Open Letter on the International Byzantine Congress and the Future of Byzantine Studies
This letter can be found in Turkish, Russian, French, German, Italian and soon also in Greek.
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
We are a network of early career researchers, and we write regarding the recent decision of the International Bureau of the Association internationale des études byzantines (AIEB) to move the planned Istanbul 2021 Congress to another host country, while retaining the Turkish Organizing Committee’s programme.
In addition to some comments on the current situation, we seek to offer some suggestions on ways forward for the field of Byzantine studies and the way it is organised internationally. These are intended as invitations to get in touch and begin working collectively and collaboratively to develop Byzantine studies further. We hope that this will position us to avoid situations such as the one in which we currently find ourselves regarding the 2021 Congress.
The communications from AIEB president Professor John Haldon, on behalf of the International Bureau, cite two main justifications. First is the Covid-19 situation raised by the Turkish Organizing Committee, who the letter notes proposed an online Congress instead. The second is cited as ‘various political events’, more specifically indicated by the later mention of ‘recent developments in respect of cultural heritage and related matters’. The letter was released within a week of the highest Turkish court’s ruling to revert Hagia Sophia’s status from a museum to a mosque. Professor Haldon’s recent response to Turkish graduate students’ open letter expressing concern over the decision has confirmed that certain colleagues’ reactions to the Hagia Sophia ruling influenced the AIEB’s decision.
With these political events in mind, we think it important to begin by recognising the profound difficulties our field faces, on account of the Turkish state’s actions in the last five years. There is a clear need to respond in the face of military operations and occupations in southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq, and Libya, militarised hydrocarbon drilling in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone, and military threats against Greece and Armenia. These military actions have been coupled with the political weaponisation of refugees' lives; widespread criminalisation and imprisonment of Kurdish and Turkish politicians and activists, the replacement of elected representatives with state appointees, and extra-territorial assasinations of Kurdish and Turkish political figures; repressive measures against women, feminist movements, and LGBTQ+ communities; and the pervasive criminalization and imprisonment of higher education workers, including Byzantinists. Finally, there has been both real and potential damage to cultural heritage and archaeological sites, including the recent change in Hagia Sophia’s status, the complete destruction of would-be UNESCO world heritage site Hasankeyf, among many other examples. As a field significantly focused on the region within contemporary Turkish borders, we have a responsibility to offer meaningful responses to these developments.
Yet our experience as a network has highlighted the extreme difficulties of finding a response that balances the need to refuse complicity and exercise what leverage we have, for example, by adhering to the 2016 and 2019 calls for academic boycotts, and the need for solidarity with colleagues in Turkey—who continue to work in extremely difficult conditions. Especially across the past five years, students, researchers and other university workers based in Turkey have often had to bear strenuous pressures, and very real personal risks. We therefore recognise the profound difficulty of coming to a unified position, able to adequately respond to the developing situation in Turkey, and the Turkish state’s reprehensible actions. In particular we are very mindful of how critiques all too often veer into anti-Turkish racism in particular, and Islamophobia in general, both of which remain far too common across our field. The current debate about the reversion of Ayasofya müzesi to a mosque has exacerbated this tendency, and has only further sorted people along ethnic, religious, and national lines, without any consideration of political commitments and other forms of identity.
Clearly, our field faces many contradictions to work through, and we do not pretend to have readymade answers. Nevertheless we are certain that it will be impossible to find solutions within Byzantine Studies’ current structure, as indicated by the manner of this recent decision. It is on these broader issues which we, as a network, wish to comment, and offer constructive ways forward. We believe our field should be committed to challenging reductive nationalist narratives about the past, and addressing the legacies of colonialism reflected in structural disparities between global regions. We believe this dual mission should be reflected in the way our field is structured and organised. We therefore would like to outline three areas where it is necessary to bring our scholarly values in line with current praxis.
- Accountability & Democratisation
Regardless of the specifics of the AIEB’s decision with regard to the 2021 Congress, recent events display a lack of transparency in the AIEB decision-making processes, resulting in an unaccountability of the AIEB’s executive. The decisions of the AIEB have been circulated through individual posts on social media as final decisions. These announcements purport to be made on behalf of the entire scholarly community, but were made without significant prior consultation.
The opacity of this decision-making process raises questions regarding the representativeness of the AIEB and the national committees. For example, the benefits of an in-person Congress for early career researchers is given as one of the central reasons for its relocation and the dismissal of an online alternative, as proposed by the Congress organisers. Speaking as a group of early career researchers, we do not in principle object to online events, nor do we find in-person events necessarily liberating. To the contrary, early career researchers are ever more likely to find in-person events prohibitive due to the costs required for visas, Congress registration fees, accomodation and sundry expenses associated with travel and socialising. As a result, many of us are already used to forming social and intellectual bonds online, and have benefitted from the recent move to online formats for seminars, lectures, and conferences.The online format has made a range of international events accessible to a larger group of people at little to no cost and has thus proven itself to be a more democratic means of meeting and engaging with our colleagues. Invoking early career researchers to make an in-person gathering appear imperative, without direct consultation, is indicative of the wider lack of democracy in the AIEB’s workings and highlights the lack of representation for early career scholars.
