Campus Watch in the Media
The Mess of Middle Eastern Studies
by Shira Pinnas
MARTIN KRAMER'S IVORY TOWERS ON SAND, a chronicle of the repeated failures of Middle Eastern studies in America, has gotten a lot of people talking. It was reported to be the focus of conversation at last year's Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA) convention, and has made its way onto reading lists in departments across the country. All first-year students in the Middle East Studies Program at Harvard are now required to read it after reading Edward Said's Orientalism, one of Kramer's main targets.
Of course, it's hard to not make a stir when writing about the Middle East. But Kramer, an editor of the Middle East Quarterly and Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has a particularly contentious point to make. His book delves into the history of Middle Eastern Studies and—through groundbreaking books and forgotten papers, MESA presidential addresses and federal funding statistics—details its development into what he claims is now a dangerously biased and politically driven field. Kramer argues that because of their ideological prejudices, "America's academics have failed to predict or explain the major evolutions of Middle Eastern politics and society over the past two decades." Instead of following the democratic spirit of intellectual openness and sincere debate, Kramer claims that Middle Eastern studies "resembles a popular front, demanding conformity" to a particular set of beliefs.
Kramer's work—the most thorough and well documented examination of Middle Eastern studies to date—should serve as an important wake-up call. It should prompt those within the field to examine their assumptions, and encourage students to recognize the filter through which ideas and events are presented to them. It should also induce those who fund the field, including and most significantly the American government, to consider what they are paying for and whether or not it serves their interests. One need not even be directly involved in the field to gain perspective from Kramer's revelations. He speaks to the interests of all Americans, and his book should prompt a new demand for unbiased, open, and accountable studies of the Middle East.
The Rise of Middle Eastern Studies
Kramer begins his history by explaining that afterworld War II, when it became popular in academia to carve the world into "areas" and start "area-studies" centers at major universities, the Middle East was not a top priority. Mainly because of the growing Communist threat, it was considered far more important to understand Eastern Europe and the Far East. Yet the founders of Middle Eastern studies were adept at attracting attention to their field and packaging it in a way that would appeal to Americans. They put aside old, humanistic "Oriental studies" programs—which evoked archaeology and spice routes—and focused instead on the flowering field of social sciences. They created Middle Eastern centers, conceived as department stores of Middle Eastern studies, with multi-disciplinary faculties, official buildings, secretaries, letterhead, and a director, who was usually, as Kramer describes, a "wise man from the East" or a "great man from Europe." This formula enabled Middle Eastern centers to multiply and sustain themselves, largely through government funding and contributions from private foundations.
Soon after their first emergence, Middle Eastern centers were rapidly established across the United States. Kramer reports that in 1951, there were five Middle Eastern programs at American universities. This number jumped to 36 by 1970. Much of the money came from Title VI of the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which recognized the importance of education to defense and security and funded language institutes, centers, fellowships, and research. The Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford Foundations were also important early supporters of these centers.
To gain funding and an established place in academia, Middle Eastern Studies departments had to "sell" their message, and to do this they chose the paradigm of development. As Kramer notes, now "Middle Eastern studies were not only an academic field to be explored; they were also a message to be preached." Students read Daniel Lerner's The Passing of Traditional Society, and came to see the autocracies of the Middle East as developing along a linear path toward a society that looked very much like America's. As a result of this optimism, however, many scholars were taken by complete surprise by the Lebanese civil war and the fall of the Shah in the 1960's.
Although no existent Arab state fit into their neatly mapped model of democratization, after the Six-Day War in 1967, scholars began to transfer their hopes to the Palestinian cause. Whereas in the early years of the field, scholars tried to maintain an air of academic objectivity, this changed immediately after the War. In 1968 the President of MESA delivered an openly political presidential address aptly titled "Palestine as a Problem of Ethics." Kramer explains that by the 1970's, it was acceptable to "teach one's political commitments," and as hijackings and terrorism focused world attention on the Palestinian cause, enrollment in classes on the conflict swelled, providing the impetus and justification for their proliferation.
