Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: [Post 20 of a Series]


This series covers the issues that surfaced in 2015. I had it done at the beginning of 2016, but I have been somewhat slow getting it posted.

Southwest Asia, Part 2

Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is an Indian-American who has lived in Qatar for more than a decade. Initially, she held an administrative staff position with a branch campus of Georgetown University, but after she moved on to an editorial position with a British publisher, she began to write fiction about the complexities in Qatari life, in particular those complexities that young people face as they attempt to honor cultural and religious traditions while also embracing many features of modern Western life. Rajakumar’s enthusiasm for her own writing led her to organize writing workshops for Qatari women, who were culturally conditioned to be anything but self-expressive in much of their daily lives, never mind in print. Nonetheless, Rajakumar managed to produce a handful of generally well-received anthologies of the writing done by participants in the workshops. Likewise, her own half-dozen novels about Qatari life had been generally well-received and were even adopted as texts for some courses taught at the foreign university campuses in Qatar.  This exposure led to her being offered a positions as an adjunct professor teaching writing courses at the Qatari campuses of Virginia Commonwealth University and Northwestern University.

So, Rajakumar was quite surprised when her most recent novel, Love Comes Later, was quietly banned by the Qatari government. More surprisingly to her, although she was prepared to edit the book to address the concerns that led to its being banned, she was never actually given that option. She herself believes that there is a nationalistic bias against fiction about Qatar that has not been written by Qataris. But in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ursula Lindsey provides background information that suggests more complex reasons for the banning of Rajakumar’s novel:

“Ms. Rajakumar’s book is just one of many titles that have been banned-there is no official list, and the authorities do not publicize or explain their decisions, which don’t follow a discernible pattern. Several other works about Qatar that seem more critical or controversial than Ms. Rajakumar’s have been distributed and discussed at the foreign universities. . . .

“The literary scene [in Qatar] is growing, but in 2013 a renowned local poet was given a 15-year jail sentence for a poem that criticized the former emir. Qatar wishes to present an image of openness and modernity to the world, hosting top universities, new museums, and international sporting events. But it remains culturally conservative and politically authoritarian. The question of freedom of expression, says Ms. Rajakumar, ‘will keep coming up and expanding’” (Lindsey).

Lindsey quotes several observations made by Justin D. Martin, an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern’s campus in Qatar., including this comment on the limited censorship actually being enforced with the banning of a print edition of a book: Martin suggested that “because the case did not receive much publicity, most academics in Qatar were unaware of it, [and] those who were may have felt it wasn’t that significant. “’The banning of a print book in Qatar doesn’t mean much,’ he says. ‘It’s mostly symbolic. You can still access the book through e-readers’” (Lindsey).


In March, Today’s Zaman published a scathing critique of the Erdogan regime’s efforts to control political expression and to quell political opposition in Turkish universities. The critique begins with and elaborates on this broad assessment: “The authoritarian regime of Turkey’s chief political Islamist, President Recep Tayyip ErdoIan, has significantly curtailed the autonomy of institutions of higher learning such as academies and universities, dealing a deadly blow to academic freedom, independent thinking, critical research and free artistic expression, which are fundamental to ensure free, democratic and pluralistic societies. This major regression is by no means surprising given that academic freedom, independent research and critical learning are closely associated with freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of thought–areas in which Turkey has been failing terribly in recent years” (Bozkurt).


In November, Turkey’s Higher Education Board (YÖK) began enforcing a new regulation “that will pave the way for the closure of private universities”(“New Regulation . . .”). The regulation . . . gives YÖK the authority to close private universities ‘that have become a focal point for activities against the state’s indivisible integrity’” (“New Regulation . . .”): more specifically, “private universities run by foundations that are critical of the government . . . could lose their academic independence and be placed under the academic, administrative and financial supervision of YÖK trustees” (New Regulation . . .”). Critics of the bill have described it both as an attack on academic freedom and as an attack on free enterprise in Turkey (“New Regulation . . .”).

The regulation “comes amid increasing concerns over growing restrictions on fundamental rights in Turkey”: “Following a government-backed decision on Oct. 26 by the Ankara 5th Criminal Court of Peace, the management of Koza İpek Holding’s 22 companies–including critical TV stations Bugün TV and Kanaltürk and the Bugün and Millet dailies–was taken over by trustees accompanied by police on Oct. 28 on charges of supporting the Gülen movement. Koza İpek Holding also owns İpek University in Ankara” (“New Regulation . . .”). Because “no court ruling has been issued against Gülen and hundreds of other people, including police officers, journalists, judges, businessmen and bureaucrats, for their alleged links with the Gülen movement in the ongoing government-orchestrated investigations,” “investigations targeting the Gülen movement have been criticized by many international organizations, including Interpol, which has reportedly rejected a number of requests by the AK Party in 2015 to issue international warrants against people alleged to have links with the movement and who live abroad on the grounds that it has not been provided with any evidence of crimes” (“New Regulation . . .”). In addition, Interpol “notified the AK Party government in August that it does not recognize the Gülen movement as a criminal organization that is attempting to topple the Turkish government” (“New Regulation . . .”).


