On the Matthew Hedges case, liberal elites and academic freedom

The UAE’s decision to ‘pardon’ the British PhD student raises as many questions about academic freedom as it answers.

On November 26, the UAE 'pardoned' British scholar Matthew Hedges, who was sentenced last week to life in prison for 'spying' [Reuters]
On November 26, the UAE 'pardoned' British scholar Matthew Hedges, who was sentenced last week to life in prison for 'spying' [Reuters]

Matthew Hedges, a PhD student at Durham University, was sentenced to life imprisonment last week on spying charges in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He is the third UK-based PhD student to suffer imprisonment and worse in recent times in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Peter Biar Ajak was imprisoned in South Sudan this summer. Giulio Regeni was tortured to death at the hands of Egyptian security services in early February 2016.

This kind of state violence is unprecedented for Western researchers, but it is familiar to academics, teachers and students in the MENA region. Tens of thousands of them have suffered in recent times from state violence and abuse in Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Yemen and beyond. After a flurry of diplomatic activity, Matthew Hedges has now been “pardoned“, a vital outcome for him and his family in the most immediate sense, but one which raises just as many questions about academic freedom as it answers.

I believe that substantive academic freedom needs to be actively defended on a transnational basis by academics, unions, rights organisations, grassroots associations, intellectuals, and universities. I do not think that a fleeting, UK-based, abstracted, and moralising outcry in the name of academic freedom, inevitably followed by a flurry of status quo oriented diplomatic action, and more neoliberal proceduralism is a serious response. But nor do I believe that we should, on the basis of radical critique, succumb to paralysis and segmentation.

Right-wingers, conservatives, nationalists, and neo-Orientalists – in the West and in the MENA – are not very difficult to spot as enemies of academic freedom. In the MENA talk of “Western hypocrisy” and “empty talk” in relation to academic freedom is mirrored in the West by talk of liberal do-gooding, chatter, and naivety.

Conservatives on all sides of the Mediterranean repeat the essentialist scripts of Orientalism or Orientalism in Reverse when they say that Western and Arab/Muslim values are fundamentally different, and that academic freedom works in Western but not Arab or Muslim cultures. In the MENA one hears from nationalists that security services are required on campus to limit the spread of subversion and terrorism. In the West, Zionist groups and individuals disrupt and try to shut down campus events and smear academics and students concerned with Palestinian rights, and shout anti-Semitism at those who object.


One conservative view in the UK is that security and regime officials are welcome in public events, lectures and so on to talk some dose of reality into faux-radical students, with their childish, faddish talk of “safe spaces”. Other conservatives suggest that academics should not fuss about serving the security services or private security contractors, why else would proper young men (and women supposedly skilled in “soft power”) want to study the Middle East?

These Orientalist views are often presented in the UK as rather amusing, clubby, “insider” talk. They are spoken with a frisson of being not very politically correct – ie offending “humourless” minorities, state school kids and women. They often appear clothed in the “rhetoric of reaction” – ie the issue is complex and sensitive and any defence of freedom is ineffective and counterproductive. These views are ascendant in the age of proto-fascist Trump. They present major threats to academic freedom. They should not be underestimated amid our present cocktail of economic crisis and identity politics.

A particular version of elitist liberalism, however, also poses dangers, and these are less easy to understand as they come clothed in support for the principle of academic freedom. In this version, academic freedom is viewed as being valuable for a highly-educated (read highly-privileged) few, who can then make an impact from the ivory tower by informing policy-makers and corporations. The tendency here is to believe that academic freedom is primarily useful for driving economic growth and innovation in general and UK PLC in particular.

There is also the belief that academic freedom involves the production of objective, non-partisan and detached expert knowledge, an untenably simplistic view of the politics of knowledge production. This world view can easily include the belief that certain “vulnerable” students may be “at risk” from radicalisation and this justifies curbs and restraints on campus freedom, such as, in the UK, the restrictive mechanisms instituted by the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015.

Elitist liberalism tends to see academic freedom in procedural, not substantive terms. Detailed or public discussion of the issue of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) funding for UK universities, for instance, is not enjoined. In fact, a soft view on donor influence is prevalent. It is often tacitly understood that funding structures, such as high levels of funding from the GCC, inevitable amid austerity, set certain limits on academic freedom, and these constraints have to be respected, not least for the safety of researchers.

