Middle East studies in the News
by Martin Kramer
Stocking stuffer. "During or after this crisis, [the academics] will find some pliant senator or congressman willing to propose additional budgets for Middle Eastern studies under the rubric of national security." I made that prediction in The Wall Street Journal on November 15, 2001.1 I was right. On December 20, Congress rewarded the famously errant mandarins of academic Middle Eastern studies with an incredible windfall.
The brutal Israeli military occupation of Palestine, an occupation that has been ongoing since 1948 [sic], has systematically displaced, killed, and maimed millions of Palestinian people. And yet, from under the brutal weight of the occupation, Palestinians have produced their own culture and poetry of resistance. This class will examine the history of the Palestinian resistance and the way that it is narrated by Palestinians in order to produce an understanding of the intifada and to develop a coherent political analysis of the situation. This class takes as its starting point the right of Palestinians to fight for their own self-determination. Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections.These last two sentences set off a firestorm, since they so obviously contradicted every norm of intellectual exchange. They also violated the university's own Faculty Code of Conduct. Out they went, the very next day. If the criticism doesn't die down, it's possible that the rest of the description will be cleaned up. But that won't be enough. This match of subject and instructor still raises serious questions about Berkeley's standards.
Palestinian poetry is a legitimate subject for instruction, but not by anyone. This poetry is written in Arabic, which is rich in poetic expression. A student need not know Arabic to study it, at least on an undergraduate level. But it should never be taught by anyone who can't read the originals with ease. If you can't unravel the multi-layered Arabic of Mahmud Darwish, the foremost Palestinian poet, you have no business standing in front of a classroom and teaching his oeuvre. Such malpractice is particularly indefensible at those very institutions where Arabic language and literature are well represented on the faculty, as they are at Berkeley.
Who did Berkeley's English department entrust with teaching this complex material? A 26-year-old Indo-American graduate student, one Snehal Shingavi, whose doctoral dissertation, if and when it is finished, will deal with pre-independence Indian fiction from 1917 to 1947. His qualifications? He is a militant activist in Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) (and also in the United Students against Sweatshops, the Stop the War Coalition, and the International Socialist Organization). He has been spotted wearing a kafiyyeh.14 To judge from his course syllabus, he has read a lot of Edward Said. And in April, he received a police citation for blocking entry during the SJP's takeover of a campus building. End of résumé.
Mr. Shingavi is an authority - on agitprop. Do you need to defend yourself against pepper spray? "With pepper spray," Shingavi advises, "you want to first rub the area with alcohol to bring the oil up, and then with water to flush the skin out."15 That sounds authoritative. But he is utterly unqualified to teach anything to anybody about the poetry of the Palestinian resistance. "If you can't accept that Palestinians have the right to self-determination, it is impossible to read resistance poetry," stated Shingavi.16 Nonsense. What is true is that it is impossible to teach resistance poetry if you can't really read it.
When The Wall Street Journal carried the offending course description, Berkeley took heat from conservatives and supporters of Israel - and rightly so. But it seems to me that the professional instructors of Arabic literature have equal grounds for complaint. If major universities can get away with employing campus agitators to teach Arabic literature, the future prospects for this field are grim. "There are usually just two positions in Arabic language and literature every year," notes a Harvard professor of Arabic. "A very good year is three."17 This column urges the American Association of Teachers of Arabic and the American Comparative Literature Association to register their displeasure with Berkeley's employment of a scab. If the comp lit pros don't speak up now, let them not lament when the only jobs left for their graduates are chasing terrorists.
More malpractice. "I've never used my classes to talk about political activism of the kind that I've done. I've stuck pretty carefully to the notion that the classroom is sacrosanct to a certain degree." The words belong to Edward Said, who taught for some forty years at Columbia.18 From what I have heard, his claim may even be true (to a certain degree). Sadly, the crude imitators of Said have failed to emulate him on precisely this point - and precisely at Columbia.
Joseph Massad is an assistant professor in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) at Columbia, where he also completed his doctorate. He holds views that are common enough among Palestinians: Zionism is racism, its offspring Israel is "a colonial settler racist state," it has manipulated the Holocaust for its own ends, Palestinian refugees have an unfettered right of return, etc. On February 6, Massad gave a talk entitled "On Zionism and Jewish Supremacy,"19 sponsored by Columbia's Middle East Institute, and it polarized student opinion. A MEALAC undergraduate wrote an op-ed in the campus newspaper, complaining that the title and content were "anti-Jewish."20 An article by an international affairs graduate student called it "not the least bit academic," and an exercise in "tacit incitement."21 In April, Massad appeared at a pro-Palestinian sit-in on campus, where he decried Israel as "a Jewish supremacist and racist state," and added: "Every racist state should be threatened."22
Massad's views are not all that unusual in Middle Eastern studies, and he has every right to express them on Columbia's Low Plaza, in public lectures, and in print. But should someone who is busy propagandizing against the existence of Israel be employed by Columbia to teach the introductory course on the Arab-Israeli conflict?
