Free to Think, a report by the New York University-based international organization Scholars at Risk Network, has documented in the last four years a total of 333 attacks on students, scholars and staff at colleges and universities in sixty-five nations. Several dozen incidents of intimidation put people in education at risk and are considered an attack to academic freedom.
One-hundred and eleven incidents of violence, disappearances and killings were recorded, sixty-seven wrongful imprisonments, and forty-seven wrongful prosecutions. The network insists that its findings represent “only a small subset of all attacks on higher education.”
As a whole these incidents of persecutions, imprisonments and deadly acts of violence targeting academic freedom must be addressed by nations to safeguard the freedom to think.
“These attacks not only threaten the safety and well-being of scholars, students, administrators and staff,” Robert Quinn, the network’s executive director, said. “In conflict countries, like Syria and Iraq, failure to protect higher education will cripple any efforts to rebuild those societies when the fighting eventually stops, dragging everyone into a never-ending cycle of violence.”
In its report, the Network highlighted a number of targeted murders, the Times Higher Education writes. One example cited was the killing of Muhammad Shakil Auj, a progressive religious scholar and dean of Islamic studies at the University of Karachi, who was murdered by unidentified attackers.
Other incidents include intimidation acts against scholars to keep them quiet in the public sphere and silence their academic work. The Network referred to an incident with Palestine Al-Quds University professor Mohammed Dajani, who was:
“[A]ccused of treason for leading a student trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland as part of a course in conflict resolution”.
The Network reported documentation of 485 killings across eighteen countries that targeted higher education professionals. Several of these incidents were indiscriminate, such as the incident at Garissa University College in Kenya where Somali Al-Shabaab affiliated gunmen killed 147 people on campus.
Disappearance incidents are also a widespread phenomenon: “detentions, abductions or other deprivations of liberty by states, quasi-state agents or their proxies followed by a refusal to acknowledge or to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned” have been documented in the report, writes University World News.
Free to Think reports several non-deadly incidents, too, including the case of Azmi Sharom, a law lecturer at the University of Malaya who was charged for saying during a newspaper interview that the constitutional crisis of Malaya in 2014 is comparable to that of five years ago.
The report makes a plea to nations to stop attacking higher education and asks them to take safety measures to protect the higher education community, document and call in incidents to authorities and to develop policies that will nurture “a culture of respect for principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.”