As Middle Eastern studies became progressively more political, along came Edward Said to deal the final blow. Born in British-mandated Palestine, Said spent his childhood in Egypt, went to prep school in America, college at Princeton, graduate school at Harvard, and became a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia. He became interested in the Palestinian cause in the late 1960's, after visiting the region on sabbatical and beginning to learn Arabic. Since he lived in Manhattan, the media saw him as a convenient proponent of the Palestinian viewpoint, and he began to show up regularly on editorial pages and television news shows. In 1978, Said published Orientalism, in which he sought to expose an anti-Arab bias that had long pervaded Western thought and culture. Yet in a detailed, pointed critique of the work, Kramer demonstrates how Said constructed his target, "orientalism," from a hodge-podge of literature, poetry, visual arts, and the works of colonial rulers, statesmen, philosophers, and scholars. By ignoring counter examples and the nuanced history of Western arts and scholarship, Said essentially set up a straw man, one that haunts academia to this day. Although the book was not taken seriously by most critics in Europe, even those whom Said praised in the work, it attracted a great deal of attention in America, and soon became "the canonical text" of postcolonial studies.
Kramer shows how this canon deeply affected Middle Eastern studies. Said once wrote that "a European or American studying the Orient...comes up as a European first, as an individual second." The conclusion to this assertion is clear: only "Orientals" themselves are qualified to truly study the Orient. Kramer documents the diminishing numbers of non-Arab professors hired after Orientalism was published. This sudden concentration of people with a similar background made the field fertile ground for an even more important by-product of Orientalism: the introduction of personal politics as a test of academic merit and acceptance.
Kramer notes that there was "acceptable hierarchy of political commitments" within the field. Palestine was "at the top, followed by the Arab nations and the Islamic world. They were the long-suffering victims of Western racism, American imperialism and Israeli Zionism—the three legs of the orientalist stool." To disagree with the dominant paradigm became politically incorrect, and practically racist. As Nikkie Keddie, a historian Said praises in his Covering Islam, writes, "the word 'orientalism' [became] a generalized swear-word essentially referring to people who take the 'wrong' position on the Arab-Israeli dispute," replacing real scholarly debate with a "slogan."
Many scholars in the field predicted that the late eighties and early nineties would become a time of democratization. Some saw shakiness and vulnerability from social groups in autocratic governments. Others claimed that these autocratic regimes were indeed democratic, but our "orientalism" was preventing us from acknowledging it. Only one serious study was published on Osama bin Laden during this time, and in their on-going search for democracy and progressivism, most scholars ignored or seriously discounted the rise and political influence of radical Islam in the region. Unlike the American public, then, Middle Eastern scholars saw Muslim terrorism and anti-Americanism as intellectually and politically insignificant.
Kramer's argument that Middle Eastern studies overlooked the important problems of the region raises one possible objection to the book, namely that Kramer does not discuss in any theoretical way the purpose of academia. Must academia be concerned with what is relevant to our government or to American citizens? After all, studying something few would find relevant, say, fig trees in medieval Kuwait, could be a valid academic exercise, and far be it from a democratic government to dictate what is academically relevant and permissible and what is not.
But then why, one should ask, do Middle Eastern programs receive funding from the U.S. Defense Education Act? Perhaps they should not. Yet Middle Eastern studies is clearly not a practically or politically insignificant discipline. Its subject bears directly on American national interests and its findings have the potential to guide foreign policy. Middle East scholars, however, have long been discouraged from studying harmful trends in Muslim and Arab political culture—including radical Islam. In other words, as Kramer's work documents, critical scholarship has been stifled by a pervasive fear of criticizing regimes or ideologies within the Arab world.
Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard
So does this thesis apply here at Harvard? It depends on whom you ask. Some professors have noticed that the field has grown increasingly political with time, while others deny the claim that there is a political litmus test for scholarship and that professors tend to hold similar positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict. One thing about these diverse answers is clear, however: they too tend to fall along political lines.