This past spring, MEALAC offered a course entitled "Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Society." The course description promised that its instructor would "provide a historical overview of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict to familiarize undergraduates with the background of the current situation." This is neutral language and suggested that students could look forward to a disinterested introduction to a controversial subject. Wrong: the instructor was none other than Joseph Massad. Suffice it to say that this column has received a surfeit of student complaints about the course, suggesting that there is no difference between what Massad teaches and what he preaches.23
This violates no university regulation. The assignment of the course to Massad was just bad judgment by the departmental chair. If MEALAC had a chair with a sense of propriety - or plain common sense - someone like Massad would have been steered away from teaching his commitments.
The problem is that the chair, Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies, is as militant as Massad. After September 11, he expressed doubt about bin Ladin's responsibility for the attack and announced that CNN should be held accountable for "war crimes."24 In an op-ed in the campus newspaper, Dabashi denounced Zionism as "a ghastly racist ideology," condemned "the Israeli slaughter of innocent Palestinians in Jenin," and declared that he and his colleagues (including, presumably, Massad), had "received repeated and unequivocal assurances from our recognized administrators that we have done absolutely nothing wrong in defending the rights of voiceless victims of the massacres in Palestine."25 He also cancelled his classes to attend the pro-Palestinian sit-in. (One irate student, in an Internet posting, pointed out that Columbia students do pay $90 per class session.) In short, the message conveyed from the very top of the department is that it's virtuous to teach your opinion from a lectern in one hour, and to shout it from a soapbox in the next.
Perhaps Edward Said and I are old-fashioned. I happen to agree with him that the classroom is sacrosanct, and that professors shouldn't teach the subjects of their political activism. The only way to avoid cross-contamination is to maintain some space between your personae, public and academic. Unfortunately for Columbia's students, this tradition has died a thousand deaths on their campus, and in MEALAC they face a faculty body with no more pressing mission than their systematic indoctrination. These days, students often ask me where they should study the modern Middle East. I am also an alumnus of Columbia. I wish I could recommend it. Sorry, I can't.
No terrorists here. It's ironic that Middle Eastern studies have reaped a windfall from September 11. The current project of the professors is to put as much distance as possible between that infamous day and their cherished subject. With one hand, they rattle a begging cup in Washington, promising they will use more subsidies to help us understand terrorism. With the other, they wave off suggestions that terrorism has anything to do with the peoples and places they study.
Consider, for example, an op-ed piece written by Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, and one of the most media-friendly academics. Telhami, it should be emphasized, is an accomplished political scientist, trained in rigorous methodology - at Berkeley. In his piece, entitled, "Put Middle East Terror in a Global Perspective," he wrote: "It is a mistake to imagine that the global terrorism problem beyond al Qaeda is primarily Middle Eastern."26
How so? Telhami read through the State Department's annual Patterns of Global Terrorism for 2000.27 And this is what he discovered:
In the five years preceding the tragedy of September 11th, the Middle East was not the leading region in the number of terrorist incidents or in the number of casualties from terrorism. Moreover, while the terrorist trend in the Middle East moved downward every single year, it moved upward in other regions, including Africa, Asia, and Latin America. By the year 2000, the Middle East had the fewest incidents of terrorism of any region around the globe, except for North America.Hence, concludes Telhami, there is justified anger in the Middle East that the "United States targets only that region" in its war on terror.28
If only it were so. But on close examination of the report, it turns out that Telhami's discovery is bogus. Consider what he does not tell us about the State Department's methodology.
First, State Department statistics do not include foiled terrorist plots. Because some agencies of government understood the threat of Middle Eastern terrorism even before September 11, some Middle Eastern terrorist plots were foiled - most famously, the millennium bombing conspiracy. It was uncovered in the nick of time; it produced no State Department statistic.
Second, the State Department has an odd way of determining what constitutes a "terrorist attack." For example, the statistics tell us that Latin America led the world in the number of attacks in 2000. But that's because every time two rival groups of leftist guerrillas set off a charge under an oil pipeline in Colombia, it's a "terrorist attack." In 2000, this happened 152 times. Number of casualties: zero. Obviously, Latin America is not the world's terrorism epicenter, and it is not why you have to take off your shoes at airport departure gates.
