Last year we watched as the condition of academic freedom eroded in Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, and elsewhere in the Middle East. The situation for scholars in Turkey, in particular, has reached a low that none of us could have imagined, with hundreds of those who signed the peace petition protesting the government’s actions in southeast Turkey losing their jobs. Our colleagues on the MESA Committee for Academic Freedom have been indefatigable in documenting abuses of academic freedom by the Turkish government and other governments in the region, as well as challenges to academic freedom in the United States. They have issued letters, reports, and started fundraising initiatives to help scholars and students.
This year has brought a new set of challenges to our doorsteps. President Donald Trump issued the first executive order banning the entry of Muslims from seven countries on 27 January 2017. That order was blocked by a federal district judge in Seattle, Washington. His decision was upheld by a panel of federal judges in the ninth circuit. Rather than continue to contest that order through appeals, President Donald Trump issued a revised order on 6 March 2017. At that time, MESA reached out to members and colleagues to collect stories of harm caused by the executive orders. The responses helped us to gauge the impact of the travel ban on the research and careers of students and faculty, and to MESA as an organization. We thank those of you who took the time to share your experiences or encouraged others to do so.
MESA signed on as a plaintiff (one of three associations along with six individuals) in a lawsuit in district court in Maryland contesting the revised executive order. In that case, the federal judge in Maryland approved the motion to block the Muslim ban, following a similar decision by a federal judge in Hawaii. Rather than appeal the Hawaii decision in the ninth circuit court, the federal government decided to contest the Maryland decision in the fourth circuit. Briefs have been filed, and the full court will hear arguments in Richmond, Virginia, on 8 May 2017. It has been enormously inspiring to work with Cody Wofsy and the team of lawyers at ACLU, and to stand with the other clients in the case. For more information on this historic case and MESA’s role in it, please see http://mesana.org/newsworthy/.
As a result of the Muslim ban and difficulties in getting visas, a number of scholars in the Middle East from targeted countries may not be able to join us at the annual meeting in November in Washington DC. Moving MESA to another country in North America to accommodate these scholars would create problems for visa holders already in the United States. The MESA board has formed a special committee to explore technological options, including but not limited to Skype, to ensure the participation of those excluded from entry to the United States.
Some scholars have already indicated that they may not come to MESA out of solidarity with those who may not be able to enter the United States and in exasperation with the current US policies. We respect this stance and share your exasperation. Yet MESA depends on revenues from meeting registration and membership for our operations, and we urge those of you in the United States and abroad to continue to support MESA.
Our organization is more than a fall meeting. We are a collective of scholars working year round to protect academic freedom, scholarly exchange through unfettered travel, and the interests of our field and the Middle East region. This winter we launched a Task Force on Civil and Human Rights to advise members on best practices in confronting new legislation. Our Board has issued statements, and we joined a lawsuit. We have mobilized our resources to fight the Muslim ban and to advocate for Middle East studies, and we ask for your continued support by keeping your membership current and making a donation to one of our funds. We have so much work ahead.
[This article first appeared in the bi-annual newsletter of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), Issues Middle East Studies 39, no. 1 (April 2017)]