With campuses under literal fire in some places and extraordinary repression and authoritarian crackdowns in others, research, writing and teaching have become nearly impossible in many places. While there are no precise figures concerning the extent of academic displacement, dislocation and disruption, there has been a noticeable uptick of displaced scholars from the Middle East finding their way to North America. For those based outside the region, access to field sites and archives has been affected by the same conditions.
In response to the alarming increase in the numbers of scholars and academics from the region forced out of their home institutions, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Global Academy initiative was developed in 2016 at the MESA annual meeting. Directors of university-based Middle East centers compared notes and realized that many of those who were dislocated were now seeking placements in North America at universities with strong Middle East programs. The shared frustration among center directors at not being able to do more to assist these displaced researchers was an expression of the deep solidarity experienced by most MESA members as colleagues from the region faced increasingly perilous circumstances.
With a common interest in serving this community of displaced scholars, a committee designed an initiative that leveraged MESA’s unique academic networks. The MESA Board authorized the committee to seek grants to create fully funded fellowship positions for displaced scholars to join MESA-affiliated university Middle East centers. While that remains a long-term goal of the project, pilot funding from the Carnegie Corporation is creating opportunities for scholarly collaboration, research partnerships and knowledge production that places displaced scholars from the region in conversation with each other and their colleagues in North America. The project takes advantage of MESA’s convening power and the breadth of its membership to rebuild connections that sustain and support social scientific and humanistic research by displaced scholars while offering seed funds and platforms that bring these scholars into the center of MESA’s academic community.
Aslı Ü. Bâli is one of the founders of MESA’s Global Academy initiative and a past member of MERIP’s editorial committee. She is professor of law at UCLA School of Law and has previously served as the director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies and the founding faculty director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights. MERIP editor Arang Keshavarzian interviewed her in October 2021.
Arang Keshavarzian: Many communities in the Middle East have been displaced in recent years and not all of them due to the Arab uprisings. While various humanitarian initiatives and aid projects are addressing immediate challenges, the material destruction or politicization of universities and research institutions have undermined scholarship on the struggles that are unfolding and ongoing. How did you and your colleagues at the Global Academy arrive at this project to focus on the research and expertise that was being destroyed by the fallout from civil wars, authoritarian backlash and displacement? Is the focus specifically on the humanities and social sciences because this is where collaborative knowledge production is less developed?
Aslı Ü. Bâli: The displacements of the last decade from the Middle East and North Africa have had many causes—some of them can be traced directly to the “Global War on Terror” and the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of Iraq (broadly construed to encompass the internal and transnational impacts), which have destabilized much of the region. Others have been a result of conflict and authoritarian retrenchment in the wake of the Arab uprisings, not only due to counterrevolutionary dynamics but also as a consequence of multiple external interventions. Syria, Bahrain, and Libya are just some of the cases in which all these factors have played out. The increasing exodus of academics and scholars from Turkey is a different sort of example where a country at the periphery of many of these developments is still marked equally by region-wide dynamics and internally driven political transformation. Yet another context is that of Iran where the combination of increasing sanctions and internal repression have produced a steady brain drain from the country.
What is common across all these contexts is that they have damaged and disfigured higher education and reshaped the conditions for both research and cultural production. It is perhaps unsurprising that the 20 years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, have visited this kind of devastation on the region. But its consequences in terms of the sheer destruction of expertise, archives, scholarly careers and knowledge production in and about the Middle East remains vastly underappreciated. From Cairo to Beirut, from Damascus to Istanbul, vibrant centers for higher education have been all but crushed, for disparate reasons and to different extents, but the fallout is evident everywhere.
MESA Global Academy is an initiative by a set of colleagues to think through different models of academic solidarity in this context. Scholars of the Middle East based in North America have themselves been affected in different ways—cut off from archives in some instances, increasingly unable to maintain what had been thriving scholarly collaborations in others. For those who are originally from the region but did their graduate training abroad, witnessing these events from afar has been both professionally and personally debilitating. When the ripple effects on academia on this side of the Atlantic are added to the equation, the question of solidarity takes on some different dimensions.
