Amid increasing disinformation and the silencing of speech, scholars must strive towards speaking truth

With the rising assault on free speech and with disinformation being used as an instrument by states to undermine dissent, the role of researchers has become pivotal. Scholars need to transcend their role of complicit impartiality and should seek to reveal and tell the truth as cognisant political agents, writes Haris Zargar.

Last year, the Israeli government formally labelled several Palestinian rights outfits “terrorist organizations”. These Palestinian human rights organizations, including the prominent rights outfit Al-Haq, have been working in the West Bank. Many who have closely worked with Al-Haq believed that the banning of the Palestinian rights groups occurred not only because of their credible work on documenting the rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories, but also for setting an impeccable standard in research, documentation, and advocacy.

Weeks after the ban, I happened to speak to a Palestinian friend and former colleague at SOAS who works at Al-Haq – a word which in Arabic literally means ‘the truth’. I wanted to enquire about his wellbeing and how the ban was impacting their work. “We are terrorists for them, you know, for speaking the truth,” he told me, and added: “They are all afraid of the truth. Speaking the truth is now terrorism.” For us, the ‘they’ and ‘them’, left unidentified by my friend, explicitly meant the Israeli government in his context, and in a not so obvious way in my context the Indian government that has likewise criminalized all forms of dissent and have jailed human rights defenders, scholars, and journalists on terrorism charges.

My friend’s ‘metaphorical’ words arguably echoed a larger reality and perhaps the peril of our times – an era of disinformation, a period in which documenting and speaking truth is equated with terrorism. And this criminalization of truth is done not just by authoritarian regimes, but even by those states who project themselves as custodians of free speech and freedom of expression. We live in an era where misinformation and fake news is pursued as state policy to cripple people’s perceptions of reality and truth. Twitter’s takeover by a billionaire represents just another example of that reality in which the ruling political and corporate elites are seeking to choke perhaps the few remaining alternatives spaces that have provided a platform for ground-up perspectives on events in real time. ​

Having said that, I do not want to claim that social media platforms have safeguarded free speech or absolve them of responsibility for the dissemination of disinformation. In fact, these platforms have been at the forefront of censoring political dissidents and have worked closely with authoritarian regimes to polarize societies and push right-wing narratives, conspiracy theories, and misinformation.

Over the past decade, we have witnessed a growing assault on civil rights groups, human rights defenders, academicians, scholars, journalists, artists, whistle-blowers, and those who have merely sought to speak the truth. These assaults include direct attacks ranging from assassinations, incarceration, criminal and terrorism charges to physical assaults, exiles, and indirect threats/intimidations including travel bans, cyber bullying, etc. There is an apparent concerted effort to criminalize all legitimate forms of dissent and expression.

Scholars, activists, and journalists everywhere are facing violence. The case of British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who has been in Egyptian prison on spurious charges of spreading false news, is one glaring example. Similarly, a prominent Kashmiri human rights defender, Khurram Pervaiz, has been in prison under a draconian anti-terror law. Khurram is the chairperson of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), a rights organization that investigates forced disappearances in Asia. He also leads the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a group that has published scathing reports on rights violations committed by armed forces in Kashmir.

In India, authorities have illegally detained and prosecuted scholars and students under anti-terrorism laws for simply expressing views that contradict those of the current ruling party. Last year, Iranian authorities arrested three professors from Poland on charges of espionage. The state in Hong Kong has used its  , leading to prosecutions and dismantling of student unions from various universities. There has been an intensifying crackdown on free speech in Turkey. Central Asian states are often not spoken about and the situation in these places remains gloomy.

This is not a phenomenon restricted to rest of the world – Western Europe and America remain complicit and guilty of the same infringements. In fact, Western Europe and America are culpable of not only enabling and emboldening these authoritarian regimes in Asia, Africa, and Latin America but remain the main precursor in censoring civil rights activists. In recent times, we are seeing the silencing of Palestinian voices in Germany and the UK. The Goethe-Institute decision to de-platform Palestinian activist Mohammed el-Kurd or Berlin’s police banning several Nakba Day protests are just a few examples.

In the US, many states have introduced bills that would direct what students can and cannot be taught about the role of slavery in American history and the ongoing effects of racism in America today. France has doubled down on their perpetual smear campaign against French Muslims and migrants. Italy’s new regime is doubling down its attack on migrants coming from Africa and elsewhere as well as criminalising NGOs. We witnessed police brutality directed at migrants and non-Europeans even during the emergency times like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukrainian conflict. The chargesheet is long and exhaustive.

What I am alluding to and what I want to highlight is that our job and responsibility in these bleak times as scholars has become even more important, especially in holding up the mirror to those in positions of power and upholding the truth – which is often subjective. Truth is unlike a bare fact, which, devoid of context, is often used in disinformation campaigns. Most of us are engaged in work that we are passionate about, be that issues of women’s and gender rights like the ongoing women’s protests in Iran or struggles for abortion rights in the US, Poland, or labour rights in China, West Asia, Africa, the imminent environmental and climate change crisis that is impacting the poorest of the world, rising authoritarianism and ultra-right-wing populism, and the stifling of people’s self-determination movements, be that in Palestine, Western Sahara, West Papua, or Kashmir.

We are not just academics but citizens and an integral part of global political and social systems. It is imperative that we work towards the betterment of this world. As states pursue their direct assault on civil rights groups and launch disinformation campaigns to discredit activism and those who strive for justice, we must carry the responsibility of upholding truth and preserving it. I must emphasize, as I often tell myself this as well, that different forms of oppression are interlinked and therefore the resistance to these oppressive systems must be collaborative. We must stand in solidarity with each other to preserve, uphold, or speak the truth in whichever way we can. There can be no selective resistance or single cause to fight for.

The world we knew is fading and the new emerging world must be built on the foundations of freedom, justice, and egalitarianism – not in a Western neoliberal framework. We must envision a world where there is no place for racism, xenophobia, homophobia, antisemitism, islamophobia, or misogyny. That new world cannot be a reality if our hearts are not stirred by the torrents of revolution in which truth and justice is the central motif. My speech this evening reads like a political manifesto, and it should be taken as such, for our responsibility to uphold al-haq (the truth) is not just a moral obligation but should be our political stance as scholars.

I conclude with the words of poet-Philosopher Allama Iqbal, also known as the poet of the East, who wrote:

Does your heart tremble from the fear of the impending storm? Know that you are the sailor, you are the ocean, you are the boat, and the destination.

This article was first presented in the form of a speech and is posted here with the permission of the author.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Haris Zargar is doctoral candidate at ISS focusing on political Islam, social movements and agrarian change. He has worked as a journalist for over a decade writing on the intersection of politics, conflict and human security and has degrees in Journalism and Development Studies.

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