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Academic freedom, which protects inquiry and expression, underpins the right to education and the freedom of research within institutions of higher education; however, it is under attack around the world.

The MENA Center for Peace and Development at Webster University Geneva organized a very timely panel on this topic on 18 March, providing a platform for renowned scholars to share research and for activists to inform through their personal stories, thus broadening awareness and calling for continued advocacy from civil society on this issue. (Original Event Listing with speaker details can be found here.)

Four distinguished panelists, who joined remotely, provided an overview as well as case studies of countries where academic freedom has come under attack, especially in Turkey and Egypt.

Ilyas Saliba, a research fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) in Berlin and at the Research Unit for Democracy and Democratization at WZB Berlin Social Science Center, gave an overview both on the research on academic freedom globally and with a particular focus on the MENA region.

Cavidan Soykan enriched the discussion by highlighting the suffering of scholars in Turkey where academic freedom has become under attack especially since 2015. She was a lecturer in human rights at the Faculty of Political Science of Ankara University, Turkey, until she was purged in 2017 due to her signature to the petition called “We will not be party to this crime!” That peace petition opposed the military violence perpetrated by the Turkish state in the predominantly Kurdish southeast region; a travel ban was subsequently issued, and she was judicially targeted.

Sahar F. Aziz, professor of law at Rutgers University, USA, contextualized academic freedom both from a legal perspective and from a regional our country angle, while Amr Hamzawy of Stanford University shone light on the latest assaults on academic freedom in Egypt.

The event took place against the backdrop of the installation entitled Suspension (pictured above), created in 2019 by Turkish artist Iz Oztat. The artist reflects on the current social context in Turkey and elsewhere, countries and regimes in which agency in public space is suspended or in suspension.

The MENA Center for Peace and Development, based at Webster University in Geneva, Switzerland, facilitates dialogue between academia and civil society and recognizes the special role it plays as an academic center to protect academic freedom in the MENA region. The lively debate was a sign of how important the topic is — especially in a time where some political systems seek to control academia to become institutions of propaganda, rather than liberal centers where ideas are free to flourish.

The MENA Center expresses gratitude to those who joined to share their expertise and personal experiences, which inspired and compelled guest participants to exchange ideas about collective advocacy.