The diplomatic agreement forestalling the Iranian development of nuclear weapons brought attention to a number of cases in which Americans had been detained in Iran, ostensibly for engaging in espionage. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the case of Omid Kokabee, a University of Texas graduate student in physics, confined to “Tehran’s Evin Prison, where he has languished for nearly five years for the crime of refusing to engage in scientific research that he deems harmful to humanity” ().  Here is the background to this story, provided by Herbert L. Berk, chairman of the American Physical Society’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, in an article for the Washington Post:

“As an engineering physics student in Iran, Kokabee worked in the rapidly expanding field of laser technology. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree and several years of industrial laboratory experience, he was accepted into the physics graduate program at the University of Texas but was unable to attend due to visa issues. Instead, he enrolled in the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona, under the tutelage of Majid Ebrahim-Zadeh, an Iranian scientist working on laser development and the president of Radiantis, a company manufacturing state-of-the-art infrared lasers. One possible application of this technology is the enrichment of uranium to produce the high-grade fissile material necessary for nuclear reactors and weapons. In 2010, after completing his master’s degree in Barcelona, Kokabee sought to pursue his doctorate at the University of Texas, and this time he was able to enter the United States. During winter break in December 2010, he traveled to Iran to visit his ailing mother. While there, government scientists offered him a position working on security and military research, something Kokabee had repeatedly turned down before. He again refused. Then, while attempting to return to Texas in January 2011, he was detained by Iranian authorities, who offered him freedom from incarceration if he agreed to work for the government. Once again, he said no. Subsequently, Kokabee was convicted in the Islamic Revolutionary Court of collaborating with an enemy of Iran and sentenced to a 10-year prison term. . . . Last fall, Iran’s Supreme Court ruled that the charges against Kokabee were flawed and vacated his conviction. But the Revolutionary Court refuses to recognize the Supreme Court’s authority, and Kokabee remains in prison. About a year ago, Kokabee was moved from housing with other political prisoners and is now held in a tightly packed cell with about 20 other inmates, many of whom are ordinary convicts. He has been denied reading material previously available to him, as well as a reading lamp. More alarming, his health has deteriorated tremendously” (Berk).

Berk highlighted the international support that Kokabee has received from scientists and scientific organizations as a prelude to asking for broader attention to his case: “The world scientific community has mobilized on Kokabee’s behalf. He has received the  Andrei Sakharov Prize from the American Physical Society for ‘his courage in refusing to use his physics knowledge to work on projects that he deemed harmful to humanity, in the face of extreme physical and psychological pressure.’ The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) gave him its Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award, and 33 Nobel Prize winners in physics have petitioned Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, for his release. Amnesty International has designated Kokabee a prisoner of conscience” (Berk).


In May 2015, Iranian political activist and retired chemistry professor Mohammed Hossein Rafee Fanood  “was sentenced to six years in prison in May for ‘issuing statements against the state’s security’ and belonging to an outlawed organization’; “his backing for nuclear negotiations may have infuriated hardliners” (Catanzaro): more specifically, “Rafiee was sentenced to five years for belonging to Melli Mazhabi, an illegal nationalist–religious organisation, and one year for ‘spreading propaganda . . . by giving interviews to media who are against the state’” and “drafting documents for the National Peace Council, an opposition organisation of which Rafiee is a member, which ‘aimed at putting pressure on the regime to retreat in its foreign policy issues, in particular the nuclear issue’” (Catanzaro). Both the American Chemical Society and the Committee of Concerned Scientists protested Rafiee’s detention in open letters. Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel peace prize laureate and founder of the National Peace Council, told Chemistry World: “Dr Rafiee . . .  should not be in prison. He should be at university teaching our young generation’” (Catanzaro).



Berk, Herbert L. “Free Omid Kokabee, Another Iranian Prisoner of Conscience.” Washington Post 30 Oct. 2015.

Bozkurt, Abdullah. “Academic Freedom No More in Turkey.” Today’s Zaman [Turkey] 8 Mar. 2015.

Catanzaro, Michele. “Jailing of Retired Iranian Chemist Linked to Nuclear Deal.” Chemistry World 15 Sep. 2015.

Lindsey, Ursula. “Qatar Inspires a Writing Instructor Despite Censorship.” Chronicle of Higher Education 26 Jan. 2015.

“New Regulation Allowing YOK to Shut Down Private Universities Goes into Effect.” Today’s Zaman 19 Nov. 2015.


Previous Posts in the Series:

Post 1. Canada—University of British Columbia [Part 1]:

Post 2. Canada—University of British Columbia [Part 2]:

Post 3. Canada—University of New Brunswick:

Post 4. Canada—Capilano University:

Post 5. Canada—Overview:

Post 6. Canada—Additional Items:

Post 7. Australia– Nikolic, Powell, and Price:

Post 8: Australia–Copenhagen Consensus Centre at Flinders University and Monash University Branch Campus in China:

Post 9: New Zealand—Police and Government Interference in Academic Freedom, Tertiary Education Union and Association of Scientists:

Part 10: United Kingdom, Part 1: Free-Speech Rankings, Issues in Higher Education, and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act:

Part 11: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: United Kingdom, Part 2:

Part 12: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: United Kingdom, Part 3, Scotland:

Part 13: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: United Kingdom, Part 4, Northern Ireland:

Part 14: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: Continental Europe:

Part 15: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: Mexico and Cuba:

Part 16: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: Sub-Saharan Africa, Part 1:

Part 17: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: Sub-Saharan Africa, Part 2:

Part 18: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: North Africa:

Part 19: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: Southwest Asia, Part 1:


2 thoughts on “Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: [Post 20 of a Series]

  1. Pingback: A Freedom at Risk | Pen and Paper

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