Cancelled Conference: Fight for Academic Freedom

"We want our World back", Konferenz, UHH, Wissenschaftsfreiheit Die Uni ist rund um die Raumabsage der UHH an die Konferenz "We want our World back!" mal wieder Konfliktherd, wenn es um Wissenschaftsfreiheit geht (Foto: Pixabay).
The AStA of the University of Hamburg and the Network for an Alternative Quest call it an unprecedented attack on academic freedom. Nevertheless, the university withdrew the rooms for the conference “We want our World back!” This was preceded by the Hamburg Office for the Protection of the Constitution’s (Verfassungsschutz) suspicion that extremists might be present at the conference. What happened there? 

What kind of event are we talking about?

A two-page statement by the AStA and the Network for an Alternative Quest denounces the decision of the university presidium around Hauke Heekeren. On 28 March, permission to use the university’s premises was withdrawn. The conference was supposed to take place on the Easter weekend from the 7th to the 9th of April. The conference is called “We want our World back!” and is the fourth part of the event series “Challenging Capitalist Modernity”. The previous three conferences took place at Hamburg University in 2012, 2015 and 2017. Among other things, they consist of various lectures, workshops, discussions, concerts and performances. The focus was on the critique of capitalism, the Kurdish freedom movement, democracy and the climate catastrophe. The fourth conference started with the topic of ecocides and was accompanied by contributions from various professors, lecturers and activists. In the course of the events, Mexico’s first indigenous presidential candidate and human rights activist María de Jesús Patricio Martínez was also present. In total, over 1300 participants were expected to attend the conference. The events were translated into Arabic, German, English, Italian, Kurdish, Spanish and Turkish. The statements by the AStA and the Network for an Alternative Quest also emphasise how special the event is in regards to international networking. This shows which and how many supporters the statement has with the call to release the event rooms again: First and foremost, for example, is the renowned linguistics professor Noam Chomsky. Philosopher, activist and feminist Silvia Federici also reminds the university of its duty and responsibility to promote and shape visions and solutions for the crises of the present. Ten of the twelve-page statement list the many other supporters of the petition, including the AStA of the University of Hanover, the HU in Berlin, the University of Frankfurt and some student councils.
Silvia Federici comments on the withdrawal of space by UHH for the conference.
According to the statement, the conference organisers tried to find a compromise with the University of Hamburg and, if necessary, adjust the programme. However, the university was not willing to compromise and partly avoided an exchange with the AStA. This was also repeated by the social movement department responsible for press issues: “The university presidium informed us at very short notice by email that the rooms would be withdrawn. From that point on, there was no possibility to have personal talks. All attempts to contact us were rejected.”

Who are the organisers and what is behind the suspicion?

The AStA of the University of Hamburg is organising the conference together with the Network for an Alternative Quest. The former is elected by the students of the University of Hamburg and represents over 40,000 students. According to the AStA, the Network for an Alternative Quest is an “association of various initiatives and groups that advocates autonomous education and organisation” and supports the Kurdish freedom movement. According to the Verfassungsschutz, this network includes groups that are close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK strives for the independence of the Kurdish population and is on the EU terror list. The groups said to be close to the PKK are also listed in a document published by a correspondent of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Ronen Steinke, on 6 April. This includes, among others, Kurdish groups such as the International Initiative “Freedom for Abudllah Öcalan – Peace for Kurdistan” or the “Kurdish Women’s Office for Peace (CENI)”.
Not only because of the complicated and highly political complex behind the ban on the PKK and the “suspicion of terrorism” against Kurds close to the Kurdish Freedom Movement, the suspicion of the Verfassungsschutz seems strange to many activists. For some time now, voices have been raised that the pronounced “suspicion of extremism” is being misused to stigmatise politically active Kurds. In addition, the Hamburg Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz) had already raised such a suspicion of the initiative “Hamburg Enteignet” a few months ago (one day before the start of the initiative), which provoked criticism. The organisers of the events also see calculation behind the actions of the Verfassungsschutz. In their statement, they question the Verfassungsschutz. While their event was portrayed as extremist, there was “still no committee of enquiry into the involvement between the Hamburg Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the NSU”. Upon further questioning, the AStA again underlined that none of the suspected groups were banned in Germany or elsewhere. Also at the past conferences, no criminal offences or criminal contents were part of the events.

