The Pen and the Sword: The Narrow Margin of Academic Freedom in the Arab World

By Sari Hanafi

“Those who are afraid do not innovate.”
(Zewail, 2005: 166).

Sari Hanafi. Photo: private.

By academic freedoms, I mean the freedom of thought and of creating new ideas and the freedom of expression through teaching, conferences, research, and publications. I also refer to the right to protest against the public educational institution; the right to regulate and manage the university without government or security interference; and the right to protect the university from state intervention and from interference by pro- or anti-government individuals and groups. In this article, I will present a few examples of the obstruction of academic freedoms. The most striking evidence of the lack of academic freedoms is probably the way freedoms are studied in universities. Many “academic” studies poll the opinion of faculty members regarding freedoms and use statistical measures that conceal their tragic current situation of lack of academic freedom—see, for example, (Buhaimed, 2007). These studies often lack real examples, common sense, systematic observation, and an ethnographic approach. This positivist trend was also criticized by Thomas Piketty in his famous book Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century (2014): for him, to understand unequal distribution and inheritance in nineteenth-century France and England, he considers Honoré de Balzac and Jean Austen the best references, comparable to Karl Marx and the economists of the time. In the same vein, Press articles, the reports of human rights organizations, and selected biographies (Abdulla, 2014; Ibrahim, 2013) appear to be the only sound reference for describing and analyzing the state of academic freedoms.

In the Gulf, some professors were denied work permits ostensibly for “political” considerations. When I examined this phenomenon, I found that, since 2014, many Lebanese Shiites were victims of a never-ending “witch hunt”. The considerations are not really political; they are rather purely sectarian. For instance, two professors had their work visas rejected even if their writings are critical of Hezbollah’s political and social agenda. Being “Shiites” is thus their only crime. What strikes me the most is the absence of indicators related to academic freedom in international ranking systems for Arab universities. No wonder why certain Saudi and Emirati universities reach very high ranking compared to other Arab universities. Foreign universities branch campuses are parachuted there without negotiating their academic freedom. How is it possible for “elitist” universities to open branches in countries where they can’t guarantee the recruitment of their chosen candidates? Indeed, the Gulf security authorities are engaged in bio-political and discriminatory practices against a particular nationality and community. For the record, the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait applied branding strategies in higher education. They brought in many American, French, and other universities. It is too early to estimate the ability of these universities to create a space stimulating the culture of freedoms and liberated from the control of the government or conservative religious authorities that undermine these freedoms.

In Lebanon, the Minister of Labor prevents the enrollment of any Palestinian or even Syrian academic in private universities (many cases are recorded at the American University of Beirut). This goes against the laws approved by the Lebanese Parliament in August 2010. It also violates the norms that respect the faculties’ right to recruit based on competency. While Latin American universities welcomed Chilean academics after the dictator Pinochet closed many social science departments in Chilean universities, no one has heard of any Arab University receiving Syrian professors. When the American University of Beirut opened its doors to a handful of candidates (six professors and researchers), the Lebanese Minister of Labor refused to issue them permits.

The question is not just about academic recruitment. The Qatari authorities protected themselves from conservative political and religious figures when they requested the Qatari branches of foreign universities to follow the same curriculum as the university’s headquarters. In a recent interview, the president of Carnegie Mellon University stated that Qatari authorities are in charge of the university’s curriculum. The big issue at stake, then, is the extent to which the absence of freedom of expression in these countries affects this emerging model.

In Saudi Arabia, Ahmed Al-Issa (2010), a former president of a Saudi university, diagnoses an “irrevocable divorce” between the university and the currents of thought and culture. According to him, “the university’s administrators and officials in the Ministry of Higher Education are reluctant to give the universities any opportunity to take part in social debates or the liberty to deal with sensitive issues. They prevented the universities from taking a stand on any case.” This is clearly visible in the analysis we conducted on the topics treated in Saudi academic journals. A faculty member is confined within certain limits that determine his thought and movement. For instance, he can attend conferences and seminars only under certain conditions: the conference’s theme should correspond to his specialty or his work. He also needs the recommendation of the department and faculty council and the approval of the university provost if the conference is held inside the Kingdom. For international conferences, the approval of the President of the University Council based on the recommendation of all the above levels. (Ezzat, 2011). While many universities were opening their doors to visiting lecturers, it became very difficult to receive a guest lecturer without security approval in the Emirates and Egypt.

