Middle East studies in the News
Are Middle Eastern studies classes due for a change? The professors speak
by Alex Schulman
Brown Daily Herald
April 12, 2002
The shock and horror of September 11th may have since faded from immediate memories, or at least become blunted among the returning routines and sensory patterns of day-to-day lives. But it is clear, with the fighting in Afghanistan (not to mention Israel) still piling up casualties and the regional stability of the Middle East dependably examined by front page reporters and back-page punditry alike, the event and its repercussions loom ever large. Since the attacks, the standard rhetoric batted around between Americans, particularly teenagers and college students, has been that September 11th represented some sort of tidal change, or supreme moment of reckoning. We heard we had "lost our innocence," that the world would never be the same, that here was our 1929 crash, our Pearl Harbor, our Kennedy assassination. Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
In the cascades of ideological warfare that would soon follow, the University became one of the more contentious symbols. Though time has mended some of the rifts, Brown was surely representatively struck. Anti-war demonstrations sprang up before the smoke in downtown Manhattan had even cleared. Control of the Herald's opinions pages was hotly traded back and forth between the hawks, the doves and the simply troubled. Petitions were submitted. Rallies were held, and counter-rallies held next to them.
Perhaps no element of the University came under more outside fire than the professorate. Lynn Cheney's organization practically accused them of treason, and influential opinion journals, both liberal and conservative, followed suit with their own questions and indictments. Pleas for "academic freedom" met with both cheers and derision. Central among the storm's emerging media darlings has been Martin Kramer, author of the new book "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America." Kramer, a Senior Fellow at Tel Aviv University and incoming editor of Middle East Quarterly, takes professors harshly to task for, as he sees it, their having "failed to predict or explain the evolutions of Middle Eastern politics and society over the past two decades."
Essentially, Kramer accuses elite academics of sugarcoating, ignoring, or simply lying about the situation in the Middle East that fostered the holy war of an Al Qaeda against America. According to Kramer, in searching in vain for the signs of secular, democratic, populist movements liberal professors would themselves like to see, Middle Eastern Studies departments have vastly underplayed the rise of extremist Islam and perhaps even misrepresented both the capacity and desire of some Arab peoples for Western-style democracy. A systemic left-wing bias underwrites this blindness, he seems to suggest, echoing the broader condemnations from conservatives outside academia.
But what do the accused professors themselves think of all this? Is the role of Middle-Eastern studies in for the same large-scale reckoning we've constantly heard has applied itself to every part of American life? Is this simply another tempest in a teapot, like so many academic crises, a tool used by ideologues jockeying for position? Is it part of a broader attack consciously launched by conservative think tanks and foundations against open academic inquiry, as some suggest? Though Brown has no official Middle Eastern studies department, Post- asked a variety of involved professors and affiliates to weigh in on the controversy:
Professor of Anthropology
This is a bum rap. I wrote warning that the United States was setting itself up for attacks from extremists as early as 1983 in an article printed in the New York Times. (available on my web site) Many others have been warning about this for years. Martin Kramer rejects any explanations that imply that the United States bears any responsibility for these attacks. What he means by the failure of Middle East scholars in this regard is their failure to condemn Middle East actors unilaterally. Intelligent scholars know that people don't launch attacks just because they are "evil," it requires a dynamic relationship in which both parties bear responsibility. There is nothing inherent in Islam that favors violence. We would never say that Christianity has an inherent message of violence based on the conflict in Northern Ireland. I believe it is important for academics to be involved in policy debates. We don't always succeed, but we must try, in my opinion. Academic life is always changing in response to external conditions. Knowledge is not just some pie-in-the-sky abstraction. It must always serve human and societal needs. The reassessment of 9/11 is a shock because Americans are so incredibly ethnocentric and ignorant of the external world. My colleagues and I have been trying for our whole professional lives to get Americans to wake up to the fact that they live in the world and not in some isolated never-never land. This message is very hard to sell, not only to Joe Six-pack, but also to intelligent New York financiers, lawyers, and other professionals. Thirty years ago, many educated people couldn't tell the difference between Iran and Iraq; many still think that Afghans or Iranians are Arabs. Kramer and his ilk are not interested in educating Americans, they are interested in inciting hatred against the Arab and Islamic societies, and making sure that Americans are not troubled by their own responsibility for creating a more peaceful world. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who blame the messenger.
