When the Personal is Political: Dr. Samar Habib

When the Personal is Political: Dr. Samar Habib June 28, 2010

Those of you who have been following debates surrounding academic freedom might remember the story of Dr. Samar Habib (pictured below right), whose “Women in Arabic and Islamic Literature” course was cut from the University of Western Sydney schedule largely due to complaints by Muslim organizations like the Australian National Imams Council and Muslims for Peace. Amidst complaints that the course promoted “an emphasis on sexuality and a sexually explicit content that is not reflective of normative Islam,” the organizations also called for Dr. Habib to be fired from her lecturing position at the university.

Dr. Samar Habib. Image via the University of Sydney website.

Let’s leave aside that we all missed the memo about the classroom being a place to promote normative interpretations of any religion; it seems ANIC and Muslims for Peace have gotten their larger wish, as Dr. Habib was pushed to tender her resignation and, upon reconsidering that decision, was circumvented. Dr. Habib said that she felt undue pressure from the administration while selecting what texts to teach in her introductory course, “Texts and Traditions.” Her doctor recommended that she take some time off, and she left her position on February 28. She then reconsidered her decision and requested to return to the university. The university refused this request.

Interestingly, after Dr. Habib’s departure from the university, two critical texts were removed from the course reading list. The first was Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness; the second, Joe Sacco’s acclaimed Palestine. Both of these texts engage their readers to consider the ramifications of Israeli hegemony in the Middle East—Memory, by considering the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and Palestine, by looking at the day-to-day lives of Palestinians in Gaza.

When questioned about the removal of these texts, UWS cited a desire to reduce the reading load. (Palestine, incidentally, is actually a graphic novel—that is, a comic book of the heavier, narrative variety). So…yeah.

The pressure Dr. Habib faced at UWS is, unfortunately, common and representative of dangerous forays by conservatives into the world of academic freedom. In the U.S., Daniel Pipes- and David Horowitz-types attempt to exert control over the lenses through which university courses permit students to see the world. Ironically, ANIC and Muslims for Peace did the very same thing by limiting the teachings of a woman with expertise in a field they simply didn’t like: homosexuality in the Muslim world.

Besides having given fodder to right-wing media and political figures who claim that Islam is incompatible with secular public spaces, these organizations—and the university, now—also stifled an academic doing highly specialized and pertinent research, and prevented her from disseminating knowledge (that she acquired in that formerly respected tradition of dissertations, peer reviews and doctoral degrees) to her students.

For an acknowledged expert in the cross-sections of queer theory, feminist movements and Islam, to first have her popular class excised and then feel compelled to resign from her post is an affront to academic freedom. In order for academic institutions to maintain any integrity whatsoever, they must reserve their right to allow professors with doctoral degrees teach, in nearly any way academically relevant, the subjects on which they are specialists—especially when those subjects are underreported, marginalized, and politically unpopular. Today, we can’t afford any less.

Thanks to Houda Hallani for the tip!

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