In Egypt, some universities reject any lecturer who might be opposed to the government’s policy, as proven by many examples. Under the reign of President Mohamed Morsi, the university presidents were elected for the first time in the history of Egyptian universities. They were later dismissed, and pro-government presidents were then appointed. Abou el-Ghar enumerates three tools used by the Egyptian state to repress the university (Abou el-Ghar, 2005): first, the use of the police on campus; second, the appointment of pro-government professors in all senior administrative positions; and third, a series of laws and regulations restricting academic freedoms. Although that was before the revolution, it hasn’t changed yet.[1] President El-Sisi issued a presidential decree on January 15, 2015 allowing university professors to be fired if they engage in any political activity on campus.

As for the elected student unions and societies, there is a traditional and official fear of allowing them in most Arab countries. Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan are perhaps the exception.

Ultimately, the lack of academic freedoms prevents any creativity. The university cannot be turned into a center stimulating renewal and innovation. In the Middle Ages, the European university was established as an extraterritorial space of exception, meaning it was exempted from the state laws. It had the freedom to criticize the community, including the ecclesiastical authority. It didn’t lose contact with the society and its needs, and it maintained this status until today. Can Arab universities create such a space?

The narrow margin of academic freedom in the Arab region became, at best, a mere “professional freedom” linked to the practical or private academic work within universities. The university has thus lost much of its educational and moral strength. Security approval became a condition of recruitment, promotion, and travel on a scientific mission abroad for faculty members. The roots of the ISIS state must be sought not only in the extreme understanding of religion, but also in the long-standing culture propagated till today by the authoritarian Arab-national state.

The initial Arabic version of this article was published in the editorial issue of the Arab Journal of Sociology “Idafat”, Issues 29-30, 2015, pp. 4-8.

[1] Hussein Magdy, a human rights researcher, said that the revival of Science Day in Egypt must be accompanied by the immediate release of students and faculty members who are imprisoned for political reasons. In a special statement to the newspaper al-Mesryoon (The Egyptians), he added that the state is contradicting itself and its actions: “The state is fighting academic freedom in Egyptian universities and at the same time President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi calls for the advancement of science and highlights the importance of scientific research. However, in reality, the state completely controls the educational process, appointing the universities’ presidents and student unions, which is the exact opposite of the freedom of science.” (Al-Mesryoon, 3 April 2015)


Abdulla, Abdulkhaleq, Confessions of a Retired Academic, Beirut: Dar Al-Farabi, 2014.

Abou el-Ghar, Muhammad, “Between the red lines… Academic freedoms in Egyptian universities”, Al-Kutub: Wijhat Nazar [Books: Points of view], Year 7, Issue 80, 2005.

Buhaimed, Nada, “Academic freedom in Saudi universities”, (field study, Master Thesis), King Saud University, College of Education, 2007.

Ezzat, Ahmed, “Report on academic freedoms and independence of Egyptian universities”, Cairo: Freedom of Expression Foundation, 2011.

Ibrahim, Saad Eddin, Biography of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Cairo: Dar Merritt, 2013.

al-Issa, Ahmed, Higher Education in Saudi Arabia: A Journey in Search of an Identity, Beirut: Saqi House, 2010.

al-Mesryoon [The Egyptians], “Legal researcher: ‘The state contradicts itself’… fights academic freedom and celebrates Science Day”, The Egyptians, 2015,

Piketty, Thomas, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. by Arthur Goldhammer, Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 2014.

Zewail, Ahmed, The Era of Science, Cairo: Dar El Shorouk, 2005.

Sari Hanafi is currently a Professor of Sociology, the Director of the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies and the Chair of the Islamic Studies program at the American University of Beirut. He is the President of the International Sociological Association.

Further articles in the Academic Freedom series on TRAFO:

Pascal Engel, Academic Freedom is the Freedom to Know, 24 February 2021

Gisèle Sapiro, Amr Hamzawy, and Başak Tuğ, Threats to Academic Freedom – Historical and Contemporary Remarks, 17 February 2021

Mitchell G. Ash, The Suppression and Misuses of Academic Freedom During the Nazi Regime, 3 March 2021

Sandra Richter, What Kind of Academic Freedom and for Whom? Karl Jaspers’ Idea of the University, 10 March 2021

Libora Oates-Indruchová, Academic Presses in Czechoslovakia and Hungary under Communist Regimes, 24 March 2021

Balázs Trencsényi, Notes from the Underground: Academic Freedom, (Un)Civil Society, and Kulturkampf in Hungary, 1 April 2021

Amr Hamzawy, The Long-lived “July Republic” and the Abolition of the Egyptian University’s Autonomy, 07 April 2021

Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (I), 14 April 2021

Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (II), 21 April 2021

Citation: Sari Hanafi, The Pen and the Sword: The Narrow Margin of Academic Freedom in the Arab World, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research,, 05.05.2021.

OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Forum Transregionale Studien (5. Mai 2021). The Pen and the Sword: The Narrow Margin of Academic Freedom in the Arab World. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. Juli 2024 von

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