There is, therefore, a clear necessity for participatory and direct democratic processes in making large scale decisions concerning our field. This is the case not only for early career researchers, but also for colleagues in countries without national committees. At present, colleagues in this position are tacitly and structurally excluded from any representation in the field’s international body. Reforms to membership and participation are required to empower both those members of our field from countries without a large enough tradition—or wealth—to form a national committee and those members of our field who do not sit on national committees, on account of precarious and unstable employment.
Although the AIEB was founded as a coordinating body for promoting Byzantine Studies by multiplying sites of national representation and favouring an itinerant quinquennal International Congress, a gap has emerged between purpose and result. The system of representative national committees has multiple and manifold flaws as a structure through which to promote our field, and through which to organise its major Congress. While these failings are longstanding, the current crisis has made them even more apparent.
The gaps between intent and outcome include but are not limited to:
- The existence and size of committees reflects the lines of historical wealth distribution—a situation resulting from imperial and colonial enterprises—that has benefited the formation of clusters of prestigious and well-resourced educational institutions, most often in the Global North. Although this discrepancy exists at the national level (i.e. amongst institutions), it is also apparent at the level of International Congress planning and within the composition of national committees. Moreover, the ever increasing precariousness of academic labour and the fact that it is most often permanent academics who are included on national committees, only further streamlines who gets to represent the field, both nationally and internationally.
- The size of committees often reflects the historic commitment of that particular nationally-defined state to Byzantine studies. Thus the national system privileges nations which have had vested interests in the field, in order to consolidate their own national myths. For example, it is notable that of the national committees registered with the AIEB, only two are Muslim-majority countries (Turkey and Albania) of the former Byzantine world. The system of national committees fails to represent institutions and colleagues from Muslim-majority countries without a nationally-declared interest in the study of the Byzantine world, but which still produce scholars. These include Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.
- Both of the above result in the fact that scholars who happen to come from countries with no historic wealth or particular commitment to Byzantine Studies may never have the option of participating in the organisation of an International Congress. The current state of affairs only serves to create further national and religious divisions, as seen in the latest decision about the Congress, where there should be unity of purpose; namely, the study of the Byzantine world in all of its linguistic and cultural pluralism.
- The reality of global migration, both between prestigious institutions and as a result of violence and political instability, has already gone some way toward revealing that national categories are not adequate to structure our field. Increasingly a scholar’s country of work, official country of residence, and citizenship(s) do not necessarily overlap. This renders the nationally-bounded organising structure not only moot but an imposition, since it forces scholars to become fee-paying members of multiple committees, if they want to participate in the decision-making processes or conferences of national committees. Some committees and the AIEB’s Development Commission are making important efforts to become more representative, but these efforts must both be redoubled and internationalised. For example, the Development Commission’s commitment to having at least two members who are under 40, does not really suggest a dramatic transformation.
- Hostile border regimes and forced displacements are both powerful exclusionary tools employed by modern states, ones that particularly affect citizens of countries in the Global South. Scholars travelling to centres of Byzantine research already face the imposition of exorbitant visa fees, and opaque decision-making mechanisms. This has and will continue to affect Congress participation, and, more importantly, the health and internationalism of the field. We welcome the commitment of the AIEB to focus on funding for Turkish graduate students to attend the 2021 Congress. However, if the AIEB is serious about making the Congress accessible to students, early career academics, and unsalaried academics, this kind of support must urgently be extended to scholars travelling from countries not represented by national committees and scholars facing exorbitant visa costs.
Finally, this institutional nation-centrism is a large part of the reason why our debates concerning the location of the Congress have become deeply intertwined with opinions on the actions of the Turkish state. Inevitably, this seems set to recur, with equivalent examination of any state where the International Congress is held. To avert this, we would rather see the de-nationalisation of the Congress and organising structure, with a move to other models of organisation. We return to this in our proposals below.
