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President of Ireland

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President of Ireland

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Speech at a Conference Organised by Scholars at Risk Ireland

Trinity College Dublin, 29 November 2016



Ideas, the free discussion of ideas, the critique and questioning of received ideas and the articulation of new ones are activities that are fundamental to the shaping of public discourse and to the vitality of democratic life.

Dear friends,

A Chairde,

Is mór an onóir dom é cuireadh a fháil leis an chomdháil thabhachtach seo a oscailt, comhdháil a d'eagraigh rannóg na hÉireann "Scholars at Risk Network" mar fhreagra ar na cúinsí atá ag bagairt ar shaoirse intleachta agus ar shábháilteacht fhisiciúil an iliomand scoláire ar fud na cruinne. Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháíl le Ruth Taillon as cuireadh a thabhairt dom, thar ceann Ollscoileanna na hÉireann agus The Scholars at Risk Network, páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht seo.

[It is a great honour for me to have been invited to open this important conference organised by the Irish section of the Scholars at Risk Network – a conference that is an important part of the response we urgently need to make to the grave threats that hang over both the intellectual freedom and the physical safety of so many scholars around our world.]

May I thank Ruth Taillon for issuing me the invitation on behalf of Universities Ireland and the Scholars at Risk Network. As President of Ireland, and as an academic myself, I fully endorse the assertion invoked by our gathering this morning, i.e. “Ideas are Not Crimes”.

Ideas, the free discussion of ideas, the critique and questioning of received ideas and the articulation of new ones are activities that are fundamental to the shaping of public discourse and to the vitality of democratic life.

Yet, around the globe, thousands of scholars are currently under attack because of their peacefully expressed thoughts, because of their words, and also, I believe, because of what they represent in society – they are a vindication and so often source of what Philip Pettit might call “a contestatory citizenship”.  Indeed, the attacks we are witnessing on educational communities do not simply reveal the vulnerability of the university space in societies that are plagued by violence and political instability. Scholars and universities are not simply the collateral casualties of conflict; they very often are the very focus for such conflict.

Those who, today as yesterday, use violence to repress scholarly research, teaching and writing seek to subdue, or even eliminate, the spaces in which citizens are free to think, share ideas, and challenge the status quo. Such authoritarian abusers of freedom in any of its senses see the open, pluralist space of intellectual enquiry as a threat to their power, whether this power and its projects invoke a distorted and hateful version of religion and faith, or an authoritarian conception of the state – or both, for that matter.

That may constitute the extreme form of attack on the institution itself and those who teach or study within it.  There is, however, the more subtle form of authoritarian oppression against new, different, or intellectually subversive scholarly work.  Some of the best known, and funded, institutions have engaged in a type of attrition of morale towards such scholars.

I am delighted, therefore, to have this opportunity to pay tribute to the immensely valuable work of the Scholars at Risk Network in bringing to public attention the sheer scale and gravity of the contemporary attacks on academic freedom globally, and in their proposing strategies of responding to this global crisis.

Your report published last month – under the title “Free to Think” – gives us a concise, and most alarming, overview of the endangered position of so many academic communities worldwide. We learn of 158 reported attacks perpetrated on university teachers and students in 35 countries between May 2015 and September 2016 alone, including accounts of wrongful prosecution and imprisonment, killings, disappearances, loss of position and expulsion from study, travel restrictions and other serious acts of iniquity and terror.

The most extreme form of this alarming trend is the repeated occurrence of extreme violence by armed groups who do not hesitate to storm university premises to kill and injure, as well as the many cases of killings of individual scholars and students.

In what is a particularly revealing, and horrific, illustration of the hateful intolerance of those who perpetrate such crimes, your report relates the killing, in August of last year, of Dr. Khaled al-Assad, an 82-year-old scholar of antiquities and Aramaic, who had worked on the excavation of the city of Palmyra and was one of the pioneering figures in Syrian archeology. Accused of attending conferences with “infidels” and of being the custodian of “idols”, Professor Assad was publicly beheaded and his body was later displayed outside the ruins of Palmyra, bearing a sign claiming that he was “an apostate”.

Dr. Khaled Al-Assad was deprived of life and dignity for his commitment to heritage and the educational rights of future generations.

Your report reminds us of the recurrence of an old ignorance and exclusion, now more violent in its assumptions and practices.

Recent years have also seen an appalling resurgence of attacks on girls and women in particular, in an attempt to prevent them from accessing education. In her acceptance speech of the Peace Nobel Prize, in 2014, the Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzia described how things changed in her “paradise” home of the Swat Valley:

“Education went from being a right to being a crime. Girls were stopped from going to school,” she said. “When my world suddenly changed, my priorities changed, too. I had two options: one was to remain silent and wait to be killed and the second was to speak up and then be killed. I chose the second one; I decided to speak up.”

