Middle East studies in the News
Warping Mideast judgments
by Steven Heydemann
March 14, 2004
Intelligence failures in Iraq point to the dangers of letting politics influence research.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.
Appointed officials with a partisan political agenda used their influence to silence dissenting opinions. They selectively played up evidence that supported predetermined conclusions. Expertise was sacrificed for the sake of political expediency, with unfortunate results.
Ignoring these lessons, partisan critics are now working to politicize university-based research on the Middle East--and, by default, every other world region.
Exploiting the language of accountability and playing on post-Sept. 11 fears about terrorism, Islam and the Middle East, these critics have persuaded Congress to consider a politically appointed advisory board to "evaluate" the work of area studies centers that receive funds from the Department of Education through a program known as Title VI.
Federal funding for Middle East centers is incredibly modest--centers at 17 universities get about 10 percent of Title VI funds, with grants that average only about $500,000 per year. Yet federal support is important in persuading universities to back centers with their own resources and to attract additional money, typically private.
Why create a politically appointed advisory board for Title VI now?
Why impose this extra layer of control over a single program at the Department of Education, an agency of the executive branch that is hardly underregulated?
Critics claim that Middle East studies have gone off the rails. On one hand, they say the field is insular and self-interested, caught up in theoretical fads to the neglect of public service. On the other hand they see it as too political, harboring views and opinions they define as anti-American because they are critical--sometimes abrasively so--of the administration's policies in the region.
Middle East centers, they argue, are in the grip of a politically correct orthodoxy that marginalizes alternative perspectives. These critics have singled out Title VI because it was created to support language instruction and to train Middle East specialists for careers in academia, the private sector and government.
Yet, they claim, this intent has been neglected, as graduates of these centers turn their backs on careers in public service. They complain that centers view Title VI money as an entitlement and that an advisory board is needed to hold centers accountable to the intent of Congress.
Over the past year or so, these critics have been highly effective in advancing their views. They have found allies among politicians skeptical about the value of research and all too ready to buy into an attack on academics who expressed doubts about the rationale for war and now question our commitment to democracy in the Middle East.
Despite their effectiveness, however, their arguments are contradicted by the evidence--inconvenient facts that these partisans ignore.
Contrary to their claims, Title VI has a history of exceptional achievement and success. The program is doing exactly what it was created for and what Congress has asked of it and is an incredible bargain for the government to boot. In fact, even a cursory look at data about Middle East studies will show how misguided and deceptive the arguments are of those hostile to the field.
Data from the Department of Education show that more graduates of Middle East centers go into some form of government service than those who study any other world region except East Asia. They accept public sector jobs at more than twice the rate of those who specialize in Europe, almost twice the rate of Africa specialists and a third more than those with degrees from Latin America centers. In addition, more than a third of students who graduate from Middle East programs go into the private sector.
Clearly, the idea that Middle East centers are not training students for careers in business and government is false. No more credible is the idea that these centers foster a singular, anti-American perspective among their students. Graduates of Middle East centers--including those from centers singled out as anti-American--have served at the highest levels of the American military, in intelligence agencies, as congressional staffers, ambassadors and as staff to the National Security Council. Graduates of Middle East centers can be found at leading think tanks, policy institutes and at lobbying groups of widely differing political persuasions, including the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where Title VI's most zealous critic, Martin Kramer, has held an endowed fellowship.
The argument that Title VI, initiated in 1959, has lost its core focus on language training is also a distortion. More than half of Title VI's funding to Middle East centers is targeted at student fellowships, and these can be used for only one purpose: language study.
Title VI provides a fixed stipend for tuition, but at many institutions this amount falls short of costs. Universities themselves pick up the balance. Private universities with the highest tuition levels subsidize students the most--surely one of our country's fairest public-private partnerships.
Largely because of this funding, the number of students enrolled in Arabic language courses has grown tremendously in recent decades. In 1960, only 540 students in the whole country were taking Arabic. By 1990, that number had jumped to more than 3,400. Today, according to the Modern Language Association, more than 10,000 students are studying Arabic nationwide.
For the moment, Arabic instruction is faring well in the U.S., and Title VI deserves much of the credit.
If Title VI has been so effective, what's really driving these critics? In fact, their interest in accountability is no more than a thin cover for political censorship. The real purpose of the attacks on Title VI is to use an advisory board to silence dissenting opinions, holding out the threat that federal funding will be cut unless Middle East centers toe the line.
Threats from critics
The threatening intent of critics is not an exaggeration. Martin Kramer, a Middle East scholar who has made a second career out of attacking Middle East studies, told his academic colleagues to start worrying. Invoking tactics more common to the former Iraqi regime than to a democracy, he warned professors that their Web sites would be "visited late at night" to police their content. "Yes, you are being watched," Kramer wrote on his Web site, telling faculty to "get used to it." Intimidation is the aim of these critics, not accountability.
The very real prospect that Congress will impose political litmus tests on funding is troubling. Though modest, Title VI funds have helped sustain our nation's capacity to teach and conduct research about a part of the world that is central to American interests. The program has been crucial for ensuring instruction in all the major and minor languages of the Middle East.
Moreover, Title VI funds are in no sense an entitlement. They have to be earned. Every three years, centers submit proposals that go through rigorous review by the Department of Education. The best evidence that this review is no cakewalk? Proposals from some of our nation's leading universities have been rejected, including Columbia University, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania.
No less important, much of Title VI funding supports work that directly benefits the public. In recent years, it has helped UCLA offer seminars on Islamic economics for local businesses. Title VI helped the Middle East Center at the University of Washington organize public lectures after Sept. 11 that drew more than 3,000 people to a single event--crowds so large they had to be accommodated in the university's basketball stadium. It supports a speakers' bureau at Ohio State University that organizes more than 50 talks each year for community groups. It helps the University of Texas maintain a lending library for K-12 teachers. Critics tell us that outreach activities spread anti-American perspectives. The weight of the evidence tells us otherwise.
It is, of course, true that some faculty are critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East--though they hardly differ in this regard from millions of Americans. But is this really a violation of congressional intent in supporting Middle East centers? Fortunately, Congress has shown more wisdom on this point than the critics of Title VI. Despite the efforts of these critics, Congress has never embraced a narrow, rigid understanding of area studies programs. To their credit, members of Congress have long understood the importance of institutions that promote teaching and research about world regions, and the value of developing basic knowledge on a vast array of topics, including "arcane" subjects whose utility might not be evident right away.
Congress has understood, wisely, that ensuring the strength of higher education is a fundamental national interest precisely because it fosters critical and independent expertise, and that such expertise is of value for reasons that go well beyond the policy debates of the moment. It gives us a national foundation for understanding the Middle East and the broader Muslim world, even if this means hearing things that question and criticize, disturb our sense of well-being and underscore the challenges we face.
The irony is that informed assessments of Iraq were available to anyone who cared to listen. They could be found among the scholars at the Middle East centers that are now being threatened with politically motivated oversight and control.
What Congress should do
Is this really the moment to impose a political litmus test on Middle East research? Recent history suggests that Congress should do everything it can to strengthen the independence of Middle East studies, and renew our public commitment to research and training on this and other world regions.
In considering how and whether to impose the advisory board now under consideration, Congress should be guided by two things: an accurate understanding of how effective the Title VI program has been, and a keen appreciation for how dangerous it will be to impose on this program the same kind of political censorship that contributed to the distorted assessments of Iraq that we are now struggling to overcome.
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