Scholars in Peril
Published in the Fall 2005 issue of NYU Alumni Magazine
By Anju Mary Paul
A prominent and outspoken advocate of democracy and intellectual freedom in the Middle East, American University of Cairo professor. Saad Eddin Ibrahim had long been at odds with the authoritarian government of his native Egypt. Then on June 30, 2000, Egyptian authorities raided his home. His crime: producing a documentary on irregularities in Egyptian elections. In the two trials that followed, Ibrahim stood in a metal cage as his lawyers argued on his behalf before the State Security Criminal Court. He ended up being sentenced to seven years in a labor camp.
In 2002 Dr. Jean Mathieu Essis was a visiting Fulbright scholar at NYU when civil war broke out in his country, Ivory Coast. A political science professor and writer, he returned home to investigate the situation but found his life threatened by government forces that accused him of collaborating with the opposition and the United States. Forced into hiding, Essis escaped back to the States. But his wife, still in Ivory Coast, then began to receive threatening phone calls in the middle of the night.
Fortunately for both Quinn and Essis, they were able to find refuge in NYU's Scholars At Risk Network (SAR), an organization which assists academics who face persecution in their home countries by arranging for short-term academic positions at host universities across the United States and overseas. After a successful inauguration at the University of Chicago (where SAR was launched five years ago), the program moved to NYU in late 2003, where it now coordinates the efforts of nearly 100 schools. The move followed a partnering of SAR with the Institute of International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund, a New York City--based program that contributes funds needed to provide academic fellowships for threatened scholars.
"SAR saved my life. It's that simple," says professor Essis. He is now on asylum in the United States, teaching political science at Nova Southeastern University in Florida and has been reunited with his wife and daughter while three of them are applying for U.S. permanent residence.
To date, SAR has placed 34 scholars in 16 countries, but the demand for its fellowships far outstrips supply-more than 700 applications from 100 countries are received each year. While the countries that top the list in producing SAR candidates aren't surprising (Colombia, China and Iraq, to name a few), the organization has receives requests from potential candidates in more than 90 countries, including Spain, where one scholar was threatened by Basque separatists.
"SAR works on the model of temporary assistance so that some day our scholars will be able to return to their home country to help in its rebuilding and revitalization," explains SAR director Robert Quinn. More often than not, the governments involved are willing to oblige them.
"Getting the scholar out of the country is a step in the right direction as far as the oppressor is concerned," says Quinn, whose first move in Ibrahim's case was to contact Egyptian officials and arrange for his invitation to the United States upon release. Then, teaming up with Amnesty International and other organizations, SAR launched a letter-writing campaign that drew international attention to Ibrahim's plight and factored heavily into his 2003 acquittal.
"Many actors are involved in the placement of just one scholar," says Carla Stuart, program officer at SAR. "The network is a vast web of generous and altruistic individuals and organizations."
In the case of SAR's latest fellowship recipient, a translator of feminist literature, it was Meredith Tax, president of the Women's World Organization for Rights, Literature and Development, who first brought her plight to SAR.
In Iran, the woman (whose name cannot be mentioned so as not to further jeopardize her), had received all the necessary licenses and approvals to publish a Farsi translation of a book on women's rights in Islam by Moroccan feminist writer Fatima Merniss. But when the book became popular with the Iranian public, the hard-line religious side of the ruling government took a closer look and denounced it as a misrepresentation of the Quran, an insult against Prophet Mohammad. They accused the translator of deliberately undermining the Muslim faith and sentenced her to 18 months in jail. After an appeal (which she lost in 2004), the sentence was reduced to a two-year probation (a common tactic used to send a message to scholars) and a fine that almost bankrupted her.
Quinn began scouting for potential host institutions, which is how two history professors at NYU - Mary Nolan and Linda Gordan - heard about it. They got in touch with Carolyn Dinshaw, director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at NYU and were able to sponsor the scholar for four months in late 2004. The translator has since returned to Iran, recharged and eager to continue her work.
Last April, a two-day SAR conference brought together 90 delegates - professors, activists, members from other fellowship programs - from the United States and overseas to rally further support and to analyze how to broaden SAR's reach now that the network is successfully up and running.
Participants lamented that while stray incidents receive international media attention, as in the cases of the Colombian law professor targeted for assassination and the closing of an entire university in Belarus, too often the persecution, such as, for example, the revocation of travel visas and unjustified firings, is so insidious it flies under the radar.
Pre-empting persecution should be a focus stressed Dr. Orlando Albornoz, Professor of Sociology from Universidad Central de Venezuela, during one of conference's panel discussions: "It is not enough to take people out of a country;" he said, "SAR needs to disseminate information about academic freedom within the country, making the issue more visible" To that end, SAR is organizing regional meetings around the world, starting with one in Latin America in 2006 and another in North Africa and the Middle East, to help build a coalition of academics and concerned citizens in every country and expand the network internationally.
Also at the conference, one panel examined whether the United States is immune from assaults on academia. While no where near as extreme or violent, as some cases from abroad, the American Association of University Professors reported receiving about 1,000 complaints a year from its members about infringements on their academic freedom. During what turned out to be one of the conference's more heated events, academics from Columbia University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Chicago relayed recent incidents of persecution on their own campuses.
"Freedom in universities is a measure of freedom in societies," said Domna Stanton, president of the Modern Language Association. "All scholars have an obligation to fight for academic freedom in the same way that all humans have the obligation to protect human rights."