Third, the State Department categorizes attacks by where they take place, not where they originate. Thus, the bombings of the two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 do not count against the Middle East in State Department methodology. They count against Africa. It is this that allows Telhami to write: "While the terrorist trend in the Middle East moved downward every single year, it moved upward in other regions, including Africa."
Now the embassy bombings did happen in Africa. But they were not African in origin. This was Middle Eastern terrorism exported to Africa, which killed 224 and injured some five thousand. The 1998 embassy bombings also sit smack in the middle of Telhami's supposed five-year trend of diminished terror in the Middle East.
In short, the "downward" trend detected by Telhami is an illusion. We now know for certain what was happening in the late 1990s: Arabs from the Middle East were moving their terror apparatus abroad. They were repositioning, in preparation for an operation that would dwarf all others. In this respect, the FBI's list of "Most Wanted Terrorists" far more accurately pinpoints the sources of terrorism than the State Department's graphs. All but four of the 22 listed terrorists are Arabs from the Middle East.
This truth is self-evident, but there are still people who would deny it. Telhami seems to be one of them. Given his own competence in method, how could he have failed to detect the flaws in the State Department's methodology? How could his misrepresentation not be willful? Most alarmingly, his thesis has bounced back to the Arab world. Two months after his op-ed appeared, I heard a well-known Egyptian strategist make precisely the same argument: the State Department's own statistics prove that the Arab Middle East is relatively free of terrorism, thus it cannot be the source of the global terrorism problem.
This is not as bad as the pervasive belief in Cairo cafés that Arabs had nothing to do with September 11. But it is less of a difference than it might appear. There is a word for the steadfast refusal to acknowledge the truth: that word is denial. Not only is it at work in the "Arab street." It is in plain evidence on the American campus.
Compared to who? One of the great debates launched after September 11 turns on the relationship between terrorism and poverty. True, Usama bin Ladin was born with a silver spoon; he has been eating with his fingers in Afghanistan by choice. But the possible relationship between terrorism and poverty is a worthy subject of debate.29 It often leads also to a more important debate over the reasons for the Arab world's economic failure, as compared to much of the developing world. At least that's where it should lead, unless you are the A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle Eastern History at Harvard.
Roger Owen, the economic historian who occupies the chair, doesn't like it when outsiders highlight the economic underperformance of the Arab world. "Their ostensible purpose is to explain to a Western audience how it is that poverty contributes to violence," he writes. "But it is difficult not to see them as also part of the age-old polemic against the religion of Islam itself." In other words, pointing to Arab economic failure is orientalism, or even worse, the dreaded anti-Islamic bias.
Owen especially disapproves when analysts compare Arab economic performance to that of East Asia. "Economic league tables are produced to show that the recent economic performance of the Arab countries, or the Muslim countries, lags not only behind the West but also behind what Bernard Lewis described in a recent New Yorker article as the ‘more recent recruits to Western-style modernity such as Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.'" Once Bernard Lewis has been invoked, we know what is coming.
And here it is: how dare he compare? "What, for example, does Egypt have in common with South Korea in terms of economic structure, institutions or resources that make them comparable in any way? And why is the Middle East never compared with regions than which it has performed much better in recent decades, like sub-Saharan Africa, or at least as well, like South Asia? They are its closest non-European neighbors after all." And is it not unfair to compare the Arabs without even consulting them? Surely they should have a say in all this. "I imagine that few governments and peoples of the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region would see much point in a comparison with Singapore or South Korea. But Syria could well find advantages in being compared with Egypt, which it aspires to emulate."30
Of course, no one likes unflattering comparisons. What Owen's exercise demonstrates is how difficult it has become to find comparisons that do flatter the Arab Middle East. It is not just the West that is out of the question; so is East Asia; so is Latin America; so is Eastern Europe. What are left are South Asia (which is bypassing the Middle East, perhaps because India does have democracy); and the AIDS-ridden, strife-torn continent of Africa, a comparison that the Arabs themselves would find demeaning. So the Harvard professor finally gives us the solution some Arabs (and he) would prefer: just compare them to themselves.
