"Mesa" or "MESA" is the acronym of the Middle East Studies Association, the professional group of those who at American universities and colleges are charged with the responsibility of teaching the American young, those trusting, innocent, infinitely malleable young, with learning about the Middle East -- which is to say, about Islam.
As an organization, MESA has over the past two decades slowly but surely been taken over by apologists for Islam. Many of these are Muslims, and many are non-Muslims. The latter includes quite a few people who are married to Muslims, or who, to get along with their colleagues (and remember, the most political place in the entire universe is a university faculty, and that institution which, alas, Randall Jarrell failed to immortalize (if memory serves), the Departmental Meeting. Junior faculty owe everything to, and therefore must curry favor with, senior faculty. If that means signing an anti-divestment petition that has the mighty empire of Israel, fons et origo of everything that has ever gone wrong with the Muslim and Arab states and peoples, then so be it. Funny thing about being a trimmer, however, is that the mere act of signing something you really don't believe helps to convince you that you really do believe it, otherwise you would have to come to terms with your own cravenness, your own pusillanimity. And no one wants to do that.
The method of apologetics is simple: concentrate on Israel, or the more tendentious reification of an alternative state, "Israel/Palestine," keep clear of such topics as land ownership under the Ottoman Empire, the actual demographics of the Ottoman vilayets and sanjak that made up what became Mandatory Palestine, don't even whisper that more than half of the Jews in Israel had never left the Middle East but lived as dhimmis in the Yemen (virtual chattel slaves), in Iraq, in North Africa, in Syria and Egypt -- because officially, all Israeli Jews are "European colonialists"; finally, do not under any conditions mention that a goodly number of the ancient "Palestinian people" (invented post-1967) are the descendants of Arabs and Berbers who were veterans of Abd el-Kader's campaign, Egyptians who came with Mehmet Ali, Muslims from the Balkans and Bulgaria and other Ottoman territories in Europe who were transferred, en masse, by the Turkish government as the high tide of Islam receded -- for that area (a/k/a in the West as "Palestine") was by far the most desolate and under-populated in the Ottoman Empire, always excepting the Empty Quarter of Arabia).
The apologetics consists in hardly ever discussing Jihad, dhimmitude, or indeed even introducing the students to Qur'an, Hadith, and Sira. Sometimes an expurgated version -- the Michael Sells horror -- is assigned to students The Hadith and Sira are never mentioned. Books on the level of Armstrong and Esposito are assigned, and feelgood nonsense like Maria Rosa Menocal's The Ornament of the World.
But not everyone who is a member of MESA is completely awful. There are a few reasonable people, some of the Ottomanists and suchlike. MESA is a little like the Soviet Union of Writers, which had thousands of members and hardly a real writer. When one considers Michael Cook, Patricia Crone, Bernard Lewis, and a few others, on one scale, and the assorted Khalidis and Dabashis and Massads and Bahranis in the other, you can guess which side kicks the beam. No member of MESA has done as much to make available to a wide public important new work on Muhammad, on the origins of the Qur'an, and on the history of early Islam, as that lone wolf, Ibn Warraq. No one has done such work on the institution of the dhimmi as that lone louve, Bat Ye'or. It is an astounding situation, where much of the most important work is not being done in universities, because many university centers have been seized by a kind of Islamintern International. Willy Munzenberg could have learned a lot from Edward Said, who was only begetter, with his Orientalism for a good deal of this "post-colonial hegemonic discourse" stuff that permanently stunts the mental growth.
Recent presidents of MESA have included Lisa Anderson, the well-versed and compleat academic (and beyond, what with the Councils on this and the Committees on that, all very impressive if you are impressed with that sort of thing) operator, Dean of the School of International Blah, and Joel Beinin and Laurie Brand, about whom you may google, and Rashid Khalidi, and -- has Juan Cole served his term, or is that coming up? Well, you get the dreary picture
In any case, even MESA has its constraints. For example a few years ago it had to award, it could not avoid awarding, a prize for the best book of the year to Michael Cook for his 720-page Commanding Right and Prohibiting Wrong in Islam, even though Cook is suspiciously learned and has written a book, perhaps too warily not permitted to be reprinted, with Patricia Crone (who herself is very good, but also, at times, as in her treatment of Christoph Luxenberg, not quite as brave as she should be).
Why do I refer to MESA as "Mesa Nostra"? Because it is a kind of "Our Thing" conspiracy, but not nearly as appealing, as folkloric, as the Mafia, or the 'ndrangheta, or the camorra, for in Italy the malavita has three main components. Everyone knows everyone else; the maneuvering, the politicking, the fear that the hot breath of Campus Watch, and perhaps even Congress, will take away all that government money that the Khalidis and the Dabashis et al. wanted to use to spread their anti-Israel anti-American and "why-do-they-hate-us?" and "it is only a handful-of-extremists" message, and how can that mean old U.S. government not want to fund that, huh?
"Mesa Nostra" is my little invention. It communicates the doubtfulness, and more, of the enterprise. It has nothing to do with real scholarship. Ask yourself this: could Joseph Schacht, the great authority on Mohammedan law, or Arthur Jeffery, an authority on Islam, on Muhammad, even on aspects of the lexicon of the early Qur'an, both of them once stars in Columbia's middle-eastern firmament, have been hired today -- at Columbia, or indeed, anywhere that the plotters of Mesa Nostra rule the roost?
The Arabs have poured money into various Georgetown Centers for this and that (because that's where the power is, that's where the foreign service officers are trained, that's where Peter Bechtold, who gave a cheerleading address to the last meeting of Mesa, heads the "Foreign Policy Institute" and was so instrumental in drawing up that farcical list for General Vines). They have also bought up chairs: the nice "Guardian of the Two Holy Places" professorship of law that Frank Vogel holds, and a King Abdul Aziz Thisorthat, and so on. Oh, they get their money's worth. They do, indeed they do.
So that's why I call it "Mesa Nostra." Everybody should.