- Decarbonisation, Networking Post-Covid, and a Sustainable Academia
The proposed movement of the 2021 Congress raises important questions about the future of academic networking, international organising, collegiality, and environmental responsibility that are specific to our current historical moment. The world faces climate catastrophe, for which the responsibility and consequences are inequitably distributed, both at the global and personal level. The costs of climate change are disproportionately falling on the people and places least responsible for CO2 emissions. Within academia the benefits of globalization in the form of international travel are likewise distributed unevenly. These arrangements clearly favour both scholars from the Global North, from well-financed institutions, and senior scholars in permanent academic positions. The Covid-19 crisis has provided both an urgent need for novel approaches to intellectual networking and the proliferation of substantive ideas for how to implement democratic, accessible, and ecologically sustainable transformation. As a consequence, this is the moment for us to plan for and work towards a sustainable academia and Byzantine studies, fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.
Since its inception in early 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic, our network has of necessity been organised across geographical and political boundaries, through online platforms, because of the compulsory geographical mobility of early career researchers on short-term contracts and fellowships. This has been managed through digital communication and hybrid events. Internet communication is clearly no panacea for academia’s many failings. However, the recent proliferation of events exclusively taking place online has demonstrated that new technologies are available, at a relatively low cost, which facilitate online presentations, interactive meetings, and informal connections. Across 2020, from archives being thrown open to the online public, to sizable web conferences, much that had previously been deemed impractical—or even impossible—has now become the norm. This must be treated as a newfound opportunity for renewed focus on ecological considerations.
In light of this, asking if conferences should be either online or in person poses a false binary. For the purposes of democratization and inclusivity, we believe that while in-person attendance should be encouraged and facilitated by financial assistance for participants who need it, where possible and useful academic meetings should also be live-streamed and allow for remote participation. This can be a part of a larger move towards an academia which is more environmentally responsible.
- Proposals for Ways Forward
With all this in mind, our proposals fall under three main principles: de-nationalisation, democratisation, and creating mechanisms for the sharing of resources. Each of these apply to both the Congress in particular, and the AIEB in general.
For the reasons outlined above, it is imperative that Congress organisation is de-nationalised. Not limiting Congress organisation to any one nation, and promoting transnational collaboration inclusive to scholars at all careers levels, will permit holding the Congress in various locations and with diverse and international planning committees. The model would be one of (co-)host cities, regions and institutions, rather than nationally conceived events. Moving away from nationally-bounded committees and resources will benefit cities, regions and institutions which lack the material resources to organise a Congress by themselves, and foster further transnational collaboration and solidarity.
We foresee shared proposals, international organising committees, and mechanisms to facilitate the redistribution of funds from wealthier institutions and nation-states. This should proceed based on the principle that every city, region and institution is able to apply, safe in the knowledge that both funding and the collaborative labour of international colleagues would be forthcoming. In addition to a transnational composition, organising committees should be structured to facilitate the inclusion of scholars at all career levels. They should also aim to be representative of the field’s diversity in terms of gender, race and minority ethnicity, and global situation. Finally, each should be organised as a hybrid event, allowing both remote and in-person participation—opening the possibility, for example, of co-hosts in different global regions, facilitating greater accessibility as well as a smaller carbon footprint. Each Congress would become an opportunity to invigorate the field in particular cities, regions and institutions—rather than a more or less politicised event in a particular nation-state. The provision of resources for Congress organisation and participation (including visa fees, travel, accommodation, and registration) would be coordinated by the AIEB—especially aiming to include student, early career, non-salaried, and low income Byzantinists.
We believe that these same principles should apply generally to the structure of the AIEB. Working out the concrete details must necessarily involve broad, democratic, and representative collaboration between members of our field, so here we limit ourselves to some general outlines. Most important is the need to move from national committees to federated structures able to address the profound shortfalls discussed above. These structures would in principle be based on institutions, cities, and regions, but of course must also include mechanisms for otherwise isolated individual Byzantinists to participate. A central concern for participatory and direct democracy should guide the development of these structures, along with explicit mechanisms to boost the voices of students and early career researchers, Black and minority ethnicity people—both in the field and in their national and/or institutional context(s)—and gender parity, including trans and non-binary people. Finally, there should be explicit mechanisms for the meaningful and ongoing support of less wealthy institutions, cities, and regions in concrete material ways such as the opportunity to apply for conference funding from wealthier or more prestigious institutions, especially in the Global North. This will allow the AIEB to achieve its stated aim of supporting and helping foster the growth of Byzantine Studies worldwide.
In closing we thank colleagues for taking the time to read our response to the current situation. We firmly believe that, in bringing these issues clearly to the surface, it provides the opportunity for all of us to work through them directly, as a field. None of our suggestions seek to be final or non-negotiable, rather they seek to open up a productive discussion on how best to move our field forward. We have a chance to create a truly democratic, representative and international structure. We invite all colleagues who share some or all of the perspectives and proposals outlined here to get in touch, so that we can begin working collaboratively and collectively to develop them further. Please email us on: firstname.lastname@example.org
In friendship and solidarity,
New Critical Approaches to the Byzantine World Network