Academic freedom can be defined many ways, but it critically includes the freedom to criticize, based on facts and informed opinion, without fear of official retaliation. It also means that scholars who experience retaliation – not in the form of criticism in return but in tangible terms such as arrest – should be defended.
On Sunday July 3rd Prof. Riad al-Agha, president of the Gaza-based National Institute of Strategic Studies appeared on Palestine TV. There he criticized the Palestinian Authority's Preventative Security Force for refusing to obey orders issued by the PA Interior Ministry. After the program he was promptly arrested by the Preventive Security Force and charged with "incitement." He was released after making a public apology in which he stated that the force was led by
"nationalistic figures whom I highly appreciate and respect and who have a known history of struggling [against Israel]."
In itself al-Agha's arrest and recantation is another small but telling picture of free speech and dissent being repressed by the Palestinian Authority. While upsetting, it is unsurprising, given the official controls over media and free speech instituted by Yassir Arafat, and now carried on by the Palestinian Authority on the one hand, and local Islamists like Hamas on the other. Al-Agha happens to be an academic, while Ammar Hassan, whose performance at a rock concert in Nablus was shut down by masked men with guns, is a singer.
Nor is it surprising that international media overlooked al-Agha's story as well. A cynic might say that reporters and editors simply didn't find this newsworthy because it reflects a commonplace, or perhaps that it doesn't fit their master narrative of the good guys and the bad guys.
But what about academics themselves? What is the position of the Committee on Academic Freedom on the Middle East and North Africa (CAFMENA) of the Middle East Studies Association on this matter? Let us allow that the incident occurred only days ago and that a rapid response could not yet be generated. Perhaps there is reason to hope they will soon. CAFMENA has weighed in on the detention in Armenia of Yektan Turkyilmaz, a Duke University Ph.D. student, apparently on the charge of attempting to smuggle antique books out of the country, as well as six year prison sentence given by Saudi authorities to Professor Matrouk Al-Faleh of King Saud University on charges of "sowing disorder in society" and "disobeying the authorities." Al-Faleh was also awarded MESA's Academic Freedom Award for 2004. Perhaps the summer vacation has slowed things down for CAFMENA.
Already disappointing, however, is the lack of any comment on by Israeli academics on the left and far-left, who would presumably be concerned to defend Palestinian colleagues. A quick look at "alef-Academic Left" listserv run out of Haifa University shows numerous messages concerning settlers, withdrawal, lynching, the arcane "Canaanite" movement, and even a defense of Norman Finkelstein. But nothing in defense of Riad al-Agha. Should anyone be surprised?
As the recent furious battles over the proposed British Association of University Teachers boycott of selected Israeli universities showed, defense of academic freedom is selective at best and wholly one-sided at worse. CAFMENA came out with a firm disavowal of such a boycott, and was careful to include harsh criticism of Israeli policy in its letter as well. And of course, it was also quick to post a furious letter from MESA members condemning the committee's decision and calling for a boycott. Many contributors to the alef list were against the academic boycott, but primarily because it did not go far enough in boycotting Israel as a whole.
Apparently the al-Agha affair also escaped the notice of the Network for Education and Academic Rights, the Scholars at Risk Network, and the Science and Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Thus far the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights (PICCR), Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, and the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group have all chosen the prudent course of silence.
One of Riad al-Agha's mistakes it seems was to believe that it is "possible to demonstrate against the occupation in this way and also against the Authority." In fact, he seems to have been doubly mistaken. For Palestinians it does not seem possible to protest against the Palestinian Authority, but if it is, it is not especially wise. Almost as tragically, while it is wholly possible for fellow academics in the West to criticize both, the vast majority chooses not to. Perhaps this is motivated by a craven calculation that sees al-Agha's arrest, and the often violent repression of Palestinian society by Palestinians, as a lesser evil to be overlooked in favor of monomaniacal focus on the greater evil, Israel. A cynic might again be tempted to suggest that among some of the more disaffected academics sympathy with the "struggle" has led to sympathy with "resistance," no matter how totalitarian it is in words and deeds. This certainly appears to be the case with respect to Iraq.
Still, we may hope that at least a small protest will arise from academics regarding Riad al-Agha's treatment, from CAFMENA and others. Even in the midst of summer vacation.
Alexander H. Joffe is director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum that critiques Middle East Studies at North American colleges and universities.