Birzeit University: Silencing Humor

Palestinian protesters carry a wounded comrade during confrontations between Israeli troops and stone-throwers, mostly Palestinian students from Birzeit University, at the West Bank checkpoint of Atara, north of Ramallah. (Photo: AFP - Abbas Momani)

By: Hussam Ghosheh

Published Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Birzeit University in Palestine is in the midst of a controversy that threatens to destroy its reputation as a bastion of academic freedoms. A university professor is under investigation for hanging cartoons drawn by an Emirati youth commenting on social issues. The complaint, led by a small Salafi group on campus, has uncovered an environment of collusion between the university administration, the faculty, and Gulf donors.

Occupied Jerusalem – The "freedom of expression" conflict started when Professor Mousa al-Budeiri, from the Philosophy and Cultural Studies Department, hung up two cartoons on his office door – and all hell broke loose.

The Awareness Bloc, the student arm of the Islamic Liberation Party (Hizb al-Tahrir), launched a fierce attack on Budeiri, including takfiri campaigns deeming him an apostate and demanding his expulsion from the university for "insulting Islam."

The bloc went further when it succeeded in coercing the university, which, instead of supporting him, succumbed to the Islamists' threats and took a series of measures against the professor.

Budeiri told Al-Akhbar that that the university did not communicate directly with him, but pressured him through "envoys" not to return to the university. He said that the university formed a committee to investigate him without questioning the students who began the attacks and threats.

The Awareness Bloc announced that the dean of student affairs, Mohamad al-Ahmad, "confirmed that al-Budeiri will not return to the university after the recent events." But Ahmad denied to Al-Akhbar ever having made such an announcement.

The case of one of the most prominent academics at Birzeit University has revealed the weakness of the "bastion of freedom and reason," the student body, and Palestinian civil society institutions in confronting attacks by Salafis, though they are thought to be small in numbers and influence at the university.

The university seems unaware of the impact that this new attack on freedom of thought has on occupied Palestine after significant regression in recent years. The case revived a number of structural problems the university faces, starting with its independence, its funding background, its relationship with the students, and the low cultural standards displayed by many professors in dealing with Budeiri's case.

"It is the poison of external funding, which is from the Gulf in this case," said an involved university official on condition of anonymity when Al-Akhbar looked into the causes of this deterioration and the university's failure to take appropriate measures to resolve the issue.

"It is not in the interest of the university to convey the image that it insults Islam," the official said. "Otherwise, how can it obtain support and grants?" he added in what seemed to be a Freudian slip.

Fearing the loss of Gulf funding may also be the reason that Birzeit University president Khalil Hindi did not want to make a fuss about the issue. But the matter blew out of proportions. The debate raged among the professors, and social media and websites were used to orchestrate campaigns against Budeiri.

Ironically, the cartoons that Budeiri hung up on his office door were prints from a Gulf website that were also posted on a Saudi site. They were drawn by an Emirati youth who sought to debate social behavior, such as polygamy.

How can an academic team of this magnitude tremble before a group of extremists seeking to impose new inquisition courts? Palestinian universities are in desperate need of the critical academic awareness that Budeiri represents, which is far more relevant in resistance and opposition to the American-Israeli project in the region.

Attempts to interfere in the curriculum related to philosophy and cultural studies are not new at Birzeit University. In fact, interferences have not stopped for the past 20 years, according to Imad Ghayatha, head of the university's Political Sciences Department.

Ghayatha spoke to Al-Akhbar about other attempts to suppress critical approaches in sciences.

"These attempts, from inside and outside the university, make us wonder about the impact of the emergence of Islamist parties - with their extremist Salafi trends - in the Palestinian arena, as well as their impact on the cultural and academic process, amid the absence of a culture of national action," he said.

In a May 26 statement, the "pioneers of the takfiri campaign by the Awareness Bloc," as Ghayatha describes them, put his name next to Budeiri's and called them "partners in crime." The statement demanded "the harshest measures" be taken against the two professors.

The sympathy shown by some professors to the students seeking to turn the university into a Salafist platform comes as a surprise. This sympathy emerged through e-mails that demanded reconsidering the Philosophy Department's curriculum, while some students demanded that the department be shut down on the grounds that it comprised "a trend promoting atheism."

Other professors took a position that called for ending the debate without any serious effort to start a rational and responsible dialogue on the issue.

Despite all this commotion, a campaign that later called itself "Together against insulting Islam at Birzeit University" did not gather more than 200 people out of a total of 5,000 students registered in the on-campus summer courses.

Meanwhile, the university administration did nothing but issue a statement a few days after the crisis erupted. It said that Budeiri had emphasized to the committee and the cultural studies council that he "did not intend to insult Islam." It added that he hung up the cartoons as "a contribution to criticizing social behavior."

Dean of the Faculty of Arts Mahmoud Miari and head of the Cultural Studies Department Abdul Rahim al-Sheikh, filed a complaint on May 30 to the administration board against a number of students on charges of issuing threats.

The committee of public order said it "will look into them according to its regulations," but the university has so far failed to take any measures against these students.

By succumbing to the Awareness Bloc, Birzeit University appears to be a partner in this scandal, eliminating whatever is left of freedom in this academic institution.

The university's collusion pushed this small excited group to announce its victory, especially when the administration removed the two cartoons and announced a disciplinary hearing for the professor before questioning the attacking students.

The university did not explain the "victory statement," which this group issued and published in some newspapers on the eve of suspending their campaign, "Together against insulting Islam at Birzeit University," on June 14 .

Fear from Islamist expansion has practically paralyzed secular forces, giving these Salafi groups additional strength. Their silence and comatose state could only help make the "Salafi nightmare come true," as one observer put it.


Concern and Condemnation

The Palestinian Council of Human Rights Organizations last week expressed concern at the takfiri and inciting discourse of some student groups and faculty members at Birzeit University.

The council said it was ready to intervene and support the university's board to help solve Budeiri's problem. It also condemned the extremist student movement, describing the measures taken to resolve the issue as "lukewarm."

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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