Concern for academic freedom

The event took place anyway, but not at the University of Hamburg. After being contacted by the Verfassungsschutz, the university pointed out that it was not allowed to hold an event “with a party-political orientation” on its premises. This applies especially to a party that is banned in Germany. The AStA also confirmed that there was an idea to approach the university and adapt the programme: “Since we [however] were not told which of the programme points did not suit the presidium, we could not make any suggestions.”
„If the presidium questions in court whether we as students have the right to academic freedom, then that is a scandal. For this reason, we also believe future events to be in danger.” Department for Social Movement
Instead, the event took place in the Bürgerhaus Wilhelmsburg, among other places, and a livestream broadcasted the programme as well. Several workshops were moved to the Gängeviertel, the Centro Sociale or the Rote Flora. On Saturday, the organisers of the conference “We want our World back!” were combative and willing to go ahead with the programme anyway. Nevertheless, the disappointment was still great: “We really wanted it to take place at the university. We wanted to keep the dialogue going and make sure that such discussions can take place anywhere, including at the universities, said Harvin Guneser, women’s rights activist, journalist, engineer and one of the spokespersons of the initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan – Peace in Kurdistan”. But the question is also whether there will be similar cancellations by the university again. The Department for Social Movement fears exactly that and believes “future events to be in danger” as well. Also because of this fear, many organisations and groups have already shown solidarity with the AStA and the Network for an Alternative Quest.

And what does the university say?

The University of Hamburg around the new president Hauke Hekeeren has decided, in accordance with an assumption by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, not to allow an event to take place that seeks solutions to problems that capitalism has largely created and cannot solve. Criticism of the university does not only come from the organisers. In a commentary for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Ronen Steinke writes that the university seems to have developed an “avoidance complex”.
Café Knallhart stood alongside the organisers against the decision of the presidium. The banners silently disappeared from the campus shortly afterwards.
It also seems that the presidium has not covered itself with glory when it comes to communication: On the one hand, there is the last-minute cancellation of the event by the organisers, and on the other hand, the impression that they immediately followed a tip-off from the Verfassungsschutz and, according to statements by the AStA, blocked any attempts to communicate with the organisers. At a demonstration on Thursday against the decision of the presidium, two banners could be seen that called Hauke Heekeren a “stooge of the Verfassungsschutz” and contained the statements “Criticism of capitalism is not extremism” and the demand that the rooms for the event be made available again. These banners, which belonged to Café Knallhart, a student open space on the main university campus, were stolen from there a few hours later. According to a statement, the Knallhart sees the university behind this and the removal of the critical banners as censorship. After the Easter holidays, one of the two banners reappeared in front of the café.
„We banned the event in question precisely to protect academic freedom.“ The University of Hamburg on the withdrawal of the premises
In response to direct questions about the way the university communicated, it said that it had “carefully examined” the information from the Verfassungsschutz (LfV) and that the assessment – the suspicion that the upcoming event had PKK links – was “conclusive and comprehensible”. At the same time, it pointed out that the UHH had “examined the event itself” beforehand. In contrast to the AStA, the university speaks of a constant exchange that took place around the cancellation. When asked what the university thought of the criticism from the AStA, some students and other political groups – which included concerns about the university’s academic freedom – the university replied: “We prohibited the event in question precisely in order to protect academic freedom. The university referred in particular to what it saw as possible “party-political influence”.

Two very different depictions

The conference of the AStA and the “Network for an Alternative Quest” could still take place, only in other venues such as the Bürgerhaus Wilhelmsburg. The organisers considered this a great success and took a clear stand against the university’s decision and its cooperation with the Verfassungsschutz. Especially with regard to future conflicts, the withdrawal of the premises and the lack of discussion between the AStA and the presidium should not be helpful. There will definitely be conflicts, be they events by critics of capitalism or climate activists. The latter had the university evicted by the police during an occupation of the “Last Generation”. In May, there will be more occupations all over Germany under the End Fossil campaign #MayWeOccupy. If there is one at the University of Hamburg, it remains to be seen how the university will behave.