The MESA Global Academy focuses on the humanities and social sciences for three reasons: first, these are the disciplines that have been disproportionately affected by violence and authoritarian backlash. Training in medicine, engineering and the STEM fields often remains valued even by repressive governments while work in the humanities is treated as dispensable “luxuries” or dangerous to “the nation” and social science data collection is often subject to national security constraints. Moreover, scholars in the natural and applied sciences are often treated as having valued expertise in countries to which they are displaced in Europe or North America. The disinvestment that characterizes the humanities in the West poses a form of double jeopardy to displaced scholars in the humanistic social sciences who find shrinking departments and precarious forms of employment as the only available avenues once they arrive at a destination outside of their home institutions. Third, MESA’s own intellectual networks are, of course, disproportionately in the humanities and social sciences enabling us to leverage relationships with partner universities and dissemination platforms in these fields in ways that enhance our efforts.
Arang: Some researchers and institutions have been better positioned to withstand the political crises and maybe even tapped into some of the flows of funding on the “Arab Spring” or other topics of interest to international agencies and scholars. Given the large number of researchers, professors and graduate students seeking to leave Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Turkey, Lebanon and Iran, however, the research field is highly uneven. What are some of the factors that have made some groups more vulnerable and precarious than others? How do these factors shape who can leave their country and who may be eligible for the sorts of support that Global Academy offers? How does international law and US immigration policy shape the pathways available to researchers?
Aslı: One of the most significant factors that affects the ability of displaced scholars to find their way to North America is whether they have prior institutional ties to a North American university. Such ties may be a consequence of having done undergraduate or graduate training in this country or having served at an earlier time as a visiting scholar, researcher or fellow at a university in the United States or Canada or having a research collaboration with an established scholar based in North America who is able to use their institutional platform to assist their colleague. In many cases, scholars displaced from the Middle East do not arrive in North America through one of the formal programs like the Scholar Rescue Fund or the Scholars at Risk Network but rather through private efforts by communities at North American universities who identify an individual seeking to leave their country and find an institutional home and then cobble together the resources to invite them on a temporary or visiting basis.
Of course, US immigration laws pose a very high barrier to entry for most scholars, and those barriers have more recently become nearly insuperable due to pandemic-based entry restrictions. But the relevance of prior institutional affiliation also means that there are pronounced patterns in who is able to leave their country to come to the United States. It is worth noting that some European countries—particularly Germany—have been far more welcoming of displaced scholars from the Middle East and North Africa and have provided institutional affiliations to many who had no such prior ties. In addition, the German government has lowered immigration-related entry barriers for displaced scholars, while the US government has made no such accommodation.
To begin with, those with prior institutional ties—especially those who previously studied in the United States—often belong to socio-economic elites in their home countries and hold positions in the leading universities in the region. Scholars who enjoy these advantages are also unevenly distributed across the region. In practice, the sudden onslaught by the Turkish government against academics in 2016 and the relatively strong ties between Turkish universities and the United States has meant that those forced to flee Turkey may constitute the single largest community of displaced scholars in the field of Middle East studies to have arrived in this country in the last five years. But they are by no means the only such community—there are also many Kurdish scholars among those displaced from Turkey. Apart from Turkey, scholars from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen make up the bulk of those in the field of Middle East studies who have been displaced to North America. While few Afghan scholars have managed to arrive yet, we expect a massive new wave of academics forced to flee from Afghanistan in the coming year.
We have worked very hard at MESA Global Academy to find every possible avenue for our calls for applications and we hold them open for months while we reach out to relevant communities. This process has been challenging since individuals find their way to North America through an enormous variety of channels, many times involving the private efforts of their pre-existing networks to bring them to a university without any affiliation to formal programs of assistance for displaced scholars. Accessing the relevant networks to ensure that we contact as many eligible scholars as possible from a broad a range of backgrounds—national origin, ethnicity, gender, etc.—has been one of the most formidable puzzles with which we have grappled. To date we have funded nearly two dozen fellows from Iran, Israel/Palestine, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Yemen and we are constantly striving to diversify our pool of candidates and awardees. Most recently we have been working with a range of partners to develop a program to assist displaced Afghan scholars who we hope will be able to arrive in North America in the coming months.
