Remarks by Robert Quinn, Executive Director, Scholars at Risk Network, on the occasion of the
2017 Anne Frank Special Recognition Award
presented by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the U.S.A.
at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, September 14, 2017
Thank you Katrina Lantos Swett. Many thanks also to Ambassador Schuwer and to the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands; to all the members of the Advisory Committee; to all the officials present, especially Representatives Huizenga and Kilmer, Minority Leader Pelosi and the others who joined us last night, Senator Leahy and Secretary Albright; to all the other distinguished guests; and to the Scholars at Risk Board and Ambassadors Council, especially Gara LaMarche, Domna Stanton, Irv Epstein and Robbert Dijkgraaf, who join us today and last night. The Chair of our Board, Catharine Stimpson, asked me to share her regret that she cannot be with us because of her obligations in New York, and to express the immense gratitude of the Board to the Embassy for this award, which she says “redoubles, indeed trebles, our irrevocable commitment to this work.”
I want to thank New York University for hosting SAR for 15 years and to our Vice Provost Uli Baer for joining us for these celebrations; our foundation partners and individual donors who make our work possible; our dedicated and overworked staff; all the colleagues at universities, colleges, institutes and associations in the network around the world, on whose behalf I am pleased to receive this award; and of course all the scholars, and their families, who we serve and who inspire us with their courage, intelligence and persistence in the face of grave threats. I am so grateful that several of them are with us here today: Zelalem Kibret of Ethiopia; Teng Biao of China; Delaram Farzaneh of Iran; and Radwan Ziadeh of Syria.
It is an honor to be here on behalf of Scholars at Risk. It is an honor to share this day with Father Leo O’Donovan and the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. It is a special honor to receive this recognition from the Embassy of the Netherlands, as our ties with the Netherlands run deep. Aside from the fact that I lived for years on Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn—both Dutch names that remind us that the ties between our peoples go back to the roots of this nation—Scholars at Risk has been fortunate to partner with the University Assistance Fund or UAF, a Dutch NGO that has for over seventy-five years assisted refugee students in the Netherlands, and for the last decade has helped SAR to arrange positions for threatened scholars in the Netherlands and across Europe.
I am grateful to their former director, Kees Bleichrodt who passed too young in 2012, current Director Mardjan Seighali, and to all the UAF staff. We are very proud and grateful that all of the major universities in the Netherlands, and 21 institutions in all, are members of our network. Collectively they have hosted almost 100 scholars, from places like Iran, Turkey, Syria, Congo, Iraq, Eritrea, and Zimbabwe, including 15 currently.
And of course, it is a humbling honor to be associated with the name and legacy of Anne Frank. As you might imagine, in my position I travel a fair bit, visiting as many institutions and scholars as I can. But as time is short, I rarely see much other than the universities I visit and then go straight to the airport. A significant exception, however, was a few years ago when I made a point to schedule a visit to the Anne Frank House. I was in Amsterdam for an event with our partners at UAF. They had the brilliant idea of transcribing the stories of scholars with whom we had worked and arranging them as a series of monologues performed by actors. It toured the Netherlands, and has been performed in Norway, Germany, Ireland, the US and elsewhere. The culminating performance of the Dutch tour being held in the largest theatre in Amsterdam with hundreds of people there, and just before the lights dimmed, in walked Kees Bleichrodt, who I mentioned was the former director of UAF who had been out on sick leave. I could see that Kees was surprised to see me (because I live in Brooklyn, New York), and he could see that I was surprised to see him, because even though he looked well, I knew he was already very ill and I was not expecting him. We had almost no time for words, just an embrace and a shared look. And we both knew that it would be the last time we would see each other.
The next morning I found myself outside the Anne Frank House, standing in a light rain, and inevitably death was in the air. The deaths of Anne Frank and her mother and sister, the Van Pels family and Fritz Pfeffer. The deaths of millions of Jews and other victims of the war. The prospect of the loss of my friend Kees. But rather than sadness, I experienced that moment as a gift, just as I experienced my last embrace with my friend as a gift. That is what the Anne Frank House does. It takes the incredible story of Anne Frank and makes it tangible; makes it real.
Yes, it makes real the fact that there is evil and suffering in the world. But more important, that house and her story make real and tangible the dignity and humanity of the threatened and vulnerable. Even more, they make real and tangible the truth that our dignity and humanity are intertwined with theirs; our own dignity and humanity demand that we do our part to assist those facing hatred, conflict and oppression, whenever and however we can. This is what Kees, Mardjan, and everyone at UAF and throughout the global Scholars at Risk network are trying to do. To see the world of our threatened colleagues as it is, and to act; to help them whenever and however we can.
