His years in France were a good time for Kassem AlSayed Mahmoud. He completed his doctoral degree in food technology in France in 2007 and returned to his home country, to AlFurat University in the city of Deir Ezzor, in 2009. Despite inadequate research resources, he continued his research on cooking oils in Syria, but a year later he was forced to join the army.
“My military service was meant to take a year, but after the uprising, soldiers were no longer being discharged from service. My options were to kill or be killed.”
In 2012 he fled to Qatar via Turkey. Next week the scholar will come to Helsinki to give a talk.
Middle Eastern universities regressing
Professor of Semitic Languages and Cultures Hannu Juusola from the University of Helsinki is involved in both the Scholars at Risk network, which helps persecuted scholars, and the human rights division of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters. Scholars at Risk sent Mahmoud to Finland.
The expert in Middle Eastern studies must to his regret note that the area between Morocco and Iran is overrepresented in the cases where these organisations have had to stand up for scholars whose liberties were being infringed upon.
“During the past few years, the situation of universities in Egypt, Syria and Turkey has developed in a worrying direction. There have been significant restrictions to the freedom of opinion.”
According to Juusola, researchers in the Middle East are threatened from many different directions. Oppressive regimes do not tolerate criticism, so research in the humanities and social sciences is under threat by definition. Often fundamentalist Islamist organisations want to stifle the secular views of the researchers.
“Even in Israel, otherwise a more stable country, there have been attempts to shutter institutes whose researchers have not promoted nationalistic opinions. It is not outright persecution, but it is disturbing,” says Juusola.
In many countries in the area, universities never managed to reach a high academic standard or attain substantial freedom. From the perspective of researchers, a high-level system of higher education has never been established in the Middle East.
Support from the academic community vital
Researchers’ networks that work for human rights do good work, but there are situations where their impact is limited.
“For example, I don’t think that the Syrian regime is losing any sleep over the stern letter we sent them,” Juusola admits.
“However, there are examples of international attention being helpful to researchers in difficult conditions,” he maintains.
At its most concrete, help from researchers and universities can take the form of asylum. This is the case for Kassem AlSayed Mahmoud, who will be visiting Helsinki. With the help of Scholars at Risk, he was offered a researcher position at the University of Ghent in Belgium. This means sanctuary in both the physical and intellectual sense: he is protected from persecution and has the opportunity to continue his academic career.
“Only those who lose their heart forget their homeland. I dream every day of returning to my homeland, to a free Syria,” says Mahmoud in an interview conducted by the Scholars at Risk network.