Seeds of a boycott take root

Scholars around the world have pledged to forgo American academic conferences as others vow not to travel to the U.S.
February 4, 2017, 6:49pm

Over 6,000 academics around the world have now signed a petition urging scholars to opt out of U.S. academic conferences, in what appears to be one of the largest boycott efforts organized in response to President Donald Trump’s travel and refugee bans, which were temporarily suspended on Friday.

The boycott is a show of solidarity with their Muslim cohorts who had been restricted from entering the country to partake in intellectual summits thanks to a brazen executive order that targeted seven countries where Islam is the prevailing religion.


The bans were halted on Friday, after a federal judge in Seattle ruled them unconstitutional, thus opening the U.S. borders again.

But the Trump administration has indicated it will fight back, with the president deriding the “so-called judge” on Twitter and declaring his ruling is “ridiculous and will be overturned.”

Dr. Nadine El-Enany, a Birkbeck, University of London law lecturer, helped develop the open letter, a collaborative product between international scholars who liaised with affected academics in the U.S., she said. She called the campaign a fight against “institutional racism and fascism” and an attempt to focus attention on President Trump’s controversial “Muslim ban.” The boycott will remain in place for as long as the travel restriction is in effect, she added.

“(The boycott) will exert a direct and concrete effect through its economic impact, and a socio-ideological one in politicising arenas of professional activity.”

“As academics, we felt that the best way that we could demonstrate very clearly that we are unwilling to benefit from privileges that are so unfairly, unjustly denied others is to refuse to take up those privileges but also to clearly indicate that our business, as educators, cannot go on as normal while such an emergency is happening,” she told VICE News. “(The boycott) will exert a direct and concrete effect through its economic impact, and a socio-ideological one in politicising arenas of professional activity.”

President Trump’s order was submitted on Jan. 27. It sought to bar entry, for 90 days, people who come from Syria, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Sudan and Libya will not be allowed into the U.S., irrespective green card or visa status. Refugees are barred for 120 days and those from Syria are refused entry indefinitely.


The order dunked the country into a state of disorder. U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates was canned for renouncing the immigration ban and a slew of legal challenges have surfaced from four U.S. states, leading to the Friday ruling. Beyond that, the policy has galvanized protests around the world.

And the seeds of boycott are taking root. An annual academic convention on social sciences and international affairs in Baltimore in three weeks has seen 75 people withdraw so far.

“We’ve had people contacting us saying, ‘Look, I’m Muslim, I don’t wanna get hassled at the border, I don’t think I should come,’” said Mark Boyer, executive director of the International Studies Association, which puts on the gathering that usually draws 6,500 a year.

“We’re having others who’re deciding not to attend out of solidarity with those who may not be allowed into the US. The numbers of attendees is very much a moving target.”

“I feel total solidarity with these groups. It’s so morally despicable and I think it’s only going to get worse.”

The option is also being considered beyond the academic community. Toronto resident Tea Hadziristic, who was born in Bosnia, a Muslim-majority country, won’t be traveling to the US, fearing possible persecution.

“I’m terrified of going,” she said. “I feel total solidarity with these groups. It’s so morally despicable and I think it’s only going to get worse. I’m not interested in going to the states. It doesn’t seem like a place I want to be.”


Mark Bulgutch, a journalism instructor at Ryerson University, wrote an op-ed in the Toronto Star this week urging Canadians to avoid US travel altogether.

“I didn’t write it as an academic,” he said. “I wrote it as a private citizen. Not everybody is an activist, they’re not ready to man the barricades, and so here’s something you can do: don’t take a vacation in the states, don’t do your cross-border shopping in the states. It’s easy.”

For scholars, though, a large part of their work depends on attending conferences and the like. Ahlam Muhtaseb, an associate professor of communication studies at California State University, San Bernardino, was one of the names on the petition. While she knows the boycott will impact her negatively as a professional, she believes in the power of protest and the importance of supporting marginalized groups.

“Collective action is a vital step in fighting tyranny,” she said. “We have a new form of fascism and I think it’s important to have an intersectional look at systems of oppression around the world because they’re all interconnected.”

“I think it’s really important to fight this executive order in as many ways we can,” added
Renisa Mawani, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, who won’t be attending a conference at Stanford in March. She said the boycott raises questions about uneven mobility and legalized violence that is being directed at people from specific countries.


Boyer argues though that platforms for academic discourses are invaluable, especially during times like these.

“Collective action is a vital step in fighting tyranny.”

“The great thing about professional societies is that it’s a place where we learn from each other,” he said. “If these sorts of exchanges are shut down or suppressed, it’s going to have a distinct impact on problem-solving around the world and the flow of information. I would much rather see people attend and help us navigate through these dicey waters right now.”

Hayden King, an associate professor at Carleton University’s school of public policy, understands the rationale behind joining in solidarity, but believes it to be ultimately counterproductive.

“For me, I think a more effective strategy is to continue to go across the border and build genuine networks of solidarity and resistance to push back against what’s happening,” he said. “I come from an indigenous perspective. To me, the border is effectively illegitimate. It’s a manifestation of settler colonialism. By saying that we’re going to boycott or not cross that border is sort of a validation of everything we’ve been working against.”