The annals of academic freedom have been fraught with challenges and restrictions, dating as far back as the trial of Socrates in ancient Greece and extending into modern times. Michel Foucault, a philosopher who notably wrote on power, famously posited that schools, universities, and other educational institutions serve similar societal functions as prisons and mental hospitals by defining, classifying, controlling, and regulating individuals. According to Foucault, these institutions are designed to uphold the power of one particular social class, while suppressing the power of others. This oppressive atmosphere can cause scholars to internalize these restrictions, leading to what philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre referred to as “bad faith,” or the tendency to renounce one’s own freedom due to internalizing the oppressive pressure.
However, the SAR Network offers a distinct experience for scholars. Within this network, academics are able to reject “bad faith” and experience true academic freedom. In this context, scholars are no longer prisoners of established absolute truths and are free to choose their course materials and publish in their areas of interest. The SAR Network has made this a reality, where the limitations of politics, religion, and sexuality no longer stifle academic progress.
Thanks to the support of SAR, I have had the opportunity to experience this reality and the vibrant atmosphere of academic freedom in Europe firsthand. At Linnaeus University in Sweden, I was able to pursue my academic activities without the constraints and restrictions that I had previously encountered. I authored an article titled “If You Wish to Enjoy Them: Islamic Marriage and Women’s Human Rights in Jordan,” which I would not have been able to publish in a more conservative environment. Similarly, at the University of Agder in Norway, I was able to fully appreciate the richness of academic freedom in all aspects of my scholarly activities. This was particularly evident in my teaching, where I had the opportunity to offer courses exploring themes of feminism, gender identity, and queer theory, which are subjects that are often censored or repressed in more restrictive societies. As a result, I felt liberated and empowered, as though I had been released from a kind of intellectual bondage.
This experience was not only personally transformative, but also offered an opportunity for mutual learning and growth. By sharing my own experiences of the constraints on academic freedom in my home country, I was able to raise awareness among my colleagues in Sweden and Norway about the global challenges that scholars face. They were surprised to learn about the extent of the restrictions and the potential consequences that scholars could face for expressing their opinions or publishing research. Through these conversations, I realized the importance of advocacy, not just for my own benefit, but for the benefit of all scholars around the world who face similar restrictions. One of my colleagues even expressed her gratitude by saying, “Thank you for enlightening us that academic freedom is not a given.” Overall, my experiences in Sweden and Norway through the SAR network have allowed me to experience the true potential of academic freedom. It has also inspired me to encourage others to join me in advocating for academic freedom around the world.
The mission of SAR, while primarily academic in nature, has a profound socio-political dimension as well. As Paulo Freire, the Brazilian pedagogue, believed, education is inherently political and characterized by power dynamics. He argued that to liberate academic institutions, the aim should be to shift these power relations to establish a more equitable and just society, and to use education as a tool for progressive social change. This aligns with Foucault’s call to examine the political responsibilities of intellectuals in terms of truth and power and their impact on collective consciousness. By advancing the global discourse on the significance of academic freedom, SAR aims to break the oppressive grip of power on the academy and society, thereby contributing to the process of social change.
Majid Mgamis, Associate Professor, Department of Foreign Languages and Translation
University of Agder, Norway