Middle East studies in the News
The More Things Stay the Same
Suppose that, in the wake of 9/11, the government had decided to spend millions of dollars developing American expertise on the languages and cultures of the Middle East. Sounds sensible enough, doesn't it? Now suppose that in order to cultivate this sorely needed expertise on the Middle East, the American government had turned for help to an organization headed by Noam Chomsky, or some like-minded individual. Sounds utterly loony, doesn't it? Yet that is exactly what has happened.
Incredibly, the massively increased government subsidies to academic "area studies" programs authorized by Congress in the wake of September 11 are being used to line the pockets and promote the work of the very people most bitterly opposed to the war on terror. And the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), whose scholars stand to benefit most from the funding windfall, is led by Stanford historian, Joel Beinin, an unrelenting radical left-wing opponent of American foreign policy — a man whose position on the war is quite like that of Noam Chomsky himself.
Last week, Beinin sent out a letter to directors of academic Middle East centers warning them of the "significant threat" posed to their government funding by Martin Kramer, Daniel Pipes...and me. (For more on the controversy, see Beth Henary's piece, "Crisis Studies?" as well as the "Scrapbook" section of the current issue of The Weekly Standard.) Like Middle East experts Kramer and Pipes, I have written a series of articles on the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary Middle Eastern Studies, and on the well-meaning but foolish government policy of subsidizing such work in the name of national security.
Since Professor Beinin has responded to me by claiming that his scholarship, and that of his government subsidized academic allies, provides a "public good to American society at large," let us have a closer look at Professor Beinin and his work.
Shortly after September 11, at a rally sponsored by the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, Professor Beinin gave a speech (reprinted in the Jordan Times) attributing the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center to Arab hatred of American policy toward Israel and Iraq. You can find Beinin's speech on the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center website, which features articles on the war by Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, Ted Rall, Robert Fisk, Arundhati Roy, and Barbara Kingsolver — a veritable honor roll of blame-America-firsters. As an added bonus, you'll find a link to Fidel Castro's response to President Bush's famous post-9/11 address to the joint session of Congress. ("Socialism or death!") The website is graced by only two pictures, those of Noam Chomsky, and of Professor Beinin himself.
So given his attribution of 9/11 to the failure of America's Middle East policy, how would Professor Beinin have us handle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Simple. Beinin wants a complete cutoff of American military aid to Israel, not only to protect the Palestinians, but for Israel's own good. Beinin, you see, believes that Israel is being victimized by its "masculinist military culture." An American aid cutoff would be the best way, Beinin thinks, to unravel this nefarious Israeli cult of masculinity.
Beinin's radical credentials are impressive. He dedicated one of his books, Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East, to the spirit of the Thaelmann Battalion and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade — leftist volunteer regiments, many of them communist, who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Beinin's writing in Workers and Peasants draws on Marxist theorists like Antonio Gramsci and the Subaltern Studies school, as well as the post-colonial theory of Edward Said.
But Beinin's most politically interesting piece of work is his introduction to, Political Islam, a 1997 reader on Islamic fundamentalism that Beinin edited along with Joe Stork. In his introduction to that book (co-written with Stork) Beinin follows a line quite like that of John Esposito, a past president of MESA, and another prominent critic of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
In his introduction to Political Islam, written just five years before 9/11, Beinin poked fun at what he saw as the misguided belief that the Islamic world posed a threat to American interests. For Beinin, the notion of an "Islamic threat" was nothing but a scare tactic invented by "policy intellectuals" to keep defense budgets high in the wake of the Soviet collapse. For example, according to Beinin, the "powerful U.S. interests advocating high military spending," have been using fundamentalist Iran as a convenient substitute for the "evil empire." (One can imagine Beinin's horror at the notion of an "axis of evil.") Alright then, what is Beinin's preferred policy stance toward Iran? Beinin recommends a decidedly non-masculinist "spirit of dialogic engagement" with Iran. Although he says that more detailed policy recommendations are "beyond the scope" of his essay, Beinin does at least raise the following question: "Does Iran have legitimate interests in the Persian Gulf region which US policy might better accommodate than deny?" And of course, in this 375-page reader on radical Islam, there is next to nothing about Islamic terrorism.
