As higher education communities and facilities are increasingly targeted by attacks, a transnational debate has arisen among academics and practitioners about how knowledge is produced under conditions of growing risk for researchers who are committed to site-intensive methods, fieldwork and/or dissemination in circumstances of limited academic freedom.
On the one hand, it is a known fact that— especially in times and zones of violent conflict— university campuses and colleges are systematically targeted by various forms of armed attacks. While violence directed at university sites stems from insurgent groups’ radical rejection of the idea of ‘Western education’, schools are an easy, soft target not only for ‘terrorists’ but also for aerial and artillery bombing on the part of governments. On the other hand, authoritarian regimes and police states tend to deploy repressive measures to monitor researchers and patrol their activities. University institutions and personnel are increasingly seen as objects of attack in and of themselves, targeted in the effort to intimidate or silence dissent. Launched as retaliatory measures for having somehow challenged the one official, institutionalized narrative that is permitted and accepted, these attacks vary from killings and disappearances, wrongful prosecution and imprisonment, loss of professional position and expulsion from study, to improper travel restrictions. ‘Having knowledge— having data— is extremely threatening’ (Cooley, quoted in Kumkova, 2014): state authorities and officials are often keen to act as the sole gate-keepers, and they seek coercively to ensure that ‘alternative narratives’ are not able to emerge.
Several episodes have drawn the attention of the transnational scholarly world to the fact that research and academics are under attack. The brutal murder of Giulio Regeni in Egypt made international headlines in February 2016 and can be seen as one of the most evident cases in point: an Italian citizen enrolled in a PhD programme at the University of Cambridge, Regeni was in Cairo to carry out ethnographic field research on trade unions and labour rights as a form of political opposition when he disappeared on 25 January 2016. When his corpse was found a few days later, dumped by the side of a motorway and bearing clear signs of torture, a lengthy international controversy was kindled. Three years later, the five Egyptian officers who were formally accused by Italian prosecutors have enjoyed substantial impunity in Cairo; meanwhile, conducting political research in Egypt has become virtually impossible, and a broad community of scholars who were investigating post-2011 events has left the country.