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‘Free to Think 2021’ Documents a Year of Attacks on Education

A new report from the Scholars at Risk network documents 332 attacks on scholars, students, and academic institutions in 65 countries between September 1, 2020 and August 31, 2021.

The report, “Free to Think 2021”, is the latest in an annual series of reports from the nonprofit network’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project.

In the Arab region, the report highlights attacks in Egypt, Yemen and Iraq, and it devotes an entire section to the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Over the 12 months studied, the report says, armed groups, militias, and governments carried out severe violent attacks on higher education communities. These included armed raids, assassinations, arrests, and the use of lethal force by soldiers against faculty members and students. Attacks on student expression accounted for roughly half of the reported incidents.

“Attacks on higher education are devastating scholars, students, and institutions around the world with life- and career-ending consequences,” Robert Quinn, Scholars at Risk’s founding executive director, said in a news release.

“Attacks on higher education are devastating scholars, students, and institutions around the world with life- and career-ending consequences.”

Robert Quinn
Scholars at Risk’s founding executive director

He added: “We are at a crisis moment: a surge of Afghan scholars seek refuge from the Taliban and the increasingly narrowing space for expression in Afghanistan, while lawmakers’ efforts in more open societies, including the United States, seek to restrict what can be taught in lecture halls.”

Since the project’s inception in 2011, Scholars at Risk has documented 630 cases of murder, violent attacks, and enforced disappearance against faculty members, students and scholars, including 110 cases during the latest reporting period.

Assassinations in Iraq and Yemen

In Iraq, Ahmed al-Sharifi, a professor at Al-Manara University College in the city of Amara, was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen. The motive for the killing was not publicly reported. The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights issued a statement in response to the assassination warning of a possible “series of assassinations” of Iraqi scholars and demanding that the government pass legislation to protect them. (See a related article, “Iraqi Researcher’s Assassination Stirs Fears of Renewed Violence Against Academics”.)

In Yemen, unidentified assailants shot and killed Khalid al-Hameidi, dean of the University of Aden’s College of Education. Sources described Al-Hameidi as a secular thinker and a known critic of Islamic extremists. He was traveling to the college when at least two assailants opened fire on him.

Mourners carry the coffin of journalist Rasha Al Harazi who was killed in a car explosion in Yemen's southern port city of Aden, during her funeral in Sanaa, Yemen November 11, 2021. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
Mourners carry the coffin of journalist Rasha Al Harazi who was killed in a car explosion in Yemen’s southern port city of Aden, during her funeral in Sanaa, Yemen November 11, 2021. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

The report also documents 111 incidents involving wrongful imprisonment or prosecution of scholars for exercising their academic freedom or constituent rights.

In Algeria, a court sentenced Said Djabelkhir, a professor specializing in Islam, to three years’ imprisonment on charges stemming from social media comments.

In Yemen, Houthi soldiers detained Adnan Abdul Qadir Al-Sharjabi, a Sana’a University psychology professor, for unknown reasons. He was denied medical care during nearly a month of captivity. Twenty-six days after his release, he died of heart- and lung-related complications.

In Egypt, authorities arrested Ahmed Samir Santawy, a master’s degree student in sociology and cultural anthropology at the Central European University, in Austria, in apparent retaliation for his research on women’s rights. He was convicted of publishing “false news” based on social media comments criticizing human rights violations in Egypt’s prisons, and the state’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The report also documents 40 cases of position loss and travel bans. On May 24, Egyptian authorities barred Walid Salem from traveling to the United States to resume his doctoral studies at the University of Washington, apparently for his research regarding Egypt’s judiciary.

A Focus on Palestine

This year’s report places special emphasis on the disastrous impact of armed conflict in Palestine. The report mentions clashes during campus protests, arbitrary arrests of Palestinian student-activists by the Israel Defense Forces, and systematic restrictions on academic travel.

“The frequency and global reach of these attacks should be alarming, not only to those in higher education, but to society at large.”

Clare Robinson
Scholars at Risk’s advocacy director

The report notes that Israel lacks a formal constitution and does not explicitly provide for academic freedom or freedom of expression in its Basic Laws. It calls on both parties to the conflict to “respect the right to education”.

