Mar 8 2013

Why the LSE works in the Middle East

The Middle East is a volatile and complex region. It is also an enormously important region for the contemporary world and a region that has made rich historical contributions to global culture and knowledge. It is vital that LSE study the Middle East, though doing so is almost inevitably challenging. And once again, we’ve had to face one of these challenges. In this case the outcome is relatively happy, but the issues raised are worth noting.

You may have seen the headlines: LSE cancelled a conference and an LSE researcher was turned away by security at the airport in Dubai. Here’s the background.

The LSE Middle East Centre joined with the American University of Sharjah in planning a conference on the Arab Spring and more generally movements for change in the Middle East. It’s worth noting the openness – and perhaps courage – of our partners, for to no surprise the topic is controversial in the region. A list of topics and speakers was shared with all organising partners as is normal practice. One of the papers proposed for the conference was on Bahrain.

However, just before the conference was to take place, authorities in the Palace of the Emir of Sharjah called the American University asking that the paper on Bahrain not be presented. Confronted with this, the LSE Middle East Centre withdrew from the conference, which was then cancelled. The researcher who had prepared the paper on Bahrain still flew to the Emirates because he already had a ticket and planned meetings in the UAE and other countries of the region to be reached by way of the airport in Dubai. This is how he came to be refused entry on 22 February. The Foreign Ministry of the Emirates released a statement saying that he had “consistently propagated views delegitimising the Bahraini monarchy” and that they regarded this reason enough for both stopping his presentation and keeping him out of the country.  LSE rejects this.

Two things are worth noting in this story. First, LSE is adamant that political intervention to censor an academic event is unacceptable. We are committed to the freedom of scholars to carry out intellectual debates, even on sensitive issues. Second, the intervention did not come from LSE’s funder, the Emirates Foundation, or from its partner, the American University of Sharjah. The initial intervention came from a representative of the local government of the Emirate of Sharjah; follow-up came from the Foreign Ministry.

There is a disturbing tendency among some well-intentioned academics in rich Western countries to speak of governments elsewhere in the world as though they were monolithic.  People who recognise that different ministers in the UK disagree speak of other countries as though “the government” must have one opinion.  People who disagree deeply with UK or US policies like the invasion of Iraq do not assert that universities should cut off all relations with those governments. But when the problematic policies come from non-Western countries there is much more tendency to demand an end to financial or academic relationships.

Consider a different example, I was working in China when the government undertook violent suppression of the peaceful student democracy movement of 1989 – some of which I personally witnessed. I wrote a book about the movement and the violence of June 4 which remains banned in the mainland PRC (though circulated in unofficial translations). I condemn the action of the Chinese authorities on June 4 1989 and I call for them to change the official negative evaluation of the movement today. But I would not think of using this as a pretext to suggest that Western students should not study Chinese on language courses funded by the Chinese government, or that Western scholars should not teach at Chinese public universities, or that Western universities should not accept grants to support Chinese studies.

In fact, universities must be vigilant about the funding they receive and especially the specifics of the contracts they sign, and the obligations into which they enter. There is more risk of political interference where funders represent sovereign states. But the solution is not to avoid sovereign state funders (which of course include the UK’s ESRC and DfID and National Science Foundation of the US as well as funders around the world) but to make sure contracts specify appropriate terms protecting academic integrity, to work only with funders that have a track record of respecting such terms, and to refuse interference should it come.

Scholars in Middle Eastern studies face particularly intense challenges in deciding what funding to accept, and in determining the relationship between academic analysis and political comment. But some such challenges face researchers all over the world and any university seeking to develop global partnerships in order to enable its students and researchers to look at globalisation from many perspectives.

LSE has long had distinguished faculty members studying Middle East issues. Ernest Gellner and Fred Halliday are among the most famous examples. We are proud to have a range of strong Middle East scholars at LSE today and I hope we add more capacity to study and teach about the region. More generally I hope we make it central to our study of globalisation and international affairs to understand the different histories and current conditions and modes of engagement of all the world’s regions.

We work in the Middle East because it is an important part of the world and because we believe our work is generally a positive force for social change and intellectual advancement. But a condition of this is that there are certain lines one cannot cross. One of these is allowing political interference to determine the specific intellectual content of academic events. After an era of growing openness some officials of governments in the region let their anxieties lead them to block freedom of expression. This is precisely the sort of trend one would hope international academic activity might counter.

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