NEW YORK // As a radical student in 1990s Khartoum, it was only a matter of time before Aisha says she fell foul of the authorities and became another academic forced to flee the intellectual straitjacket that stifles progress for many in the Arab world.
Aisha, now a 35-year-old genetic researcher on tuberculosis in the United States, said she was repeatedly harassed and interrogated after defending women’s rights during student union rallies at Omdurman Ahlia University in the Sudanese capital.
The iconoclastic microbiologist quickly came to the attention of the fundamentalist forces that pervaded Sudanese academia during the early years of Omar al Bashir’s presidency.
“It was harassment, always being brought in for questioning,” said Aisha, whose name has been changed to safeguard her identity. “I would walk out of university and along the street only to notice I was being followed by a car. It didn’t matter if they hurt me – but what would happen to my family?”
After being denied an exit visa because of her activism, she made a daring bid for freedom in 1997, slipping aboard a night-time cargo flight and leaving Sudan to study in Sweden.
According to the New York-based Scholar Rescue Fund, which arranged her placement at the University of Maryland, such persecution is endemic in the region and spawns a “brain drain” that hinders development.
“Being away from home for so long is completely alien to my culture, but what choice do I have?” Aisha said. “I would love to return, continue my research, share the experience I have gained abroad and contribute to the changes in my country. But will they allow me to share this knowledge? Could I return as a normal university teacher, close my eyes and stop caring? Will I be able to remain silent about rape, the harassment of women, academics and journalists?”
Between 2002 and 2007, the rescue fund received 847 applications from academics persecuted in 101 countries, with the highest proportion coming from the Middle East (42 per cent) and sub-Saharan Africa (31 per cent).
According to Henry Jarecki, the fund’s chairman, Middle Eastern scholars endure gender discrimination, instability in such countries as Iraq, repressive regimes, particularly in Iran, as well as often falling foul of strict religiouis codes and anti-blasphemy laws.
Scholars typically suffer at the hands of government officials, but “rebel groups, religious groups, militias, terrorists and paramilitary forces” also rank among the victimisers, he added.
“It’s really across all the major disciplines. Some fields do produce more applicants and grantees than others: law and political science, as you would expect,” he said.
“But there is an even more substantial representation of applicants in the hard sciences like chemistry and physics. It’s amazing what governments don’t want their people to know.”
In one case, an epidemiologist was barred from publishing statistics on maternal mortality rates that disagreed with the government’s rosy portrait. In another, a marine biologist was jailed for a study of mollusc populations.
Academics who continue to voice dissent suffer more repressive tactics such as expulsion from the university, imprisonment, violence and – in extreme cases – murder.
Allan Goodman, the president of the Institute of International Education, highlights the threat of a “brain drain” starving the region of intellectual talent, saying: “Who knows that one of these scholars isn’t the microbiologist who goes on to discover a cure for a disease that afflicts us all?”
The fund, which receives requests from persecuted academics in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian territories, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Syria and Turkey, has managed to relocate scholars within the region in such places as Jordan and the UAE.
The Sharjah-based Arab Science and Technology Foundation accepted an Iraqi electrical engineer from 2007-2008. Another Iraqi scholar, who also requested anonymity, reports that her work in a UAE institution is “going well” and she plans to return to Baghdad once security is restored.
The scholars’ fund lauds the Jordanian royal family for assisting many of the estimated 6,000 Iraqi professors who since Feb 2006 have fled bombings, ethnic clashes, blackmail and death threats in their post-invasion homeland.
“Princess Ghida, the wife of Prince Talal bin Muhammad, has been an enormous help at getting scholars in,” Mr Jarecki said. “On one occasion, when our staff called her to say we had an academic trapped at the airport, she replied: ‘Oh never mind, I’ll send my car to the airport to pick them up’.
“I wish we had friends like that at the US state department.”
Iraq easily tops the fund’s list of applicants with 111 requests during a six-year period – something Mr Jarecki attributes to an “anti-intellectualism” in which the providers of “secular knowledge” suffer at the hands of religious fundamentalists.
Adnan al Rubae, an environmental scientist, still does not understand why gunmen fired 50 bullets through the bedroom window of his Baghdad home one night in late 2003 as he cowered in a different room. Terrified, he abandoned his pollution research project at the University of Baghdad and headed to the relative safety of Baqubah, in Diyala province, until he uncovered a second plot on his life in 2006.
He left immediately for Jordan, eventually receiving a scholarship to lecture at the Jordan University of Science and Technology in Irbid, and he expresses his gratitude to the fund by saying simply: “I was able to survive.
“I want to return to Iraq, but there is still no security,” said the 64-year-old. “There is revenge and counter-revenge among the various factions, and it will take a generation before violence settles down.”
For Mr al Rubae – like the many scholars forced to flee the region, fearing for their lives – instability, political repression and religious dogma will probably continue to cost the Middle East some of its most promising minds.
“If you lose freedom, it will be felt by educators much more quickly than a simple person on the street,” he said. “When there is persecution, it is felt by educators faster, deeper and in a more sensitive way.”