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Kamran Scot Aghaie, Chair CAL 528 | 204 W 21st St F9400 | Austin, TX 78712-1029 • 512-471-3881

Statement on the Cancellation of "Memory of a Promise: Short Stories by Middle Eastern Women," in honor of Elizabeth Fernea

Posted: June 1, 2012

Since her passing in 2008, CMES Publications has been working on compiling an anthology of women's stories in honor of the late Elizabeth 'B.J.' Warnock Fernea, who was a beloved professor of comparative literature and Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. The volume, Memory of a Promise: Short Stories by Middle Eastern Women, was nearly complete.

In early-May of this year, as the publication date approached, several authors objected to the presence of Israeli authors in the anthology. If the volume included the Israeli authors, they informed us, they would withdraw their own contributions. We could not agree to exclude the Israeli authors, because, as an academic institution, we are committed to the ideals of academic freedom and non-discrimination. A university has to be a place in which ideas are uncensored and are freely exchanged, and more particularly, without regard for one’s religion, race, or national origin. I therefore sent a memo (see below memo dated May 10, 2012) to all the contributors to the volume, informing them that we would not be removing the Israeli contributions, but giving them until May 21 to notify us formally if they would prefer to withdraw from the project themselves.

By May 21, nearly half of the authors (13 out of 29) had withdrawn their contributions, including almost all the Arab authors. Some explained that their withdrawal was part of a non-violent effort to change Israeli policies toward Palestinians by boycotting Israel and Israelis. Others did not give detailed reasons for withdrawing. After considering all options, we determined that the volume was no longer viable with only half the contributions remaining, not to mention that the Arab countries—in which Mrs. Fernea spent much of her life working—would be unrepresented in a volume produced in her honor. Therefore, on May 22 we notified the contributors that, with much regret, the project would not be moving forward. (see below memo dated May 22, 2012)

It is an unfortunate reality that in Middle Eastern Studies sometimes politics trumps academic ideals.

For further reading on this issue, see the following article in Inside Higher Education.
 
Kamran Scot Aghaie
Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Associate Professor of Islamic and Iranian History

**

Memorandum, May 10, 2012

Dear Colleagues,

We are fast approaching completion of the volume in honor of BJ Fernea (Memory of a Promise: Short Stories by Middle Eastern Women), and it is turning out to be an excellent collection. However, we have encountered an unexpected, last-minute problem. It has come to my attention that a few contributors believe that we should have systematically excluded Israeli authors from the project. Furthermore, if we do not implement a policy to exclude Israeli authors from this volume, these contributors are requesting that their contributions be withdrawn. I am, of course, intimately familiar with the politics surrounding this issue. However, we will not exclude Israeli authors from this volume, because the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin does not discriminate based on race, religion, or national origin.
 
That being said, I would like to offer these contributors (and anyone else who wishes to follow suit) the option of withdrawing their submissions. If you contact us by May 21, requesting that your submission be withdrawn, we will do so. If we do not hear from you by then, we will consider your previously submitted permission-to-publish to still be in effect. We will then either move forward with the project without the withdrawn chapters, or, if the withdrawal of these chapters causes the project to no longer be feasible, we will cancel this book project entirely. This would be unfortunate, since we would like to honor BJ, and this volume has turned out to be such an excellent book and follows in the footsteps of the collection BJ edited, Remembering Childhood in the Middle East: Memoirs from a Century of Change, which includes recollections from contributors from all over the Middle East, including Israel. However, the alternative proposal is not one we would ever consider implementing.

Sincerely, Kamran

**

Memorandum, May 22, 2012

Dear Colleagues,
 
We have heard back from many of the contributors to the volume in honor of BJ Fernea (Memory of a Promise: Short Stories by Middle Eastern Women). Some of you wish to proceed with the project, and others have withdrawn their contributions. On balance, the net result is that the book project is no longer viable. Therefore, we are discontinuing publication of this volume. This also unfortunately means that we will not be honoring BJ’s memory as we had planned on doing.
 
I would like to thank Annes McCann-Baker for her hard work on this project over the past few years. As one of BJ’s closest colleagues and friends, this was a labor of love for her. I was thoroughly impressed with her efforts, and the quality of the final volume she put together. Her efforts were consistent with the highest academic standards of excellence, and I would not have asked her to do anything differently. I know that this must be devastating for her personally, as it also is for others who worked very hard to make this volume happen. However, the unfortunate reality is that in Middle Eastern Studies sometimes politics trumps academic ideals.
 
I have been asked by some to respond to the angry and hostile emails we’ve been receiving, or to address the bizarre conspiracy theory circulating that argues this volume was an attempt to “trap” Arab authors into participating in a volume in which Jewish Israeli authors also participated. I prefer not to dignify such things with a response.
 
The one thing I do want to address directly is the criticism of the Center’s policy on academic freedom and non-discrimination. A few contributors feel that we should have excluded Jewish Israeli authors as a matter of policy, or that we should have treated them differently from other authors. We, of course, will not do that, because it violates our policy against discriminating based on race, religion, or national origin. The only groups or individuals we consistently exclude from our activities are government officials (including those from the U.S. and other nations). This sort of criticism is, of course, not new to Centers for Middle Eastern Studies like ours. We are routinely subjected to pressure, and in some cases intimidation, from groups and individuals who wish to silence other perspectives from our programs, classes, events, publications, etc. Some are motivated by political agendas, while others are motivated by prejudice. For example, we are constantly pressured to exclude Arab and Muslim voices, especially those that are critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East, or of U.S. allies, in particular Israel. Others wish us to exclude the perspectives of those who defend the policies of the U.S., Israel, or other nations. And of course, in addition to these pressures, we also hear from the normal assortment of Islamophobes, anti-Semites, religious bigots, racists, etc. Our policy in all such cases is to reject such pressures. We also do not practice preemptive self-censorship in an effort to avoid controversy. This is our policy, and we will continue to abide by it, even though this means that sometimes we will be subjected to criticism, or our public events may inspire protests, or our projects may fail to reach completion, as is the case with this book. We are committed to the ideal that a university has to be a place in which ideas are uncensored and are freely exchanged, and more particularly, without regard for one’s religion, race, or national origin.
 
Sincerely,


Kamran Scot Aghaie
Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Associate Professor of Islamic and Iranian History
The University of Texas at Austin

 

 

 

 

 

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