When Qatari poet Muhammad al-Ajami was sentenced to life imprisonment for criticizing the Emir of Qatar in a poem, Faculty Senate member Helen Thompson felt a personal obligation to call attention to his case.
“I felt that as an English professor, it was somewhat incumbent on me to respond to an incident which involved the reading of a poem,” said Thompson.
Thompson, who teaches at Northwestern in Evanston and has never been to Qatar, decided to write the ‘Qatari Poet Motion’ and proposed it for passage in the Faculty Senate on February 6th. After three meetings, several debates, and some minor amendments, it was passed 28-14 on May 1st.
The motion does not mince its words.
It states that the Faculty Senate “calls for the full pardon and immediate release of Mohammed ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajani [sic] and supports freedom of intellectual and artistic expression for the people of Qatar.”
(In February, al-Ajami’s sentence was reduced on appeal to 15 years, although Qatar’s attorney general has said he will be seeking to restore the life sentence.)
But why would Thompson get Northwestern’s Faculty Senate – which usually addresses more commonplace issues such as staff benefits and on-campus smoking – involved in Qatari policy?
Thompson cites Northwestern’s branch campus Northwestern in Qatar, or NU-Q, as a major factor in her decision to author the motion.
“I did feel that NU has a presence in Education City [where NU-Q is located] and I felt it was important that the faculty respond to such an event,” said Thompson.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Qatari Poet Motion notes “Northwestern University maintains an intellectual and institutional presence in Qatar through Northwestern University in Qatar or NU-Q.”
But even though the motion directly concerns and even names NU-Q, the satellite campus did not support it.
A “Fairly Robust Pushback” from Doha
Records show that Mary Dedinsky, NU-Q’s representative in the Faculty Senate and a journalism professor, did not vote on May 1st when the motion was passed, despite being well aware of its existence.
When the motion was first proposed in February, Chairwoman Babette Sanders read Dedinsky and Anne Sobel’s (of NU-Q’s communications program) response to the motion.
It stated “there is concern that anyone can find themselves is a situation similar to that of the poet.”
Yet the end of the response also called for “immediate resolution of this issue by freeing and exonerating the poet and, more importantly, having greater transparency on freedom of expression issues so that full information is available for consideration now and in the future.”
Despite ending on that note, Dedinsky made it clear within the Faculty Senate that NU-Q would not be supporting the motion.
According to Thompson, “it was certainly publicly articulated throughout the process” by Dedinsky that the Qatar faculty “did not feel it [the motion] was productive or desirable.”
Yet the exact reasons behind NU-Q’s lack of support are unclear.
“I would say that there’s been a fairly robust pushback and no clear articulation of what kind of positive actions are occurring, if any, in relation to this issue, or what the constraints are- why it would be best to remain silent,” said Thompson.
Jon Marshall, a Faculty Senate member and Evanston journalism professor who opposed the initial motion, arranged a Skype call with Dedinsky and several NU-Q professors about the first draft of the motion.
“The majority of them felt that the resolution as worded could do more harm than good,” Marshall said.
The wording of the motion’s first draft stated that Northwestern “condemns” the life imprisonment of the poet rather than “calling” for his immediate release and pardon.
“I think there were concerns that faculty coming from halfway around the world, passing our judgment on their system of justice, without fully understanding that system of justice, could come across as arrogant and meddling in their affairs, just as if the Chinese were telling us what to do in Evanston in our police system,” Marshall said.
“You know, at best we would probably laugh it off or be insulted by it.”
Voices of Dissent
Yet not all of NU-Q’s faculty opposed the motion, and it appears the final version was not brought to the faculty’s attention.
One staff member who spoke to THE CHRONICLE on condition of anonymity was “delighted that NU’s faculty did pass the motion.”
The staff member said NU-Q faculty were informed of a proposed motion in departmental faculty meetings some months ago. At the meetings, Dedinsky “circulated a printed copy of her response to the draft motion, which was, in brief, that it would not be a good idea to pass this motion.”
But ultimately, “faculty members in Qatar were not invited to discuss the motion,” according to the staff member.
“Individual members’ reservations about the senate member’s response were brushed aside and faculty were not informed of the motion in its final form,” the staffer said.
At least one former NU-Q professor supports the motion as well. Hamid Naficy, who taught communications at NU-Q until 2011, said it “sounds like a good idea.”
“Universities which try to practice free speech, and try to promote free speech as a cultural value, I think should take a stance on that,” said Naficy, now the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani Professor in Communication in Evanston.
Although NU-Q has not made a public statement on Muhammad al-Ajami’s imprisonment, the school promotes itself as a catalyst for free speech.
In a recent video, Dean and CEO of NU-Q Everette E. Dennis said “Northwestern University in Qatar’s mission is to really promote the idea of freedom of expression and independent media.”
Dennis has not responded to an email for comment, and the Qatari Poet Motion has gone unmentioned on NU-Q’s website and social media networks.
Mary Dedinsky did not respond to repeated emails for comment.