The Hypocrisy of US Sanctions on Education

US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice speaks after voting to affirm a UN Security Council resolution on Iran on June 9, 2010 in New York City. (Photo: AFP)
Published Friday, January 31, 2014
Students living in Cuba, Iran and Sudan who are enrolled in US-based online learning services, known as “MOOCs,” will now be forced to drop out, thanks to US sanctions.
If there’s one thing US missions around the world feel they can confidently boast, especially in poor countries, it’s their commitment to fostering partnerships with local schools and universities to support education and build the “next generation of leaders,” or something like that. Students in Lebanon, for example, may have noticed those tacky, red, white, and blue USAID stickers slapped on furniture at some schools, proudly identifying desks and bookcases as gifts “from the American people.”
In the Arab region alone, the United States has put $600 millioninto its Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) since 2002 with stated goals of “enhancing education,” and spreading other values it claims to hold sacred, like, “women’s empowerment.” That figure calculates to about one-fifth the $3 billion America sends each year to finance Israel’s occupation of Palestine, which served as the basis for the recent USacademic boycott of Israeli academic institutions, but more on that later.
Taken at face value, the United States would appear to have some interest in supporting education at a global level. Maybe that’s why some were shocked with the January 29 announcement that US economic and trade sanctions against their enemies should now be interpreted to include free US-based online learning services known as “MOOCs.”
Coursera, one of the affected education websites, said in a statement that it had “recently received information” that led it to believe it could no longer offer online classes to students in Cuba, Iran, and Sudan because of the United States’ so-called export control regulations.
“Certain United States export control regulations prohibit US businesses, such as MOOC providers like Coursera, from offering services to users in sanctioned countries. … Under the law, certain aspects of Coursera’s course offerings are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions,” the statement read.
Syria was also included on the list of sanctioned countries whose Internet users that try to log in to Coursera’s site are kindly informed that they’ve been blacklisted, but US authorities later had a change of heart and added an exception for residents of the wartorn nation. American officials appear to have only recently discovered a soft spot for the well-being of the Syrian people.
In a particularly pointed letter posted online and addressed to his students, University of Copenhagen professor Ebrahim Afsah accused “boneheaded” US authorities of imposing sanctions simply “to score cheap domestic political points.”
“These moves are really counterproductive,” Afsah, who has students in some of the affected countries, said in an interview with Al-Akhbar. “These students are exactly the kind of people who want to reach out to an American audience.”
Afsah noted that the sanctions are largely symbolic, as a variety of software exists to circumvent blocked websites.
“The practical impact is rather small, as people in these countries are used to using these technologies to circumvent restrictions by their own governments,” he said. “But I think this issue is a matter of principle that affects everybody.”
Students from the blacklisted countries reacted to the news in the comments section of Coursera’s blog. A Cuban named Manuel Gutierrez wrote: “In behalf of many Cuban students I tell you: No hard feelings Coursera, we know what’s going on, [it’s] just the way it is. Keep up the good work!”
Iranian Pooya Hosseini wrote: “I’m Iranian, a Coursera user. I’ve passed a lot of courses with distinction. Specially EPFL online courses. I think banning free education is so embarrassing. Is it your democracy? It is so funny.”
Funny or not, that’s open to interpretation. But what’s clear is that the move follows a pattern of insincerity when it comes to US officials and their claims of caring about foreign students and their education.
American congressional members threw a fit after the US-based American Studies Association (ASA) last month voted to sever ties with Israeli universities to protest the obstruction of Palestinian students’ and scholars’ mobility and access to academic institutions with checkpoints, raids and arbitrary arrests.
Earlier this month 134 US Congress members signed a letter to decry the ASA’s “bigoted,” and “morally dishonest double standard” in voting to boycott Israeli universities. Those 69 Democrats and 65 Republicans “believe that the decision to blacklist Israeli academic institutions for Israeli government policies with which ASA disagrees demonstrates a blatant disregard for academic freedom.”
Maybe that says more about the US Congress’ servitude to the pro-Israel lobby than it does about their lack of compassion for a population subjected to daily crimes by a colonial force. But then, where is their indignation over the “blatant disregard for academic freedom” when it comes to US sanctions preventing students from taking free courses in Cuba, Iran, Sudan, or elsewhere? Is the targeting of nations with sanctions simply because they refuse to obey US orders not “morally dishonest,” or “bigoted?”

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