Zachary Lockman, New York University

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February 2007, Vol. 29 No. 1)

The Price of Ignorance

As I write these lines, in the first days of 2007, the situation in much of the region on which we as MESA members focus is very grim, and at the moment there seems little prospect that things will turn for the better any time soon. The results of last November’s congressional elections indicate that a great many Americans have come to believe that something has gone very wrong with the course the U.S. government has pursued in Iraq over the past three and a half years. But beyond a growing desire to extricate the United States from the worst consequences of the catastrophe it has helped to create there, there are as yet few signs of any broader understanding that a thorough rethinking of this country’s policies in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world is urgently needed. 

Sadly, it is also clear that despite the time and effort that many of us have devoted to sharing our expertise with the public through a variety of means, including books, articles, op-ed essays, public lectures and forums, blogs, teacher-training workshops and so on, too many Americans – including not a few of those directly involved in shaping and implementing this country’s Middle East policy – remain profoundly ignorant (or grossly misinformed) about the histories, beliefs, lives and aspirations of the peoples at the receiving end of American power in that region. 

This was recently driven home once again when Jeff Stein, national security editor at the Congressional Quarterly, asked a number of senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials, and members of Congress, if they could explain the difference between Sunnis and Shi‘is. After all, Stein asked in an op-ed piece published in The New York Times on October 17, 2006, “wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants?” Despite the deepening sectarian conflict in Iraq and the salience of Sunni-Shi‘i relations elsewhere, however, most of those Stein queried could not provide anything resembling an accurate response.

How might one best explain the deeply distressing fact that such people have not felt it essential to learn all they could about the Middle East and Islam? Answers might include willful ignorance, an ideologically-driven rejection of “reality-based” knowledge, the severe case of historical amnesia from which our society suffers, and the blindness to what is actually going on that overweening power can generate in those who possess it – at least until things go disastrously wrong, as they now unmistakably have. At the same time, as others have pointed out, the attacks that we have witnessed in recent years on scholars of the Middle East and Islam, as well as on academic organizations like MESA and on institutions of higher education, can be understood as attacks on expertise, on research-based knowledge and on the free and open exchange of ideas which fosters such knowledge. The ultimate goal of these attacks is, of course, to further a specific political agenda and intimidate (and if possible silence) those who might, on the basis of their knowledge and experience, speak out against it.

Though recent U.S. policy failures in the Middle East may have made such assaults somewhat less frequent and virulent in recent months, it is clear that academic freedom and civil liberties remain under threat in this country. That is why MESA has recently reorganized its academic freedom work – to my mind, probably our organization’s most important public activity, and one in which all members should take considerable pride. Henceforth, one subcommittee of the (renamed) Committee on Academic Freedom will continue MESA’s longstanding commitment to defending academic freedom in the Middle East and North Africa, while a separate subcommittee will focus on threats to academic freedom in the United States and Canada. MESA’s work in this latter domain is supported by the newly-launched Academic Freedom Fund, to which tax-deductible donations are most welcome.

Threats to, and assaults on, academic freedom and civil liberties affect all of us, as scholars and teachers and as citizens or residents of the United States. My colleagues and I at New York University have felt this acutely, since one of our graduate students, Mohamed Yousry, was targeted for prosecution after September 11th in a case that raises some very disturbing issues. 

Mohamed came to the United States from Egypt some 25 years ago and eventually became an American citizen. When I first met him, in 1995, he was already a graduate student at NYU, paying his fees and supporting his family by driving a taxi and by working as a translator for journalists and lawyers. One of the lawyers who hired Mohamed to translate was Lynne Stewart, among whose clients was Shaykh ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman, the former spiritual guide of Egypt’s Gama‘a Islamiyya who in 1996 was sentenced to life in federal prison for involvement in a conspiracy to blow up New York City institutions and landmarks.

When Mohamed began to discuss possible doctoral dissertation topics with me and my colleagues in the late 1990s, we encouraged him to work on a political biography of ‘Abd al-Rahman, partly because his employment as a translator for Stewart gave him unique access to the imprisoned cleric and to valuable source materials. Though a lifelong secularist and democrat who rejects ‘Abd al-Rahman’s extremist understanding of Islam, Mohamed started gathering material on ‘Abd al-Rahman for his dissertation, and even interviewed him about his ideas and political career during government-authorized prison visits with Stewart. 

Mohamed’s diligence as a translator and as a researcher would cost him dearly. In April 2002 Mohamed was arrested, along with Stewart and one of her paralegals, and the three were accused of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. The government claimed that by making public a statement from ‘Abd al-Rahman back in 2000, Stewart had not only violated government regulations denying certain prisoners access to the media but had also abetted terrorism – though no act of violence ever resulted from ‘Abd al-Rahman’s statement. 

In any case, whatever Stewart may have done, it is hard to see why Mohamed should be held responsible for her actions: as a government-approved translator he was never even asked to sign the regulations Stewart was accused of violating, and he had no reason to question the lawfulness of his employer’s instructions. During the trial prosecutors made contradictory arguments: they insinuated that Mohamed had knowingly broken the law in order to further his scholarly research, and even that he was an acolyte of ‘Abd al-Rahman, but they also acknowledged that Mohamed had never advocated violence or Islamist extremism. My guess is that the real reason they went after Mohamed was to get Stewart: she knew no Arabic and ‘Abd al-Rahman knew little English, so without including Mohamed in the alleged conspiracy they wouldn’t have had much of a case. Whatever the explanation, it seems clear that both Stewart and Mohamed are victims of the kind of excessive prosecutorial zeal we have seen all too much of since September 11, 2001.

Mohamed was convicted along with Stewart in February 2005, and the government asked that he be sent to prison for 20 years. Last October, however, in a clear rebuke to the Justice Department, the judge sentenced Mohamed to 20 months in prison (Stewart got 28 months, instead of the 30 years the prosecution had sought) and allowed the two to remain free pending appeals. Naturally, Mohamed continues to hope that he will eventually be vindicated and that the ordeal he and his family have been put through will finally come to an end.

Many lawyers have rallied to Stewart’s defense, because they believe the government targeted her in order to deter other lawyers from zealously defending clients accused of terrorism, and because they feel that her case raises serious constitutional issues. Mohamed’s prosecution raises somewhat different, though equally troubling, questions. Should a translator be sent to prison for following his employer’s instructions, especially when the prosecution failed to prove that he intended to break any law? Can a graduate student’s dissertation research reasonably be construed as contributing to a conspiracy to help terrorists? If Mohamed’s conviction is allowed to stand, we may well see other translators prosecuted for doing their jobs, and other scholars facing jail terms for conducting research on controversial issues. That would turn a travesty of justice into a very dangerous precedent and undermine some of the core values we profess to cherish, including academic freedom. It would also weaken our ability to understand and effectively deal with the very movements and ideologies the U.S. government claims to be combating by trying to send Mohamed Yousry to prison.

The lesson I draw from Mohamed’s case is that for all of us in MESA, both as individuals and as stakeholders in a wide range of institutions, our ability to pursue our vocations as scholars and educators today crucially depends on the vigorous defense of rights and freedoms that most of us long assumed that we could take for granted. That in turn means (and here I merely repeat what several of my predecessors have said much more eloquently) that we all need to find more effective ways of helping those outside academia acquire a better understanding not only of the part of the world with which we are so deeply engaged, but also of why academic freedom is so vital to democratic life.

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