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Last Updated: 05/08/2009
Every Man for Himself: A Personal Account of Academic Repression
Victoria Fontan

UPEACE Professor Victoria Fontan gives a personal and candid account of academic repression in the United States, exposing, as she puts it "how my research, teaching, and writings were repressed by different sources both within and outside my academic institution during the 2003-2004 year, and how this repression led me to expatriate from US academia into an Iraqi university." This article was first written for an edited volume on academic repression soon to be published by AK Press. Due to legal threats made against AK Press and the book's editors, the article below had to be re-written in a sanitized format. Still, it was courageously published by Counterpunch on March 16th 2009. To date, no legal action was initiated in reprisal.

A “badge of honor.” This is what colleagues, readers and students frequently refer to when becoming aware of my one-year experience at Colgate University. I am told that I should be “proud” of myself, since my research is now “vindicated” and everything I claimed or wrote about the Iraq war has now filtered into common knowledge and public consciousness. A majority of Americans now believe that the Iraq war was a mistake, and are in favor of a withdrawal. The failure of US policy in Iraq is making prime time on CNN, and an increasing number of columnists and pundits are commenting on the impact that humiliation has on conflict escalation. More importantly yesterday’s enemies, nationalist insurgent groups, are now US allies in fighting al-Qaeda in Sunni Muslim parts of the country.[i] All in all, my research now seems to be in very good company. The issue, however, is that badges of honor do not pay the bills, and certainly do not make anyone’s career. In addition, they do not keep anyone safe!

My claim to this “badge of honor,” that for a long time I would have traded any day for a conventional academic career path, is to have carried out research on the effect of humiliation on the escalation of political violence, in both post-Saddam Iraq and post-war Lebanon, and to have engaged in action research in the field on several occasions between 2001 and 2004. This paper will expose, to the best of my recollection, how my research, teaching, and writings were repressed by different sources both within and outside my academic institution during the 2003-2004 year, and how this repression led me to expatriate from US academia into an Iraqi university. Of particular importance will be an illustration of the mechanisms that currently allow young academics to be flushed out of US universities before being able to prove themselves as scholars and teachers, such as result from weak or non-existent solidarity and support networks. Consequently, this paper also examines what systems might promote greater solidarity among critical or controversial scholars who face repression in their academic work.

My original sin

I was raised in a conservative family of Brittany, North-West of France. Throughout my entire childhood, I saw reports on television on terrorism in Corsica and the French Basque Country. I also learned that France had a problem at some point in its history with Algeria, and that this was why bomb attacks shook Paris from time to time. All these recurring news stories made me question the motivations that would lead human beings to injure or kill one another. I wanted to know who the individuals behind these attacks were, what motivated them, and how they saw us. If we considered them as brutal, heartless, evil people, how did they regard the French? What made them kill innocents? Did they ever start the day, thinking: “Today, I am going to kill as many innocent people as possible”? I just could not bring myself to believe that my reality was necessarily the right one since it stemmed from my “civilized” way of being.

After studying politics at the University of Sussex, in the UK, and being exposed to a version of the Algerian War that I would never have been encountered in France, I became interested in the politics of Arab World. A course on Lebanese politics led me to embark on a doctoral study on peace-building in Lebanon. As soon as I arrived in Beirut in January 2001, I realized the strategic importance of the Hezbollah, known in Lebanon as the Party of God, considered there to be a political party just like any other. My overall thesis was that since none of the issues that had plunged the country into a 17-year civil war had been resolved, if the country was to refrain from falling into conflict again, it would need the commitment of the Hezbollah as a powerful political broker.

My research, it seems, was not too much off the mark, since recent developments in Lebanon seem to point towards the same conclusion. Intrigued by the role played by the Hezbollah in Lebanese politics and social life, I set out to analyze their public diplomacy, ideas, social following, and so on. Since many colleagues of the American University of Beirut’s Centre for Behavioral Research had already made contact with them, I did the same. After all, I was enrolled in an Irish university, and the European Union had not placed the Hezbollah on its terrorist list. I therefore opened the Yellow Pages, looked to the Political Parties Offices section, and found the phone number of their Press Office. As they were used to meeting academic researchers from even the US, they received me. After a few preparatory meetings, they gave me carte blanche to contact any of their social institutions for the sake of my research. I therefore spent the next two years carrying out participant observation with many of their institutions, women’s groups, girl’s summer classes, agricultural development centers, and hospitals. Since Hezbollah’s military affairs were not the focal point of my research, however, I never observed any military activities or trainings. 

