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How Mideast scholars are censoring themselves amid the Hamas-Israel war


The conflict between Israel and Hamas is testing the limits of free speech across college campuses, and it is also affecting those who study the Middle East. A new poll from the University of Maryland found that since the October 7 attacks, those who research and teach about the Middle East are now censoring themselves when they speak about it in an academic or professional setting. Shibley Telhami directs the Critical Issues Poll at the University of Maryland, where he is also the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Always my pleasure.

SHAPIRO: You and your colleague Marc Lynch of George Washington University have done this Middle East Scholar Barometer poll in the past. You surveyed nearly a thousand people, including graduate students and professors. How did the results this time differ from what you've seen before?

TELHAMI: Well, of course, this time, we focused a lot on the impact of the Gaza war. But we did have one question to compare what the situation was before the war and after the war - that is, whether Middle Eastern scholars self-censored when they speak about the Middle East broadly. We had asked that question a year ago, and we found that a large number tended to self-censor. But when we repeated that question, we found an increase in the number. We also asked specifically whether they were more inclined to self-censor since the Gaza war. We found almost three-quarters say yes.

SHAPIRO: There's a very striking divide when you ask whether scholars are more likely to hold back criticism of Israel or criticism of Palestinians. What did you find there?

TELHAMI: So first, overall, 82% say they self-censor when they speak, you know, in classes. I mean, that's really quite stunning. But when you specifically ask them on which issue do you most feel the need to self-censor, you find that 81% say criticism of Israel, 11% say criticism of Palestinians. Only 2% say criticism of U.S. policy, which is rather interesting.

SHAPIRO: That is such a stark difference. What do you make of that yawning divide?

TELHAMI: Our political space on this issue has been a little bit more limited. Universities are facing different pressures. One of the pressures, obviously - we do have real, genuine increase in antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian, anti-Israeli sentiment, and universities have to manage all that and make sure that all the people feel safe. But there are a lot of groups that act disproportionately on some of the issues. And undoubtedly, a lot of the scholars who follow the issue feel that this - the public space does not conform to their own professional interpretations of Israel, Palestine. So they're concerned about criticizing Israel publicly.

SHAPIRO: Could one argue that at this moment, when tensions and emotions are running high and politicians are trying to weaponize college campuses, it's appropriate for everyone to be more circumspect and use extra caution?

TELHAMI: Absolutely. And I think - you know, I think we all should be sensitive to each other and to our students and faculty. And you could think of it as a diplomatic way of dealing with issues. Diplomacy is a good thing. But here's the thing. We gave our respondents the ability to give examples of what the issues were. Most of it was actually fear rather than sensitivity.

SHAPIRO: Why is it important to gauge the experience of scholars in this way? What do you want people to take away from this data?

TELHAMI: A lot of the information about the campuses that has been generated in the past few weeks, including, you know, congressional testimony and hearings, have not really taken into account the views of scholars. These are times when we don't want to repress speech. When you explain violence, you are not embracing violence. This is something that we, as social scientists, all, of course, understand. We never have to repeat to ourselves, but society around us does not get it all the time because they think you're taking side when you're explaining why things happen. But if you don't explain why things happen, you're going to repeat the same mistake over and over and over again.

SHAPIRO: Shibley Telhami is director of the Critical Issues Poll at the University of Maryland, where he's also the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development. Thank you so much.

TELHAMI: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tinbete Ermyas
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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.