Georgetown University in Qatar endorses “[a] commitment to open discourse and the free exchange of ideas” in its Code of Conduct’s Ethos Statement. That promise has proven difficult to keep.
Last week, the university announced the cancellation of its debating union’s scheduled Oct. 9 discussion, “This house believes that major religions should portray God as a woman,” in which students and two faculty members planned to weigh in.
— العنود بنت حمد ال ثاني ?? (@3nnadi) October 9, 2018
The event provoked a strong response on social media, leading to the (roughly translated) hashtag “Georgetown Insults God” gaining steam within Qatar. The university’s Twitter account claimed on Oct. 9 that the event was canceled because it was “not sanctioned,” rather than because of online demands:
Since the event was not sanctioned by the University and did not follow the appropriate policies for activity approval, it has been cancelled. The appropriate academic bodies will review the matter and take appropriate action.
— Georgetown Qatar (@GUQatar) October 8, 2018
However, the administration offered a new statement the next day to Northwestern University in Qatar’s student newspaper The Daily Q that tells a different story:
“Georgetown is a global research university guided by a commitment to engage all over the world to promote the common good. A recently planned installment of the Pardon the Interruption student debate series at Georgetown University-Qatar (GU-Q) was cancelled after it failed to follow the appropriate approval processes and created a risk to safety and security of our community. GU-Q is committed to the free and open exchange of ideas, while encouraging civil dialogue that respects the laws of Qatar,” according to the GU-Q Office of Communications. [emphasis added]
When universities, especially those that commit to free expression, fear that a controversial debate on campus is going to provoke violence, canceling the debate does not solve the problem. Instead, it suggests that threats are an effective way to silence offending speech.
FIRE has asked a number of times whether universities opening satellite campuses in countries with severely limited speech protections can actually follow through on the commitments to free expression that they make to students and faculty. Georgetown University in Qatar’s behavior suggests the answer is a firm “no.” Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the planned debate about “portray[ing] God as a woman” running afoul of Qatar’s blasphemy law, which punishes offenders with jail time and/or fines. The university’s statement referencing “the laws of Qatar” suggests administrators are cognizant of Qatar’s restrictions on blasphemy as well. Georgetown is right to warn students of the reality of local laws, but should not mislead them by suggesting that “the free and open exchange of ideas” is possible in an environment where basic debates about faith and religion can end in a jail sentence.
This is not the first time that members of the Georgetown community have raised concerns about the state of academic freedom on the Qatar campus. In 2016, Georgetown student Kristina Bogos intended to study in Qatar during the fall semester but was denied a visa by authorities. Bogos, who researched human rights in the Middle East, claimed that “Qatari immigration officers informed me that my name appeared on a ‘blacklist’ maintained by member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council because I had ‘made trouble’ in the U.A.E.”
Unfortunately, Georgetown’s Qatar campus has not been offered a good example from its American counterpart either. H*yas for Choice, an unrecognized pro-choice student group, has been at the center of a years-long fight for recognition with the Georgetown administration due to the group’s “stated purpose [that] conflicts with Catholic moral teaching.” However, Georgetown’s treatment of H*yas for Choice flies in the face of the university’s numerous free speech promises.
FIRE hopes Georgetown’s American and Qatari campuses can live up to the free speech commitments they make to students. So far, though, they’ve failed to consistently do so. If they will continue to prove unable to stand by those commitments, prospective students deserve to know.