In this post, Jennifer Philippa Eggert explains why, as a Muslim woman, she is not going to boycott the ISA conference in the US.
In the wake of the recent executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, a possible ban of the upcoming ISA conference has been discussed in academic circles. As a German passport holder (with no dual citizenship), I am not banned from entering the US. I spent most of the first weekend after the executive order worrying about family and friends from the seven (and a number of other Muslim-majority) countries (because I would not be surprised if the ban was extended soon). I am worried for my family and friends, but I can still travel.
As a visibly Muslim woman, I am worried
But even with the right passport, I feel threatened. In fact, as a visibly Muslim woman, I am very worried. I am worried because I know that even if the executive order names only citizens of the seven countries, the underlying intention was to prevent ‘Islamic extremists’ from entering the country. That in itself would not necessarily be of concern, but unfortunately the definition of who constitutes an ‘extremist’ is often so vaguely conceptualised that it includes pretty much every Muslim who does not publicly distance themselves from orthodox Islam. In some cases, a headscarf or a beard can be enough to get an individual in serious trouble.
For me, attendance is resistance
I am worried about recent developments, but boycotting the ISA annual convention is not an option for me. In fact, I will make a point of attending ISA this year. If the new president and his supporters want to ban people like me – Muslim people and / or people of colour – from the country, that is even more reason for me to attend. I am used to present at conferences where I am the only woman wearing hijab. Sometimes, I am the only person in the room who is a Muslim, even in countries with sizeable Muslim communities. Me cancelling my participation would make the ISA annual conference a bit less colourful, it would prevent me from making my voice heard, and that cannot be the aim. For me, in this case, attendance is resistance.
How productive would a boycott be?
I am not saying everyone should follow my example. Others have explained why they are not going to attend this year, and I can understand their perspective. I am rather sceptical as to what a general boycott would actually change, but I suppose it could be fairly effective if you were, for example, a highly sought after, high-profile keynote speaker who pulls out for political reasons. As far as (other) Muslim researchers or researchers of colour are concerned, or indeed academics who are planning to use their time at the ISA convention to organise against racism and Islamophobia and other forms of oppression in academia and beyond, in my view a boycott would be counterproductive. It might send a powerful message to those amongst us whose mobility is limited by the recent visa ban, but other than that, it would simply achieve what the ban is aiming at: exclude Muslims and people of colour from the conference.
ISA boycott – a privilege of the few?
In any case, for some, a boycott is not an option for much more mundane reasons. Many PhD students with a limited budget, for example, book their flights months in advance – if they cancel, the money is lost. As the mother of a child without any family in this country (international mobility of academics, anyone?), when I travel to a conference abroad I make childcare arrangements weeks in advance. In this case flights were booked both for my child and myself months in advance. Cancelling your participation in a conference at the very last minute because you decide to do so is a privilege of the (relatively) wealthy, well-established and those without child (or other) care commitment.
We need to speak about structural inequalities in academia
Regardless of which position we take on the question of whether or not to boycott, we need to speak about other forms of expressing solidarity and resistance. A boycott of the ISA convention (or US conferences in general) is not enough. We need to speak about how deeply embedded structural inequalities are in our academic cultures and institutions. We need to speak about privilege and the barriers women, people of colour and religious minorities (to name just a few) have been facing in academia for decades. Given these long traditions of oppression and injustice, it seems a bit surprising that we are calling for a boycott of ISA and other US conferences now.
The situation is not much better in other parts of the world
Yes, the recent visa ban is an escalation, it is a new level of injustice, but can we credibly criticise it without also speaking out against other, very similar, forms of inequalities? Is it coherent to call for a boycott of ISA and other US-based conferences while restrictive border controls and visa policies of a lot of other countries have been affectingstudents and researchers worldwide for decades? A lot of us are pointing fingers at the US at the moment (and their visa ban is appalling), but the situation is not much better in other parts of the world. The UK and the Schengen area, for example, have particularly strict rules. In fact, here in the UK, we have just funded the construction of a wall to prevent refugees from entering the UK via the Channel in Calais. There is no need to go as far as the Mexican-US border, the issue is much closer to home than many of us might think. Yet, I do not see anyone calling for boycotts of European conferences.
Are we right to pick and choose what we get outraged by?
As a visibly Muslim woman, I worry about airport security controls every time I fly, not just to the US and not just under this new president. I worry about my safety, not just now, not just when travelling to the US, not just under president Trump. I have not seen many (any?) calls for boycotts of conferences because of this yet (except for the Palestinian-led BDS campaign focusing on Israel). I have friends who have been campaigning for black people’s rights for years and who cannot help but notice that we call for a boycott of US conferences now that Arab and Iranian citizens get denied entry to the US, but not when black lives in the US are at risk. If the recent calls for boycott are the start of a more critical approach, if they are a step towards more solidarity and resistance in general – great. If not – are we right to pick and choose what we get outraged by?
Jennifer Philippa Eggert is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. Her doctoral research focuses on female members of the militias operating during the Lebanese Civil War, but she has also published on women fighters in IS and Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Jennifer speaks regularly on women and extremism, the prevention of terrorism, and intercultural relations. She also works as a facilitator of counter-extremism and community engagement trainings. She tweets as @j_p_eggert.