“Weeks of intense, armed conflict between Israeli forces, Hamas, and other armed groups in May 2021 were particularly damaging for higher education communities” in Palestine, says the report. (See a related article, “Palestine’s Education Institutions Are Victims of Conflict Again”.)

The report says that the “tensions also stemmed from Israeli settlers’ efforts to evict Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The evictions prompted protests at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which were marked by clashes between opposing student groups and police.”

Ground fighting and aerial bombardments between Israeli forces and militant groups in Palestine resulted in a significant number of casualties, the report says.

A poster depicting the former government advisor and political analyst Hisham al-Hashemi, who was killed by gunmen is seen at the Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq July 8, 2020. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani
A poster depicting the former government advisor and political analyst Hisham al-Hashemi, who was killed by gunmen is seen at the Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq July 8, 2020. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

By the time a cease-fire was agreed to on May 21, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 253 Palestinians had been killed and over 1,900 injured. In addition, 12 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed and 710 injured. A Palestinian professor protesting the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and a student protesting the Israeli military actions were among those killed and injured.

Damage to Facilities

The conflict also had a considerable impact on the security and functioning of Palestinian higher education institutions. In Gaza, universities were forced to temporarily suspend academic activities due to the fighting.

On May 18, an Israeli airstrike targeted and destroyed a seven-story building containing educational facilities used by the Islamic University of Gaza. Facilities affiliated with Al-Aqsa University were also damaged by airstrikes into Gaza, and the use of tear gas canisters and sound bombs resulted in a fire that destroyed a building on the campus of Al-Quds University, according to a report by Al-Fanar Media.

Arrests and imprisonments of Palestinian student activists by Israeli forces continued.

On December 23, 2020, the Israeli Ofer Military Court convicted and sentenced Birzeit University student Elia Abu Hijleh to 11 months’ imprisonment on charges of belonging to a “prohibited student group.” During this reporting period, two more Birzeit students who were being held on similar charges—Ruba Assi and Layan Kayed—were sentenced to 16 to 18 months’ imprisonment and fines ranging from $900 to $1,300.

“If we are to safeguard higher education’s unique ability to foster solutions to the most urgent problems of the day, governments, university leaders, and civil society must publicly demonstrate a commitment to prevent these attacks and promote academic freedom.”

Clare Robinson 

The Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom has reported that Israeli authorities continue to detain more than 300 Palestinian students.

Checkpoints and Travel Restrictions

Israeli state authorities continue to impose on scholars and students an array of policies that restrict their movement and severely hinder their enjoyment of the right to education and academic freedom. These include checkpoints and travel permits imposed on all Palestinians, as well as targeted pressures that directly impact the international academic community.

For example, Israeli authorities have obstructed international scholars’ travel to the West Bank by denying visa renewal requests, despite their holding long-term university appointments and not posing a credible security risk.

These restrictions prevented international scholars from taking up or resuming appointments at universities in the West Bank, including at Birzeit University, which reported a third of its international faculty missing from campus by the start of the 2019-2020 academic year due to visa-related difficulties. (See a related article, “Palestinian Universities Say Israeli Restrictions Force Foreign Professors Out”.)

A Threat to Society at Large

In the network’s news release, Clare Robinson, Scholars at Risk’s advocacy director, said: “The frequency and global reach of these attacks should be alarming, not only to those in higher education, but to society at large.”

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She warned that these attacks demonstrate a shrinking of the space for free inquiry and discourse. “If we are to safeguard higher education’s unique ability to foster solutions to the most urgent problems of the day, governments, university leaders, and civil society must publicly demonstrate a commitment to prevent these attacks and promote academic freedom,” Robinson said. “We must reject violence aimed at punishing ideas, protect threatened scholars and students, and champion the freedom to think.”

Scholars at Risk is an international network of over 550 higher education institutions and thousands of individuals in more than 40 countries. Its mission is to protect and offer sanctuary to threatened scholars and students around the world, and to promote academic freedom.

Related Reading

See a collection of articles from Al-Fanar Media related to academic freedom in the Arab world.

By: Tarek Abd El-Galil

Tarek is an Egyptian journalist. He works as a deputy manager for the correspondents section at Tahrir newspaper and as a correspondent at correspondents.org and Al-Hayat TV. Tarek has a BA in journalism.
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