Dr. Anne Betteridge
Middle East Studies Association
The University of Arizona
1643 E. Helen Street
Tucson, Arizona 85721
Dear Dr. Betteridge,
Thank you for your letter concerning threats to academic freedom at the American University in Cairo. We appreciate the concern of CAFMENA and the extensive effort that has gone into the preparation of this letter. We also recognize that it is not easy to compile an accurate account of events occurring thousands of miles away based on memoranda, emails, newspaper reports, press statements, and the like, some of which themselves may contain errors or misrepresentations. Unfortunately, the resulting letter contains a number of errors, misinterpretations, and opinions that significantly detract from its value. In addition, the letter makes little reference to the many steps the University has taken in this crisis, some of which are listed below.
Professor Rabie’s letter to Al-Wafd has been taken out of context. His letter was an entirely sincere attempt to stop the growing press campaign accusing AUC of corrupting the morals and values of Egyptian students. That he mentioned similar incidents at other Egyptian universities does not mean that he, intentionally or otherwise, condones such actions. The intention of his letter was to suggest that since these incidents happened in the national universities, where no one can accuse the faculty of being against national interests, the same interpretation should be applied to the American University. The use of the term “transgressive” according to Professor Rabie was in reference to the “deviation” of the reading list from the course description, which emphasized Egyptian authors. CAFMENA’s objection to course materials being “appropriate to the subject matter and the society in which we work” is surely an exaggeration. All mention of Dr. Rabie should have been removed from your letter. Although the Committee was in touch with Professor Mehrez, it did not bother to get in touch with Dr. Rabie while drafting its letter. I strongly suggest that this reference to a person by name constitutes a form of anonymous attack without the right of reply. I question whether this is the proper role for a professional association or a committee on academic freedom. Unfortunately, the fact that CAFMENA wrote this letter without contacting him supports the impression that it is being used in this manner.
There is no doubt that the Department of Arabic Studies is divided about what to teach, but the Department has struggled with this issue faithfully and has come up with a unanimously agreed procedure for selecting books for multi-section courses, a copy of which was provided to you. Your interpretation of those rules differs from our own, and you have drawn conclusions about them that we have not drawn. CAFMENA appears to have its own rules for departmental procedures that we were not aware of. Intervention in the internal affairs of a university department is a dangerous precedent, especially when the department itself has agreed on those procedures.
My own comments about censorship have also been distorted. We are anything but complacent about censorship in Egypt. Since the Rodinson book incident, the government Censor has withheld for examination some 700 books being imported by the AUC bookstore or the AUC Library (as well as requesting a few that were already in the library). More than 70 of these have been banned from import or sale. Five are texts that we actually use in our courses, the rest being general reading material mostly ordered by individuals through the bookstore. In fact, we have taken the question of censorship very seriously and have sent several delegations to the Censor. We have succeeded in getting the procedures for handling books under examination altered so that we will retain possession of the books in question. He has invited us to appeal bannings and we have had two bannings reversed. We have instructed our lawyers to explore the considerable variations in language as to whether books are banned for import, for sale, for use, or for possession, so that we are not “over interpreting” what “banning” means. None of this activity is mentioned in your letter. We do not take a casual attitude to censorship and, on the contrary, are addressing this issue aggressively.
The CAFMENA letter virtually ignores the steps that have been taken by the University arising from this incident:
- The University has reaffirmed the right of faculty to select books for use in all courses without outside interference;
- A complaints procedure has been instituted for parents and students that hopefully in future will prevent them from taking classroom complaints to the press;
- A number of meetings have been held with the Government Censor as described above in which he has agreed to change the procedure for the handling of imported books and to entertain appeals from the University on specific books;
- The AUC library has taken measures to keep non-circulating books where they can be consulted without danger of vandalism or theft;
- The University has successfully avoided government intervention in the selection of texts and the Minister of Higher Education has refused to intervene in the situation, in spite of calls in Parliament that he should do so;
- The Department of Arabic Studies has unanimously agreed on procedures for selecting books for multi-section courses. A discussion of further curricular matters is still underway.
AUC will continue to stand for academic freedom in the face of an environment that includes official censorship and a sometimes hostile press. The faculty alone will continue to determine the texts to be used in the classroom. AUC will continue to protect its faculty from the threat of reprisals and will do all in its power to avoid intervention by the government in its internal affairs. We trust that we will have MESA’s continuing support in all these measures.
John D. Gerhart