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Superman and Academic Freedom

July 5, 2012

Birzeit University occupies an important place in Palestinian history. The oldest Palestinian university, it grew out of an elementary school for girls created in 1924, when schooling was rare for Palestinian children. It became a college in 1942 and a university in 1975. Birzeit has been the site of numerous protests and clashes with Israeli authorities, who shut down the university frequently and for lengthy periods in the 1980s. "The university is guided by the principle of academic freedom and upholds independence of thought, freedom of discussion, and unimpeded circulation of ideas. Ironically, these principles made the Birzeit University community a target of harassment under the Israeli military occupation," says a history of Birzeit on its website.

Now the university is facing questions about whether it has abandoned those principles in failing to defend a professor who is a target not of Israelis, but of the university's Islamist students.

Musa Budeiri might seem an unlikely target. He has taught at Birzeit for 19 years, published extensively on Palestinian nationalism, and devoted his career to the university through periods when it was very difficult to work there. But he got into trouble with campus Islamists because of a habit he shares with academics in many countries: He posts political cartoons on his office door.

In an e-mail interview, Budeiri said that "since the outbreak of the Arab revolutions I have been in the habit of picking out cartoons from newspapers or the Internet illustrating and commenting on what is happening, and sticking them on my office door." Budeiri has taught cultural studies at the university, so he said he wants students thinking about a range of ideas that are in play online and in print. "I thought this would help provoke and stimulate discussion among students," he said.

He said that the controversy started at the end of the academic year, when he had five cartoons on his door, some of which offended Islamist students.

"The cartoons in question are a couple of pages from Superman comics," he explained. "A blogger from the Emirates had taken a few pages from the comics, added a beard to Superman and declared him Islamic Superman, and posted on the Internet. He also erased the English blurb and inserted words of his own in Arabic. In the first, Superman is lying in bed with a woman and she asks him if he is going to marry her, he responds by saying that on the planet Krypton, they are 'not allowed to take a fifth wife.'

"The second is a scene with Superman and Batman. Superman is reading a fatwa condemning Batman to death for being dressed in women's garb, which according to Superman is not allowed in Islam according to the ruling of some ancient authority; Batman is protesting that he is a Shiite and that the ruling only applies to Sunnis. The third cartoon is about Afghanistan, it is by a French cartoonist. A couple are standing fully clothed in the shower room. The man looks at the shower curtains and says 'you are looking particularly nice today.' The woman responds 'I am standing here.' Fourth cartoon is about Hillary Clinton. [Fifth] is a picture of people demonstrating in a Syrian village against the massacres being committed there." (The Superman and Batman cartoons have caused the most controversy, although some critics of Budeiri have cited the other cartoons as well.)

The turmoil started when a group of students distributed a leaflet on campus saying that the cartoons were "an insult to Islam," and that he should be punished and should apologize for posting them, Budeiri said. A Facebook page denouncing him (which was recently removed from Facebook) followed, as did protests. According to Budeiri, the university then removed the cartoons from his door, and sent three vice presidents to ask him to issue an apology. He agreed to issue an explanation, but not to apologize.

Budeiri provided an English translation of his statement, in which he stated his educational objectives in posting cartoons, and said that posting a cartoon that involves Muslims in some way cannot be assumed to be an insult to Islam. Further, he said it was dangerous to the exchange of ideas for people to assume they know what goal someone has in doing something like putting a cartoon on an office door.

"The presumption of some students that they 'know' the underlying motives of the person who posted the caricatures better than he does himself, and the collective threat they see in the [cultural studies] dept as being engaged in a nefarious plot/conspiracy to subvert students' religious beliefs, qualifies them at the very least, to be in possession of supernatural powers and in that sense they ought to be teachers and not students. The same applies to their demand that they should decide on the content of the academic curriculum," he wrote in his explanation.

Budeiri wrote that the reactions made him feel "vindicated in my decision to post the cartoons." He explained: "They have opened up a discussion and have exhibited an ability of students to exercise their empowerment, potentially to ask, question, object, discuss, defend, in order to express their ideas and beliefs. This is something i have always fought for, and tried to convey since the first days of my teaching career, Much more than the 'knowledge' confined in the pages of official textbooks.

"It is a shame that instead of pursuing this path, and advancing their ideas by argument and reasoning, and winning as many adherents to their point of view as are convinced, (and these will never constituted the whole community, because people are individuals and not robotic replicas, and each mind is an individual creation possessing its own unique characteristics), they chose to resort to abuse, and threats of physical violence, attempting to appropriate to themselves the sole authority of what Muslims can and can not think, can and can not do. There are and will remain as many different Muslims as there are unfettered minds."

At that point, the university issued a statement that said Budeiri did not intend to offend Muslims. While the university criticized attacks on anyone for expressing their views, Budeiri said that no action was taken against the students who threatened him. Student protesters also reported having been told that Budeiri would not be returning to the university, he said, and so considered that a victory. He said that various university officials have continued to ask him to apologize and/or take a leave and go abroad for a semester.

