Birzeit University: Silencing Humor
By Hussam Ghosheh, Al Akhbar
June 19, 2012
Birzeit University in Palestine is in the midst of a controversy that threatens to destroy its reputation as a bastion of academic freedoms. A university professor is under investigation for hanging cartoons drawn by an Emirati youth commenting on social issues. The complaint, led by a small Salafi group on campus, has [revealed] an environment of collusion between the university administration, the faculty, and Gulf donors.
Occupied Jerusalem – The “freedom of expression” conflict started when Professor Mousa al-Budeiri, from the Philosophy and Cultural Studies Department, hung up two cartoons on his office door – and all hell broke loose.
The Awareness Bloc, the student arm of the Islamic Liberation Party (Hizb al-Tahrir), launched a fierce attack on Budeiri, including takfiri campaigns [accusations of apostasy] deeming him an apostate and demanding his expulsion from the university for “insulting Islam.”
The bloc went further when it succeeded in coercing the university, which, instead of supporting him, succumbed to the Islamists’ threats and took a series of measures against the professor.
Budeiri told Al-Akhbar that that the university did not communicate directly with him, but pressured him through “envoys” not to return to the university. He said that the university formed a committee to investigate him without questioning the students who began the attacks and threats.
The Awareness Bloc announced that the dean of student affairs, Mohamad al-Ahmad, “confirmed that al-Budeiri will not return to the university after the recent events.” But Ahmad denied to Al-Akhbar ever having made such an announcement.
The case of one of the most prominent academics at Birzeit University has revealed the weakness of the “bastion of freedom and reason,” the student body, and Palestinian civil society institutions in confronting attacks by Salafis, though they are thought to be small in numbers and influence at the university.
The university seems unaware of the impact that this new attack on freedom of thought has on occupied Palestine after significant regression in recent years. The case revived a number of structural problems the university faces, starting with its independence, its funding background, its relationship with the students, and the low cultural standards displayed by many professors in dealing with Budeiri’s case.
The case has revealed the weakness of the “bastion of freedom and reason,” the student body, and Palestinian civil society institutions in confronting attacks by Salafis, though they are thought to be small in numbers and influence at the university.”It is the poison of external funding, which is from the Gulf in this case,” said an involved university official on condition of anonymity when Al-Akhbar looked into the causes of this deterioration and the university’s failure to take appropriate measures to resolve the issue.
“It is not in the interest of the university to convey the image that it insults Islam,” the official said. “Otherwise, how can it obtain support and grants?” he added in what seemed to be a Freudian slip.
Fearing the loss of Gulf funding may also be the reason that Birzeit University president Khalil Hindi did not want to make a fuss about the issue. But the matter blew out of proportions. The debate raged among the professors, and social media and websites were used to orchestrate campaigns against Budeiri.
Ironically, the cartoons that Budeiri hung up on his office door were prints from a Gulf website that were also posted on a Saudi site. They were drawn by an Emirati youth who sought to debate social behavior, such as polygamy.
How can an academic team of this magnitude tremble before a group of extremists seeking to impose new inquisition courts? Palestinian universities are in desperate need of the critical academic awareness that Budeiri represents, which is far more relevant in resistance and opposition to the American-Israeli project in the region.
Attempts to interfere in the curriculum related to philosophy and cultural studies are not new at Birzeit University. In fact, interferences have not stopped for the past 20 years, according to Imad Ghayatha, head of the university’s Political Sciences Department.
Ghayatha spoke to Al-Akhbar about other attempts to suppress critical approaches in sciences.
“These attempts, from inside and outside the university, make us wonder about the impact of the emergence of Islamist parties – with their extremist Salafi trends – in the Palestinian arena, as well as their impact on the cultural and academic process, amid the absence of a culture of national action,” he said.
In a May 26 statement, the “pioneers of the takfiri campaign by the Awareness Bloc,” as Ghayatha describes them, put his name next to Budeiri’s and called them “partners in crime.” The statement demanded “the harshest measures” be taken against the two professors.
