Campus Watch Research
Politicization of Middle East Studies on Display at Columbia U. Iran Conference
by Brendan Goldman
"We overthrew a dictatorship only to go from bad to worse," said Mansour Farhang, a prominent figure in the early Islamic Republic of Iran who now serves as a professor at Bennington College.
Farhang was speaking at a Columbia University conference held on December 12th entitled, "Iran After the Election". Green shirts and scarves, symbols of the Iranian opposition, permeated the audience of some 250 people that filled the sterile Altshul auditorium. Attendees included Iranian expatriates, prominent experts of the field, students, and members of the general public.
The conference served to highlight the leftist politicization of Middle Eastern studies. With a few notable exceptions, the panels' academics drew moral parallels between the Islamic Republic's policies and those of the Bush and Obama administrations and encouraged an acquiescent American foreign policy in the face of Iran's nuclear program.
Columbia professors Richard Bulliet and Hamid Dabashi made it clear from the onset that there would be no attempt at academic objectivity. They opened the conference by criticizing Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, as "incredibly irresponsible" for having had the audacity to publicly chastise Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he came to Columbia two years ago.
Dabashi oversaw the conference's first panel entitled, "The Aftermath of the Election." It included Asef Bayat of Leiden University, Ervand Abrahamian of Baruch College, and Shalha Talebi of Arizona State University. Bayat and Abrahamian, to their credit, chose to focus on the Iranian elections and not on foreign policy.
Bayat recalled how the expectations of many of the 1979 revolutionaries were dashed as they watched the government they had fought for go through a "spring of freedom" only to become an authoritarian theocracy. He argued that the "Post-Islamist" Green opposition movement seeks to "rescue [Shi'a Muslim] faith from the pollution of the Islamic state."
Arabrahamian, whom Dabashi introduced as "perhaps the most distinguished scholar in our field," compared the intimidation tactics of the current Iranian government to those of the worst dictatorial regimes in history, saying, "the [Iranian] horror stories here dwarf those of the Stalinist and Maoist periods."
Talebi addressed her remarks to disjointed societal and political issues in Iran. She criticized Abrahamian and Bayat for "only talking about [the crimes of] Stalin and Mao and forgetting about our country, and the Western countries." She then asked rhetorically, "What about Hitler? What about Nixon?…What about Palestine?"
When a member of the audience voiced his frustration over Talebi's refusal to stay on subject, Dabashi attacked him.
"I'm the moderator," Dabashi said.
"Then moderate," the audience member replied.
Dabashi then went on a long tirade, ending with, "I won't be the last oriental boy to be told [what to do] by a white guy!"
The following panel was supposed to address Iran's "International Challenges", but soon descended into an attack on America's Middle Eastern policy under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Panel moderator Gary Sick, a former advisor to President Jimmy Carter, offered a contemporary version of the same docile Carter-era policies that provided a major catalyst for the fall of the pro-American Shah and the rise of the Islamic Republic.
Professor Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii suggested that all that America has done in the region has been detrimental to the Iranian people and that the US should "take a few months off [from its involvement in the Middle East] and see what happens."
Former CIA Agent Judith Yaphe attempted to appease her peers by criticizing the Bush Administration even more forcefully than her co-panelists had. It is indicative that Sick, as the panel's moderator, felt obligated to tell Yaphe that serving as a CIA agent is "not something to be ashamed of."
The final panel, entitled "Appraising the Life of the Republic", was the most engaging and informative of the day, though it still had its share of unsubstantiated claims.
Panel members included Farhang, the Islamic Republic's first ambassador to the United States, who resigned because of Ayatollah Khomeini's intransigence during the hostage crisis.
Bulliet of Columbia, another member of the panel, drew parallels between the Islamic and American Revolutions and argued that in its Khomeini-era manifestation the Islamic Republic may have been truly democratic.
"In all fairness, one has to recognize the first three decades of any regime leaving a totalitarian system are fraught with all sorts of problems," Bulliet said, subsequently comparing Thomas Jefferson's attempts to try his Vice President, Aaron Burr, as a traitor to the leaders of the Islamic Republic and their Revolutionary Courts conspiring to execute thousands of Iranian dissidents.
Even Farhang could not stomach Bulliet's statement that Khomeini's Iran was not totalitarian, responding that "Khomeini was an absolutist," a "tyrant," and "more of a Communist than a Shi'a [Muslim]."
Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet of the University of Pennsylvania offered a thoughtful, dispassionate speech, addressing the historic roots of the Islamic Republic and the opposition movement.
Houchang Chehabi of Boston University gave a thought-provoking, humorous assessment of the place of ethnic and religious minorities in the Islamic Republic. Talking directly to his largely Iranian audience, he mocked the notion that Iranians are innately tolerant people because, "Cyrus [the Great] freed the Jews 2,500 years ago."
Chehabi spoke bluntly about the persecution of Iran's Baha'i minority, giving examples of crimes, including murders, which have never gone to trial because the victims were Baha'i. He then addressed the biases of "leftist academics" who are "apologists" for the Islamic regime. He chastised these academics' hypocrisy in ignoring "the deep contacts that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad has with fascists in Europe," and said that "perhaps prejudice [runs] as deep among the leftists as among the Islamists." Chehabi's remark about "leftist academics" was perhaps the most pertinent of the conference, because it challenged many of his co-panelists' overriding assumption that the policies they espouse are in the best interest of the Iranian people.
Dabashi's outburst and many of the panelists' condescension towards America's role in the region are indicative of the increasing politicization of the field of Middle Eastern studies. This trend threatens to undermine open discourse in university classrooms and to confound government policymakers who would seek out academics for objective information on a complex region.
Brendan Goldman is a senior at New York University majoring in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, and an intern at the Middle East Forum. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.
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