Fighting Bans with Gags? A Consideration of the Academic Boycott of US Conferences

Posted February 16, 2017
By Lara Karaian

Scholars in the United States and abroad have called for an academic boycott of international conferences in the United States in reaction to Donald Trump’s Executive Order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

In their letter and online petition in support of a boycott the authors write: “Among those affected by the Order are academics and students who are unable to participate in conferences and the free communication of ideas. We the undersigned take action in solidarity with those affected by Trump’s Executive Order by pledging not to attend international conferences in the US while the ban persists. We question the intellectual integrity of these spaces and the dialogues they are designed to encourage while Muslim colleagues are explicitly excluded from them.” As of February 9th the petition has garnered some 6300 signatures.

As an academic who strongly condemns the Executive Order, as well as the Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism fostered by Trump and the Republican Party, my immediate inclination was to support this boycott. But, I have not signed the petition and do not expect to do so. Not because I don’t agree with the sentiment behind the call, or the use of boycotts in other contexts—I have supported, with some ambivalence, the boycott and divestment movement in the Israeli context—but because I, and some of my colleagues, have doubts about expressing solidarity via the suppression of critical speech in this particular context.

I fully agree with the need to “question the intellectual integrity of these spaces [US conferences] and the dialogues they are designed to encourage while Muslim colleagues are explicitly excluded from them”. Trump’s order has already limited the free expression of ideas, as is illustrated by Ehsan Alimohammadian’s experience. Alimohammadian—an international PhD student from Iran—was detained for more than 10 hours before eventually being denied entry to attend a conference in the US. His research was delivered by a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto who prefaced his presentation by expressing his opposition to the Order. While Alimohammadian’s research was ultimately shared with his international colleagues he was not able to elaborate on his findings and their implications, nor was he able to field questions and engage directly with scholars in his field.

Exclusion from conferences negatively impacts on scholars’, particularly graduate students’, ability to foster intellectual communities, engage in collaborative research, advance their professional development, and disseminate their ideas. It is important to recognize that exclusion from conferences is not necessarily new—access to international conferences has always been restricted due to high costs or inhospitable cross-border travel practices for those who are racialized, members of religious minorities, trans, disabled, or who have been criminalized and/or associated with radical political affiliations. Nevertheless, this Order brings these inequalities into stark relief and offers us an(other) opportunity to consider the harms of these sorts of exclusionary practices and how best to respond.

This boycott has been framed by many academics as an important symbolic gesture and act of solidarity. For many, it serves as a reminder to other American citizens that racist and Islamophobic orders ought not be normalized, although similar actions by previous administrations have been long normalized without the same degree of uproar. Nevertheless, I would say that to some extent this action has met with success. It has been covered widely in the media and has brought attention to the scope of the opposition to Trump’s Order. And yet, while a boycott in this context may offer an important means of resisting the seeming rise of fascism under President Trump, it also raises concerns about playing into Trump’s isolationist, “America first,” agenda and thus bringing into being his very own exclusionary politics. Debate over the effectiveness of the academic boycott of South Africa for ending South-African apartheid may be instructive here. The opposition to that divisive boycott has been described as suggesting that “ideas and knowledge should be treated differently than tangible commodities, that obstacles to information access could actually hurt the victims of apartheid (for example, retard medical research and, ultimately, reduce the quality of health care), and that an academic boycott (in contrast to economic, trade, or political boycott) would not even be noticed by the South African government. Change is much more likely to occur by providing information than by withholding it.”

If Trump’s aim is to stop the flow of undesirable—a category which, given Trump’s anti-intellectualism, he would presumably extend to include critical scholars of all persuasions—then a boycott runs the risk of bringing into being the very results that Trump and the Republican Party desire—closed borders, restricted mobility, and constrained (counter) expression.

To the extent that this boycott singles out participation in US conference (as opposed to a refusal to conduct research in the US or publish with US printers), it affords us an opportunity to ask questions about the role of conferences for affecting social and political change. For many scholars and academic associations, conferences offer crucial spaces for dissent to be heard and for us to learn from one another. If this is the case then those of us who are privileged enough to be able to travel across the border could insist on the inclusion of our excluded peers via technology, the creation of special panels or workshops within which to strategize and resist in solidarity with those who have been barred from attending, and the mobilization of our voices and bodies in support of other local actions.

Having just returned from a colloquium on “How to Talk about Trump”, hosted by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University, these forums could be designated for interrogating the labels and terms that are being offered up to us by the Trump administration, the media, and academia, to make sense of the contemporary US context—terms such as populism, fascism, fact, (alternative) truth, alt-right, extremism, bias, terrorism, and divisive politics, to name just a few. For those of us who can use our privilege to cross the border, we can insist on discussing what these concepts reveal, what they conceal, and for whom. We can also discuss what solidarity with scholars at risk looks like in the face of neoliberal capitalism’s attack on academic freedom as, for example, Turkey’s dismissal of thousands of scholars since July of 2016. Alternative modes of resistance could involve lending our bodies and voices to local resistance movements where racialized and undocumented citizens are not represented for fear of physical injury or deportation.

For these reasons and others I have decided against adding my name to the list of academics boycotting US conferences and have decided instead to sign the petition for “Academics Against Immigration Executive Order”.