Middle East studies in the News
by Franklin Foer
December 3, 2001
The officials of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) began planning its 2001 conference last fall. Among the 144 panels they ultimately scheduled for the gathering, held last weekend in San Francisco, were discussions on "Islam, Globalization and Feminist Networks" and "Civil Society and the State in Yemen." But it wasn't until the suicide hijacking of four American airliners that the conference organizers must have realized an omission: There was no planned discussion of terrorism. To correct the oversight, a seminar on "September 11: Responses and Future Implications" was hastily cobbled together. 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.
Given that MESA is the discipline's premier organization--drawing professors from Israel and the Arab world as well as the United States--one might have anticipated a controversial session. One would have been wrong. In response to the American University of Cairo's Bahgat Korany's description of "anti-American rage on the Arab street," a large mustachioed man rose from the audience. "The word 'Arab street' has racist connotations. It implies an unthinking mob," he exclaimed. Korany quickly backed down.
The panel and the audience came together on the war against terrorism, too: They don't like it. "We have not shown that our actions differentiate us from those who attacked us," Georgetown University's Michael Hudson told the hotel ballroom. His co-panelist from Villanova, Ann Lesch, simply assumed that her listeners were against America's war, and proceeded directly to the question of how to persuade the public to oppose "the United States' hegemonic role in the region." There was a brief moment of suspense when a woman from the audience, shaking with anger, approached a microphone to ask Lesch and Hudson a question. But her rage, it turned out, wasn't directed at them. "We have appropriated the Egyptian and Israeli methods of dealing with terrorism. This destroys the credibility of America lecturing anyone about human rights, blah, blah, blah." She received an ovation.
That MESA's members oppose the war is hardly surprising; they are academics, after all. But unlike other academics, what MESAns think actually matters: They're the ones who are supposed to produce the scholarship on Islam and the Arab world that deepens our understanding of the terrorists, their motivations, and their sympathizers. There's even the possibility, post-9/11, of Middle East scholars convincing Congress and private foundations to pump large sums into their departments. But if the MESA conference is any guide, it won't do much good. For the past decade, professors of Middle East Studies have generally apologized for Islamism and called "terrorism" a racist term. And in San Francisco last weekend, they showed no signs of reconsidering.
There was one universally acknowledged villain at the conference--it just wasn't Osama bin Laden. No, the man everyone loved to hate was "Middle East Quarterly" Editor Martin Kramer, author of the recently published Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. (When Lesch mentioned Kramer's name, some in the audience actually hissed.) The MESAns have good reason to be defensive: Kramer's arguments cut to the core problem with Middle East scholarship. As Kramer describes it, for the first half of the twentieth century, there was no Middle East studies, only orientalism. Housed in stuffy Oxbridge institutes and infused with the spirit of British imperialism, the orientalists focused largely on antiquity, and a few even romantically described Arabs as heroic desert savages. Not until the early days of the cold war did American universities open institutes for Middle East Studies. Unlike orientalists, Middle East Studies professors focused on the contemporary scene, applying modern social-science methods and embracing the ideology of the cold war. Progress in the Middle East, they argued, required modernization. The late UCLA professor Malcolm Kerr described the field's conventional wisdom this way: Muslims had "little choice but to learn from the West ... to search out the secret of its progress."
But the 1970s shook the discipline's faith in its cold war axioms. The Iranian revolution and the Lebanese civil war cast doubt on the inevitability of Westernization. These doubts were compounded by the scathing critique leveled by Columbia literature professor Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientalism. The American scholars, Said charged, hadn't embraced objective social science, but merely repackaged orientalism to service their government's neo-imperialist foreign policy. In part, his critique was conspiratorial: "[A]nything said about Islam by a professional scholar is within the sphere of influence of corporations and the government." And in part, it was epistemological: When scholars impose Western concepts and interpretations on Muslims and Arabs, they can't grasp the full dynamism of their subjects. Orientalism fit the zeitgeist perfectly. In addition to Said's timely critique of the modernization thesis, the implication of his argument--that only Muslim and Arab scholars could escape orientalism's limitations--jibed with the academy's growing obsession with identity politics.