The sympathy shown by some professors to the students seeking to turn the university into a Salafist platform comes as a surprise. This sympathy emerged through e-mails that demanded reconsidering the Philosophy Department’s curriculum, while some students demanded that the department be shut down on the grounds that it comprised “a trend promoting atheism.”
Other professors took a position that called for ending the debate without any serious effort to start a rational and responsible dialogue on the issue.
How can an academic team of this magnitude tremble before a group of extremists Palestinian universities are in desperate need of the critical academic awareness that Budeiri represents, which is far more relevant in resistance and opposition to the American-Israeli project in the region.Despite all this commotion, a campaign that later called itself “Together against insulting Islam at Birzeit University” did not gather more than 200 people out of a total of 5,000 students registered in the on-campus summer courses.
Meanwhile, the university administration did nothing but issue a statement a few days after the crisis erupted. It said that Budeiri had emphasized to the committee and the cultural studies council that he “did not intend to insult Islam.” It added that he hung up the cartoons as “a contribution to criticizing social behavior.”
Dean of the Faculty of Arts Mahmoud Miari and head of the Cultural Studies Department Abdul Rahim al-Sheikh, filed a complaint on May 30 to the administration board against a number of students on charges of issuing threats.
The committee of public order said it “will look into them according to its regulations,” but the university has so far failed to take any measures against these students.
By succumbing to the Awareness Bloc, Birzeit University appears to be a partner in this scandal, eliminating whatever is left of freedom in this academic institution.
The university’s collusion pushed this small excited group to announce its victory, especially when the administration removed the two cartoons and announced a disciplinary hearing for the professor before questioning the attacking students.
The university did not explain the “victory statement,” which this group issued and published in some newspapers on the eve of suspending their campaign, “Together against insulting Islam at Birzeit University,” on June 14 .
Fear from Islamist expansion has practically paralyzed secular forces, giving these Salafi groups additional strength. Their silence and comatose state could only help make the “Salafi nightmare come true,” as one observer put it.
Concern and Condemnation
The Palestinian Council of Human Rights Organisations* last week expressed concern at the takfiri and inciting discourse of some student groups and faculty members at Birzeit University.
The council said it was ready to intervene and support the university’s board to help solve Budeiri’s problem. It also condemned the extremist student movement, describing the measures taken to resolve the issue as “lukewarm.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
[*The Palestinian Council of Human Rights Organisations is s group of NGOs comprising Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association, Addameer Association for Human Rights, Al-Haq, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, Defence for Children International,Palestine Section, Ensan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, Hurryyat – Centre for Defense of Liberties and Civil Rights, Jerusalem Center for Legal Aid and Human Rights, Ramallah Center for Human Rights Studies, Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling)
To: Prof. Khalil Hindi
President, Birzeit University
Office of the President
P.O. Box 14, Birzeit
West Bank, Palestine
2 July 2012
Dear President Hindi,
On behalf of the Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), we write to voice our dismay at the way the administration of Birzeit University has addressed the controversy surrounding the caricatures Professor Musa Budeiri placed on his office door. Indeed, 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.
MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa – the preeminent organization in the field. The Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has nearly 3000 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.
As a committee of MESA charged with monitoring infringements on academic freedom, we are very concerned about the recent developments at Birzeit University. In spite of the insurmountable challenges BZU has confronted in recent decades, it has heretofore served as an exemplary model of free academic exchange, not only for Palestine, but for the region as a whole. The vibrant political and social debates that have taken place at Birzeit University have shaped several generations.
We are disappointed that the BZU administration has not been unequivocal in its support of Professor Budeiri. 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.
We are also concerned about the request by the university administration that Professor Budeiri take an unpaid leave of absence so as to protect himself. 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.
We realize that as a retired faculty member who continues to teach, Professor Budeiri’s contract is renewed on an annual basis. Even though his contract for the coming year has not been formally renewed, his classes are already listed in the course schedule. To refuse to renew his contract now would therefore be a clear capitulation to the students contesting Professor Budeiri’s freedom of expression. To change the courses that he is listed to teach in the future to elective courses, in order to be able to say that students objecting to his opinions need not enroll in his courses, is 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. The university administration needs to reconsider the reasoning behind these possible decisions with a careful view to the consequences they will have for the future of academic freedom at BZU.
