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Protecting Scholars of Art From Persecution

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The United States is a world leader in providing a safe haven to political activists fleeing oppressive dictatorships.

But what if your only crime is that you are an artist whose work is viewed as critical of your government? What happens if, as a professor of art or literature, you use creative expression to give voice to an oppressed people? How do you preserve your country's rich cultural heritage when you become the target of death threats?

Totalitarian regimes are increasingly targeting scholars of art, seeking to silence them and their ideas. Many of these individuals have worked for years in respected institutions only to find themselves and their families suddenly under threat of physical attack, or they are intimidated into fleeing their homes and countries. Consider these examples:

  • A well-known painter and professor with three decades of experience teaching in Iraq's colleges of art became the target of militants. In 2010, he found a bullet in an envelope on his doorstep -- a common warning used by extremist factions to silence and frighten their victims. Knowing the risks, he and his family fled the country.
  • A female scholar of dramatic arts credited for shaping a generation of Syrian performers was repeatedly interrogated by government authorities who condemned her work as too controversial. After 30 years of teaching, she was forced into exile.
  • An Iraqi architecture scholar known for his contributions to public and private buildings in Baghdad was blindfolded and had his hands and feet bound while militants ransacked and robbed his home, threatening to blow it up. After 30 years as a lecturer in the Department of Architecture at a Baghdad university, he was forced to leave the country after being involuntarily retired from his position.
  • One of Chechnya's most important poets was wounded when violence broke out in the region. Russian authorities then began harassing him at his university because they considered his work inflammatory.
  • In Syria, a renowned scholar of medieval Islamic architecture and the country's urban architectural history was threatened with arrest and violence because members of the Assad regime decided that his allegiance was to the opposition after he spoke out against Syrian ministers. Despite his efforts to promote Syria's cultural heritage, he was driven out of his homeland.
  • In the horn of Africa, an award-winning professor and multimedia visual artist resigned from a national school of fine art and design to protest the politically motivated appointment of a new university president. When he returned to his faculty position, his artwork had been destroyed and his access to campus art studios curtailed.

In a perfect world, scholarship would be judged only on things like originality of thought, depth of research and the ability to put forth a cogent argument. But these scholars are being attacked for the simple reason that they are using creative expression to give a voice to an oppressed people.

Recognizing the contribution of these scholars to world culture, the Institute of International Education has established the Janet Hennessey Dilenschneider Scholar Rescue Award in the Arts as part of IIE's Scholar Rescue Fund to protect free expression and creativity. Jan is a visual artist and her husband Robert, together with our trustee Mark A. Angelson, have created this award that will allow IIE to rescue 10 art scholars.

Threatened scholars in fields such as painting, dance, music, architecture, theater and archeology will be able to apply. They will receive financial assistance to relocate and a position at a host institution of higher learning.

The freedom of artistic expression we cherish in the United States is under attack around the world. Rescuing scholars of art guarantees that their voices will be heard and their artistic contributions preserved -- to be shared with future generations in their homelands, and with people everywhere who value the treasure that is human creativity.