Campus Watch Research
Crisis at Columbia: That Awful Mess on Morningside Heights
by Hugh Fitzgerald
Some years ago the writer Carlo Emilio Gadda published Quer pasticcaccio brutto de via Merulana. The title was Englished as That Awful Mess on Merulana Street. In America that book never received the attention it deserved. But another awful mess, that on Morningside Heights, is receiving, a good deal of attention. A short movie has been made, in which students testify on camera to the humiliating treatment they endured, as Jews or Israelis, from a series of professors. A long study of the "scholarship" of Columbia's Middle East Studies faculty is in the works. Dozens of newspaper articles have been written about the atmosphere of harassment, intimidation, and indoctrination of students, both in and out of class. A large public now knows that many of the Middle East Studies faculty (and specifically those who reside in the awfully titled Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, and even more awfully shortened ‘MEALAC') appear to believe in the surpassing perfidy of the mighty empire of Israel, in the sheer nobility and justice of the "Palestinian" cause, in the diabolical imperialist dreams of the American government, and in the crazed hatred for the Arabs and Muslims, and will to dominate, by Israel or America or the West, that explains everything from Israeli archeological digs to the inability of Western scholars to fully appreciate Arab literature, or Mesopotamian statuary.
Before offering animadversions on the course offerings, and scholarship, of individual professors, one must be fair to Columbia's legacy. In the past century, Columbia boasted the leading Islamic scholars in America: Richard Gottheil, who did some of the earliest work on the dhimmi; Arthur Jeffery, who followed Mingana's early lead in investigating the non-Arabic elements in the Qur'an; Joseph Schacht, whose book on Islamic law remains the authoritative text for all Western students, about that important subject. All of these disinterested scholars brought luster to the teaching, and study, of the most important subject of all, that without which all else becomes virtually meaningless: that subject is Islam. Yet today one can go through the university's Middle East Studies course offerings, and learn virtually nothing about Qur'an, Hadith, and Sira, nothing about the origins of the Qur'an or of recent developments in the study of early Islam, both historical (John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, Patricia Crone) and philological (Christoph Luxenberg). Only a bare handful of survey courses in the Religion department pretend to cover the vastness of Islamic history, theology, and civilization, reducing those riches to ‘mere' religion, ahistorical, unassailable, eternal. Columbia's Middle Eastern Program had far to fall, but fall it did– and with a thud that still reverberates.
For what goes on at in Middle East Studies at Columbia generally, and particularly in MEALAC, demonstrates that the easy invocation of "faculty autonomy" should not be employed to protect, not one or two teachers failing to do their proper job, but an entire, and large, and well-funded, enterprise. For a study of Columbia's Middle East Studies reveals both almost complete intellectual désarroi, and pedagogic malpractice that at some point may be the subject of student, or parental, lawsuits.
MEALAC is the embodiment of Columbia's Middle East Studies problem: the exclusive focus on the present at the expense of the past, the embrace of flimsy academic fads and confessional politics in place of deep and dispassionate scholarship, the teaching of narrow specialties and faculty interests couched in broad terms of post-colonialism and anti-imperialism, the fetishization of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the reward of mediocrity. There is not a single course offered on the highest literary achievements of high classical Islamic civilization. More specifically, there is no course devoted to Persian poetry - nothing about Sa'adi, Firdowsi, Omar Khayyam, Hafiz, or many others. Nor is there anything about classical Arabic poetry, not an echo through the trees of Low Plaza of any singing crows. Instead students are offered the thin gruel of the "modern Arabic political novel" – in other words, literature as a handmaid of politics and socio-political analysis.
When it comes to Islam, there is but a single course at Columbia that is offered on the Qur'an, its contents, its origins, its commentators. The major text, the critical text, the text which has defined the attitudes and atmospherics over 1400 hundred years, and has determined the fate of peoples and polities in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere, that has had incalculable effects on the subcontinent and in the East Indian archipelago, is taught to students in post-modern parody "addressing three problematic representations in the Quran… idols, prophets, and women." The sole course on Islamic law is similarly parodic, as it introduces students to "the genesis of the shar'ia as divine law," although a literal reading of the course description yields a darker interpretation.
