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Challenging Academic Freedom in the US

The Case of Steven Salaita

by BARBARA NIMRI AZIZ

The morals and principles of all authorities need to be periodically examined. So it is that we find the University of Illinois is yet another institute of higher learning that falls short.

The U. of Illinois fails on the principle of academic freedom, having withdrawn its appointment to my colleague, Professor Steven Salaita. Salaita, a brilliant and daring young scholar in comparative literature was set to join U. Illinois’ department of American Indian Studies. Besides his work in comparative studies, Salaita is an expert in Arab American fiction and author of The Uncultured Wars  and Israel’s Dead Soul among many fine analytical treatises. U. Illinois’ decision to cancel Salaita’s appointment is said to be based on tweeted comments critical of Israel during the current Gaza crisis. But Salaita could well have already been targeted for his radical insights, his criticism of American liberalism, and analyses of Israeli policies. A campaign launched on behalf of Salaita is generating considerable attention.

Off the radar is the removal last week of another modest champion of free speech:– “The Commentators”. The program aired over WHCR- 90.3fm “Voice of Harlem” at City College, a university celebrated for its progressivism. This too is a free-speech issue, since according to “The Commentators”’ host, Leroy Baylor, the administration attacked the show for inviting controversial guests such as American Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan. Baylor says that the university has consistently charged that the program was “anti-Semitic”.

American universities have a shameful tradition of purging courageous scholars from their ranks for saying unpopular things. I’m reminded of South African professor and former Robben Island prisoner, Fred Dube. Dube was expelled from his post at Stony Brook University of New York in the mid-80s. The campaign against Dube was launched after he raised some poignant questions about Zionism in his classes.

Then we had the notorious case of Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian American professor who not only was removed from U. Florida in 2002 stemming from statements he made in a TV interview; he was indicted, jailed, subject to years of legal harassment. (Only recently he was cleared of all charges.)  Native American, Ward Churchill, distinguished professor of Ethnic Studies at U. Colorado was also fired because of statements made after the 911 attacks; Churchill was well known for his support of Palestinian rights (which de facto involves criticism of US-Israeli policies.) To these is added the case of Israel critic and author Normal Finkelstein. DePaul University denied him tenure in 2007.

University administrators often conduct such purges over opposition from faculty committees.

These examples, where scholars fought back only to lose in the end, are the best known. In countless cases elsewhere, professors—it they are not fired—find themselves marginalized, denied promotion or otherwise ostracized for their stand in defense of Islam and support of Muslim and Palestine rights. Others who speak out on certain taboo subjects early in their careers find themselves shut out completely.

In many institutions, most especially our exalted universities, there is an unspoken rule about criticizing Israel. Even a faculty member who hosts a ‘controversial’ guest lecturer can come under fire.

Some years ago I arrived at a New York university hosting a theatrical performance by an Arab American author. The scholar who invited to lead the discussion afterwards was a doctoral candidate at this well-known graduate center. Welcoming me, she whispered “Every head of department here is Jewish”. I was shocked and asked: “What has this to do with the performance, or with me?” She could only reply, “Just keep it in mind.” In retrospect, I wonder if her warning was less about anything I might utter, and more a reflection of the chilling atmosphere in which she and fellow scholars function.

Today, activists and other concerned citizens feel the tide is turning– that Israel can no longer control information and thwart free speech on our campuses. The campaign for U. Illinois to reverse its decision on Salaita rapidly garnered 13,000 signatures. We credit social media with spreading democracy across the globe. Can it be successfully mobilized in defense of freedom here?

Barbara Nimri Aziz is a veteran anthropologist and journalist, radio producer (www.RadioTahrir.org) on WBAI- New York, and founder of the Radius of Arab American Writers (www.rawi.org )