Five prominent Emerati activists, including a professor, were arrested and jailed without charges in Abu Dhabi in April, sparking questions left largely unanswered about the status of academic freedom in the sheikdom. Now, two months later, a dean at NYU in Abu Dhabi has become the first NYUAD faculty member to publicly voice concern over the detainments.
Ivan Szelenyi, the Dean of Social Sciences at NYUAD, together with Stanford professor Paula England, wrote a letter to the editor published in this month's New York Review of Books denouncing the arrests as "attacks on the political freedoms of local intellectuals."
The letter is pointed and concise, and signed by 14 other NYU faculty members, stepping outside of the general reluctance of NYUAD to make comment on the matter.
"Given the involvement of US and European cultural institutions in the region—notably the Guggenheim Museum, New York University, the Louvre, and the Sorbonne—we feel a special responsibility to draw attention to these attacks," the letter reads.
Despite NYU's stance of being publicly silent on the matter, according NYU sociology Professor Andrew Ross, John Sexton recently told faculty members he "had reason to believe those arrested were a genuine threat to national security," something Ross, a long-time critic of NYU's involvement in Abu Dhabi, said he found "particularly shocking," according to the an article in the Nation this month.
"He suggested that these people were genuinely subversive and deserving of arrest, although human rights organizations, of course, have a different take," Zachary Lockman, an NYU Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies professor, told the Nation. "This kind of toadying to the crown prince and his ilk shows the hollowness of NYU's role in this place."
The arrests began on April 8, after the five men signed a petition asking for reform–a petition in the absolute gentlest sense of the word: "Please We, the undersigned, a group of people of the United Arab Emirates, rise up to serve your Generous Highness and Their Highnesses Members of Supreme Council of the Federation of deep appreciation and respect…" the petition begins, says the Nation. "Out of our deep concern for this nation, and its people, who are your sons…" it continues.
Among those in prison is Nasser bin Ghaith, an economics lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the University of Paris-Sorbonne, whose arrest raised concerns over the safety of NYU's own academic freedom agreement with the Emerati government. (The Sorbonne was "concerned not at all by some arrests" that took place, stressing that Professor bin Ghaith "had merely been invited to present at some conferences, but was not an employee," according to the Nation.)
"Academic freedom is a core principle for NYU across our global network, and we support this principle at NYU Abu Dhabi using the same standard we use at Washington Square," NYUAD spokesman Josh Taylor told us in April. "NYU," however, "does not take public stands on issues and policies that fall outside of its core mission of operating a world-class university," he wrote in a letter to Human Rights Watch the same month.