Unfortunately, such extreme violence is far from being the only threat against learning communities across the world. State interference with scholarly expression remains, as the report shows, even more pervasive. Thousands of scholars and university students are currently detained in various countries around the world, and thousands more face criminal investigations, prosecution, dismissal and administrative proceedings at their university, based on what are usually unsubstantiated allegations of involvement in “terrorism” or “treason.”

Such repression, which conflates intellectual inquiry and critical discourse with “disloyalty”, does not simply endanger academic freedom. It has consequences for the freedom of all citizens. Indeed, it endangers democracy itself, in those countries where it exists, and the possibility of democracy, where there is none.

From the era of Robespierre’s Terror to the horrific days of McCarthyism in the United States of the 1950s, history abounds in illustrations of the abuse that stems from any sweeping, officially orchestrated suspicion towards “the enemy within”, that phantasmagorical “fifth column,” whose liquidation only serves to harm freedom, pluralism and the state’s own democratic legitimacy.

I have written earlier this year of the importance of pluralism in teaching.  I often ask myself what would be the results of a pluralism of teaching test in the social sciences.  In some of such subjects the opportunity to access the intellectual context, test assumptions, has been relegated to an option, or more usually, eschewed altogether.  That, often taken for granted, unquestioned reality, limits intellectual freedom.

Then too there is the issue of the appropriate treatment of the scholar in the public realm.  The attack on the nomination of distinguished International Law scholar William Schabas on his proposed appointment as Chairman of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the events of the summer 2014 in Gaza. The attack on Professor Schabas’ integrity was similar to that attack on Richard Goldstone before him and from the same authoritarian sources.

The value of academic freedom lies, not just in its direct benefits for both teachers and students, but in its benefits for the whole of society. Who would deny that, in the long-term, the advancement of science, knowledge and truth is best served by an intellectual atmosphere that fosters critical enquiry, free of inappropriate control by institutions of power or special-interest groups? Who would deny that for knowledge to grow, for science to flourish, scholars must be free to inquire into all kinds of subjects, publicise their findings, and discuss their thoughts with their colleagues and students, while the latter, the students, must also be free to study the subjects that concern them, form conclusions for themselves and express their thoughts and opinions?

In an atmosphere of fading respect for the test of rational discourse, empirical proof, or coherence of logic, a quiet hegemony of neo-utilitarianism can open into third level institutions.  It becomes as if one form of global economy defines scholarship and the university, rather than scholarship in the university offering models for forms of economy, and their implications for society.

The countless attacks currently unfolding across our world against communities of learning must, therefore, cause us the greatest of alarm. Governments, higher education leaders, public intellectuals and civil societies at large share a common responsibility – and a vital interest – in protecting the unique role that universities and other institutions and locations of learning and of scholarly inquiry have in shaping public discourse, in encouraging the disputation of ideas, the exploration of new intellectual horizons, and, of course, in enabling future generations.

This is why the work of the Scholars at Risk Network is of such fundamental importance. From humble beginnings at the University of Chicago in 1999, this Network has grown into an international initiative with headquarters at New York University and “sections” and “partner networks” around the world. As a global network of over 400 institutions in 40 countries, it plays a vital role in monitoring attacks on academic communities across the globe, in campaigning for scholars who are imprisoned or silenced, and, crucially, in offering safe havens abroad for threatened scholars, so that they can carry on with their work until, hopefully, they are able to return to their home university.

May I, too, commend Universities Ireland for ensuring that our island is part of that great network of international solidarity, so that endangered scholars from all regions of the world can find temporary placements in Irish universities.

Today academic freedom is particularly threatened by various authoritarian regimes in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It would be misplaced, however, to approach the issue through the lens of cultural essentialism. And while it is true that medieval European universities, protected as they were by papal bulls and royal charters, became unique self-governing institutions that laid the foundations for the origins of the academic freedom as we know it today, we should always remember that no civilisation, no individual nation, is ever immune to a destruction of that culture of intellectual freedom.

The history of German universities provides a good illustration of the intrinsic fragility of even the most entrenched tradition of academic freedom. We can think, for example, of the University of Göttingen, where the basic principles of “freedom to teach” and “freedom to study” were firmly established in the 18th century, becoming a model that inspired other universities throughout Europe and the Americas.

The foundation charter of the University of Göttingen, dated December 7th 1736, thus stated that the university teachers were to be free from censorship and to have “complete and unlimited freedom, access and right to teach publicly and specially for all eternity”. In keeping with the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment, the university faculties were founded as equal entities, with theology no longer taking precedence. The libertas academica that characterised the University of Göttingen thus played a significant role in enabling the transition then taking place in European science.

