I’m a proud co-signer of an open letter defending some of America’s most impressive scholars against Middle Eastern dictators who are trying to keep them out and shut them up. The title is "Open letter on the hostility of Middle Eastern governments and media to foreign researchers and journalists," and it can be found here (with a full list of signers) and below.
The letter was in part a reaction to the vicious attacks by the Erdogan government in Turkey against Henri Barkey, a distinguished scholar of Turkey who is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Media outlets in Turkey that support Erdogan have alleged that Barkey is a CIA agent who arranged and supported the recent coup attempt. There are plenty of other recent examples of such attacks, and the letter mentions the refusal of the Sisi government in Egypt to permit entry into that country of Michele Dunne. Dunne, an Egypt expert who is a former U.S. official (a career diplomat who also served in the NSC) and now a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment, was invited to a conference in Cairo by the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs--but prevented from attending by government agents at the airport. The Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni was killed in Egypt in January of this year. Nine years ago Haleh Esfandiari, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s former Middle East director, was arrested in Tehran and jailed in solitary confinement in Evin Prison for 105 days. Anyone who thought that kind of attack on scholars was limited to a tyranny like Iran has been proved wrong now in Turkey and Egypt.
Note also these lines in the letter: "The official American reaction to these abuses in the past has been much too timid. As American citizens, we have often found it embarrassing." Quite right.
OPEN LETTER ON THE HOSTILITY OF MIDDLE EASTERN GOVERNMENTS AND MEDIA TO FOREIGN RESEARCHERS AND JOURNALISTS
The undersigned individuals have all worked or lived in the Middle East, as scholars, academics, journalists, or members of non-governmental organizations. We are American citizens. Our work is a testimony to our deep appreciation for the rich history, culture, and politics of the modern Middle East. We believe in the need to study the governments and peoples of this pivotal region and their complex relations with the United States objectively and unapologetically. Many of us have spent most of our careers trying to foster better understanding between the two worlds in which we live and work.
This is why we find the recent case of Henri J. Barkey, an American scholar of modern Turkey, particularly alarming. Turkish media outlets have alleged that Barkey, who is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, worked with the CIA in launching the plot to overthrow the Turkish government by force. The failed coup was a shocking, traumatic, and violent event that took the lives of 240 Turks. The authorities in Ankara have the responsibility to bring those involved in the plot to justice. At the time of the coup, Barkey was leading an academic seminar in Istanbul. In the aftermath, the pro-government media singled him out as a foreign bogeyman. His picture was splashed across the front pages of Turkey’s newspapers along with banner headlines alleging a connection between Barkey, the CIA, and the failed coup. The slander and outrageous charges grew more ominous with each passing day, in a clear and dangerous campaign of incitement that led to direct threats against Barkey’s life. No member of the Turkish media has been held accountable for these lies.
Of course, Turkey is not the only such wrongdoer in the region. Both Iran and Egypt also come to mind. Nine years ago, Haleh Esfandiari, an American scholar and Barkey’s predecessor at the Wilson Center was arrested in Tehran and placed in solitary confinement in Evin Prison for 105 days. Esfandiari, who was in her late 60s when she was arrested, is a dual citizen of the United States and Iran. The Iranian government accused her — along with two other academics with dual American and Iranian nationality — of attempting to stage a “soft revolution” by organizing and participating in seminars and conferences. Although Barkey was able to leave Turkey shortly after the coup, he fears a fate similar to Esfandiari’s should he return to the country of his birth.
Two years ago, Egyptian authorities denied American scholar and former U.S. government official Michele Dunne entry to the country to participate in a conference organized by the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, a group that is sympathetic to Abdel Fattah el Sisi’s government. Egyptian officials offered the bogus excuse that Dunne, did not have a “proper visa.” The real reason was that Dunne, who is an accomplished scholar and former diplomat, has criticized Egypt’s deteriorating human rights conditions, particularly since President Sisi came to power in a 2013 military coup.
Younger, less well-known scholars are also at risk. Among the most disturbing of recent cases is that of Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old-Italian graduate student who was conducting dissertation field research in Egypt. Regeni’s family, the Italian government, and a wide range of journalists from a variety of countries believe that Egyptian security agencies tortured and killed him last February.
The official American reaction to these abuses in the past has been much too timid. As American citizens, we have often found it embarrassing. We are expressing our collective indignation, because we are certain that these abuses will continue unless they are challenged publicly. The perpetrators must be held to account. We are urging other scholars, academics, and journalists interested in the Middle East to join us in sending a powerful message to the autocrats of the region and to our own government that enough is enough. Those who first came for Haleh, and imprisoned her, then tried to intimidate Michele and Henri, could come for any one of us when visiting the region.
This protest is about all of us. Even more importantly, it is about our belief that the interests of the United States and these countries are served by the open exchange of people and ideas. Fundamentally important to that exchange are academic and political freedoms for all participants in these dialogues, whether they be local citizens, dual nationals, or U.S. citizens. The recent actions of the pro-government press in Turkey place the exchange of genuine ideas at risk, replacing them with political theater in which we have little interest.
We find the Turkish media’s campaign against Henri Barkey, the latest in a series of outrages against academic and political freedom, offensive and personally threatening. We hope that Turkey’s leaders and the press that serves them will reverse course otherwise we will find it difficult to engage in any way with the Turkish government, its media outlets, or nominally independent organizations in Washington that work on behalf of Turkey’s leadership.