It was, in short, a kick in the gut to the cold war liberals who had founded MESA in 1966. So instead of trying to beat Said, they joined him. As Said wrote in his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism, "During the 1980s, the formerly conservative Middle East Studies Association underwent an important ideological transformation.... What happened in the Middle East Studies Association therefore was a metropolitan story of cultural opposition to Western domination." Indeed, it's difficult to overstate Orientalism's influence within the field. The historian David Gordon has described the book as "almost Koranic in its prestige."
Kramer shows how Middle East scholars took Said's argument and transposed it to political science. Terrorism and fundamentalism were suddenly racist, reductionist concepts. Instead, the new Middle East Studies consensus viewed the insurgent Islamists as avatars of "civil society" and opponents of state authoritarianism. Americans who failed to glimpse Islamism's democratic promise, argued Georgetown's John Esposito, needed "to transcend their narrow, ethnocentric conceptualization of democracy." At the San Francisco conference, a tenured professor who didn't want to be identified told me, "You don't get tenure by praising American policy." Marius Deeb, who teaches modern Middle East politics at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, told me, "There's a uniformity, and sometimes one gets frustrated with the taboos. For instance, one can't publicly disagree with the statement that Lebanese Hezbollah is a resistance movement." And so, Kramer argues, the discipline of Middle East Studies ignored the Al Qaeda threat. As Esposito put it in 1998: "Focusing on Osama bin Laden risk[s] catapulting one of many sources of terrorism to center stage, distorting both the diverse international sources (state and nonstate, non-Muslim and Muslim) of terrorism."
September 11 may have dramatically altered the global order, but it hasn't altered MESA's worldview. In San Francisco, presenter after presenter referred to "so-called terrorism" or "terrorism in quotation marks." In one typical panel, the University of Arkansas's Gwenn Okruhlik defended the fundamentalist opponents of the Saudi regime as latter-day Fabians: "They're calling for redistribution of wealth and social justice. They want rule of law." When Wayne State University professor May Seikaly described Israel's 1948 victory as ushering in the Nakba--Arabic for "catastrophe"--her audience nodded furiously. And, at the seminar on September 11, nearly 20 scholars asked questions of the panel; only one, a professor from Baltimore Hebrew University, tentatively challenged the prevailing view. "One could argue that the September eleventh attack occurred because of the failure of the U.S. government to respond to the first World Trade Center attack...." But Georgetown's Hudson summarily dismissed him: "This is an argument that one hears often in the media." By contrast, when an elderly professor hobbled to the microphone to say, "We ought to be reminded of our responsibility for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and understand that we're not so good," he received a round of applause. The panel's moderator, the University of Massachusetts's Mary Wilson, responded, "That hardly needs a response. I'm not sure we could add anything." And no one did.
Ironically, while anti-Americanism reigned at the MESA conference, it was suffering a serious blow in the Muslim world itself--as Afghans thanked the United States for helping liberate them from the Taliban. Which made me wonder whether MESA, which has tried so hard to authentically understand Islamic and Arab points of view, may be behind the times once again. At a Starbucks across from the conference headquarters at the Hyatt, I eavesdropped on a conversation between two attendees, a Jordanian man and an American woman. They were old friends, catching up on one another's lives since last year's MESA meeting. The woman, with closely cropped hair and faded jeans, spoke of her new tome on women in Islam. "It occurs to me that jihad might be a useful rhetorical strategy," she told her friend. "Women can use the excuse of holy war to justify a greater role in the public sphere." After a while, the conversation made the inevitable loop back to the subject of the moment. The Jordanian spoke about the crisis in Islam: "I hate all this talk about how Islam isn't to blame. We know the truth." The comment didn't quite register with his friend. "Yeah, that's right," she said, "The media talks about blameless Islam, but turns around and calls attention to 'Islamic terrorism'"--drawing the quotation marks in the air. The Jordanian didn't correct his friend's misinterpretation, nor allow it to interrupt his train of thought: "Perhaps this will be a mixed blessing," he continued. "Some good will come. My dream: We recognize our folly and adopt Jeffersonian liberalism." The women chuckled: "Do you really want it?"
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