The teaching of jus publicum [public law] provided at Göttingen attracted many students, such as Klemens von Metternich, Otto von Bismarck, Wilhem von Humboldt, who later established the University of Berlin, as well as, more surprisingly perhaps, the great romantic poet Heinrich Heine. In 1809, Arthur Schopenhauer became a student at the University of Göttingen, where he studied metaphysics and psychology, while the Brothers Grimm also taught and compiled their first German dictionary there.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, social sciences and the humanities continued to flourish at the University of Göttingen, where Max Weber studied and Edmund Husserl taught for 15 years. Such rich scholarly tradition came to an abrupt end, however, in 1933, when the university became a focal point for the Nazi crackdown on “Jewish physics” as represented by the work of Albert Einstein, and when more than 50 professors and lecturers were forced to leave, among them several of the 45 Nobel laureates whose names are associated with Göttingen.

Today the commemorative monument on the Bebelplatz [then the Opernplatz], where some 20,000 books from the University of Berlin’s Library were burnt by Hitler’s Sturmabteilung (SA) on May 10th 1933, bears Heinrich Heine’s prescient words, in one of his plays from the 1820s:

"This was but a prelude; where they burn books, they ultimately burn people."

In those years of the Second World War as today, networks of international solidarity were organised to respond to the persecution of scholars. We can think, for example, of the response of the New School for Social Research in New York, which was renamed the Graduate Faculty during the War, and which played a role not dissimilar from that played today by the Scholars at Risk Network.  The New School’s Director of the time, Alvin Johnson, managed to obtain funding to provide a haven in the U.S. for scholars whose careers and lives were threatened in Europe.

It is interesting to note how this influx of new people and new ideas had a long-lasting and positive impact on the American academy as a whole. The refugee-scholars from Europe contributed to the transformation of scholarship in the United States, by bringing theoretical and methodological approaches to their fields that had hitherto been poorly represented in American universities.

Hannah Arendt, for example, had a profound influence on intellectual debates about revolution, totalitarianism and democracy. Another refugee-scholar, Max Wertheimer, challenged behaviorism, the dominant paradigm in American psychology at the time, with his cognitive psychology. Similarly, the work of Hans Jonas was virtually ignored when he first came to the Graduate Faculty after the war, but it now frames much of the scholarly writing on bioethics and the environment.

Many other German scholars associated with the Graduate Faculty have had an influence on American scholarship, including philosophers such as Alfred Schutz and Leo Strauss, or economist Adolph Lowe, who developed his institutional approach to the study of economics and his concurrent critique of classical economic theories at The New School. 

The New School also promoted French scholarship in the American intellectual community by giving a home, in the early 1940s, to the École Libre des Hautes Études, and attracting such refugee scholars as the philosopher Jacques Maritain, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss or the linguist Roman Jakobson.

Yet the New School could, under pressure, from external circumstances leave this tradition for a trouble-free existence in the new circumstances of the terror attack on the Twin Towers.  This was not exceptional. The London School of Economics had provided an example of how one could move from emancipatory scholarship to normative neo-liberalism.

Thus, beyond the tragedy of persecution and exile, the movement of scholars across continents is one that never fails to give way to a cross-fertilisation of ideas, a renewed flourishing of knowledge.  Following new threats to freedom of thought, I have no doubt that the hundreds of universities across the world that have provided a safe haven to the persecuted scholars of our times will experience the immense benefits that flow from such cross-fertilisation of ideas and intellectual traditions. May I, then, encourage all those of you here who are refugee-scholars to continue with your work, conscious of the most valuable contribution you are making to your host universities, and to society at large.

Dear friends,

The attacks to which learning communities across the world are subjected may differ in scale, location, degree of violence used, but they are part of a single global phenomenon of increasing coercion exerted onto education and knowledge – coercion that aims at silencing critical inquiry and intellectual discourse.

Beyond physical violence and coercion, there is, however, yet another type of risk hanging over scholarly knowledge and academic freedom in our times – and that is the attacks currently underway against the very notion of truth.

We should never forget that truth is at the very heart of our definitions of academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors solemnly declared, it in its “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure”, that – I quote:

“Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

The same Statement then goes on to assert that:

“Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth.”

The fact that blatant attacks on truth, knowledge and science are now happening in countries that have been bastions of academic freedom is a huge matter for concern – one should serve to mobilise in new ways the international society of scholars.

Caught in the double squeeze of physical attacks on academic communities worldwide and increasingly open attacks on truth in a number of countries – attacks that have grave and immense implications for the future of democracy – how many scholars, and democrats around the world, organise their response?

Of one thing we can be certain. It is important not to be intimidated into any colluding or evasive silence.

May I conclude by wishing the Scholars at Risk Network, and all its sections and partners across the world, the very best in all of their future endeavours. I assure you of my wholehearted support to your work – a work in the service of truth and freedom, and a work that is of such fundamental importance to the present and future of our democracies.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.