Upon successfully defending my thesis in the Spring of 2003, I saw in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein the potential for another Hezbollah to establish itself in a Middle Eastern country, this time in Iraq. As I knew nothing about that country, I asked the Hezbollah Press Office to help me arrange interviews with their Iraqi partners once I reached Baghdad. Both my contacts at Manar Television (the Hezbollah television channel) and the Press Office originally refused, invoking concerns for my security, but upon my insistence, they finally agreed to contact the Beirut representative of their Iraqi partner organization, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The SCIRI representative in Beirut wrote a letter, in Farsi, for their Baghdad counterpart, saying that they should receive me once I reached Baghdad. I was also given a satellite phone number. Since there was no other type of communication available at the time, not even e-mails, this letter was the best I could aim for.

I set off for Baghdad the next day, shadowing a journalist to pay for my passage, uncertain of where I would stay or who I would meet, and with this letter for unique direction. After a first disappointing meeting at the Baghdad SCIRI Headquarters, where my letter was confiscated and no one seemed to know what was happening, I realized that the SCIRI was not made of the educated, disciplined, rigorous crowd that I had observed in Beirut for the past two years. I knew after a few days that there would be no Iraqi Hezbollah, that the SCIRI was not interested in helping foreign researchers, and that I had to keep my eyes open for alternative research material.

A few days later, our news team arrived in Fallujah. As tensions between US troops and residents raised due to a shoot-out on April 28th 2003, we witnessed a series of US raids over the following weeks.[ii] From my first moment in Fallujah, I realized that it would be an important part of the post-war equation. I saw burned out US soldiers trying to uphold their perception of what constitutes security, facing a crowd of residents concerned with their own safety and more importantly their individual and collective honor. Both parties were afraid, unaware of one another’s codes of conduct and perceptions. In a society where honor and vengeance are of utmost importance, violence was bound to escalate rapidly.

I met with ordinary people who had not been given reparations for the outrages they had suffered, and who decided to resort to violence to avenge their lost honor. In other Sunni Muslim parts of the country, I witnessed the same phenomenon -- ordinary people taking up arms, standing for their own rights, in the same way, it felt, that US patriots once stood up against British rule. It was obvious, tragic, and predictable.

After witnessing many misunderstandings that turned violent, I decided to study the impact of perceived humiliation on conflict escalation in post-Saddam Iraq. I went to several Sunni Muslim parts of the country, interviewed various ordinary people, lived with some of them, and slowly began to come up with an Iraqi-based analysis of conflict escalation in post-Saddam Iraq.[iii]

I was not the only foreigner in Iraq to realize the importance of humiliation in conflict escalation: al-Qaeda also did. In the few months during which some ordinary people organized themselves into nationalist insurgency movements, others answered the calls of Islamic fundamentalism and al-Qaeda. This too was predictable and could have been avoided, had conditions not been set for Iraqis to rebel in the first place.

Throughout the initial months of the invasion of Iraq, the US administration realized that it was losing the peace, and initiated a propaganda war vilifying both nationalist and al-Qaeda based movements. Under this framing of the Iraqi conflict, any attempt to separate the two movements or to understand the underlying factors that spurred violence was labeled as “condoning terrorism.” Once the coalition decided to administer Iraq its way or the hard way, my research became controversial overnight. [iv]

Lesson Number One: Do not be interviewed by anyone other than your future boss

As I completed my first academic article on the escalation of violence in Fallujah, I was invited to speak by various East-Coast Universities in the Spring of 2004, among them the United States Military Academy at West Point and Colgate University. After a very successful intervention at West Point, I arrived at Colgate to make a presentation that turned into an interview for the position of Visiting Assistant Professor of Peace Studies for the following academic year. My stay at Colgate was a great success. It did not feel like I was being interviewed at all, but more like I was meeting compatible colleagues who seemed eager to learn about my research, and whose research was also of great interest to me. The day that I spent on campus was an absolute joy and we parted with the idea that I might be a good fit for the department.

