Strategies for Academic Solidarity: Responding to the Muslim Ban

On Friday, January 27, 2017, the President of the United States, Donald Trump signed an Executive Order halting all refugee admissions for 120 days and suspending entry to the United States for both immigrants and visitors from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen for 90 days, during which immigration processes would be reviewed and altered. This order, known to many as the Muslim Ban, came into immediate effect with little explanation of protocol, trapping people on either side of the border and others within the liminal space of airports. While the ban has been temporarily overturned and continues to be fought in the courts, the initial impact has already had devastating effects and many refuse to take the risk to travel to the United States in this climate of uncertainty.

In light of the ban, many in the academic community – individual academics, departments and several institutions – quickly spoke out condemning the ban. As a research collective, we at FEAST also want to explicitly state our opposition to this racist, discriminatory policy and the rhetoric of hatred and fear that it both utilizes and promotes. Considering that thousands of scholars are unable to enter the United States due to this ban, and many more Muslim and racialized scholars feel unsafe doing so due to fear of being similarly targeted or harassed, we have discussed both amongst ourselves and in larger forums what the appropriate action for academics on either side of the border should be, and how best to oppose this exclusionary policy and support those immediately affected.

An early suggestion in these discussions was an academic boycott. The United States is host to many important academic conferences that serve as a key forum for discussing ideas, collaborating and building connections within and between disciplines. If many scholars were going to be shut out as a result of these policies, then perhaps these discussions should not take place without them. As geographers who had planned to attend the annual conference of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) in April, this question is the subject of continuing debates in our department, but also within our research group.

In particular, we felt that the official statement released by the AAG was weak in comparison to those of other academic societies, and also its commitment in relation to those “affected” by the ban somewhat lacking in detail.

A boycott and withdrawal of academic labour is an important show of solidarity with those who have no choice in the matter. Done collectively, it also sends a clear message that business is not as usual and that there is widespread opposition to acts that affect our academic community. This kind of action can also be effective in spurring change, whether in the form of reallocation of funds or the creation of satellite meetings organized in alternative locations that allow for full participation for those excluded.

However, withdrawing from academic conferences also means that those voices are not present, and some argue that the sharing of critical academic work is even more important in an increasingly hostile political environment. By attending a conference, the opportunity exists for physical disruption and taking up of space, both inside the conference and in collaboration with activists and organizers in place.

Nonetheless, the risk remains that once in attendance, resistance will be reduced to a cursory acknowledgement of the ban and nothing more. These points are not easily tallied and each academic weighing this decision has different positionality and different stakes – personal and professional obligations vary, and not everyone stands to lose the same amount.  Finally, as has been pointed out before, this ban represents a new version of a long standing policy of hostile borders and exclusionary migration practices in the United States and elsewhere. Well before this ban, Muslim and racialized people have encountered discrimination and barriers to entry that are legal, bureaucratic, and financial. So while scholars may be definitively banned from attending conferences at this time, there are many who point out that attendance was never truly an option. How can a response address more than this particular moment, but fight these injustices more globally?

The students and faculty of the University of Toronto’s Geography and Planning department drafted  a statement to the AAG calling for specific actions that should be taken to improve upon their earlier stance, but also to make fundamental changes to the association over a longer time scale. The statement has been shared widely and currently has over 600 signatures from academics all over the world, both by those planning to boycott and those who plan to attend.

As members of FEAST, we agree with this call for action and have decided at this time to move forward with our planned sessions, understanding that there will be gaps in the program as some of our participants opt not to attend. However, we intend to use our time at the AAG (including some of our session time) to highlight how this is not a business-as-usual conference. We also intend to find ways to organize on the ground to make sure that those who are not attending are not forgotten. We believe that the AAG should be taking the necessary steps to reimburse funds to all those who are affected by the ban, not only those who hold a passport from one of the seven countries, but all those who due to personal convictions or unwillingness to submit to harassment are also unable to attend.

In this situation, we do not see the decision to boycott or the decision to attend and organize as existing in opposition to each other, but rather as varied strategies that each have a place in this struggle. There are different ways to be in solidarity with those affected and each person, perspective, and situation will warrant a different strategy. There is a clear need for meaningful long term change within the AAG. In one of the demands, the statement mentioned above also calls for the AAG to, “ support Indigenous sovereignty and social, racial, and environmental justice.” We maintain that this kind of systemic change requires multifaceted approaches from a range of actors. Resistance is not uniform, but if we continue to read the work of those who are directly affected, listen to the voices of those who are marginalized and follow the lead of the communities that are already organizing, it can be unified.