Path of Khan

An embattled Bangladesh scholar finds a temporary haven at UC Davis

Refugee, Ph.D.: Visiting professor Maimul Khan, right, teaches at UC Davis through the new Scholars at Risk program.

Refugee, Ph.D.: Visiting professor Maimul Khan, right, teaches at UC Davis through the new Scholars at Risk program.

Photo By Megan Wong

Even today, 8,000 miles away from his native Bangladesh, Maimul Khan cannot afford the cost of free speech.

A visiting professor at the University of California at Davis, Khan is here in the United States on a temporary fellowship for foreign scholars who risk persecution in their home countries. But even in the tranquil refuge of Davis, he is unable to let his guard down completely, for fear of retribution to his family or to himself upon his return to Bangladesh.

In the past, Khan consistently spoke out against what he saw as wrongdoing or dishonesty in politics, academia or government—often without regard for the consequences. While a Ph.D. student in the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, Khan dared to criticize aspects of the communist system publicly.

When he became a law professor at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh in 1988, that tendency isolated him and created enemies of people who had a stake in the status quo. “I became a burr in the side of many in the department,” he said.

Disgruntled colleagues began leaving garbage in his office—even urinating in his doorway to show their distaste. But it was after Khan became chairman of the university’s law department that his troubles began in earnest.

Upon meeting Khan today, there’s no immediate evidence of the fears he’s facing. The 48-year-old constitutional-law scholar, who specializes in human rights and the Muslim world, looks relaxed in his shared office at the UC Davis School of Law, where he currently is a visiting professor. His manner is approachable; he’s quick-witted and always ready with a smile and a hospitable offer of food. A nationally recognized scholar who was active in the highest circles of academia and public policy in Bangladesh, Khan is fond of talking about corruption in the Muslim world, of both secularists and religious fanatics.

Yet, he is unwilling to speak of his family and refuses to criticize the current government out of concern for his own and his loved ones’ continued safety (his family remains in Bangladesh). His selective silence reveals more about the political system Khan encountered than do the thousands of words in his forthcoming book, Human Rights in the Muslim World.

Khan has good reason to be afraid. A number of his acquaintances back home have been beaten and even killed under mysterious circumstances. One friend never regained consciousness after a meal out; another simply was found dead near a lake one day. A fellow law professor at the University of Dhaka—known as the Oxford of the East for its stellar academic reputation—was beaten severely (along with his son) as well as robbed and threatened in his own home. Before the incidents, each publicly had denounced corruption or hypocrisy within the government or university establishment.

Khan’s current troubles date back to a seemingly benign faculty search within his department six years ago. The search barely had begun before university officials informed Khan that it had ended. Officials ordered Khan to grant open positions to four particular candidates—none of whom had the chair of the department interviewed or approved yet.

Khan insists he had nothing against the candidates personally, but he was adamant that no candidate be allowed to circumvent the established hiring process.

When Khan resisted their demands, university officials got angry. Apparently, the order to hire the candidates had come directly from the Bangladesh prime minister’s office. So, the officials tried to force their candidates on the department over Khan’s head. They orchestrated illegitimate “interviews”—which occurred behind Khan’s back—and informed him of their inevitable selections afterward.

Still, Khan stood firm in insisting that all candidates be evaluated according to established procedure, and not be disregarded because someone else had friends in high places. To hell with the prime minister’s office, Khan insisted. The school needed to find people who could teach.

Thus began a fight with the university administration (backed by the former prime minister of Bangladesh) that left Khan physically and professionally vulnerable, isolated and lonely—even questioning his own sanity at times.

The threats seemed to come from all sides; they were both subtle and outright. As Khan described it, “They were encircling me.”

On one occasion, he was invited out with the vice chancellor of the University of Dhaka and several colleagues—only to be publicly harassed and humiliated. He recalls the vice chancellor shouting at him in front of everyone, “You are so arrogant! How dare you question my authority?”

Only one professor dared to stand up—even then only to diffuse the immediate situation. None of Khan’s senior colleagues—those with any influence—dared say a word.

Khan said that much later, when one of the senior faculty members present that day did speak out against Khan’s treatment, both that colleague and his son were brutally beaten in retaliation.

Khan said he also was threatened by student thugs he believed were hired by the prime minister’s party to intimidate him. They would bring guns to class under their jackets and subtly flash them when they approached his desk, presumably to turn in assignments. “I felt the rule of law was so insecure. If I was killed tomorrow, nothing would happen to them,” he remembered, still incredulous.

Khan fully expected to be the victim of bodily harm after continually resisting the wishes of the prime minister. “I really expected under [the cover of] sunset, in some dark place, they might beat me up,” said Khan. As it turned out, he was accosted in broad daylight, but a group of sympathetic students prevented him from physical harm.

Khan began to understand the gravity of his situation when a cousin who was close to the prime minister pulled him aside one day: “He told me, ‘You are endangering your life. You are endangering your career.’”

Khan got what appeared to be a respite from his trouble when, five months later, he was accepted as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Illinois. But when his one-year fellowship ended and he prepared to return to Bangladesh, he was informed that he could not. The government accused him of having left the country illegally. Khan maintains that he had prior, documented permission from the government to come to the United States.

Regardless, the Bangladesh government cut off his university salary (which still supported his family back home) and claimed Khan had taken an illegal sabbatical and should not be paid. If he wished to return, Khan was informed, he would have to write a letter explaining why he should be let back in the country. Khan perceived this as yet another power play by the prime minister’s office.

It was at this point that Khan became part of the Scholars at Risk (SAR) program. Believing that his safety would be in immediate danger if he returned right away, Khan’s University of Illinois colleagues persuaded him to apply for an SAR fellowship to remain in the United States temporarily.

Established in June 2000, SAR has enabled dozens of persecuted scholars from around the world to continue their work in the United States temporarily. The program grew out of a tradition dating back to World War II efforts to rescue persecuted scholars from repressive European governments. Robert Quinn, director of the Chicago-based organization, said, “Our effort now is a return to one of the bright spots in the American academy.”

SAR matches qualifying scholars with U.S. academic institutions willing to host them temporarily so that they can continue their work in safety. Khan is the first SAR fellow to be hosted by a school in the University of California system.

In addition to UC Davis, 70 other U.S. academic institutions have joined the SAR network. Those involved with the program, like Quinn, hope that the number increases as rapidly as the applicant pool does. Since the program’s inception, 235 applications have been submitted by scholars in 63 different countries representing 45 academic disciplines.

Khan arrived on campus last summer for a one-year stint as a visiting professor at UC Davis’ School of Law. He currently teaches a course on international human rights at both UC Davis and UC Berkeley law schools and is teaching an undergraduate course on human rights in the Muslim world this spring.

Khan has stayed out of politics for the most part during his stay in Davis. Lonely and far from home, he appears somewhat disillusioned at the cost of having tried to keep those around him honest for so long.

Though he describes his experience before leaving Bangladesh as “unthinkable,” the extended isolation of life as a refugee scholar with an uncertain future has taken its toll. “In my mind, I am in kind of a prison,” he said. “I do not belong to this place. I never thought I would stay this long.”

Sometimes, during particularly low moments, he questions everything: “[Was] it really worth my coming here?”

For now, Khan bides his time. The SAR fellowship ends this summer. His academic work in the United States should be completed by the fall. With the recent change in the ruling party in Bangladesh, Khan tries to remain optimistic about his chances of returning home safely.

He hopes he will not be disappointed again.