There may be some value in comparing Egypt and Syria. But Egypt and Syria haven't looked to one another for models since Owen was a Nasser-struck student in Cairo forty long years ago - that is, since the days of their failed union in the United Arab Republic. In a world that is becoming globalized to the hilt, it is development relative to the rest of humankind that matters. Leading Arab development experts, who aren't stuck in a "pro-Arab" groove, don't flinch from comparing the Arab world to South Korea and Taiwan - and to Israel. It does the Arabs no great favor to spare them such comparisons, and it is patronizing to boot.
We have returned to the theme of denial. To the pressing questions, why does the Middle East generate so much terrorism, and why is it incapable of generating the economic growth that might "drain the swamp" of poverty, two prominent authorities have offered these answers: What terror? What failure? To which one might reply: What experts?
Martin Kramer is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.1 Martin Kramer, "Terrorism? What Terrorism?!" The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 15, 2001.
2 Conference Report on H.R. 3061 (House of Representatives), Dec. 18, 2001, at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?r107:6:./temp/~r107NWcKvm:e559653:.
4 Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993), p. 314.
5 David Tuller, "Not Academic: The Middle East Studies Association Wards off Rebukes," The American Prospect Online, Nov. 29, 2001, at http://www.prospect.org/webfeatures/2001/11/tuller-d-11-29.html.
6 F. Gregory Gause III, "Who Lost Middle Eastern Studies?" Foreign Affairs, Mar.-Apr. 2002.
7 A government-contracted report on Title VI admitted as much: "Over the years, the original focus on language has been replaced with a much broader mandate for area, international, and international business studies. … functional linguistic competence in the graduates of the nation's colleges and universities has tended to diminish." Richard D. Brecht and William P. Rivers, Language and National Security in the 21st Century (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 2000), p. 132.
8 Jerrold D. Green, "The Politics of Middle East Politics," PS: Political Science, Sept. 1994, p. 517.
9 David Ward testimony, at http://www.acenet.edu/washington/legalupdate/2002/04april/ward.titlevi.testimony.html.
10 Quoted by Robin Wilson, "Interest in the Islamic World Produces Academic Jobs in U.S.," The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mar. 1, 2002.
11 "Foreign Languages: Human Capital Approach Needed to Correct Staffing and Proficiency Shortfalls," U.S. Government Accounting Office, GAO-02-375, Jan. 2002, at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d02375.pdf.
12 "Study of Foreign Languages and Related Areas: Federal Support, Administration, Need," Comptroller General of the United States, ID-78-46, Sept. 13, 1978.
13 Roger Kimball, "The Intifada Curriculum," The Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2002.
14 Rory Miller, "UC Berkeley: A Safe Harbor for Hate," FrontPageMagazine.com, May 13, 2002, at http://frontpagemag.com/guestcolumnists2002/miller05-13-02.htm.
15 Quote in "The Battle for What?," ThinkCurrent.com, Oct. 2000, at http://www.thinkcurrent.com/mag-10-00/politics/students2.html.
16 The Daily Californian, May 10, 2002.
17 William Granara, quoted by Wilson, "Interest in the Islamic World."
18 Gauri Viswanathan, ed., Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said (New York: Pantheon, 2001), pp. 280-81.
19 This was a verbatim presentation of his article by the same title, published in New Politics, Winter 2002.
20 Daphne Berman, "Masks of Tolerance," Columbia Daily Spectator, Feb. 26, 2002.
21 Yaron Schwartz, "Exploding the Myth of Israeli Racism," The SIPA Communiqué, Mar. 6, 2002.
22 Quoted by Xan Nowakowski, "Students Organize Sit-In to Support Palestinians," Columbia Daily Spectator, Apr. 18, 2002.
23 The Columbia Conservative Alumni Association also lists Massad among the six "worst faculty," for things he is alleged to have said in class. At http://www.columbiacons.net/worst.htm.
24 Quoted by Nat Jacks, "MEALAC Professors Criticize U.S. Policies," Columbia Daily Spectator, Sept. 28, 2001.
25 Hamid Dabashi, "The Hallowed Ground of Our Secular Institution," Columbia Daily Spectator, May 3, 2002. The article is an intemperate assault on Columbia's Hillel rabbi.
26 Shibley Telhami, "Put Middle East Terror in Global Perspective," The Baltimore Sun, Feb. 17, 2002.
27 At http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2000/.
28 Telhami, "Put Middle East Terror in Global Perspective."
29 For example, Daniel Pipes, "God and Mammon: Does Poverty Cause Militant Islam?" National Interest, Winter 2002, pp. 14-21.
30 Roger Owen, "The Uses and Abuses of Comparison," Al-Ahram Weekly, Dec. 27, 2001 - Jan. 2, 2002.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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