There is no course on the significance of Muhammad as a figure of world-historical significance, and on his use as a role-model for Muslims, as revealed both in his sayings and acts, as contained in the Hadith, and in the sacralized biography, or Sira, that together form what Muslims know as the Sunnah, or the customs and ways of 7th century Arabia. As the model for all time, Muhammad, al-insan al-kamil, affects Muslim life today. How, for example, can students at Columbia make sense of many of the laws passed in the nascent Islamic Republic of Iran, without understanding the role of Muhammad as a model? From family law, to the law of war and peace, the example of Muhammad is all-determining. How can one possibly understand why the Ayatollah Khomeini, as virtually his first act, had the marriageable age of Iranian girls reduced to nine, without reference to Muhammad and his last wife, little Aisha, whom he married when she was six, and consummated that marriage when she was nine?
And how can one understand the Muslim view of treaties with infidel peoples and polities, their duration and their value, to both Muslims and to the Infidels with whom the treaties are signed, without reference to Muhammad's agreement with the Meccans in 628 A.D., the celebrated Treaty of al-Hudiabiyya, an agreement that Yasir Arafat referred to repeatedly before Muslim audiences? The late Majid Khadduri, in his Law of War and Peace in Islam, points out that this remains the basis for all Muslim agreements with Infidel states – the same Majid Khadduri, himself a Muslim, who has been honored even by Muslim states?
Still another area which is passed over in almost total silence, and about which there must be almost total miscomprehension among the students, is the by-now well-understood, and researched, subject of how non-Muslims, living in the vast lands conquered by the forces of Islam, were treated once Islam ruled, and Muslims were dominant – not necessarily through their numbers, but through their position. The extensive Western scholarship on what is now known as "dhimmitude" does not begin, or end, as some apparently think, with the meticulous works of Bat Ye'or. Dozens upon dozens of scholars, not only from England and France and Germany and Italy and America (indeed, from those who taught at Columbia itself), but Greek and Bulgarian and Russian and Serbian and Romanian and Armenian and Indian scholars, have written extensively. That their work seems to have been often overlooked, almost willfully so, does not mean that that work, now unearthed and being republished, says something about the quality of what is taught. For surely this a great and important subject, that has involved the destinies of vast populations, over vast areas. Who, for example, at Columbia studies what happened to the Hindu population during the 250 years of Mughal rule, when between 60-70 million Hindus were killed, and tens of thousands of Hindu temples razed?
Those who wish to contain the Awful Mess, and to restrict inquiry, and therefore indignation, to matters associated with Israel, rather than to the larger question of the responsibility of Columbia to insure that, in fact, the most significant matters are taught, and left deliberately untaught, so that exaggerated, hypertrophied attention is laser-beamed on the "plight of the Palestinians" or the Arab resentment of Israel, that Mighty Empire that doth bestride the Middle East like a colossus (on 0.2% of the land area of the members of the Arab League), and that, no doubt, explains distempers among Muslims, from Abu Hamza in Finsbury Mosque, to those who blew up the subway train in Madrid, or killed Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, or who are murdering Hindus when they happen step near a mosque as Friday Prayers are ending in Bangladesh, or killing Christians all over the Moluccas, or blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas.
There is more, much more, that could be added – but what must be added as well is that there is nothing presently taught in all of the offerings at Columbia that offer a hint of any explanatory model or theory of why these events take place, or how they may relate to classic Muslim doctrines pertaining to Jihad and to the treatment of non-Muslims, living in lands where Islam has conquered and they subjugated to Muslim rule. Until these subjects are taught, and taught not by apologists for Islam, both Muslim and non-Muslim, the program at Columbia will remain farcical. Anger, rage, humiliation, underdevelopment, and of course, Israel, are among the explanations offered willy nilly in courses widely scattered throughout the university, but nothing that looks honestly, some would say even coldly, at the religious roots, the ideological roots. To do so would be to cross boundaries that have been drawn at Columbia, almost like at no other place.
