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/ April 12, 2011
UAE Detains Prominent Professor, Raising Questions About Academic Freedom At NYUAD

As the Middle East continues to be shaken by pro-reform protests and government crackdowns on demonstrators and journalists, top NYU administrators are no doubt keeping a close eye on such activity near students. Last month, the university asked those studying abroad to cancel any travel plans to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, or Morocco, due to unsafe conditions.

Pro-democracy demonstrations have not spread to the United Arab Emirates, home to NYU’s new campus in Abu Dhabi. However, according to the Associated Press, online discussions about a need for reform have increased. In response, the UAE government has detained three outspoken advocates for human rights and political reform. Last Friday, police arrested blogger Ahmed Mansoor (his final tweets are chilling) after a request from the UAE Attorney General. He had recently signed a petition calling for a democratically elected parliament.

Over the weekend, authorities detained two more activists. The whereabouts of the detainees are unknown. The AP reports:

The pair includes one of the country’s most outspoken academics, Nasser bin Ghaith, who is a financial analyst and an economics professor at the Abu Dhabi branch of Paris’ Sorbonne university. He was detained Sunday in Dubai, said Mohammed al-Mansouri, the lawyer and a fellow activist.

He has frequently criticized the Gulf region’s ruling sheiks for refusing to consider all but the most limited of political reforms and for failing to provide a legal framework for the staggering economic development of the past decade.

In an article he wrote prior to his detention, Bin Ghaith “voiced unusually bold criticism of the Western-allied Gulf Arab states’ political system and their moves to create jobs and raise social spending in a bid to prevent the eruption of popular unrest.”

The willingness of the UAE government to detain a prominent academic who is affiliated with a foreign university in Abu Dhabi (he is only a lecturer at the Sorbonne, not a full professor) naturally raises concerns about NYUAD’s agreements with the government. The university assures us that the campus operates under the principle of academic freedom, which entitles professors to “freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject” and “full freedom in research.”

Bin Ghaith, it is important to note, was detained after making public statements as a citizen, though he also challenged the government in his university lectures. The major question — and the one I asked NYUAD Spokesman Josh Taylor — is: can NYU professors openly criticize the UAE government in the classroom or a public lecture?

“Let me be clear: Academic freedom is a core principle for NYU across our global network, and we support this principle at NYU Abu Dhabi using the same standard we use at Washington Square,” Taylor answered. “NYUAD is committed to an environment that ensures academic freedom, providing a context in which students, faculty and staff can engage in the intellectual exploration and analysis of even the most sensitive issues, while ensuring respect for local culture and customs. This freedom does not extend to tolerating speech, writing, and behavior that intentionally demeans others based on gender, race, religion, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation; nor does it extend to public defamation, libel, or slander. Such behavior runs counter to NYUAD’s educational mission.”

Stephen Underwood, NYU Local’s Abu Dhabi correspondent, adds that students “have determined that none of us feel that our academic freedom is at danger” since the event happened in the public sphere.

However, the message from the UAE government seems loud and clear: dissent will not be tolerated. Andrew Ross, an NYU Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis who recently wrote about the difficulties of establishing a university branch abroad, agrees, calling the arrests “serious violations of human rights standards.” He told NYU Local in a statement:

Ahmed Mansoor and others calling for basic rights for citizens in the UAE have been subject to severe intimidation these past weeks…In Bin Ghaith’s case, [the arrest] also violate[s] the principle of academic freedom that has been vouchsafed by UAE authorities on behalf of faculty of foreign universities operating there. Ordinarily, academics would be among the foremost voices protesting against such violations. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to imagine any academics in the UAE, including our own colleagues at NYU Abu Dhabi, speaking out against the detentions.

Sources in Abu Dhabi explain that no cases have arisen where the campus’ academic freedom has been questioned. But that freedom really only becomes important in the borderline cases where, say, the government feels threatened by a professor’s research that critiques the country’s political system. I hope that an NYUAD politics professor would be comfortable publishing that paper, but given what’s happened this week, it’s not at all clear that they would. And just that uncertainty undermines academic freedom.

After the news of these detentions, NYU would be remiss not to reassess the UAE’s commitment to upholding that freedom at NYUAD.

UPDATE (1:45 PM): Habiba Hamid, an editorial writer at the UAE English-language paper The National, wrote a list of thoughts about the bin Ghaith arrest. She notes that the government taking the step of arresting a “credible domestic dissident for political reasons…seems unprecedented.” She adds, “Whilst thus far it has been impossible to verify whether or not Dr Nasser bin Ghaith has in fact been arrested, the perception that he may have been (as he is an exceptional figure) appears to, whether intentionally or not, criminalise dissent.”

Her thoughts are worth reading in full. Unfortunately, they only increase my concerns about diminished academic freedom at NYUAD.

UPDATE (8:00 PM): Human Rights Watch has sent a letter to NYU President John Sexton asking for the university “to condemn publicly [the UAE government’s] outrageous attacks on activists.” In a separate press release, Sarah Whitman, the Middle East director of HRW, said, “Is NYU going to advertise the magnificence of studying in Abu Dhabi while the government persecutes an academic for his political beliefs?”

The letter also asks the Guggenheim and the French Museum Agency (responsible for the Louvre) to condemn the detentions. Both organizations are building museums on Saadiyat Island, where NYUAD’s campus will also eventually be located.

UPDATE (11:00 PM): The NYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (the group that wrote the academic freedom guidelines that both NYU and NYUAD follow), led by Ross, sent the letter below to Sexton today. It calls for the university to “speak out strongly on behalf of the human rights of these three Emirati citizens.”

UPDATE (4/13): Josh Taylor, NYUAD spokesman, issued this statement today in response to the Human Rights Watch letter:

NYU is a diverse community that prides itself on featuring a robust debate among its constituents on virtually every issue. It long has taken the position — both in NY and throughout its global network — that the institution itself does not take public stands on issues and policies that fall outside of its core mission of operating a world-class university.

It is by focusing on our core mission — the development of powerful centers of ideas, discourse, and critical thinking — that we believe we can best contribute to a global dialogue that facilitates the growth of a more informed, more responsible, humane and just world.”