Amid concerns on academic freedom in UAE, conference on Arab higher education canceled
Al Fanar (Arabic for "the lighthouse") is a new publication covering Arab higher education, with reports and commentary coming from throughout the Middle East. The new publication "seeks to be a watchdog for academic freedom, will monitor whether women, minority groups, and the poor have full access to education, and will champion universities as beacons of arts, culture, and scholarship."
The full website for Al Fanar is scheduled to go live this weekend -- during which the publication planned to gather academic leaders from the region in Dubai for a conference on "Education for What? The Future of Arab Universities." But on Wednesday Al Fanar decided to call off the event in Dubai, citing concerns about academic freedom there.
The decision came after authorities in the United Arab Emirates last week detained and sent back to Britain a scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science, who was arriving to attend a conference that institution was sponsoring with the American University of Sharjah. That conference was called off in the wake of the action taken against the scholar, so this is now the second week in a row that a gathering of academics in the U.A.E. is being called off due to fears about academic freedom.
"This traces back to the concept for the publication," said David Wheeler, the founding editor of Al Fanar. "I really don't plan on taking any stance on political or religious issues, but when it comes to academic freedom, universities can't function properly without academic freedom..... We just don't feel comfortable celebrating the birth of a publication about Arab higher education at this point in time in the Emirates." (Disclosure: Wheeler was formerly an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, where the editors of Inside Higher Ed worked with him prior to their leaving that publication in 2003.)
The scholar who was detained last week was Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, who teaches government and does research on the Middle East and who has written critically of the governments of the U.A.E. and of Bahrain. After he was prevented from going to the scheduled conference in Sharjah, the London School of Economics issued a statement saying that it was withdrawing from the meeting (which was then called off) because of "restrictions imposed on the intellectual content of the event that threatened academic freedom."
The U.A.E. government subsequently acknowledged that Ulrichsen was blocked from coming into the countries because of what he has written. A statement released by the government said that Ulrichsen "has consistently propagated views de-legitimizing the Bahraini monarchy. The UAE took the view that at this extremely sensitive juncture in Bahrain's national dialogue it would be unhelpful to allow non-constructive views on the situation in Bahrain to be expressed from within another GCC state. This decision in no way reflects the strong ties with both the AUS and LSE and their academic excellence, however, in this very specific case, it was important to avoid disruption at a difficult point in Bahrain's national dialogue process which we fully support."
Wheeler said that about 80 educators from the region had been expected at the discussions Al Fanar was to have held in Dubai. He also acknowledged that there are numerous places in the region that do not have academic freedom of the sort the publication seeks to promote.
"In the countries where there is great stability, there isn't always perfect freedom, and in countries where there is a lot of freedom of speech, there is sometimes political instability," he said.
Al Fanar is a project of the Alexandria Trust, founded in 2011 to support high quality education throughout Arab nations.