In regards to Matthew Hedges, it is said that we do not know the full facts of the case. Behind closed doors, it is mentioned that perhaps this student went “off-piste” in his questions. The unstated implication is that he could be in some way responsible for the actions of his jailers and abusers. Adherents to elitist liberalism will embrace the “pardon” as a panacea. There will here be little scrutiny of the longer-term suffering of individuals, the implications of a “pardon” for the imputed, initial legal guilt of the student concerned, the arbitrary powers here granted to autocrats, and the very real role played by geopolitical logic.

Proceduralism deserves a special mention. One of the most powerful constraints on academic freedom in UK Middle East Studies in the present has to do with the complex managerial regulation and plethora of procedures and routines involved in the Prevent Duty and associated Risk Assessment, but also in regard to health and safety, public order, hate speech, travel insurance, and security, the regulations that are the daily bread of contemporary research and campus events.

We have here an encircling neoliberal, monitorial bureaucracy, a mind-numbing, demoralising, and infantilising complex of regulation and procedure, too-often embraced or implemented by the main funding agencies and university managers, and capable of deterring even the boldest of students and academics from undertaking research or fieldwork that might be conceived as sensitive, unpopular, risky, controversial and so on, or from inviting speakers to campus that incur the same “risks”, or conceiving of projects where original, creative thinking (rather than box-ticking, procedural and monitoring validity) is central.

Instead of responding to the Hedges case by thinking only in terms of risk assessment and compliance, academics would do well to address the question of how and whether proceduralism and managerialism is a threat to academic freedom.

INSIDE STORY: What Does the Matthew Hedges Case Tell Us About the UAE? (25:40)

Strands of elitist liberalism intertwine too often with conservative and neo-Orientalist views. The former is capable of imbibing the neo-Orientalist view that academic and liberal freedoms are primarily Western values, and that limits, cautions and allowances have to be made in “Arab and Muslim culture”. Elitist liberalism also shares with right-wing politics the idea that curbs on academic freedom are probably necessary for stability overall in a “volatile” and “uneducated” region.

Like right-wingers, elite liberals see interaction between academic and the security services as acceptable, because what matters here is the quality of information, access, and the detail of the knowledge available, and academics are not responsible for the uses to which their research is put. Academics, especially those of a positivist bent, may be too ready to sacrifice on the altar of “risk” the importance of in-region fieldwork, substantive knowledge and experience, linguistic expertise, and/or ethnography.

From my own vantage point, it is the combined effect of elite liberalism and conservatism that poses grave dangers to academic freedom in the present. This complex, uneven, border-crossing hegemony bears the heaviest responsibility for cases like that of Hedges: it has built an entire, discordant complex of theory and practice that makes Hedges look like an outlier, as someone who may well be off-piste, who is not quite playing the game, who may well be meddling in something that does not concern him, and was in some sense, subversive. There are sharp limits here to protection on the one hand, and solidarity on the other.

The critical tradition in this context must therefore defend a substantive version of academic freedom, well beyond mere proceduralism and compliance. Speaking truth to power was the formula of Edward Said, a defining critic of Orientalism and pre-eminent intellectual of the Palestinian cause. Said’s democratic, travelling, humanism did not allow him to disown the idea of academic freedom “with a flourish”.

A progressive agency in the present must include principles of freedom and diversity. Here academic freedom means public education free-of-charge and open to all; it means that affirmative action in regard to race and cultural issues, sexuality, social class and state exclusion is basic to conditions of freedom – and excluded and oppressed groups are invited, not silenced. Here campuses are not built on the abrogation of LGBTQI rights, on land stolen from Palestinians, or on the backs of super-exploited migrant labour. They are not established in order to spread a particular regime doctrine, or by investments in or funding from fossil fuels, arms companies or dictatorships, or via privatisation.

Universities do not give privileges to soldiers of occupation and colonisation, or honour and give platforms to state officials and security goons. Here regime narratives, the culture of neo-Orientalism, heteronormativity, and the idea of the “global education market” are scrutinised, not promoted. Classes, research projects and collaborations are rich, curious and living places where the frozen mask implanted by power can be relaxed and scrutinised. They are spaces where diverse subordinated groups can begin to compile what the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci called an “inventory of traces” – to find out who they are and what they have been and thence to develop original ideas and research projects, new forms of organisation and solidarity and broad strategies to promote progressive change.

Here there are certainly critical academics who do not turn the other way when a colleague is locked up, and who continue to raise the long-term issues faced by so many across the region even after the “pardon” of one individual. Critical academics raise their voices to offer solidarity to researchers facing state violence, including Matthew Hedges, his family, friends, and colleagues. In so doing they bolster organising from below, develop consciousness, and build up the collective will to develop and defend, against the perils of conservatism and the shallowness of proceduralism, a substantive concept and practice of academic freedom.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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