In defence of critical enquiry by academics and others

The incarceration of Durham University PhD researcher Matthew Hedges in the United Arab Emirates was an unwelcome reminder of the dangers of conducting research away from home. Sky News reported how Hedges, who was studying the Emirates’ post-Arab Spring security response, was arrested in May and has been held in solitary confinement ever since.

He was recently charged with espionage, with the suggestion that he had used his study trip as ‘cover’.

Academia has always engaged in enquiry beyond its borders. For hordes of researchers in disciplines ranging from astronomy to zoology it has become part of the job to engage in the pursuit of knowledge in others’ communities and jurisdictions.

Nowadays, millions of researchers and students move across the globe in the quest for knowledge acquisition and production. This includes scholars in sub-disciplines such as war studies, security studies and sub-fields such as contentious politics.

Increased dangers

This surge in transnational activity belies the dangers that scholars face, both abroad and in their own communities. Academic enquiry often challenges vested interests and dogmas, be they of a cultural, political or economic nature. The question is whether the inevitable backlash has deteriorated into a more nefarious silencing of potentially critical voices.

Experiences in countries such as Turkey, where academics have faced a mass purge from universities and even arrest, suggest a trend. Visiting scholars have been on the receiving end of suspicion and abuse all over the globe, from advertisements in China warning the public for spies masked as charming visiting scholars to the gruesome murder of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni during fieldwork in Cairo in Egypt.

Repression is justified by framing the figure of the academic as a potential threat to the national interest and national security in particular.

It is indeed difficult to explain the working practice of the 21st century academic, even to colleagues who are just one generation older. The bare bones of scholarship remain the same: an objective, but not necessarily detached, scholar who conducts research according to the best practices of scientific inquiry, resulting in a peer-reviewed end product. But the packaging has changed considerably.

The contemporary researcher is a multifaceted figure, a scholarly jack-of-all-trades. In a situation in which many young scholars are increasingly underemployed and overworked, with few opportunities for job security, competition has become ever fiercer and requires the relentless delivery of cutting-edge research and innovative research products.

One important criterion of assessment for career progression and grant application success is ‘impact’. Scholars are hence encouraged to not just engage with academic outlets and peers, but also to publish in public and social media and to seek engagement with policy-makers.

This has led to a blurring of the lines between professions. Peers have become documentary producers, theatre makers, exhibition curators, photographers, media commentators and policy consultants. As long as we hold onto our professional standards and values, academia will become richer, more outward-looking and more socially relevant through this cross-professional engagement.

Widespread censorship

This blurring of lines between different professions that ask difficult questions of power holders provides us with an important context in which to view the assault on academic freedom and enquiry in all its forms. It leads us to appreciate the fact that all of these professional communities – be they journalists, NGO staff or academics – have faced infringement on their freedom to pursue knowledge, investigate and critique.

Staying on the right side of their host community’s laws does not protect practitioners in these professions from harm, ranging from intimidation and being refused access at the border to brutal murder.

Thus far academics and journalists have largely addressed these attacks by themselves, with the journalistic community arguably having the most extensive infrastructure to monitor offences and train journalists for working under difficult circumstances.

However, a broader solidarity is necessary between these different professions to combat the brutal threat to the right to question – however different their approach and working methods may be. In an era of fake news, disinformation and muddying of the truth, critical enquiry is more important than ever and it should be protected and fought for across the board.

It is the job of academics to train scholars who conduct their work abroad correctly, lawfully and ethically. But it is the responsibility of their host communities to keep them safe while they do so.

In an era of mutually beneficial academic globalisation, the harming of scholars for studying contentious topics or asking difficult questions should be condemned in the strongest terms and should not be allowed to become a ‘new normal’.

The five-month incarceration of a young research student on what seem like trumped-up espionage charges is excessive and unjust. Should the charges relate solely to his academic research he should be released immediately.

Sophie Roborgh is a research associate conducting a Presidential Academic Fellowship in Medical Humanitarianism at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom. She writes here in a personal capacity.