MESA - Middle East Studies Association

Letters on Other Areas

April 1, 2016

Her Excellency the Minister of Education, Universities and Research
Professoressa Stefania Giannini,
Your Excellency Prof.ssa Giannini,

We write on behalf of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) and its Committee on Academic Freedom to express our deep concern regarding a number of recent episodes in which university rectors have acted to hamper discussion of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and specifically of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, on university grounds.  While we are aware that the boycott of Israeli academic institutions is a highly charged issue, silencing free and open discussion of it on university campuses constitutes a grave violation of academic freedom.

MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has nearly 3000 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere. In its capacity as a professional organization, MESA does not take a stand in favour of or against BDS, but it does support the principle of academic freedom to advocate for or against it, and to engage in discussions about it.

Since the beginning of this year, we have learned   of a number of troubling incidents related to events  regarding BDS on the campuses of  the University of Cagliari, the University of Turin, the University of Rome (La Sapienza) and the University of Catania.  In each of these cases, the university rector has denied or revoked access to university facilities, or asked that a talk not be held as part of an event sponsored by their institutions.   In the most recent example, at the March 2016 conference of the Italian Society for Middle Eastern Studies, SeSaMO, the Rector asked  that a panel discussion on BDS not  be included in the official conference program sponsored by the University of Catania.   

We are also extremely concerned that the respective university rectors’ actions cancelling or hampering the holding of these events may be contributing to the creation of a broader, hostile environment toward the discussion of BDS on campus.  The academic freedom to engage in and promote discussion and debate of the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a fundamental right, and its violation through any form of suppression of open discussion about the boycott issue contravenes the most basic norms of democratic expression.   

We therefore urge you and the members of the Council of Rectors (CRUI) to support open discussion and debate about BDS at Italian universities, and to uphold the right of your faculty and students to use their campuses as sites of continuing constructive exchange on this and related issues.

We look forward to the honour of your response.


Beth Baron                                                                               
MESA President                                                                  
Professor, City University of New York

Amy W. Newhall
MESA Executive Director
Associate Professor, University of Arizona


Rector of Catania University, Prof. Giacomo Pignataro,
fax (+39) 095-3251-94

Rector of La Sapienza, University of Rome, Prof. Eugenio Gaudio
Secretary, Alessandra Vana
fax (+39) 06-4991-0382

Rector of Turin University, Prof. Gianmaria Ajani
fax (+39) 011-6702-218

Rector of Cagliari University, Prof. ssa Maria Del Zompo
fax (+39) 07-0669-425

Segretario Particolare del Ministro (particular secretary of the Minister)
Dott. Alessandro LETO,

Capo Segreteria del Ministro (Chief Secretary)
Dott.ssa  Elena ACTIS

Capo Ufficio Stampa: Dott.ssa Alessandra MIGLIOZZI
fax (+39) 06-5849-2394

Capo gabinetto ministro: Dott. Angelo Fusacchia

April 8, 2015

Vice-Chancellor Don Nutbeam
University of Southampton
University Road
Southampton SO17 1BJ
United Kingdom
via email:

Dear Vice-Chancellor Nutbeam:

I write on behalf of the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) to express our grave concern regarding the University of Southampton’s decision on March 30, 2015 to cancel a conference entitled “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism.” The conference was organized by Professor Oren Ben-Dor of your institution and Professor George Bisharat of the Hastings College of Law of the University of California, and was scheduled to take place at your institution on April 17-19, 2015.

MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, MESA publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has nearly 3,000 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

Your decision to cancel the conference on the basis of “foreseeable risks to safety and public order at and near the conference venue” cannot but send a chill through the ranks of scholars engaged in controversial fields of inquiry. The rationale for your decision suggests that, given significant numbers, protesters of whatever political leaning will have the wherewithal to prevent your faculty from freely debating important topics of the day on your campus, in light of the “risks to safety and public order” that such protesters might pose. We are hard-pressed to imagine a more insidious precedent threatening freedom of individual speech, the conduct of public debate on issues of public importance, and the advancement of scholarship than that which you have established with your decision to cancel this conference.