Arang: If we think of the Arab uprisings as a historical epoch, is it appropriate to describe the cohort of young researchers and graduate students as constituting a generation marked by both the hope and political energies of the time and its immense dislocations? And if so, do you see signs of this generation building transnational networks of solidarity now that some of them have been encountering one another and even collaborating outside of their national homes and political contexts?
Aslı: Yes, I absolutely believe that the various uprisings across the region—from the Green Movement in Iran to the Arab uprisings to the Gezi Park protests in Turkey—have been the expression of a generation unwilling to accept the status quo they have inherited but equally dislocated and disoriented by the sharp deterioration of conditions over the last decade. The reality of disrupted studies, research, academic careers and cultural production is in evidence across the region. This generation has seen opportunities to access or make careers in higher education foreclosed sometimes across an entire country wracked by war, and sometimes more selectively, making academia inaccessible to those viewed as dissidents who are excluded for their roles in the uprisings or in resistance movements. While many have kept faith with the principles that led them to express their dissent, their lives have been upended and the dispiriting experience of displacement has altered their own scholarly trajectories.
Arang: In terms of sustaining and extending collaborative scholarly support, how should we envision next steps? Should efforts focus more intensively on the region to draw in more institutions and networks of support or more extensively to link with efforts in other parts of the world? For those of us outside the region who might want to support the Global Academy, what work should we be doing?
Aslı: With events in Afghanistan as the most recent example, it is clear that as long as the toxic mix of external interventions and geopolitical support to authoritarian formations in the region persist (despite the “pivot to Asia,” these dynamics show no signs of slowing) the waves of destruction affecting scholars, research opportunities and academic networks will continue. We have been trying to be nimble in our response at MESA Global Academy. We have pivoted to working collaboratively with displaced scholars to design purpose-built platforms that offer seed funding for research and publication opportunities, new multi-media venues to showcase their work and creative strategies to (re)build networks that provide scholarly community and identity in a new context. But we are vastly under-resourced and unable to meet the needs that we have identified among displaced scholars, not to mention the crisis in academic communities in North America increasingly severed from the archives and field sites that were once essential to knowledge production in Middle East studies.
For those of us outside the region and seeking avenues to form or join intellectual communities with our displaced colleagues, there are many ways to get involved with MESA Global Academy or the many other initiatives I have mentioned. At MESA Global Academy, we are always seeking partnerships with universities and individual faculty members who want to join our network. Our website includes information about the many events we sponsor that highlight the cutting-edge research being produced by our fellows. We are also eager to foster research collaborations between fellows and their North American counterparts in Middle East studies and would welcome anyone who would like to join such an endeavor or has ideas to foster new partnerships to contact us. You can also donate to our project through our website.
 While precise numbers on displacement are difficult to ascertain, over 1,000 displaced scholars have found placements in North America over the last 20 years, with a substantial majority from the Middle East. For a discussion of some of the numbers and patterns of displacement, see Elizabeth Redden, “The Long-Term Outlook for Displaced Scholars,” Inside Higher Ed, May 13, 2021.
 The Scholar Rescue Fund is a project of the Institute of International Education that provides matching funds (to be matched by a host university) for fellowships to support threatened scholars. The Scholar at Risk (SAR) Network is a US-based, international network of institutions that work together to arrange temporary academic positions for scholars facing grave threats in their home countries. SAR does not offer fellowships but assists in connecting scholars with host institutions and also provides advice and support as these scholars make their transition.
 The immigration restrictions put in place by the Trump administration and largely continued by the Biden administration began to be loosened somewhat by mid-fall 2021, too late for the 2021–22 academic year for most scholars and students. Similar border closings in Europe and beyond left scholars with few good options in the last 18 months. For an overview of these restrictions in the United States and beyond, see Mary A. Shiraef, “Closed borders, travel bans and halted immigration: 5 ways COVID-19 changed how—and where—people move around the world,” The Conversation, March 18, 2021.