The Disappearance of Elizabeth Tsurkov and Research Ethics: Some Thoughts

No researcher is above the necessity of conducting proper risk assessments for any fieldwork.

9 mins read
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a dual citizen of Israel and Russia. [ Photo Credit: ABC news]

By now, most readers of this newsletter will probably be familiar with the story of the disappearance of the Israeli-Russian researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov in Iraq in an apparent abduction by a militia, considering that the story has now made international headlines (I first heard about the abduction in April, and did some limited probing with a friend and got no answers). It will probably take some time for the full details to emerge, but the suggestion is that the group that abducted her was Kata’ib Hezbollah (whose forces are partly integrated into the Hashd Sh‘abi Commission under three brigades: 45, 46 and 47) and that if she is to have any prospect of being freed, it will have to involve some Russian-mediated deal between Israel and Iran, which is a key patron of Kata’ib Hezbollah.

I do not personally buy the idea that her abduction was originally ordered by Iran as part of a ‘shadow war’ between Israel and Iran as some in the media have portrayed: after all, Kata’ib Hezbollah, or any number of armed factions in Iraq (many pro-Iranian but others not), would consider Tsurkov a legitimate target for abduction or murder anyway if they knew about her easily discoverable true identity and her presence and movements inside the country. Yet it is also probably the case that if Kata’ib Hezbollah or one of the other pro-Iranian factions abducted her, only Iran can influence her captors to grant her release in exchange for something that benefits Iran.

Considering Tsurkov’s high profile, the case has understandably roused strong emotional responses. A lot of these responses are however unhelpful for understanding the case and its undeniably broader implications for the realm of conducting academic fieldwork in particular and fieldwork more generally.

To begin with, many of her harsher critics seem to veer into the realm of approving of the abduction and justifying it, noting that her presence might not have been technically legal and/or trying to paint her as a sinister figure working for the interests of Israeli intelligence. Even if all this were granted, however, then the appropriate response to her presence would not be abduction by an armed group acting outside the framework of the law, but summons/due arrest by the relevant authorities and proper judicial process with punishment meted out in accordance with the law. It is a horrible experience to be abducted off the street or out of one’s home, blindfolded and held incommunicado, and those who seem to be justifying the abduction have probably not undergone this experience to realise how terrifying it can be. As for portraying her as a sinister figure, this allegation should only be made with serious evidence to back it up. Simply noting her publicly admitted compulsory military service in intelligence work for the Israel Defence Forces (an admission of hers that was an example of her openness on social media that has really done her far more harm than good) is not evidence that she is now a spy or was doing malign work.

Speaking of the Iraqi government, there is a serious question here as to its knowledge of her presence inside the country. It has been claimed for example that the government had become aware of Tsurkov’s profile and her fieldwork and had warned her not to return the country out of concern for her safety. If this is so, then why did Iraqi embassies continue to grant her entry visas? If a government believes that a foreigner’s entry into the country is likely to expose said person to a security risk, then the appropriate response is to ban that foreigner’s entry on public security grounds.

There is also a major question as to the role of Princeton University in all this. The university’s statement on her abduction comes across as terse. Is the university making any efforts to try to secure her release? But more importantly, did it grant approval for Tsurkov to conduct her fieldwork in Iraq in the first place? The university has not yet properly clarified the latter question, but it is extremely important to know.

While I have heard that she did not inform Princeton of her fieldwork in Iraq, I find it unlikely to be the case that Princeton was unaware of it or did not grant approval. The reality of doctoral studies is that any research you undertake as part of your doctorate requires ethical approval: otherwise, you cannot incorporate that research into your thesis, and more importantly, not only is the university not responsible for any problems that may arise for you as a result of unapproved research, but you can also face serious disciplinary consequences.

Somehow, Princeton’s lack of clarity on the matter till now makes me suspect that ethical approval was granted for this fieldwork. If so, that constitutes a gross dereliction of duty towards the student. I find it hard to understand how any approval could have been granted for her to conduct this type of fieldwork, especially given her Israeli nationality, her very high public profile, her openness about her background and her vocal views on social media. There is simply no way it should have been approved for her short of her assuming a totally fake identity, complete with a wholly different name and cover story. On some occasions, she appears to have used only slight variations on her names in her interactions or her father’s name as a surname, a precaution falling somewhat short of a fake identity. Her Instagram account under her real name also openly advertised her presence in Iraq on repeated occasions, pointing to a lack of discretion.

Many will find the assumption of a completely fictitious persona to be unethical in the sense that it constitutes deception, and I incline towards disapproval of such methods on similar grounds, but in some cases it is possible to obtain ethical approval from universities for creating fake identities for conducting research. It would appear Tsurkov disapproved of fake personas, and though she apparently did not reveal her Israeli nationality to the Iraqis she interacted with inside Iraq (sensible move, obviously, even if it is arguably ‘lying by omission’), it seems that she previously criticised other Israelis as unethical for omitting mention of their Israeli identity in their interactions with people from the Muslim world.

Besides a fake persona, I can see no other way by which any person holding Israeli nationality (especially one with any kind of public profile) could stand a chance of safely conducting fieldwork in places such as central-government-controlled Iraq and Lebanon. If you don’t approve of that approach, then you shouldn’t approve of any people who hold Israeli nationality conducting fieldwork in those places. The risks are simply too high. Exceptions cannot be made just because a person with Israeli nationality is very critical of the Israeli government and/or anti-Zionist, declares himself/herself to be a human rights advocate, and is someone you personally like.

Further, pointing out these realities does not constitute a justification of them or supporting those who would seek to abduct and harm people holding Israeli nationality. Looking beyond the context of Israeli nationals and ‘enemy countries’ vis-a-vis Israel, there are a whole range of issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa region that could be deemed worthy of academic research in the form of fieldwork if it were feasible and safe to conduct such fieldwork, but it is not feasible or safe to do so regardless of whether the individual holds Israeli nationality.