The suggestion that you make in your public statement on the issue – that you will work with the conference organizers “to find a venue suitable for a conference of this nature at a later date” – fails to take due consideration of the significant time and resources that the organizers have already committed to this event. Indeed, the organizers have assembled a distinguished program of over 50 speakers and 13 panels involving academics from all over the world, including several members of the Middle East Studies Association. To cancel the conference at this juncture will involve material losses and extraordinary inconvenience for both the organizers and the participants, but more importantly it will greatly harm the reputation of the University of Southampton as a venue for serious scholarly inquiry.

We therefore urge you to reverse your decision at the earliest possible opportunity, and allow the conference organizers to proceed with this event as already planned.


Nathan J. Brown
President, Middle East Studies Association and Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University

Professor Paul Whittaker, Dean of the Faculty of Business and Law

Response received April 16, 2015:

Dear Professor Brown

Thank you for your letter dated 8 April to the Vice-Chancellor, concerning the University’s decision to withdraw permission for the conference “International Law and the State of Israel”. Professor Nutbeam has asked me to reply on his behalf.

In your email you question the reasons behind the University’s decision to withdraw permission. You may wish to know that the organisers of the conference exercised their right to make a claim to the High Court seeking a Judicial Review over the decision to withdraw permission. The court dismissed this claim. In her summing up, the judge found that there was not a shred of evidence to suggest that the University’s decision had been influenced by lobbying or correspondence from other organisations, and that the decision had been taken in good faith with a conscientious application of the duty to protect free speech. Details of the court proceedings can be found here:

The University of Southampton has an excellent track record of upholding free speech and it remains committed to its legal obligation to ensure freedom of speech within the law is secured for staff, students and visiting speakers.

Yours sincerely

Gavin Costigan

Gavin Costigan
Director of the Office of the Vice-Chancellor
University of Southampton

September 4, 2009

Professor Henk Schmidt
Rector Magnificus
Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam
c/o Secretariat of the Executive Board
Administration Building. Room E2-12 Woudestein 
Rotterdam, Netherlands

Dear Rector Schmidt,

I write on behalf of the Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) to protest the Erasmus University Rotterdam’s August 19 decision to terminate Dr Tariq Ramadan’s guest professorship in Citizenship and Identity at the EUR due to his hosting a program on the Iranian English-language television channel Press TV.

MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has more than 3000 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

Apparently, administrators at the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) deem that by continuing to host the television program “Islam and Life” on Press TV, Professor Ramadan signals support for the current Iranian regime and the oppressive means it has used to enforce the outcome of the recent disputed elections in that country. Such a conclusion is explicitly contradicted by Professor Ramadan’s own explanation of the TV program and its goals, the long record of his writings and numerous public interviews, and the fact that the TV program was started well before these latest Iranian national elections. The EUR decision also reveals a lack of awareness of the range of opinions expressed on both Press TV and Professor Ramadan’s program in particular, the latter consistently steering clear of partisan politics. Professor Ramadan’s endeavor to educate fellow Muslims about social and cultural issues pertaining to their faith and the way they live it through an English-language television program, and to do so in a non-sectarian manner at that, in no way supports the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Most important, however, the EUR decision to terminate Tariq Ramadan’s professorship goes against the whole principle of free inquiry and expression central to the life of a university – especially one that proudly bears the name of Erasmus. It is this aspect of the decision that especially troubles the members of our committee. Indeed, it is difficult to understand the action by the EUR as anything but an action against Professor Ramadan’s political activities and thus as a form of political retaliation against him. For universities to function as institutions of free inquiry and expression, there can be no willingness on the part of administrators, faculty, or students to stifle either inquiry or expression.

Therefore, as a committee of MESA charged with monitoring infringements on academic freedom, CAF members are troubled by the action taken against Professor Ramadan and what it implies about the EUR’s lack of respect for academic freedom. In that spirit, I write to urge that you rescind this decision and allow Professor Ramadan to continue in his professorship.

Sincerely yours,

Virginia Aksan
President, MESA
Professor of History, McMaster University

Open letter to Madame Catherine Bréchignac, Présidente du CNRS (pdf)
Endorsed by the Committee on Academic Freedom

June 26, 2009

Dear Madame la Présidente:

We write on behalf of Middle East scholarly associations in Europe and North America representing academics and independent scholars across the world to express our concern about the disciplinary hearing convened by the CNRS on June 29, 2009 regarding our colleague Vincent Geisser. Many of our members are scholars working on France and/or the Muslim world, and we believe that Dr. Geisser has made valuable intellectual contributions to the study of Islam, the Maghreb, and Muslim minorities in France. Regardless of whether our members agree with his scholarly conclusions or political positions, all of us are united in the belief that Dr. Geisser’s academic freedom and freedom of expression be respected.

