Nick Riemer: Academics should boycott international conferences in the US until Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ is lifted

Protest march against Donald Trump
Protest march against Donald Trump

Earlier this week, I signed a call for a boycott of international academic conferences in the US until Trump’s “Muslim ban” is lifted. Over five thousand other academics have done the same, and the move has been widely reported. However, not everyone thinks that a boycott is productive. So here are some reasons to sign if you haven’t already:

  • Any measure that concretely counters the ban should be supported. The boycott is tantamount to a call to relocate the conferences outside the US, for which it creates a pressing incentive. This would essentially undo the effect of the ban in the particular context of international academic gatherings.

  • For the same reason, a boycott would have a material effect analogous to that created by strikes. The boycott call has been carefully phrased: it targets international academic conferences – just those, that is, that can be relocated, thereby exerting an economic effect on the US economy without compromising scholarly and scientific exchange. Major conferences are big business: relocating them deprives the US of the funds they bring in. If you think industrial action and other forms of material pressure on the US economy are an appropriate response to the advent of Trump, then a boycott makes sense.

  • The boycott is an act of public solidarity with Muslims who are or might be affected by Trump’s politics. Progressives should side with oppressed minorities: the boycott is a way of doing just that, literally.

  • The boycott politicizes universities’ institutional activities in, for once, a progressive direction, by countering the expectation that academic business-as-usual can roll on despite anything and that the university sector is above politics.

Some have argued against the boycott on the grounds that Trump and his supporters don’t care about the views of the academy, and, in fact, clearly want to undermine it. In light of that, surely the world’s academics should continue to hold conferences in the US, and do so assertively. The right’s assaults on knowledge, after all, necessitate strong opposition. What better way to resist than to defiantly maintain international academic meetings?

In my view, that line of reasoning is mistaken. It’s obviously true that intra-academy agitation may well not even register in the White House. But objecting to the boycott on those grounds reflects too mechanistic an understanding of political cause and effect, by missing the boycott’s role in building pressure in society. Political actions can’t be assessed on whether they achieve the ultimate goal of the campaign they form part of – in this case, beating Trump. Campaigns get to that distant goal via intermediate goals that increase the issue’s salience, provide vehicles for political expression, recruit and radicalise participants, and expand those participants’ appreciation of the scope of possible action. In doing so, they build pressure, refracted in numerous ways through society. That’s exactly the logic of the academic boycott: it will exert a direct and concrete effect through its economic impact, and a socio-ideological one in politicizing arenas of professional activity whose practitioners may previously have considered themselves above the fray.

Another objection to the boycott argues that it’s preferable for international gatherings to go ahead, and to be used to pass specific resolutions against the Muslim ban. Better, on this line of reasoning, to use the conference as a vehicle of political organisation, than to give up on that opportunity entirely.

This argument misses the fact that there are many ways for academics, and academic associations, to harness their collective institutional weight other than in face-to-face meetings. One hundred and fifty one US and international organisations, in fact, have already publicly written to Trump demanding the rescission of the executive order. Similarly, a group of members from the International Studies Association has attracted attention with a letter calling on the ISA to come out strongly against the travel ban, and to commit to holding future conferences outside the US. International conferences, with their feverish schedules, are unlikely to be the best contexts in which to discuss and initiate political actions. There is, in any case, no reason that these same initiatives could not be taken when the conferences are moved out of the US. An anti-ban resolution that is matched by a boycott of US conference venues sends a much stronger signal about the gravity of the political situation than does a resolution carried at a conference that proceeds on US soil regardless.

There is no reason that international academic gatherings have to be held in the US. The boycott certainly isn’t the most essential thing people in universities can do to resist Trump: it’s more important to participate in and help organise local, grassroots initiatives. But it doesn’t require very much of academics, and it offers us one way of making the most of our limited social standing, with some very concrete consequences. Meanwhile, nothing in the boycott call prevents us from going to the US to support our colleagues and to participate in struggles there.

Trump crystallizes and extends deep-seated authoritarian and reactionary trends in Western democracies. He is unusually dangerous, and society must act against him decisively. The contention, reported here, that US academics, under fire from “anti-intellectualism”, also need our solidarity, and that the boycott is therefore inappropriate, is highly misplaced at a time when Muslims are facing direct racist discrimination. Signing the boycott call costs us very little. I am yet to see any compelling reasons against doing so.

Nick Riemer, University of Sydney, Australia and Laboratoire d’histoire des théories linguistiques, Université Paris-Diderot, France

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