Disruption and Uncertainty Ripple Across a Discipline

January 31, 2017

Thomas Veneklasen
The ban on immigration puts scholarship on the Middle East at risk, says Beth Baron, president of the Middle East Studies Association. "A lot of what we do depends on our interactions with colleagues on the ground, and that definitely becomes much more difficult when we can no longer have those very productive, critical exchanges with colleagues from the affected countries."
Of the academic associations that have spoken out against President Trump’s recent executive order on immigration, few have as much at stake as the Middle East Studies Association, an international group with more than 2,700 members.

Mesa’s Board of Directors has strongly condemned the order and urged President Trump and Congress to lift it. In a separate statement, Mesa’s Task Force on Civil and Human Rights argues that the order "does damage to academic institutions in the United States" and calls on colleges to continue admitting students and hiring scholars from the seven nations that the order singles out: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

The Chronicle on Monday discussed the order with Beth Baron, Mesa’s president. Following is an edited and condensed transcript of that interview with Ms. Baron, who is a professor of Middle Eastern history at City College of the City University of New York and director of the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center at CUNY’s Graduate Center.

Q. What share of the Middle East Studies Association’s membership is affected by last Friday’s executive order? What are you hearing from them?

A. I would say that the entire membership is affected by it in one way or another. We’ve been hearing great concern from those who have been caught up in the disruption of travel and so on, as well as those who have associates who are caught up, as well as those here who are concerned about the uncertainties that the executive order introduces.

Q. What sorts of scholarship of the Middle East do you see as most at risk, and how?

A. Much of our scholarship on the Middle East involves research in the area, and all of that is at risk at this point in time. This is not just a question of scholars coming from those countries, but travel from the U.S. to countries in the region, and being able to interact with scholars there — the work of political scientists, anthropologists, historians, and so on. A lot of what we do depends on our interactions with colleagues on the ground, and that definitely becomes much more difficult when we can no longer have those very productive, critical exchanges with colleagues from the affected countries.

Q. The executive order calls for federal authorities to deny entry into the U.S. to those who would "place violent ideologies over American law," "engage in acts of bigotry or hatred," or "oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation." How is this different from the ideological exclusion practiced by federal authorities under previous presidents’ administrations, including President Barack Obama’s?

A. What’s different here is the difficulty of establishing the nature of beliefs or attitudes through the visa screening process. It means that the screening is going to be applied very widely and very unevenly, and it could be quite draconian. There are also concerns about this leading to misinformation and misunderstandings about faith.

Q. Do you have any reason to believe that the governments or higher-education institutions of nations covered by the executive order will react to it in ways that hurt academic endeavors?

A. We have already begun to hear about boycotts of international conferences in the United States. Whether those are coming just from individual scholars, or their institutions, or are backed by the governments at this stage is not clear. But there are indications that there will be boycotts. It definitely will affect interchange.

Q. Do you foresee much variation between Middle Eastern nations in their responses and their responses’ impact on scholars?

A. I anticipate that there will be variation amongst the different Middle Eastern nations in the way that they treat these limitations and bans on immigration and entry of refugees into the United States. I think that it will take some time to actually see how these nations and people within these nations react.

Q. How do you feel about how other higher-education associations have weighed in on this?

A. The associations are weighing in as quickly as possible. I know that our association spent the past 72 hours working on the memo that we released, which focuses not only on condemning the bans and limitations but also on giving some critical advice and details on how individuals and institutions can negotiate through this terrain. Associations are beginning to reach out to one another to come together to work jointly to oppose this executive order.

Q. What lies ahead for your group? Will it need to devote a lot more resources to dealing with actions by the U.S. government than it did in the past? Is it equipped to do so?

A. At last November’s meeting for the Middle East Studies Association the board formed the Task Force on Civil and Human Rights. That task force has now essentially been jump-started, and its mission is to focus on the threats to civil rights, human rights, and political freedoms of the Middle East studies community, broadly defined, at the level of the U.S. federal government. I do anticipate we will be devoting resources to studying the changes in the legal terrain and to providing our community and the broader academic community with information and guidance in the weeks and months ahead.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.