Alan S. Zuckerman
Professor of Political Science
Martin Kramer got it right: the state of Middle East studies is fundamentally flawed – not all work, surely, but a lot of it. The modal analysis evinces one or more of the following characteristics: deep opposition to US policy; the treatment of radical Islam as an aberration or as a justified response to Western and Israeli "imperialism;" the willingness to overlook authoritarian and brutal rule by Iranian and Arab regimes; uncritical support for the Palestinians and a critical chorus on Israel that frequently lapses into challenges to the legitimacy of its State. Few studies offer alternative views on these issues. What accounts for this state of affairs? In this field, books and articles are usually interpretations. Authors do not confront and apply rigorous theories. They are not constrained by evidence that is outside of their control. Students of the subject are free to let their political preferences mold their research, and many share the same political views. Two types of exceptions provide some hope for the future. A) The field contains persons of deep intelligence and analytical rigor. Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis are the most prominent at the moment, but it is appropriate to remember the path breaking work of Ernest Gellner, Daniel Lerner, and Dankwart Rustow. B) Rigorous standards of knowledge continue to move into the field from the disciplines of economics, sociology, and political science. Until the field's standards of knowledge take on the appropriate rigor, I would offer some advice to those who are trying to make sense of what they read: 1) The more politicized the topic, the more there is reason to be skeptical. 2) The more the book or article offers evidence that is completely controlled by the author, the more reason there is to be skeptical. 3) The more the analysis resembles those applied to other fields, the more reason is there to examine seriously the argument.
Professor Marsha Pripstein Posusney
Watson Institute for International Studies
It is ludicrous for Kramer to blame "Middle East Studies" for failing to predict the 9-11 attack, simply on the grounds that the vast majority of scholars who work on the Middle East are historians, anthropologists, linguists, literary critics, or economists – people whose work does not deal with contemporary political and social developments and shouldn't be expected to. It is really only political scientists and sociologists specializing in the region whose work Kramer should be faulting. And while numerous scholars have pointed out that U.S. policies in the region were contributing to a rise of anti-Americanism and the spread of militant political Islam, it is absurd to expect anyone to predict the timing and nature of any particular act of terrorism. Would Kramer discredit everyone who studies American politics or sociology for failing to predict the Oklahoma City bombing? Is the study of the region politically motivated? Kramer's book most certainly is. It's published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (emphasis mine), well known (and described in the Chronicle of Higher Education article about the book) as a pro-Israeli think tank. And in interviews that accompanied articles on his book in the Chronicle, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, Kramer argued against increasing federal funding for Middle East studies centers in the wake of 9-11. He is currently the editor of Middle East Quarterly, journal of the Middle East Forum, a think tank that "works to define and promote American interests in the Middle East." It is true that people who spend years studying a foreign language and living abroad while conducting their research do tend to develop an affinity for the people of their host country (or countries) and a respect for their culture. I think the academy in general is responding to 9-11 in exactly the way it should – and exactly the way that Kramer has argued against – by expanding the number of classes on the history, politics and culture taught by Middle East scholars. Brown students are very fortunate to have not only an undergraduate M.E. concentration with a wide array of courses, but also the co-curricular programming at the Watson Institute and a substantial population of students from the region, both of which can supplement classroom learning. Still, there is room for improvement. To my knowledge, neither Persian nor Turkish is offered at Brown, and since the early 1990s the Political Science department has not offered a course on the domestic politics of any country in the region except Israel, while the International Relations of the Middle East has been taught only sporadically, and only by adjuncts. I hope these gaps can be filled in the near future.
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