O'Donnell Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics and Race and Ethnic Studies Saladdin Ahmed's teaching on topics such as totalitarianism and ethnic persecution owes a lot to lived experience.
Facing persecution in his native Iraqi Kurdistan in the late 1990s, Ahmed escaped to Damascus, Syria, and ultimately sought refuge in Canada in 2000. More recently, the scholar's work investigating racism and the treatment of Kurdish refugees and minorities made him a target during academic appointments at the University of Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan and Mardin Artuklu University in Mardin, Turkey. During the latter appointment in 2014-15, non-Turkish Kurds like Ahmed-along with many other foreign faculty members-came under threat from then-new President Recep Erdoğan's authoritarian government due to his background and liberal political stance.
"The Erdoğan regime started getting harder on everyone who was not considered a loyalist," Ahmed recalled. After an encounter with law enforcement, Ahmed realized that they had been keeping tabs on him. Following that encounter, he continued, "I went home, and we left two days later."
Returning to Canada, Ahmed applied for assistance from Scholars at Risk (SAR). Founded in 1999 at the University of Chicago, SAR is a network of more than 450 member institutions that offer temporary research and teaching positions for academics and scholars whose work puts their lives, liberty and wellbeing in jeopardy.
In fall 2016, Whitman became the first institution in the Northwest to join SAR, which to date has provided sanctuary for more than 700 scholars.
"Our membership will allow us to be a resource for scholars in danger in their home countries, as well as bringing truly global perspectives to our campus," said Provost and Dean of the Faculty Alzada Tipton in an email to the Whitman community.
Ahmed came to Whitman in spring 2016, when he taught a course titled Unpacking Racism. The enthusiasm of his students-who wanted to know what they could do to combat racism-impressed him.
"I liked that spirit," he said. "And, always, my answer is: We need to know the scale of the problem before we can do anything." Thankfully, he added, "this generation has been historically absolutely the most progressive in terms of awareness of questions of social justice, and I see that every day-that openness."
Ahmed came back this year to teach four courses: Introduction to Race and Ethnic Studies; Totalitarianism; The Problem of Culture; and Introduction to Ancient and Medieval Political Theory. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Ottawa in 2013 and incorporates philosophy into his classes.
In Introduction to Race and Ethnic Studies, students examine "theinvention of the notion of race," exploring both historical colonialism and contemporary everyday racism. As a final project, they create Wikipedia pages for a noted figure from a marginalized or underrepresented group in North America.
In Totalitarianism, the class investigates the history of totalitarian regimes as well as the underlying principles of totalitarianism that persist to this day, drawing from theoretical accounts as well as regime-specific case studies.
"What's most exciting to me about Saladdin's class is the way it's taking the concept of totalitarianism, which is really tied up with historical regimes like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, and freeing it up from these more historical connotations," said Olivia Gilbert '19, a German studies major from Belmont, Michigan. He inspires them to "move beyond the stereotypical notion of a dictator and blatant propaganda," she continued, "to see the way in which our current social order-capitalism, liberalism and enlightenment thought, for example-are totalitarian."
Associate Professor of English Gaurav Majumdar, who spearheaded Whitman's efforts to join SAR, said: "The increasing persecution of intellectuals worldwide makes it imperative that institutions of learning act as spaces of refuge for those engaged in difficult and increasingly precarious inquiry and expression. By joining the network, Whitman showed ethical leadership and a commitment to different cultural, as well as pedagogical, perspectives."
Ahmed's application demonstrated that he could contribute to interdisciplinary programs at Whitman, including race and ethnic studies, politics and global studies, added Majumdar, who heads Whitman's SAR committee, which also includes Associate Professor of Chemistry Tim Machonkin, Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures (French) and Interdisciplinary Studies Zahi Zalloua and Assistant Professor of Politics Elleni Zeleke.
Despite finding comparative safety at Whitman, Ahmed does not plan to change his approach to his writing and research. Though the topics he writes about-from fundamentalism to authoritarianism-may put him in danger, there are always bigger issues at stake, he said.
Pushing back against oppressive systems is "the least one could do as a writer and a scholar," he observed. "Did [the work] cause problems for me? Absolutely, always. But, you know, that's the price."