A few days later, I was asked by the Acting Head of the Peace Studies Program, Prof. Nancy Ries, who had welcomed me with such warmth at Colgate, to have a conversation with the future head of the program, Prof. Dan Monk, who was being recruited with tenure at the same time as me. He called me from Israel where he was spending a sabbatical year and spoke about teaching loads and expectations that we both had from one another’s perspective.

As I had just obtained a good offer of contract extension from the Turkish institution at which I was then teaching, I wanted to leave Turkey only for a place with even better potential. I made it clear to Prof. Monk that I would be looking towards staying for a tenure track at Colgate, while applying for other positions elsewhere. He did not exclude the possibility of my possible stay at Colgate beyond one year, but also said that he could not promise a tenure-track position in Peace Studies for that year. As he sounded positive and it was possible that I could stay beyond my first visiting year, I was not alarmed. A few days later, I was notified that my candidacy was successful. I arrived at Colgate in early August, on the assumption that I was there to stay.

Eager to meet my new boss, I made it to work only a few hours after landing at Syracuse Airport. We met and agreed to share lunch. Nor long into our meal, a black cloud started to form over the table. After I spoke about my PhD research on the Hezbollah and my latest article on Iraq, Prof. Monk expressed reservations about the value of researching insurgencies. Was it not a rather empirically-based topic? What was my methodology in the field? Had I gone in front of the ethics committee? My PhD was from the University of Limerick, where is that?

Then came a discussion on Israel. As I knew of his sabbatical research there, I felt that our fields, experiences, and approaches would be complimentary. Speaking about the separation built between Palestinian and Israeli areas, however, we had quite different outlooks. When he spoke of a fence, I spoke of a wall. A fence for me was something that my dog could dig under, and since we were both dog lovers, I drew the contrast to a wall that is a wall. He replied that the separation was much more of a fence than a wall. I replied that the Berlin Wall also was more of a fence than a wall, but that it was still called a wall. Clearly, our conversation was going nowhere. Our approaches were not to be complimentary. By the end of this lunch, and on my first day in the US, I realized that it was a dreadful shame that he had not been there for my campus interview, because I would never have been hired! This is a lesson learned for both of us: be on campus to recruit and to be recruited. On that day, I knew that I would not stay at Colgate beyond my one-year renewable contract, and that I had made a serious mistake in leaving Turkey. The rest of the year would prove to be one humiliation after another.

Lesson Number Two: Whatever you do, do not be “hysterical”!

After I arrived, I first had to find a suitable teaching load, as this had been mentioned during my interview. Understandably, I wanted to stay as close to my specialty as possible, since I also wanted to use the coming year for research, publication, and a job search. After being asked to submit a syllabus for a course on Core Middle East by Prof. Safi, I was told that the institutional need had switched from Core Middle East to Core Israel, and that Prof. Monk would be teaching it. The reason invoked for this was twofold: first, there was no longer any institutional need in Middle Eastern studies; second, and this came directly from Prof. Monk, I did not speak Arabic fluently, hence was not qualified to teach the Core Middle East course.

This was the first in a long line of humiliations in relation to my scholarship: how could I be a Middle East expert and not speak the language fluently? While true to one extent, French, my mother tongue, is spoken widely in Lebanon and equipped me to understand much of the political discourse. By the look of the Iraq invasion debacle, precipitated by many Iraqi exiles that little idea of how their country should be ran, I felt that my contribution to the academic debate surrounding this part of the world would be as valid as anyone’s. I nonetheless embarked on Arabic lessons to show good will and to better fit departmental needs. Maybe I would be worthy of teaching Core Middle East in the next academic year if I was asked to stay.