Consider the cases of some countries that are deemed allies of the West, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It should be an obvious point that Western universities should not be allowing their doctoral students (especially foreigners) to go and conduct in-depth fieldwork in these countries focusing on local opposition to the governments of those countries, however interesting or worthy of fieldwork those topics might seem. Why? Because they are not politically open societies. If you are a foreigner in particular, you will not have a safe and reliable way of knowing whether those with whom you work and who might be ostensibly helping you obtain information for your research are in fact informants of the state security services and seeking to entrap you.

From Egypt and the UAE respectively, we already have examples of what has happened to doctoral researchers who were seen as broaching politically sensitive subjects and suspected of engaging in ‘espionage’: one (Giulio Regeni) ended up being abducted, tortured and murdered, while the other (Matthew Hedges) made a false confession to being a spy after prolonged imprisonment and then got a life sentence, only being pardoned as a result of an international outcry (without overturning of his original conviction for alleged espionage). In both cases, the researchers were betrayed by contacts and subjects of their research who informed on them.

The universities at which they were studying should not have allowed them to conduct fieldwork in those countries for the topics they were researching and expose themselves to danger in this way. It is not ‘victim-blaming,’ apologia or cheerleading for the governments of Egypt and the UAE to say so.

The case of Regeni in particular is instructive. Like Tsurkov, he too was abducted, but is his abduction somehow any better because it was done under the auspices of Egyptian state security as opposed to a militia? And what has been the impact of Regeni’s horrific torture and death that followed his abduction? Has it led to holding the Egyptian government accountable in any meaningful way? No Western countries (including Italy, where Regeni was from) are seriously thinking of severing relations with Egypt, halting all aid and arms deals, or somehow ‘punishing’ its government because of his case or many others who have been abducted and disappeared but are locals and whose stories we rarely hear about. Likewise you will not find serious policy discussions or proposals calling to isolate or punish the UAE over what happened to Hedges. This reality can justifiably be called bitter, unjust and unfair, but we should not be sending more academic researchers to a fate of disappearance, detention or death in the belief that it will be changed.

Going beyond the safety and well-being of the researchers themselves, there is one other key issue at stake here in the Tsurkov case and applies to researchers conducting fieldwork. I recognise that some seem to get angered by the mere raising of this issue, but it is something that cannot be ignored.

I am talking here of course about the need to consider whether Tsurkov has harmed her interlocutors through her actions. Yes, she is the one who has been abducted, and I get the point that some feel it is not appropriate at this time to raise the matter, but her captors have almost certainly been interrogating her about her interlocutors, movements and activities inside Iraq, and have likely threatened her with torture in the case of non-compliance with their requests for information. Unless you yourself have faced such a situation, you are not in a position to judge how easy it can be to cave to the mere threat of torture.

In turn, her interlocutors exposed to her captors could face reprisals, such as death threats, unwelcome visits to their homes, interrogations about her interactions with them, and possibly being abducted and killed. The fact that you may never hear about specific cases of reprisals in media does not mean that the issue is a mere abstraction. The harm can also manifest in other ways more subtle than being subject to actual reprisals or threats: if some of her interlocutors now fear for their lives and well-being and are experiencing emotions of anxiety and distress, and feel compelled to restrict their activities and movements even if they have not received any threats or been subject to any reprisals so far, this constitutes a form of harm for them. Many of her interlocutors inside Iraq understandably seem to have been taken completely by surprise with the public revelation of her Israeli identity, and are now concerned for their own safety.

I suspect that knee-jerk anger about raising this issue is partly a matter of objecting to the identity of some of those who have raised the point, but a point is not invalidated simply because you dislike the person raising it. Part of the anger is also probably due to the fact that Tsurkov has been abducted, and part of it also can be attributed to the perception of her as a well-intentioned person, while the very word harm is often associated with malicious behaviour. Unfortunately though, good intentions are not a barrier to causing harm, and a researcher’s own exposure to harm does not preclude causing harm to his/her interlocutors.

Nor is raising this point a matter of apologia or support for those who actually inflict reprisals or issue threats. To understand why, consider how one of the most common ethical conventions in journalism and research, particularly in conflict zones, authoritarian states or where there is general concern about safety, is the anonymisation of sources or granting those sources pseudonyms, out of concern that revealing real names or making it too easy for the real identity of the sources to be found out could expose said sources to harm in the form of reprisals. Suppose a journalist or researcher ignores these conventions and reveals his/her sources’ real identities, not out of any malign intent but in the genuine belief that raising voices openly can bring about positive change. Or suppose the journalist/researcher does not explicitly reveal those identities but is careless in concealing their identities and thus makes it too easy to work out who the sources are. In either scenario, suppose also those sources face actual reprisals. Does responsibility for the reprisals lie foremost with those who inflict them? Yes. But it is highly unlikely that we would not also question the judgement and behaviour of that journalist or researcher.

The focus right now should be on securing Tsurkov’s release. On the other hand, it is not as though the concept of research ethics here is a mere theoretical debate for the purpose of assuming a position of moral superiority. It is rather something that has real-world consequences for both the researcher and those who interact with the researcher, as this case demonstrates. No researcher is above the necessity of conducting proper risk assessments for any fieldwork.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is an independent analyst and a doctoral candidate at Swansea University, where he focuses on the role of historical narratives in Islamic State propaganda. His public media work focuses primarily on the Islamic State, Iraq, and Syria, and he has been cited in numerous outlets for his insights, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Agence France-Presse, and the Associated Press. His website is www.aymennjawad.org.

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