Mervat Hatem, Howard University
(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February 2008, Vol. 30 No. 1)
Since 2002 all MESA Presidents have addressed the hostile climate for academics and the political turmoil of our post-9/11 times in their February Newsletter articles. Although I find myself equally drawn to this topic and compelled by events of the past year which illustrate the continuing assault on universities, and the ongoing public devaluation of our area of study, I think it is time to reflect on a few important things that deserve our attention and acclamation. These things may point toward avenues for action -whether as an association or as individuals.
First on my list of positive indicators: the robust state of the field. MESA's membership was at an all time high in 2007 (2780) as was the number of panel and paper submissions to the program committee. Mark Lowder, MESA's Assistant Director and Conference Planner, describes Montreal as "the largest meeting in terms of the number of submissions received and the final number of panels on the program." In other words, despite our gloomy environment and in the face of attacks, scholarly activity and scholarly exchange continue to increase! Similarly, signs point to a rise in communal participation among the membership. For example, MESA recently established a Student Travel Grant fund supported by donations from members. Your response was swift and generous: while MESA gave four $250 travel grants in 2006, it provided ten for Montreal in 2007. MESA members don't just look out for their students however; they also pay attention to the needs of their colleagues and other academics in the US and abroad.
This leads me to the second on my list of things to celebrate: the dedication of members of MESA's longstanding Committee on Academic Freedom. Through that committee, MESA continues to defend the rights of students and faculty world-wide. In 2005, the committee expanded its domain of work to include the infringement on academic freedom in North America. The committee now consists of two subcommittees, one devoted to the MENA region and one to North America. Last year the committee as a whole sent twenty four interventions: seventeen to MENA government leaders; seven to US institutions and government officials. CAF-MENA letters protest denial of access to education, infringements on rights of association and free debate on campuses and in the public sphere. They defend the rights of Middle Eastern and international researchers to conduct research in the region and protest harassment or worse practices by the state. CAF-NA letters call attention to the hostile conditions facing those that work on Middle East studies in the US. They protest the withdrawal of invitations to various public intellectuals who work in the field of Middle East studies because of the politicization of the field and its scholarship. For US Middle East scholars whose research was deemed controversial because it was critical of Israel, CAF-NA letters have urged institutions to depoliticize the tenure process. Undermining peer-review processes of academic institutions endangers the principles of academic freedom in the US and affects us all.
CAF-NA has expanded its work to consider the issue of ideological exclusion. It has written to US officials protesting the denial of visas to scholars from the Middle East as well as those who work in other parts of the world. Notable scholars like Tariq Ramadan have been proscribed from teaching in the US, addressing US audiences or attending professional conferences here. MESA has worked with civil liberties organizations to challenge this practice in US courts but, unfortunately, without success. (The most recent ACLU/AAR suit was denied by the court as reported 12/20/07.)
CAF members volunteer enormous amounts of precious time (and we all know how over committed we all have become) researching, preparing, discussing and revising letters and statements. Even so, as Laurie Brand, Chair of CAF reported, "we know that the cases we learn of constitute only the tip of the iceberg." I encourage MESA members to think about ways you can help with this important but time consuming service.
I want to conclude by suggesting various avenues that the membership can pursue to help the association in its various activities. I can offer two suggestions, which I believe can help us continue some of the activities that I mentioned in this letter. For the members, who are inclined to provide financial support to MESA and its various activities, it would be extremely helpful to support the Committee on Academic Freedom which is doing outstanding work on a shoestring budget. The money could go to the hiring of research assistants, interns and even a half time professional person to collect data on different cases, develop a data base to use when contacted by civil liberties organization and other related activities. Secondly, it would be great to hear from you about cases in which scholars who work on the Middle East or Middle East scholars have been harassed or denied visas so that we can keep track of what is happening to our membership here and overseas. It would be ideal to develop a database of these incidents so that we can speak with confidence to decision makers about the conditions under which some of us operate. In the present climate of fear, members can report these cases anonymously and then the Committee on Academic Freedom can investigate it on its own. Members may have other ideas about what MESA should be doing or how it can do more. Please feel free to write us with some of your ideas in the hope that we can increase the efficacy of the association.
Amy Newhall, the executive director of MESA, contributed information about MESA's varied activities that appear in this letter.