We are concerned that Dr. Geisser is the subject of a disciplinary commission in large part because of his work on Islam in France, an issue already publicly addressed by numerous colleagues of Dr. Geisser in France, including many at the CNRS. If this is the case, Dr. Geisser’s disciplinary hearing and the charges against him, accusing him of a lack of political neutrality in public discourse (le manquement grave … à l’obligation de réserve) constitute a form of ideological surveillance, a deeply disturbing occurrence that is contrary to the spirit and laws of a democratic republic that claims Human and Citizen Rights (Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen) as its founding principle.

Intellectuals in a free society best serve the public interest when left free to make critical judgments, especially unpopular ones. Liberty of thought, of opinion, and of expression is indispensable to critical thinking, and absolutely necessary to modern democratic societies.

We support the call for the immediate revocation of the disciplinary procedure against Dr. Geisser, and echo the statements of the open letter of the Collectif pour la sauvegarde de la liberté intellectual des chercheurs et enseignants ( in underscoring the importance of academic freedom, which is foundational to international research and intellectual and scientific legitimacy.


Virginia H. Aksan, Professor of History, McMaster University, Ontario, Canada 
and President, Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA)

Guenter Meyer, Professor of Geography, University of Mainz, on behalf of
German Middle East Studies Association (DAVO),
European Association for Middle Eastern Studies (EURAMES), representing all 
Middle East studies associations in 23 European countries,
International Association for Middle Eastern Studies (IAMES),
Council of the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES)

Harold Walker, President, British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES)

Related letters:

Open letter to Madame Catherine Bréchignac, Présidente du CNRS from California Scholars for Academic Freedom (pdf)

Open letter to Madame Catherine Bréchignac, Présidente du CNRS from academics, independent scholars, and writers based outside France (pdf)

May 13, 2005

Dr. Angela Roger, President 
Association of University Teachers
Egmont House
25-31 Tavistock Place
London WC1H 9UT
United Kingdom
Fax: +44-020-7670-979

Dear Dr. Roger:

The Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) is writing to express its profound disagreement with the recent decision of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) calling on its members to “refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, or joint projects” with Haifa University and Bar Ilan University, in Israel. We strongly urge the Association to withdraw or rescind this resolution to boycott these universities and blacklist their faculty at the very earliest opportunity.

The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) comprises 2600 academics worldwide who teach and conduct research on the Middle East and North Africa, and is the preeminent professional association in the field. The association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies, and is committed to ensuring respect for the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression in the region and in connection with the study of the Middle East and North Africa.

Our objection to this resolution derives from the deep commitment of this association and its membership to the principles of academic freedom and the free exchange of information and ideas. We are on record as opposing restrictions against individual scholars except in instances where those individuals have violated clearly established legal and ethical norms. We especially oppose penalizing entire segments of an academic community for any reason whatsoever. We find thoroughly objectionable the call of the AUT to refrain from any and all scholarly interaction with the entire professional staff of two universities because of the policies of the state in which they are situated. 
This association has gone on record on a number of occasions to protest actions by the government of Israel that restrict in a systematic manner academic freedom and the right to education in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We are also mindful that establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories constitutes a clear violation of international humanitarian law. For that reason, initiatives by scholars and academics urging the administration of Bar Ilan University to end its institutional complicity with such violations are appropriate, but these should not be initiatives that themselves constitute breaches with important principles of the right to receive and impart information and ideas, or that represent forms of collective punishment against individual academics who find themselves in that university. 

In closing, we reiterate our determined opposition to the AUT decision to boycott Haifa University and Bar Ilan University and blacklist their faculty, and we look forward to a speedy and satisfactory resolution of the matter.

Thank you in advance for your attention to our views on this important matter.


Ali Banuazizi
President, Middle East Studies Association
Professor, Boston College
Michael Britnall, American Political Science Association
Sally T. Hillsman, American Sociological Association
Jonathan Knight, American Association of University Professors
Maud Kozodoy, Committee for Concerned Scientists

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