Free speech is under assault in American universities as part of a larger crackdown on dissent in the United States, explained Columbia University professor Joseph Massad after his recent lecture in Cairo.
Massad, who gave a lecture at the American University in Cairo on 28 February on "The Persistence of the Palestinian Question," became embroiled in a major controversy at Columbia following the November 2004 screening of Columbia Unbecoming, a film sponsored by a pro-Israeli organization, in which Jewish students from Columbia accused him of intimidating them during class discussions.
The incident resulted in demonstrations in his defense as well as calls for him to be fired from the university. His chances of getting tenure are believed to be in serious jeopardy.
"Massad is in trouble," said Sherif Al Musa, a professor of Middle East politics at the American University in Cairo. "There are legal ramifications to the case since they will have to disregard a set of qualifications he has that should get him tenured."
Massad, a professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History, describes the incident as being part an increasingly repressive atmosphere in the United States.
"There has been an on-going restriction of political speech since the Reagan era; it increased with the first Gulf War and certainly with 9/11. The general repressive tenor applies to media restrictions, which have unfolded with the war in Iraq," he said, adding that the restrictions have been enshrined in new laws such as the Patriot Act.
"The university has been the most immune to such restrictions until recently and as a result has been targeted as the last mainstay," he said, citing his situation as an important test case in the battle for free speech.
Former students of Massad's, however, have said that free speech is often a problem inside Massad's classroom as well. "He encourages this atmosphere of intimidation and ridicule for pro-Israeli students, which is really unfair," said Noah Liben, one of the students interviewed by the David Project, the makers of Columbia Unbecoming.
Charles Jacobs, the head of the organization, said that the problem is not Massad's point of view, so much as how he delivers it. "You don't tell people to shut up because you don't agree with me. It's very intimidating if you're a student," he told the Chicago Tribune on 1 January.
Massad decries the pervasive influence of the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States, both on the country's foreign policy and in its increasingly active campaigns against public statements criticizing Israel, especially at the university level. Often the campaigns target more vulnerable, non-tenured faculty.
"The university is called upon by these forces to hire more and more professors who are identified as pro-Israel, and who teach Middle East Studies, to counter the alleged dominance of pro-Arab professors, when in reality pro-Israel professors dominate the field of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies in all universities," he added.
Massad is just as critical of U.S. policy in the region, particularly its stated goal of promoting democracy which he describes as farcical. He points out a U.S. double standard that attacks elected leaders like Yasser Arafat while still dealing with unelected ones elsewhere in the region. "More recently, U.S. logic has it that Lebanon cannot pursue elections under Syrian occupation, while such elections can only be pursued under occupation in Iraq and Palestine," he said.
He also explained that the United States, with the support of various international financial institutions and NGOs, is creating a new democracy discourse to fill the vacuum after local secret police forces (naturally, U.S.-trained, according to him) destroyed "all political groupings that oppose U.S.-backed dictatorships in the Arab world." Furthermore, starting in the late 1980s, many opposition figures were bought off and went on to set up "research and other types of centers and line their pockets with international funding," he said, echoing many of the accusations used in the state-owned and tabloid press to discredit Egyptian-American academic Saad Eddin Ibrahim.
Massad describes himself as "disheartened" by his American experience, but has no intentions of leaving, seeing his fight there as standing up to "forces of repression." The United States, according to him, "has become increasingly a place of repression in ways much more horrific than any other country with claims to democratic freedoms."