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Last modified: Thursday, March 21, 2013

Syrian scholar part of tradition of academics finding refuge at Indiana University

Former deputy minister will teach in the new School of Global and International Studies

March 21, 2013

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- With little more than a suitcase, Abdal-Razzaq Moaz arrived at Indiana University Bloomington on Feb. 1, following a dramatic escape from Syria.

Abdalrazzaq Moaz

Abdal-Razzaq Moaz

Print-Quality Photo

An expert on the history of Islamic art and architecture who has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University five times and a former deputy minister within the Syrian government, Moaz has a one-year appointment in IU's School of Global and International Studies and will teach a class here in the fall.

He is one of nearly 500 scholars who have been assisted by the Institute of International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund, which provides academic fellowships for established scholars whose lives and work are threatened in their home countries.

IU President Michael A. McRobbie supported efforts by the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures in the College of Arts and Sciences to bring Moaz to IU. It is another example of how the university quietly has established a legacy of offering refuge to scholars from flashpoints around the world.

During World War II, IU became more international when it attracted European scholars seeking refuge from invading armies. They included Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Hermann Muller and heart surgery pioneer Dr. Harris Shumacker Jr.

During the 1990s, IU's Burmese Refugee Scholarship Program supported students with leadership potential as activists for democracy in their homeland and abroad. In more recent years, the university has welcomed scholars from the Sudan, and elsewhere in Africa, as well as Latin America and Asia.

"Dr. Moaz's story is a remarkable one, and IU Bloomington is extremely pleased to offer academic safe haven to such a distinguished international scholar," said IU Bloomington Provost Lauren Robel. "His efforts to safeguard Syria's cultural heritage and speak out on important issues in this volatile part of the world deserve our support and admiration, continuing a proud tradition of providing academic refuge at IU that dates back to World War II. Dr. Moaz's appointment also signals yet another historic milestone in our newly formed School of Global and International Studies."

"As the School of Global and International Studies is building its reputation, we are glad to offer this opportunity to bring the knowledge and leadership of someone such as Dr. Moaz to our students while providing him with a safe environment for him to continue his life's work," added Maria Bucur-Deckard, associate dean for international programs in the College of Arts and Sciences and the John W. Hill Professor of East European History.

Most recently, Moaz had been on the faculty and a dean at Arab International University, a new, private institution near Damascus. From 2000 to 2007, he was Syria's deputy minister of culture and director general of the country's antiquities and museums.

However, because of his political neutrality and threats on his life, Moaz had to flee and was able to secure passage out of Damascus. His wife and two children, including a newborn baby, remain in Syria.

"At the beginning of the first semester (2012), I stopped teaching," Moaz said. "The road (to campus) was not safe. We had too many military checkpoints throughout the cities. ... The military even attacked the university to attack the students who opposed the regime. The situation, even inside the campus, was not safe.

"Every day, I heard the name of someone who was arrested or killed for no clear reason. Then people tried to kidnap me," he added, noting that many of his colleagues and many students had become targets by those on both sides of the civil conflict, but particularly the regime.

Moaz, Abdalrazzaq

Abdal-Razzaq Moaz, right, with a colleague in 2000, in front of the Pantheon in Rome

Print-Quality Photo

The regime tried to send messages telling the people, "If you don't want to have this regime, you will not have the safety that you enjoy."

Earlier in his career, shortly after Bashar Assad succeeded his father as president in 2000, Moaz said there was a brief time when those who were not members of the ruling Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party were given more of a role in shaping the society. He was asked by Assad and with support of the first lady to help modernize Syria's museums after returning from teaching at Harvard.

However, after about three years, he saw conditions change, and a Ba'ath Party committee sought to have Moaz removed from his position as a deputy minister, questioning his patriotism because he was not a party member.

"Certain people told me that I was like the opposition inside the regime," he said.

"Bashar, when he came into power, brought different people around him, friends and other people who studied abroad ... But the old guard was opposed," Moaz added. "When I see what is going on today, I don't see the Bashar I met in 2002 ... allowed to do those kinds of things (reforms). ... The regime could sometimes be stronger than the president."

Serving under a series of four culture ministers, Moaz "survived," remaining in the deputy post until 2007, and shortly after returned to Harvard for two years, including one year as a Fulbright Scholar.

Moaz has a doctorate from Aix-Marseille Universite in France, but he said his Western education and experience were not of value to the regime and old guard in Syria.

"They don't consider that as qualifications. They don't know what Harvard is," Moaz said.

Moaz returned to Syria in 2009 to teach at Qalamoun University and then at Arab International University, where he was acting dean and vice dean for academic and administrative affairs.

After deciding to flee, Moaz contacted universities in Europe and the United States, and the Institute of International Education helped him obtain passage out of the country. IU offered refuge, and Moaz risked arrest when crossing into Lebanon several times as he waited four months for a visa. He arrived in Chicago on Jan. 31 and came to IU Bloomington a day later.

"I'm thankful to Indiana University as well as the institutions here in the States that helped me to come back to this country," he said, adding that he hopes to be joined by his wife and children some day.

While his wife was living with her family, two major explosions recently went off near their home. His father-in-law told him by telephone, "We really escaped death." His wife and children have since moved to his parents' home, and "it was maybe more difficult trip there than my trip to Beirut," he said.

Despite the potential risk to his family, Moaz believes it is vital that he speak out about what is happening in Syria. "There's been two years of killing people and nobody has intervened," he said. "If the world doesn't want to do something, we will have an increasing of terrorism in the world."