Together, we can save today’s Anne Frank. All we have to do is help one more: one more refugee, one more scholar, one more family. That is the measure of our success: one more. Each time we help just one more, we honor her legacy and change history for the better.
Why are scholars targeted?
We do so primarily by arranging temporary positions of professional sanctuary, at network-member institutions, for scholars from any country and any discipline, whose lives or work are threatened where they are. Last year alone we helped arrange over 158 positions, a record for a single year. But still, we have over 700 scholars on our lists currently seeking help. Many suffer the same threats as anyone else in countries experiencing war or armed conflict, including hundreds of scholars from Iraq and Syria, for example. Others experience much more targeted attacks; attacks that are intended to silence scholars, one way or the other.
Why? Why are scholars particularly targeted? Because they ask questions. Zelalem Kibret, for example, asks questions about social and political justice as part of the Zone 9 blogging collective. For this he was imprisoned for 15 months. Teng Biao asks questions about rule of law, while defending death penalty cases, freedom of speech and religion cases, human rights defenders on trial for their work, and ethnic minorities on trial for who they are. For this he was repeatedly arrested, detained, beaten and tortured. Some Turkish scholars ask questions about peace. As signatories with over 1100 other Turkish academics to what has become known as the “Academics for Peace Petition,” they questioned government policies against minorities and called for renewed dialogue. For this they and hundreds of other signatories were forced out of their jobs and face imprisonment. Delaram Farzaneh asks questions about restrictions imposed on women through the legal system; questions which led to the recent publication of her first book entitled “Step Down, You Are a Woman” A History of Women’s Rights and Women Judges in Iran” (available on Amazon). Radwan Ziadeh asks questions about the future of Syria and its people, in particular about accountability for the gross human rights violations taking place under the current regime. For this he was forced to flee Syria and now, due to an unfortunate interpretation of US asylum law, is fighting a decision to have him removed from the US and sent back to Syria, where he faces certain imprisonment or worse. (My thanks to the many elected officials, including Senator Leahy, who signed letters intervening with the asylum office on Radwan’s behalf.)
However, perhaps more important than the questions they ask, scholars and universities are targeted because they teach people to ask questions, and to demand good answers. In the words of a Palestinian university president at a workshop Scholars at Risk held in Jordan some years ago, universities are the places where we learn to “leave our guns at the door” and instead to resolve arguments through evidence, reason and persuasion. They are attacked because there are those who prefer the certainty of force to the unpredictability of persuasion and reasoned argument; those who prefer the dominance of a single point of view—their own—to a forum of many voices.
Free to Think
Next month, Scholars at Risk will release our annual Free to Think report, the annual report of our project monitoring attacks on universities, scholars and students around the world. (I want to thank Brian Joseph and Samlanchith Chanthavong, who are here from the National Endowment for Democracy, whose support helps make the monitoring project possible.) The report documents 257 attacks in 35 countries, but we know these are only the tip of the iceberg. These include suicide bombings and violent attacks on universities in Nigeria and Pakistan; dismissals of thousands of higher education professionals in Turkey; violent repression of students in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Thailand and Venezuela; widespread restrictions on scholars’ travel, including attempted restrictions here in the US; and attempts to shut down institutions in Central and Eastern Europe, most notably the Central European University in Budapest.
Together these incidents highlight a global crisis that should be a wake-up call to all of us who believe in human rights. When the simple act of asking questions is conflated with disloyalty, and punished as a crime, it poses a danger not only to academic freedom but to democracy itself. State officials, courts, higher education leaders and civil society everywhere must resist this conflation of inquiry with disloyalty, before it spreads like a virus, giving cover to any power that wants to punish questions that it decides are too probing, too sensitive and off-limits to public examination. Instead, we must all demand universal recognition of the principle that ideas are not crimes, and critical inquiry and discourse are not disloyalty but, rather, that they are a scholar’s duty. Indeed, asking questions and demanding good answers is the duty of everyone in a free society.
Let me close by again thanking the scholars present, for their courage and as examples of all the scholars we serve. Let me thank everyone connected with a higher education institution already in our global network, for being part of the work recognized by this award. Let me invite any of you connected to higher education institutions not yet involved to urge them to join the network, so that together we might continue to honor Anne Frank’s legacy by helping at least one more scholar. That will be the measure of our continuing success together.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, for this wonderful recognition.