When One Academic Is Imprisoned, We Are All Imprisoned

If you don’t know the name Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert, you should. A lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne, Dr. Moore-Gilbert was released last week from prison in Iran. Two years ago, she attended an academic conference in Tehran and, upon trying to board her flight home to Melbourne, she was arrested by the Iranian authorities and charged with espionage, (which she has always denied). Her trial took place in secret, so we know very few details of the accusations. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ended up spending over two years living under conditions that can only be described as unimaginably hard. It was reported that the Iranian authorities offered her freedom in exchange for working as a spy for them, but she declined the offer.

For my part, I salute Dr Moore-Gilbert for her bravery and strength in the face of adversity. I can only imagine the severe pain and suffering she experienced over the last couple years, and the extreme sense of injustice of having been imprisoned without due process. Out of respect for Dr. Moore-Gilbert’s ordeal, I’d like you to spend a few moments today imagining what her life was like.

We humans have a tendency to block out injustices happening elsewhere, as long as they don’t start happening to us. We are all guilty of indifference to the suffering of others. For example, we know that people are dying of hunger every single day on this planet of ours, and yet we take our food for granted and throw away our leftovers because we’re not hungry. We also know that genocide and slavery still happen in “other” parts of the world, but since we are personally not subject to genocide or slavery, we go about our days without giving a care in the world.

“We humans have a tendency to block out injustices happening elsewhere, as long as they don’t start happening to us. We are all guilty of indifference to the suffering of others.”

I’d like you to imagine your life over the last two years. I’m sure it’s had its up and downs. We’ve all suffered through the COVID19 pandemic. Many have lost loved ones. Many of lost their jobs and livelihoods. I’m not downplaying your suffering or mine. But I also want to point out that, unlike Dr. Moore-Gilbert, you likely had access to a network of support: family, friends, colleagues, counsellors, and doctors. If you lost your job, you likely had access to some form of welfare to help you get by financially. Even if you were recently in lockdown, you were able to visit the supermarket, go out for exercise, have a BBQ with family, and communicate freely with whomever you want. (Personally, I quite enjoyed lockdown. I got to spend some intimate time with my family when I would have otherwise been in the office.)

Now I want you to imagine what the last two years were like for Dr. Moore-Gilbert. She was reportedly held in solitary confinement for much of the time. She also contended with the threat of COVID19 as it spread through Iranian prisons like a wildfire. She had only very occasional access to consular staff, but aside from that, she was on her own with just her thoughts to keep her company. She lived, we can only assume, a life of fear, anxiety, and hopelessness. The trauma of being subjected to the injustice of a secret trial must have been immense. She probably daily lamented the loss of her freedom, her family and friends, and her career. I imagine that she slept for no more than a couple hours at a time. There was probably much to be desired in the food she was served. She may have even feared for her life.

Maybe the last two years for us could have been a lot worse.

This thought exercise has, I hope, opened your eyes to the vital importance of academic freedom. Fortunately, I live in the country were academics do not have to worry about being arrested and subject to secret courts. I go to bed each night knowing that my research can upset the authorities, and yet I have nothing to fear. The same cannot be said of academics in other parts of the world where speech is being stifled—places like Iran, North Korea, and China, among others. I think we should all stop, at least once a day, and think about the plight of our brothers and sisters elsewhere. They deserve better.

Professor Andrew R. Timming
Editor-in-Chief

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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