The name of Edward Said is often invoked by members of the Columbia faculty. Said was, as Ibn Warraq calls him in his brilliant analysis of Saidism, an "intellectual thug," determined to protect Islam by lashing out at real scholars of the subject. Said, who knew nothing about Islam (he was neither a Muslim, nor a scholar of Islam), nonetheless presumed to dismiss the entire scholarly enterprise of generations of meticulous and learned Western scholars. In the process he managed to demonstrate that he believed Byzantium had been conquered by Muslims before Spain, though Spain had succumbed to Islam some 700 years before Byzantium did to the Ottoman Turks. He became hysterical over the perfectly standard lexical analysis of the Arabic noun "thawra," which since the 19th century has been used as the word for "revolution," finding something sinister and deliberately sexual in Bernard Lewis's citing the root th-w-r as meaning "excitement" or a "rising up (as a camel)."
Said's thesis was simple, even primitive: failing to conceive of study for the sake of disinterested curiosity, Said simply asserted that all Western Orientalists worked hand-in-glove with Western imperialists. When Lewis calmly noted that the study of the languages and literatures of the East began, in England and France, several hundred years before the Western "imperialists" even set foot in the East (which began with Napoleon's arrival in Egypt in 1798), and that in any case many of the best Orientalists were neither French nor English, the two countries which later had a presence in that same Muslim Near East.
Said, as has been noted, in his attacks managed not only to tarnish the image, and hence the authority, of many great scholars (while not even mentioning, much less discussing, about 95% of the Orientalists). Through his industry, fame, and timely anger, he also created a kind of Jobs Program, which had results: Muslims and Arabs were the victims of "Orientalism," and were exempt from its charges. So if one were to study the Middle East, the preferred teachers and scholars were always Muslims and Arabs themselves. The inability to realize that the ideal of objective scholarship has almost no place in the Arab and Muslim world, where as Lewis says the primary mode is "defensiveness," that a kind of academic mafia has driven out of the profession many non-Muslims.
Indeed, the MEALAC department itself at Columbia, with a handful of exceptions (holdovers from an earlier era, who teach nicely segregated subjects – i.e. "Jewish matters" – such as Prof. Dan Miron) – demonstrates perfectly that those who are non-Muslim or non-Arab fit into certain categories. There are those who express islamisant sympathies, for their years as students somehow caused them, in a sense, to "go native." The very act of spending years learning Arabic, and of immersing oneself in a culture, can lead to a certain kind of identification. The Arab and Muslim world has caused a good many Westerners, from the Freya Starks and St. John Philbys, to the ARAMCO publicists, to quite a few MESA members, to make common cause.
Psychologically, it could hardly be otherwise. If you are constantly surrounded by people whose mode of discussion is always that of defensiveness, defensiveness about Islam, about Arabs, about the non-West, about Western scholars in the past who did not exhibit sufficient solicitousness for Arab or Muslim sensibilities, you are either likely to reveal that you do not share such views, and if that is done early on you will not be promoted (so that a certain pre-tenure Taqiya becomes de rigueur, and not everyone can carry it off for 5, 6, 7 years of waiting and dissimulating). On the other hand, life is short, and one wishes to attain that appetizing thing, tenure, and why not convince yourself not to ask yourself certain questions. Intellectual curiosity is limited; the gates of ijtihad are shut.
For a real student of Islam, such as Joseph Schacht or Arthur Jeffery or Richard Gottheil, one would not hesitate to ask these questions: What is it about the Muslim countries that explains their hatred of all infidels, including Hindus and Buddhists, or what is it that explains the failure of Muslim countries to develop, despite the vast OPEC oil wealth, modern economies, or what is it in the ideology of Islam that encourages despotism in Muslim countries, or why did modern science develop in the West, and such development come to a shuddering halt in the Muslim East? Instead, we get the complete avoidance of such questions, even anger that such questions should be raised.
