When research is ‘espionage’: Crackdowns on academic freedom in Turkey and Egypt

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Last year, Giulio Regeni – a 28-year-old Italian doctoral candidate at Cambridge University – was tortured and murdered while conducting fieldwork in Cairo. Although his murder remains unsolved, many suspect that the Egyptian security forces, who were investigating Regeni at the time, may have played a role in the killing.

The tragic case exemplifies what Khaled Fahmy, a professor of modern Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University, called a dangerous “inability to distinguish between research and espionage.” According to Fahmy, Egyptian authorities’ deep suspicion of scholarship is driving widespread violations of academic freedom in the country.

Growing concern among academics about their ability to work freely and safely was the subject of a special session titled “Academic Freedom under Assault: A Roundtable on Recent Developments in Egypt and Turkey” at the Middle Eastern Studies Association’s (MESA) annual meeting in Boston this weekend.

The discussion was led by Fahmy and Vickie Langhor, who work in Egypt; and Asli Bâli and Asli Z. Igsiz, who work in Turkey. All four have been active in MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom, which monitors the Middle East and North Africa for violations of academic freedom. Their own scholarly work has also been deeply affected by the intensifying attacks on academic freedom in both countries in recent years.

‘We do no social science research’

Fahmy spoke about students who had been expelled, arrested, and even killed in Egypt in recent years. He said a number of students have also had their degrees withdrawn due to the controversial nature of their work. Authorities are preventing some Egyptian university faculty from traveling abroad, and some foreign scholars from entering the country. Last year, national student elections at universities across the country were cancelled outright. Authorities cited procedural mistakes, but it is widely thought that the results were canceled because independent candidates outperformed candidates from the Voices of Egypt’s Students alliance, which is believed to be backed by the government.

The Egyptian authorities have deep fears about the national security implications of social science research, Fahmy said, expressing regret that such fears have prevented the development of a corpus of social science knowledge in the country. A gifted historian of Egypt, Fahmy tied the current situation to past eras, speculating that Egypt lost the 1967 war with Israel “because we knew nothing about them, because we do no social science research.”

Vicki Langohr, an associate professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross, followed Fahmy’s analysis by tracing developments in academic freedom in the years since Egypt’s 2011 revolution. While Egyptians enjoyed unprecedented levels of academic freedom under ousted president Mohamed Morsi, far more than they had during the Mubarak years, that has changed since the military coup d’état in 2013 that brought army chief General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to power.

‘Terrorism by the pen’

Asli Bâli, professor of law at the University of California Los Angeles, shifted the conversation to the intensifying violations of academic freedom in Turkey. She observed that while law used to be an ally of academic freedom, “we’ve seen the transformation of the rule of law … into a tool for squashing freedoms,” with the government referring to certain academic work as “terrorism by the pen.”

While in the past only Turkish scholars writing about highly controversial political topics were at risk of infringements on their academic freedom, now almost all social scientific research – be it about public health, urban planning, the environment, or many other topics – are highly politicized and considered to be potentially threatening to the state.

In January 2016, 1,128 academics in Turkey signed a petition titled “Academics for Peace,” condemning the Turkish government’s violent crackdown against Kurds in southeastern Turkey. Bâli described the grave consequences that ensued for the signatories: three were arrested, and dozens dismissed or suspended from their positions at universities. MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom called these actions “the broadest targeted assault against academics that we had ever seen – until the even more far-reaching and staggering developments since the July 2015 coup attempt.”

Bâli called the political situation in Turkey a “state-building moment,” in which the ruling AK Party is engaged in a project of selective knowledge production that directly manipulates the universities. She argued that the Turkish government relies on national security and counterterrorism framings, which originated in the United States, to justify its actions.

To Asli Igsiz, an assistant professor of Near Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, the attacks on academic freedom in Turkey are “symptoms of a larger problem,” referring to the Turkish government’s authoritarian turn in recent years.

The room was packed with concerned academics who either work in these countries or fear for colleagues who do. In a dynamic question-and-answer session, Fahmy, Langohr, Bâli and Igsiz addressed many of the audience’s concerns about the current situations and the implications for both Egyptian and Turkish nationals and foreign scholars going forward.

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