two from Syria and four from Turkey. It addresses threats to academic freedom in the Middle East and the multiple consequences of these threats for scholars from and of the region. The presentations will focus on the following topics: the shrinking autonomy of Turkish universities in the context of Justice and Development Party (AKP) efforts to establish political hegemony in Turkey; AKP repression of academic freedom as a vital part of its political strategy and resistance among academics; the status and freedom of universities in relation not only to political parties but also to trends in industry and the business community; the role that displaced academics play in the North American and European academy; and autoethnography as a crucial tool through which displaced scholars can contribute to decolonizing displacement and migration research.
International Relations/Affairs
Political Science
  • A third wave of autocratization is manifest today. Universities are no exception to the institutions that are affected by democratic backsliding in a given country: According to the Varieties of Democracy project, academic freedom has declined by 13% in autocratizing countries in the 2010-20 period, whereas almost no change has been recorded in other countries. With its significantly declining democracy, despite steady economic growth until recently, lack of sizeable natural resources, high state capacity and links with the West, Turkey presents a good case to study democratic backsliding and authoritarian endurance. While until the early 2010s Turkey under Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule was referred to “as a successful model of reconciling Islam, democracy and the market economy,” Turkey’s not-so-consolidated democracy began to reverse, especially during the AKP government’s second term following the 2007 elections. Academia and academic freedoms were not exempt from this process, as the democratic backsliding and the use of laws to undermine freedoms impacted higher education in the country in an unprecedented manner. According to data from VDem, the level of academic freedom in the country has been in decline since 2009, well before the well-known case of Academics for Peace, but as of 2016 it reached levels of the early 1980s, the period following the 1980 military coup. As academic freedom is intrinsically linked to the rule of law and fundamental rights, this presentation will locate the decline of academic freedoms in Turkey within the broader debate on democracy and rule of law in the country.
  • Scholars-at-Risk (SAR) defines “at-risk,” “threatened,” or “displaced” scholars as “professors, researchers, doctoral students, institutional leaders and other members of higher education communities who are threatened and/or attacked as a result of the content of their work, their status as academics or as a result of their peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression or freedom of association.” Networks like SAR assist these scholars, but the process usually ends with their relocation to a safe “host country.” This is a noble intervention and aims to protect the academic integrity of these scholars, boosting their academic careers and providing them a safe zone where they can continue their academic work. But what happens to these scholars when their placement ends? None of the networks that facilitate the at-risk scholars’ arrival can guarantee their permanent stay in the host countries. “At-risk scholars” then get a new title after their initial placement ends; we become “displaced” scholars” though we are still “at-risk.” However safe we may feel from the pressures back home that caused us to seek protection abroad, displaced scholars are subsequently faced with prospects of unemployment or the obligation to turn to professions unrelated to our qualifications. Although “diversity and equity,” which is frequently used in academic advertisements, seems promising, unfortunately, “displaced scholars” are not included in the definitions or postulations made within the scope of “underrepresented groups” in terms of the internal dynamics of North America and Europe. Displaced scholars usually hesitate to state in our cover letters and resumes that we use in job applications that we came to these countries as "at-risk scholars" and are now "displaced scholars." Even if we state this, hiring committees usually have little or no information about this process. We are thus even more disadvantaged in an already competitive academic market due to the fact that we are generally eliminated without anyone ever questioning the reasons for the employment gap many of us have experienced in our careers. How might this problem be resolved? This presentation will argue that given our demographic background, the persecution(s) we often face because of our political beliefs in our home countries and our potential contribution to the diverse structures within higher education institutions, we, as displaced scholars, should be a part of the academic diversity/equity/inclusion definitions.
  • In this presentation, I argue that autoethnography is a method to resist the racialization of “Arab” and “Muslim” bodies in Euro-American academia. I contend that historically marginalized and displaced scholars should use autoethnography as a critical tool to destabilize Euro-American norms and transgress the national order of things. Inspired by the work of Gloria Anzaldúa and Marcelo Diversi and Claudio Moreira who called for claiming hybrid positions and developed “betweener autoethnography” as a form of decolonizing qualitative inquiry, I reflect on my positionality as a “betweener,” not to reify or essentialize identities but to, in the words of Diversi and Moreira, situate the personal “in the socially constructed, fluid space from which we are writing, thinking, and giving meaning to the experiences” that I and other displaced and racialized participants share in the context of systemic power struggle. As a betweener, I acknowledge that I simultaneously inhabit both intense precarity as a displaced Syrian without permanent protective status and a certain privilege related to my academic standing as a scholar in North America. I highlight how issues of power and difference have confronted both my research interlocutors (marginalized populations moving across borders, boundaries, and borderlands) and me. I illustrate how they operate through vectors of race, class, gender, sexuality, and national origin, and describe how I have come to understand them, both at the levels of epistemology and methodology.
  • The academic community in Turkey faces unprecedented levels of political pressure. Mass dismissals and elimination of job security and tenure protection, as well as the appointment of AKP allies to key positions at universities, aim not only to control academia and transform universities but also to transform society by establishing a new social and cultural hegemony and creating a conservative generation that will help the AKP sustain its competitive authoritarian regime. These interventions in Turkish universities by the AKP party have occurred over the last decade and culminated in a wave of student protests in January 2021 following Melih Bulu’s appointment as the new president of the prestigious Bogaziçi University. Bulu, who is a professor and has served as president at other universities, was appointed with a presidential decree by Recip Tayip Erdoğan after the government abolished the university-wide elections for university presidents. He was regarded as an “implant” to the university by the faculty and students, who organized mass protests against the “trustee rector.” The current resistance results from accumulated frustration against the increasing levels of political interventions that aim to shape the university and the broader education system. This presentation will explain the factors that led to increasing political interventions in the Turkish academic system.
  • Passports, visas, and border controls are methods that reproduce a version of racial segregation on an international scale. At the turn of the twentieth century, nativists and eugenics movement were anxious about the influx of immigrants to the United States. White supremacists succeeded in weaponizing immigration laws by constituting a definition of who can become an American on a racial/biological basis and through the invention of the national origins quota system. Racial restrictions on immigration remained in place until 1965, when Congress abolished the national origin system and the Asiatic Barred Zone. However, discriminatory policies and laws regulating immigration and asylum in the United States have been utilized systematically to target specific nationalities under the guise of national security and the “war on terror,” as evidenced in Donald Trump’s 2018 travel ban. Drawing on my decade of experience as a displaced scholar in North America, I analyze the effects of legal violence on the lives of Syrian asylees and asylum seekers, as well as immigrants and academics from the Middle East, who have been held in legal limbo and a permanent status of precarity. My presentation is based on ethnographic fieldwork in North America between 2014 and 2023 and more than 100 interviews with Syrian asylum seekers and immigration attorneys. I examine the invisible, harmful effect of surveillance programs and discriminatory regulations, including the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program (CARRP) and Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Grounds (TRIG), that constructed Arab and Muslim communities as a threat since the 9/11 attacks. I conclude by arguing that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) operates as an authoritarian agency marked by a lack of accountability and transparency and sustains white supremacy through the implementation of Kafkaesque policies and shadow programs that maintain racialized Others through exclusion.