Said was wrong to argue that the Orientalists of the Western world had always and everywhere been handmaidens of Western designs on the Middle East. The study of the East began centuries before Napoleon entered Egypt in 1798, and Europe came, though rarely in the classic colonial guise, to stay for a while. It was only in Algeria, after all, that the classic colonialism was practiced for more than a few decades, anywhere in the Arab world. And Said, as well, managed to ignore all the Orientalists who did not come from the two relevant "colonialist" powers, England and France. But Said was right to suggest that at times there was a connection between how Islam was viewed and depicted, and the geopolitical aims of certain Western powers. This was a perfect description of the rosy view of Islam, and especially of Saudi Arabia, that was promoted by ARAMCO and the State Department, and perhaps especially by John Foster Dulles and the Republicans who followed him, for they though that Islam was anti-Communist, a "bulwark" against Communism, and so the most Muslim of regimes – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in particular – were the stoutest friends the West possessed. Hitler, too, had for a while been successful, in making an anti-Bolshevist appeal to certain rightist circles in Europe, but finally reality sunk in.
One does not wish to make light of the anti-Israel animus. It must, for many students, permanently sour their experience, and make them regret, in many ways, their choice of Columbia – especially those who are graduate students, and for whom the stakes are higher. Students have a right not to enter a classroom in fear and trembling, or to cringe for favors. And younger faculty members – and anyone familiar with academic politics knows exactly how much power senior faculty have over the professional lives of the non-tenured faculty – may be forced to align themselves with views they do not really support, but once they have signed a petition demanding "divestment" from Israel, or boycott of its academics, their fate is sealed. For psychological reasons, they must work to convince themselves that they really believe what they signed, for otherwise it is difficult for them to live with their own craven behavior.
The same kind of petitions, and pressure to sign, was a great feature of Soviet life, but there at least, the power of the government to destroy not only professional lives, but the lives of family members, could at times be used by pressured signers to justify their pusillanimous conformity to the dictates from above. There is no doubt that the use of precious class time to engage in anti-Israel rants, the cancellation of other classes, the showing of movies that are irrelevant to the subject being taught, the berating of Jewish or Israeli students, beginning but not ending with a most telling comparative analysis of retinal pigmentation (George Saliba), the pressure put on students to attend anti-Israel rallies, the hysterical reaction to dignified letters of protest (Hamid Dabashi), the canceling of classes for anti-Israel rallies, the insistent and hypertrophied attention paid to the putative sins of Israel on every conceivable, and not-conceivable, occasion – all of this needs to be examined, discussed, written about, and severe punishment meted out to the perpetrators, who seem to believe, quite wrongly, that tenure is a license to behave – however they feel like behaving.
One is cruel only to be kind – kind to the students who come to Columbia hoping to be educated in the most important subjects. They lack the knowledge to judge, at the time, whether or not those subjects are being adequately taught. It may be that many of them are chosen, in fact, because they will happily submit to the skewed curriculum, and indeed are themselves eager to become, in turn, apologists for Islam and promoters of misunderstanding. But Columbia should be thinking of its own reputation. The university that once had Joseph Schacht and Arthur Jeffery and Richard Gottheil on the faculty really has to ensure that Islam becomes the center of attention, and not something that is scarcely mentioned in the corridors of faculty power, a faculty that, at least at MEALAC, with impudence, with arrogance, with the assurance that tenure is an invisible protective shield that allows them to get away with anything, harassment and humiliation and intimidation in the classroom by some, educational malpractice by the same or by others. This cannot continue. Or rather, it can, and the self-inflicted wounds that will result if the situation is not dealt with by the appointment of an outside committee of truly distinguished Orientalists, will damage much else, alas, at Columbia, including faculty members in other departments who may not relish being punished for the unacceptable and unpunished or insufficiently punished behavior of others.
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