While Budeiri said that the university never informed him that he wouldn't be teaching again, he said that even though he has asked for a contract for the next academic year, he has had "no response." The academic year at Birzeit starts next month.

'A Dangerous Precedent'

The Middle East Studies Association of North America is backing Budeiri. The group this week issued a letter to Birzeit denouncing the way it has responded to the controversy. The case was investigated by the association's Committee on Academic Freedom, and Fred M. Donner, president of the association and a professor of Near Eastern history at the University of Chicago, sent the letter, which said that "the actions of the university administration to date risk establishing a dangerous precedent that privileges those who resort to intimidation and violence to contest the freedom of expression."

The letter praised Birzeit for having a record, despite "insurmountable challenges," as "an exemplary model of free academic exchange."

But in this case, the letter says, the university is not living up to that record. "We are disappointed that the BZU administration has not been unequivocal in its support of Professor Budeiri," the letter says. "For example, the administration has insisted that Professor Budeiri should issue a personal apology as a way to diffuse tension, and to date, the students responsible for the incitement against Musa Budeiri, including making threats to his life and demanding that he be fired, have not been disciplined.

"The university’s statement condemning the incitement does nothing to fulfill its obligation as an academic institution to guarantee the security of all its members. More important, the actions of the university administration to date have done nothing to protect the members of the university – students, faculty, and staff alike – from the excessive demands of an extremist group. Such threats, regardless of the political affiliation of the perpetrators, need to be guarded against if the academic principle of free inquiry and expression is to be upheld."

The letter goes on to say that it was inappropriate for the university to ask Budeiri to take a leave for his own safety. "Such a course of action establishes a dangerous precedent, one that is sure to embolden extremist elements who believe they can influence university policy (and force people out) by threats and intimidation," the letter says. Further, the letter says that the university's failure to provide Budeiri a contract for next year will be seen as "a clear capitulation to the students contesting Professor Budeiri’s freedom of expression." Some Birzeit officials have also discussed creating multiple sections of any course Budeiri would teach, so that offended students would not need to have him as an instructor. The Middle East studies letter calls this response "yet another capitulation to unreasonable demands – even if the latter are buttressed by threats of boycotts by the students now expressing their own opinions in such a violent manner."

Frustration With 'Haughtiness'

Inside Higher Ed asked Khalil Hindi, president of Birzeit University, to respond to the various criticisms and he sent a copy of his letter to the Middle East studies group. In the letter, he did not dispute most of the facts as described by Budeiri and the association, except that he said that some students have in fact been referred to disciplinary authorities. That those processes have not been completed, he said, does not mean that the charges have not been taken seriously, and instead reflects a commitment to due process.

But Hindi objected both to the conclusions and tone of the letter. "Notwithstanding the great regard I have for MESA, I deplore the haughtiness of your letter. Sir, one is left with the impression that you think of the Middle East as your 'subject' in more senses than one."

On several of the actions that the association criticized, Hindi said that there was good reason to act as the university did. He wrote that he personally asked to have the cartoons taken down. "This was done to calm tempers and avert the real risk of violent clashes on campus between opposing factions," he said. He also said that it was legitimate to make sure that students could avoid Budeiri's course in the future if they want to. "This was done in order to give freedom of choice, but also to avert the possibility of problems arising out of class," he said.

Hindi wrote that the controversy at Birzeit "raises serious and difficult general issues: 1) Where and how to draw the balance between academic freedom and general freedom of expression (including protest by students)? 2) What are the limits of academic freedom (every freedom has limits)? Do they extend beyond teaching, research and publications (do they, for example, extend to ostentatious display of provocative posters in public space?)? 3) How to manage the evident rift in Palestinian society without curtailing freedoms?" And for academics at Birzeit, he said that "grappling with these issues is not just a question of intellectual debate, but also of every day practice in difficult, sometimes explosive, situations."

Further, Hindi questioned why the association was focused on Birzeit and not on Israel. "At the risk of being accused of implicitly leveling a charge of hypocrisy, may I respectfully suggest that MESA turn its attention, more usefully, to the defense of the collective academic freedoms of the Palestinian people, which are being trampled upon daily by the Israeli occupation," Hindi wrote. (MESA in fact does write letters to Israeli officials objecting to what the association considers violations of academic freedom, and wrote this week on an issue cited by Hindi, the obstacles faced by students in Gaza who wish to study at universities on the West Bank.)

Finally, Hindi said he believed Budeiri had indicated he was unsure if he could be safe and wanted to return to Birzeit.

Via e-mail Budeiri said he is unsure about his safety, but does want to teach at the university. Asked if he feels safe on campus, Budeiri said that he does not believe that everyone who protested would want to hurt him or that there is any "conspiracy out there." But he noted that some of those who called for his dismissal said that he should face the same fate as the assassinated Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat. "What worries me is the lone fanatic, who will take it upon himself to carry out a deed which he believes is justified," Budeiri said. "Whether I will ever feel safe on campus again is something I have to think about." Still, he said, he wants to resume teaching in August if the university will send him a contract.

 

 

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