Roger Owen, A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle Eastern History, Director of the Contemporary Arab Studies program, and a subject of criticism in Ivory Towers on Sand, does not see the political atmosphere Kramer alleges. He is not convinced that hiring decisions at Harvard are based on political beliefs, claiming that every decision comes down to an "individual historian" and that therefore quantitative cases cannot be made in an issue like this one. He describes the politics in the department as "university politics" generally, explaining that every field "has its own politics about the appropriate form of study," and that these conflicts are "mostly apolitical."
By contrast, a pro-Israel professor in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilization (NELC) department—who asked not to be identified—noted that it has become more acceptable in recent years for scholars to openly admit their political leanings in the classroom, not to mention outside of it. Many members of the Faculty signed the Harvard-MIT Divestment Petition last spring, a clear public statement of opinion. These include William Granara, who oversees the NELC Sophomore and Junior Tutorials; Leila Parsons, who teaches Islamic Civilizations200a, a required class for students pursuing an AM in Middle Eastern studies; and Paul Hanson, who teaches various courses on the Hebrew Bible and is Master of Winthrop House. Many students have suggested that taking a class with a professor who publicly professes such views makes them reluctant to speak their own ideas freely. Moreover, by bringing these views directly into the classroom, such professors (whether they are aware of it or not) essentially wield their authority to intimidate students who think differently.
The NELC professor noted above also said that tensions have heightened on campus since the Divestment Petition began circulating last spring. Of course, Israeli professors at Harvard have not been subject to the same outward forms of discrimination as Israeli professors at other universities. More than 1,000 professors in Europe have signed a petition asking academics to sever ties with Israeli scientific institutions, and in England two Israelis were forced to resign from their positions on international language journals as part of a boycott of Israeli institutions. Nevertheless, this professor suggests that it is quite difficult to speak openly on Israel's behalf in the NELC department for fear of being ostracized or discriminated against.
The cause of this problem may be institutional. There are not nearly as many resources given to the study of modem Israel as there are to contemporary Muslim and Arab politics and culture. Modem Hebrew and the professors who teach it fall under the NELC umbrella, yet stand quite apart from other NELC offerings like Sumerian, Akkadian, and Ancient Biblical studies. One might think it more sensible that the study of modem Israel should fall under the Center for Middle Eastern studies, where a social-scientific approach predominates. Yet there are no non-visiting professors at Harvard of Israeli studies, an offshoot of this department.
In fact, besides classes in Modem Hebrew, there are only two classes that treat modem Israel in any depth available to Harvard undergrads that are not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, these two classes are not in the Government, History, or NELC departments: one is a Comparative Literature class and the other is an Historical Studies A core. So if an undergrad wants to learn about Modem Israel, most of the classes he will end up taking will be about Middle Eastern conflicts. The Harvard faculty thus sends the message that Israel is a troublemaker, worthy of study only in that respect.
By contrast, of course, there are many courses taught here on modem Islam and Arab culture and government on topics ranging from the making of the modem Middle East to Islamic political thought, philosophy, and legal theory.
No matter the conflicts or failures, however, Middle Eastern studies are here to stay. Although the mid-nineties brought threats of their demise, September 11 was a huge boon to the discipline, leading to a $20.5 million increase in Title VI funding, about a 26% increase from before the event.
Ivory Towers on Sand is a timely wake-up call for this field. It certainly has made people both in and outside of it aware of its serious problems and of the road that should be taken to fix them. Indeed, even the pro-Israel professor mentioned above found cause for optimism: last year the Center for Middle Eastern Studies co-sponsored a visit from Daniel Pipes, co-founder (along with Martin Kramer) of campus-watch.org, a watchdog website on anti-Israel bias. Academia clearly has a long way to go, but perhaps it has change for the better.
Shira Pinnas, Harvard Class of 2005, is from
Tucson, Arizona.Note: Postings in "Campus Watch in the Media" do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch.
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