Northwestern University in Qatar partner claims controversial event was canceled due to ‘Qatari laws’, ‘cultural and social customs’

February 5, 2020

When Northwestern University in Qatar acknowledged on Monday that it canceled an event featuring Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay, it stated that it did so “out of abundance of caution due to several factors, including safety concerns for the band and our community” after social media users demanded its cancellation. As we noted earlier this week, NU-Q also affirmed its commitment to academic freedom at its campuses in the U.S. and overseas.

But the Qatar Foundation, “a state-linked non-profit body in the conservative Gulf Arab state” and NU-Q partner, disagrees.

The Qatar Foundation disputed NU-Q’s account to Reuters, claiming it knows of no “security concerns” to justify cancellation, and contends that the event was canceled because of Qatar’s laws and “cultural and social customs”:

“We place the utmost importance on the safety of our community and currently do not have any safety or security concerns.”

“We also place the very highest value on academic freedom and the open exchange of knowledge, ideas and points of view in the context of Qatari laws as well as the country’s cultural and social customs. This particular event was canceled due to the fact that it patently did not correlate with this context.”

A university spokesperson, however, told The Daily Northwestern that the Qatar Foundation’s account is wrong:

Yates said in a Wednesday email to The Daily the University “respectfully disagree(s)” with the Qatar Foundation’s statement. Yates reiterated that the event was moved from Doha to Evanston after University leadership discussed the situation, including concerns for safety and security, with Mashrou’ Leila members and together agreed on changing the location.

“Academic freedom is a foundational principle for us at Northwestern, and one for which we do not compromise,” the email read. “We look forward to hosting Mashrou’ Leila on an even larger platform in Evanston.”

As we wrote previously, NU-Q’s behavior is reminiscent of that of Georgetown University in Qatar  — also partnered with the Qatar Foundation — where a student debate about god and gender was shut down in 2018 after a similar social media backlash. Like NU-Q, GU-Q cited its commitment to academic freedom in Qatar. But it later clarified that students and faculty “may host events on campus that are in accordance with Qatari law” (emphasis added). 

Northwestern and Georgetown have made promises to defend academic freedom in Qatar. GU-Q, at last, has acknowledged that expression on its campus is limited by Qatari law. And the Qatar Foundation, a partner to both universities, has expressed that it “place[s] the very highest value on academic freedom and the open exchange of knowledge . . . in the context of Qatari laws as well as the country’s cultural and social customs.” 

Students deserve to know what degree of academic freedom and free expression both campuses can really offer. Because, right now, it doesn’t seem like their policies reflect reality. 

If you agree that American universities should be honest with students about what they can deliver, you can add your name to our “Commitment to Campus Free Expression at Home and Abroad.” 


Schools:  Northwestern University