As I had relied on shadowing a journalist, Robert Fisk, in order to be financially able to go to Iraq in 2003, I had to spend a few weekends away to either fly to Paris or Dublin in the Fall of 2004, to work as a researcher on his book.[v]  I was told that spending weekends abroad did not show my commitment to the Colgate community, and that working with Fisk made me more of a journalist than an academic. True, but collaborating with Fisk allowed me to initiate ground-breaking research in post-Saddam Iraq, and did that not count for anything?

Then came the attacks on my scholarship. I had sent an article on humiliation and political violence for review to Prof. Monk, whom I hoped would become a mentor for me during that year. He dismissed the article, accepted for publication since in a peer reviewed journal, Peace and Change, “as if it had been written to illustrate the books that I had on my shelf.”[vi] Whatever this meant, it was bad. Then he criticized my focus on humiliation and disparaged my network of scholars -- anchored at Columbia University, and counting no less than experts such as Morton Deutsch, Peter Coleman, and Don Klein – as unworthy of my time.

As I still thought that I could please Prof. Monk, I reduced my trips to Europe, focused on writing according to his standards, and worked hard to teach in the best way possible. My teaching load still had not been finalized, and I hoped to be able to at least repeat one class in the second term. This was not possible as my War, State, and Society class was given to a colleague. Instead of repeating this or at least teaching something in my research area, I was given a Core Modernity course, starting with Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Since this was a core curriculum course, I only had a 20 percent space for material of my own choice. I decided to focus on the theme of conflict and tried to introduce Joe Sacco’s book, Palestine. I showed it to my Program Head as a courtesy and because I was still looking for his mentorship. He replied that it was inappropriate, as it might alienate Jewish students. I then made the mistake in writing in an e-mail to him that I did not mind being “burned at the stake” for introducing the book to my class. As English is my second language, I did not quite understand the strong nature of this remark. Prof. Monk, however, seized advantage of the faux pas to brand me as hysterical.

Good old hysteria: a sure value in any conflict between an omnipotent male tenured department head and a visiting female rookie! I was therefore stigmatized as a hysterical immature person, as a journalist and a quasi-scholar.

All they had left to discredit was my teaching. The problem was that I had excellent student reviews. My Program Head sat in on two of my classes, but since his background was architecture, he did not have much to say about my theoretical take on ethnicity. However, as I like to illustrate concepts with facts, this was used against me. My student reviews, he said, were too good and probably illustrated my reliance more on facts more than theories. According to him, I was more of an entertainer than a professor. Students seemed not to challenge my teaching enough, which led him to think that, again, I was some sort of a glorified journalist.

After all this, one December morning, Prof. Monk called me in his office with Prof. Ries, who had recruited me, present. Again denigrated as a weak scholar, feeble teacher, and hysterical person, Prof. Monk informed me that my contract would not be renewed for the next academic year. In his benevolent mercy, he promised to help me be a better scholar and to find a job elsewhere. As I broke the news to some colleagues and students, I could only hear incredulity. How could this happen? How could I fall from grace at Colgate so quickly?

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[i] Cockburn, P. (2008). "If there is no change in three months, there will be war again," The Independent. London.

[ii] HRW (2003). Violent Response: The U.S. Army in al-Falluja. New York, Human Rights Watch.

[iii] Fontan, V. (2006). "Polarization between occupier and occupied in Post-Saddam Iraq: humiliation and the formation of political violence." Terrorism and Political Violence 18(2): 217-238.

[iv] Bremer, L. P. (2006). My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope. New York, Simon and Schuster.

[v] Fisk, R. (2005). The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East. London, Fourth Estate Publishers.

[vi] I subsequently withdrew this article from Peace and Change and incorporated it in my Voices from Post-Saddam Iraq book as Chapter 4.

VICTORIA FONTAN is Director of Academic Development and Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, at the United Nations-mandated University for Peace in San Jose, Costa Rica. Prior to this appointment, she was a Fellow to the Iraq Project at the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University. As a freelance journalist, Fontan has worked in Iraq for Deutsche Welle Radio and Television, for the Baghdad Bulletin, and for The Independent, based in the United Kingdom. Her many roles have also included serving as Research Fellow at Sabanci University in Turkey, Research Associate at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, and Visiting Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University in New York.