Scholars under attack for critical inquiry, says Higgins

Murder of Palmyra professor example of ‘grave threats’ over intellectual discourse

Thousands of scholars around the world are facing increasing levels of coercion aimed at silencing "critical inquiry" and "intellectual discourse", President Michael D Higgins has warned.

Speaking at a conference organised by the Irish branch of the Scholars at Risk Network and Universities Ireland, Mr Higgins called for an urgent response to "the grave threats that hang over both the intellectual freedom and the physical safety of so many scholars around our world".

An estimated 158 attacks were carried out on university teachers and students in 35 countries between May 2015 and September 2016, according to the latest Scholars at Risk report entitled Free to Think. These attacks included killings, violence, and disappearances; wrongful prosecution and imprisonment; loss of position and expulsion from study and improper travel restrictions.

The Free to Think report references the criminal and administrative investigations launched in Turkey in 2016 against more than 1,100 scholars, many of whom have since been suspended and/or dismissed from their positions. Many others have been detailed, arrested and prosecuted.


The report also examines persecution, imprisonment and attacks against students and academics in Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Iraq and many other countries.

“Thousands of scholars are currently under attack because of their peacefully expressed thoughts, because of their words, and also, I believe, because of what they represent in society,” said Mr Higgins.

Those who use violence to repress scholarly research see “the open, pluralist space of intellectual inquiry as a threat to their power, whether this power and its projects invoke a distorted and hateful version of religion and faith, or an authoritarian conception of the state,” he said.

‘New intellectual horizons’

Governments, educational leaders, public intellectuals and civil societies have a responsibility to protect the role of universities and other institutions of learning have in “shaping public discourse, in encouraging the disputation of ideas, the exploration of new intellectual horizons, and, of course, in enabling future generations”.

“We should always remember that no civilisation, no individual nation, is ever immune to a destruction of that culture of intellectual freedom.”

In his speech, Mr Higgins reflected on the death of Dr Khaled al-Assad, an 82-year-old scholar of antiquities and Aramaic who worked on the excavation of the city of Palmyra and was “one of the pioneering figures in Syrian archeology”.

Prof Assad was publicly beheaded by Islamic State militants after the group accused him of attending conferences with “infidels” and of being the custodian of “idols”. His body was later displayed outside the ruins of Palmyra, bearing a sign claiming that he was “an apostate”.

“Dr Khaled Al-Assad was deprived of life and dignity for his commitment to heritage and the educational rights of future generations,” said Mr Higgins. “Scholars and universities are not simply the collateral casualties of conflict; they very often are the very focus for such conflict.”

The President also warned that women and girls attempting to access education were at increasing risk of attack in parts of the world and spoke of Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai who described how education in her home went from being a right to being a crime.

“Ideas, the free discussion of ideas, the critique and questioning of received ideas and the articulation of new ones are activities that are fundamental to the shaping of public discourse and to the vitality of democratic life,” said Mr Higgins. “The value of academic freedom lies, not just in its direct benefits for both teachers and students, but in its benefits for the whole of society.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast