Violent attacks shrink the space for higher education

University World News, November 3, 2016

Brendan O’Malley 04 November 2016 Issue No:435

Attacks on higher education communities are occurring at an alarming rate around the world, threatening the safety and well-being of scholars, students and staff, according to a new report by the New York-based Scholars at Risk network or SAR.

The report, Free to Think 2016, is SAR’s second instalment of its reporting of attacks on higher education, produced through its Academic Freedom Monitoring Project.

It analyses 158 reported attacks in 35 countries occurring between 1 May 2015 and 1 September 2016.

Reported attacks included 40 killings, violence, and disappearances; 33 cases of wrongful prosecution and 39 cases of wrongful imprisonment; 17 incidents of loss of position and expulsion from study; nine cases of improper travel restrictions; and 20 other examples of ‘severe or systemic issues’, such as university closures or military occupation of campuses.

“These attacks ultimately shrink the space in which everyone is free to think, question and share ideas,” the report concludes. 

Significant incidents occurring over this reporting period have included ‘en masse’ attacks threatening large groups of victims in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, the report says. 

On 20 January 2016, gunmen armed with grenades and suicide vests raided Bacha Khan University in northwestern Pakistan in an attack that killed 22 people and injured another 19. The attackers reportedly scaled Bacha Khan University’s rear wall before entering classrooms and opening fire. University security forces killed the gunmen before they were able to detonate their suicide vests, the report says. 

Following the attack, a Pakistani Taliban official claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it was in retaliation for the execution of four Taliban fighters convicted in connection with a 2014 attack on a public school. 

In a similar attack, on 24 August 2016, two unidentified gunmen entered the campus of

the American University of Afghanistan or AUAF, in Kabul, and over the course of several hours killed at least 13 individuals and wounded at least 44 more, the SAR report says. 

The gunmen entered the campus after a third assailant detonated a car bomb outside the campus gates. Students and faculty members attending evening classes barricaded themselves in classrooms, jumped out of windows, and scaled the campus walls to escape. 

Approximately eight hours after the attack began, Afghan Special Forces soldiers entered the campus and killed the gunmen. The attack came just two weeks after the kidnapping of two AUAF faculty members. 

In another incident, on 26 October 2015, ISIS fighters in Yemen issued a public threat to students at the University of Aden, demanding that the campus become sex segregated, that music be banned from campus, and that students prayed collectively on campus, the report says.

In their demands, made in a leaflet distributed by armed individuals on campus, the fighters stated that the students would be given until 29 October to comply or face retaliation in the form of car and petrol bombings.

Two days later, militants traveling on a motorcycle detonated a bomb on campus, shattering

windows and causing students to scatter for safety. It remains unclear whether any group has publicly taken responsibility for this attack.

In addition to these mass attacks, SAR reported premeditated attacks on individual scholars and students in apparent retaliation for their academic work and extramural expression. 

In one of the most high-profile cases mentioned, on 18 August 2015, ISIS militants publicly executed Dr Khaled al-Asaad, an 82-year-old scholar of antiquities and Aramaic, who was one of the pioneering figures in Syrian archaeology and worked directly on the excavation of the ancient city of Palmyra. 

Asaad was captured in July 2015 and held for roughly one month, during which ISIS militants interrogated him and demanded that he provide them with the location of artefacts hidden by Syrian officials. Asaad reportedly refused and was beheaded before a large crowd. 

His body was later displayed outside the ruins of Palmyra, bearing a sign claiming that he was an apostate and had supported the government of President Bashar al-Assad. ISIS also accused Asaad of attending conferences with infidels, and of being the custodian of “idols”. 

The aim of the SAR report is to bring to light the “global crisis” of rising attacks on higher education communities, with the aim of “highlighting the pressing need for increased awareness, enhanced documentation, and greater protection for scholars, students and other members of higher education communities”. 

Through its Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, Scholars at Risk responds to these attacks by identifying and tracking key incidents, with the aim of protecting vulnerable individuals, raising awareness, encouraging accountability, and promoting dialogue and understanding that can help prevent future threats. 

The reporting also provides SAR and its partners with a foundation from which to evaluate and address these needs, and it has prompted the launch of working groups and related advocacy on wrongful prosecutions and student expression. 

Focal point for conflict

The report concludes that attacks by armed groups and individuals continue to demonstrate the extent to which the university space is not only exposed within societies plagued by conflict, but is also often a focal point for such conflict. 

“Extremists and militants target universities because they see a free, open university space as a threat to their quest for power,” the report says. “Such extremists and militants have committed mass attacks on universities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as targeted killings of individual scholars in Bangladesh, India, Iraq and Syria.”

The report highlights in particular the widespread problems in Turkey and Egypt in the period. 

In Turkey, criminal and administrative investigations were launched in January 2016 against more than 1,100 scholars for signing a petition decrying military operations against Kurds in the south-east of the country; many have since been suspended and-or dismissed from their positions, while others have been detained, arrested and prosecuted, the report says. 

Pressures on the higher education space in Turkey were significantly compounded in July and August, when thousands of higher education professionals were caught up in sweeping actions taken in response to the failed 15 July coup attempt, it adds.

In Egypt, thousands of students and hundreds of scholars remain imprisoned, and face

the persistent threat of arrest and violence; the latter most recently exemplified by the murder of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni. At the same time, local and foreign scholars have suffered restrictions on travel and movement apparently intended to limit their research. 

“Around the world, students who participate in organised, peaceful expression continue to experience violence and arbitrary arrest. In some cases, small groups of students resorted to violence, causing injury and damage to campus property,” the report says. “Significant incidents involving pressures on student expression and movements took place in Myanmar, South Africa, Thailand and Venezuela.

The report says that although these incidents may differ by target, type of attack, location and scale, they are part of a single global phenomenon of increasing attacks on higher education, a crisis marked by widespread violence and coercion to silence inquiry and discourse. 

“Responsible states, higher education leaders, and civil society are called to respond to this crisis — to reject the use of violence to restrict peaceful expression, and to reaffirm publicly their support for the principle that critical discourse is not disloyalty, that ideas are not crimes,“ the SAR report says.

Transparent investigations

The report demands prompt, thorough and transparent investigations of attacks on higher education communities as well as all reasonable effort to hold perpetrators accountable.

It calls for all reasonable measures to be taken to ensure adequate security for all members of higher education communities and it urges respect for the right of students to engage in peaceful expression.

Above all it demands that states and civil society abstain from direct or indirect involvement in attacks on higher education of any type and it urges states to recognise their responsibility to protect higher education communities within their territories against such attacks.

The report makes particular recommendations regarding Turkey and Egypt, calling on the Turkish authorities to suspend and reverse actions taken against Turkish higher education institutions and personnel, and calling on Egypt to release from detention and otherwise restore the status of scholars, students and other members of higher education communities “who did not engage in violent acts and whose only offence was the peaceful exercise of critical inquiry and expression”.