So this is the man who America's scholars of the Middle East have chosen to lead them — a man who explains the events of September 11 by pointing to American foreign policy; a man who would cut off aid to Israel; a man who belittled those who were prescient enough to perceive a threat from Islamic extremists long before 9/11 (scholars like Kramer and Pipes); a man who has seriously questioned America's policy of opposition to a government in Iran that is obviously an adversary of this country; and a man who continues to embrace utopian Marxism, long after that dream has been revealed as a sham. This is the man who has the gall to demand that he and his supporters be given a special government subsidy on grounds of "national interest."
Now let me be clear. There is no question here of depriving Professor Beinin of his academic freedom or his right to speak, only of depriving him and his friends of a funding bonus obtained on the false claim that the money will be used to protect our national security. I may disagree with Beinin and his supporters, yet I happily affirm that the academy is stronger for the opportunity to see real debate between clashing points of view. The trouble is, Professor Beinin and his radical colleagues have actually cut off debate — by exiling from their field anyone who doesn't share their radical politics.
Consider, for example, what Professor Beinin did not say in response to my earlier critiques of the field. Beinin did not say that Kurtz actually had it all wrong about Middle East Studies. Beinin did not say that his field is actually chock full of conservatives, and that the entire range of American views on Middle Eastern policy are given full and fair treatment in disciplinary debates. On the contrary, in his strategy memo, Beinin simply took for granted the radical politics of the field and called on his colleagues to defend their opposition to Washington's policies by going onto far leftist news outlets like Pacific News Service and AlterNet. What does it say about the openness of an academic field to diverse viewpoints when its leader can simply assume a discipline-wide consensus around a radical political stance many degrees to the left of the average American?
This is the context in which one needs to understand Professor Beinin's evident distress in his strategy memo about the fact that I am a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, "located uncomfortably close to my (i.e. Beinin's) office." Stanford is that rare college campus where, because of the Hoover Institution, conservatives actually have a presence. Professor Beinin's inability to take this as a normal situation explains a lot about why genuine intellectual diversity is virtually unheard of on America's college campuses today.
So this is the academic field to which Congress is funneling multi-million dollar subsidies in hopes of bolstering America's security. The money isn't simply being wasted; it is actively being used to undermine our security. In "Anti-Americanism in the Classroom," for example, I've shown how "Title VI" federal funding of Middle East Studies centers is being used to train America's K-12 teachers to parrot a one-sided political line defined by Professor Beinin's friends, Edward Said, Robert Fisk, Arundhati Roy, and the rest. And in "Ivory Scam," I've shown how the beneficiaries of federal Title VI funding have actually banded together to boycott and destroy a badly needed government program (the National Security Education Program, NSEP) that could actually succeed in providing our defense and intelligence agencies with desperately needed speakers of Middle Eastern and other languages.
Congress has quite simply been hoodwinked into thinking that Title VI funding will bolster our security. The truth is, the Marxist and "post-colonial" scholars who populate government subsidized Middle East studies centers actually make a point of teaching their students that putting their knowledge at the disposal of the United States government would be immoral. That, in fact, is the cental teaching of Edward Said, the founding theorist of post-colonial studies.
Professor Beinin's strategy memo is right about a couple of things, though. No need to worry much about Kramer, Pipes, and Kurtz, Beinin assures his colleagues. Whatever alternative programs for cultivating knowledge of the Middle East that Congress might concoct, "in practice, it would be difficult if not impossible to do this without relying substantially on individuals and institutions already in place." He's right. Beinin understands that the lock he and his tenured radical colleagues have secured on academic programs of Middle East studies make it exceedingly difficult to build up alternative institutions or programs for disseminating knowledge of the Middle East.
Fortunately, however, Beinin is right about something else as well. Beinin's fear is that, in the current atmosphere, long-term bets are off. A public newly alive to the threats to this country, and aware of the stakes behind foreign policy debates as never before, just might find a way to break the monopoly of Professor Beinin and his friends on the American academy. I see that possibility as well. And so, uphill though the battle may be, let me assure you, Professor Beinin, I have not yet begun to fight.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.
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