“Some of our friends couldn’t make it.”
International relations scholars met for their annual convention in the US last week against the backdrop of a Donald Trump presidency. Scholarly business to a large degree continued as usual, with panel sessions on the future of a liberal world order and change in world politics taking on special urgency. Hundreds of sessions covered topics such as climate and energy policy, global governance institutions, the rise of populism, terrorism and counterterrorism, and the politics of nuclear weapons.
But while panels and receptions continued apace, not everyone who had originally planned to attend the International Studies Association's annual convention was able to partake. ISA’s leadership reported that a total of 176 participants withdrew from the conference citing a reason related to Trump and his 27 January order barring travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Enforcement of that order, which also prohibited the entry of refugees, has been temporarily halted by the courts, but the Trump administration has pledged to introduce a new order meant to achieve the same purpose.
Sixteen of those who withdrew from the ISA conference cited visa issues. The majority of those scholars reporting visa issues did not come from one of the seven countries directly impacted by the entry ban – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – but rather from other countries (Brazil, for instance). Thirty-eight cited a reason for withdrawing related to their nationality. Ninety-eight said they were boycotting.
"There's some ambiguity in there, because there are folks who said, 'Jeez, I've got a Muslim name, so I'm not coming' and they're not really boycotting – it's just they don't want to risk being hassled at the airport or something of the sort," said Mark A. Boyer, ISA's executive director. "So of that 176 we're not entirely sure what all the categories are."
"Some people just say, 'I don't feel comfortable coming,'" said Jennifer Fontanella, the association's director of operations and finance.
"We had a young woman from India say her parents said, 'Don't go to the US,'" said Boyer. "So there are lots of different permutations and combinations of issues with regard to those 176. We generally have about 6,500 people at this meeting, plus or minus."
“If you are a Muslim, wherever you’re from, you might be able to get into the United States, after some tremendous hassle, but there’s no certainty about that, in that you’d be investing large amounts of money – plane tickets, hotel reservations – on the possibility that [Customs and Border Patrol] would let you in,” said Stephen M. Saideman, the Paterson chair in international affairs at Carleton University, in Canada. Saideman accepted an award at ISA on behalf of a scholar who did not attend the convention because of the ban.
“Many people are figuring out that’s not worth attempting or they don’t want to legitimate the United States by coming to it at a time when it is engaged in horrendous policies," Saideman continued. "I have friends who made that decision. It’s sometimes hard to disentangle whether they made that decision because they suspected that they would get hassled, they may be blocked, they may be interrogated for hours, or they made it because they did not want to come to the United States when the United States was being run in this particular way. It’s probably a combination of those things. And this is damaging to a variety of things. It’s damaging to intellectual discourse because the whole idea of what we do is to create knowledge based on competing and overlapping and complementing ideas that are generated, in part, by the diversity of our planet. This ban is going to limit the diversity of voices in American social sciences, in American hard sciences, American medical sciences: it’s across the board."
Some chose not to come to ISA in Baltimore as a matter of conscience. Catherine Goetze, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Tasmania, wrote on her blog about her reasons for not coming. In a message she sent to fellow panelists apologising for her withdrawal, Goetze, who is German, referred to her great-grandfather’s collaboration with the Nazi regime in his role as a director of libraries. “Now, the USA is not Nazi Germany (yet),” Goetze wrote. “But I strongly feel that it is quickly on its way of becoming a fundamentally anti-democratic, anti-pluralist and fascist state and it has been standard to brutally and cruelly discriminate [against] people on the grounds of their skin color or religion for a long, long time now. I also feel that this anti-enlightenment is not caused by that man in the White House but he’s just a sort of caricature of white American middle-class society as it has existed since a long time. What is much more disquieting for me is not [Trump’s] nonsense spluttering but the huge mass of Eichmanns, the banal collaborators of daily life.”
Goetze wrote that going to ISA now would normalise “an absolutely abnormal situation” and ignore “the cruelty and ugliness of [Trump’s] junta regime. I would be setting my unease, my abhorrence, my consciousness aside because I just want to get on with my job.”
Others made a different choice. Jennifer Philippa Eggert, a Ph.D. candidate in politics and international studies at the University of Warwick, blogged about her choice to come to ISA as a visibly Muslim woman who wears a hijab. “I am worried about recent developments, but boycotting the ISA annual convention is not an option for me,” Eggert wrote. “In fact, I will make a point of attending ISA this year. If the new president and his supporters want to ban people like me – Muslim people and/or people of color – from the country, that is even more reason for me to attend. I am used to present[ing] at conferences where I am the only woman wearing hijab. Sometimes, I am the only person in the room who is a Muslim, even in countries with sizable Muslim communities. Me canceling my participation would make the ISA annual conference a bit less colorful, it would prevent me from making my voice heard, and that cannot be the aim. For me, in this case, attendance is resistance.”
An open letter signed by nearly 100 international relations scholars published during the conference criticised various of Trump's policies, including the temporarily halted travel ban and what the letter describes as the president's "go-it-alone" policy and disregard for international law and diplomatic relationships".
"Recently, President Trump tweeted that people should 'Study the world!' to understand his foreign policy," the open letter states. "As scholars of international relations, we have studied the world, and we are concerned that the actions of the president undermine rather than enhance America’s national security."
"We agree it is important for any president to protect U.S. citizens from extremist violence, ensure America is respected abroad and prioritize American interests. But our knowledge of global affairs, based on history, scientific fact and experience, tells us that many of the policies Trump has undertaken thus far do not advance these goals. Instead, they have made Americans less safe," the letter states.
This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in Inside Higher Ed.