Professor Budeiri has served Palestinian academe for over 27 years, 19 of them at Birzeit University. His expressions of political and social criticism have never been limited to religion. Those opposed to his freedom of expression should be reminded of this and his important contributions. Although the members of CAFMENA understand that some people might object to the cartoons Professor Budeiri posted on his door, we are convinced that it is the duty of an academic institution to help its members learn how to disagree with opinions they dislike in reasonable, constructive ways. We hope that in this instance, as in so many others BZU has faced in the past, it and its administrators will live up to this higher principle.
Looking forward to your reply, on behalf of the CAF, I am
Fred M. Donner MESA President
Professor of Near Eastern History, University of Chicago
cc: V.P. for Academic Affairs, Dr. Adnan Yahya
V.P. for Financial & Administration Affairs, Dr. Adel Zagha
V.P. for Community Outreach, Dr. Munir Qazzaz
Minister of Education and Higher Education, H.E. Lamis Al-Alami, Birzeit University Board of Trustees, c/o Secretary Joyce Ajlouny
ANHRI condemns smear campaign against university professor
By ANHRI, Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (Egypt)
21 June 2012
Moussa Al Budieri, Academic
ANHRI has condemned the administrators of Birzeit University in Palestine for succumbing to the pressures of a campaign that targeted Moussa Al Budieri, a professor in the Philosophy and Cultural Studies Department at the university, which is located in Ramallah. The university administrators have undertaken a series of arbitrary actions against the professor after a group of students launched a campaign against him, accusing him of insulting Islam by posting cartoons on a door at the university.
ANHRI said that the actions of the university constitute “a blatant threat to academic liberties and freedom of opinion and expression, and a dangerous step towards opening the door for more suppression of academic liberties at the university.”
The Student Awareness Group, which is considered to be a liberal Islamist student party, attacked and launched several blasphemy campaigns against Professor Al Budieri, asking the University to dismiss him because he insulted Islam by posting the drawings.
The events date back to May, when Al Budieri posted the caricatures on a door at the university’s library. He had taken the drawings from a website based in one of the Gulf States. The caricatures had also been on published on a Saudi Arabian site. They were originally produced by youth from the United Arab Emirates, with the aim of highlighting inappropriate social practices that have been linked to Islam.
The university administrators sent “envoys” to pressure Al Budieri to refrain from going to the university, and formed a committee to investigate his actions without conducting an investigation into the actions of the students who initiated the attacks on the professor. The Student Awareness Group claimed that Dean of Student Affairs Mohammed Al-Ahmad had confirmed that Al Budeiri would not be returning to the university. Al-Ahmad, however, denied issuing a statement to this effect.
The university administrators submitted to the threats of the Student Awareness Group, whose members do not exceed 200 out of a total of 5000 students attending summer courses. These students have acted in an extreme manner and have also demanded that “severe actions” be taken against the head of the Philosophy and Cultural Studies Department, Abdel ElRahman Al Shiekh, for his involvement in the “crime”.
ANRHI expressed its concern over the deterioration in freedoms and liberties at Birzeit University, and the escalation of extremism among students, with the support of some professors. The network said, “Those who do not learn from history do not know that the suppression they practice today against a different or opposing opinion, will be practiced against them someday, under the same principle and with the same justifications.”
ANHRI also denounced the silence of the university administrators, other student groups and Palestinian civil society institutions regarding the blasphemy campaign. The organisation denounced the failure to solve the issue involving the professor and called the university’s position one of “complicity”. ANHRI expressed surprise at the launch of this campaign at a time when Palestinian universities need to be tolerant of academic criticism, saying, “If intellectual disagreements cannot take place inside universities and are instead replaced by suppression such as this, when will the development of critical thought ever happen?”
The network called for the university administrators to bear the responsibility of defending academic freedoms and freedom of thought and expression, and not to submit to threats, whether from university funders or students.
Did Birzeit University fail to protect a professor?
By Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Education
July 05, 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.