Middle East studies in the News
It's a Volatile, Complex World...
by Eyal Press
A mere semester ago, in a country that has spent much of the last decade refashioning the world in its own image, the guiding assumption among most educators was that students, like the rest of America, were growing less and less interested in foreign policy and international affairs. Since the end of the cold war, course descriptions have shifted to address issues relevant to a seemingly safe world, and federal spending on international education has dropped in real dollars. Since the 1960's, foreign language study has declined sharply. And despite the fact that there are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, the majority of undergraduates at American universities have been exposed to only a limited range of courses about Islamic history, politics and culture, with the number of academics in these fields relatively small.
"At many liberal arts colleges, we have a lot of members who are the only person at their school," says Anne Bettridge, director of the Middle East Studies Association, a professional organization of some 2,600 scholars of the
"It often takes a disaster to increase interest," says John Eisele, a professor of Arabic languages and literature at the
Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, universities have had to scramble to meet the demand from all quarters for information and analysis. Within days, the National Science Foundation dashed off an e-mail message soliciting grant applications for "research in areas that can possibly shed light on the tragic events of this week and our options for the future" and promising "an expedited review process." Professors have altered syllabuses or drawn up whole new courses. A for-credit course to examine the events of Sept. 11 filled up the day it became available at
Clearly, today's undergraduates hunger to understand the volatile world now facing them. But are universities prepared to teach them what they need to know? It is one thing to provide informed analysis of current events in teach-ins, but quite another to train experts in the languages and cultures of an enormously complex area of the world that, as Edward W. Said noted in his classic 1978 study, "Orientalism," has often been viewed through the prism of Western assumptions and stereotypes.
In 1947, Phillip Hitti, a historian at
It is not insignificant growth for a field once relegated to the margins of the academic curriculum. But even at some of the finest programs there are glaring gaps.
It's a problem that extends beyond the nation's capital. Language enrollments have declined significantly over the last 40 years. According to the
"Less than 1 percent of American college students are currently taking all the other languages, many of which are critical to our national needs," says Richard Brecht, director of the center. For a number of Central Asian languages, like Pashto, which is spoken by millions in
"Universities are enrollment-driven," Dr. Brecht says, "and since there has been no market for Arabic, few universities can maintain it. Plus, the isolation of our continent, the fact that English is spoken throughout the world, has an impact. We are not a culture that has traditionally valued different languages."
Last year, the Defense Language Training Institute, an arm of the United States military, graduated 409 students in Arabic and 120 in Farsi, not nearly enough to cover the government's needs. At a Senate hearing last year, intelligence officers warned that the shortage of trained linguists made it impossible to translate intelligence information on a timely basis.
In 1958, a few months after the
Many of those programs still exist. In fiscal year 2001, the Department of Education spent $68 million on an array of Title VI programs, including $16 million on foreign language fellowships, $4.5 million to help undergraduate institutions develop new programs, and $3 million to finance Language Resource Centers at various campuses. While Title VI spending doubled in the 1990's, in constant dollars the level today is actually 17 percent below the value in 1967. Of the Department of Education's $41 billion budget last year, only 0.2 percent was spent on international education. Last month, the House responded with a 19 percent increase for Title VI in 2002, which the Senate has yet to approve.
"We appreciate the recent effort to strengthen these programs, but it's a drop in the bucket relative to the need," says Miriam Kazanjian of the Coalition for International Education, which lobbies on behalf of colleges and universities for increased financing for international education. "Given the far-reaching effects of globalization, we need more people who can speak and understand a greater number of languages, not only to address foreign policy and national security needs but for health, business, environmental issues."
Ms. Kazanjian says she hopes
To some degree, the academic curriculum has always reflected the changing social and political landscape. For the 40-year duration of the cold war, Russian studies and "bombs and rockets" security courses multiplied. With the dissolution of the
To furnish policy makers with specialized knowledge about the world's disparate trouble spots during the cold war, much of the curriculum was carved up into individual area studies programs: the
Most courses dealing with Islamic movements, in fact, are still taught as part of a
"The Islamic world has many unifying international organizations that span various countries," says John Voll, a professor of Islamic history at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at
The center, which was founded in 1993 by a group of Lebanese businessmen to foster cross-cultural dialogue and inquiry, is one of the few academic programs in the country that examines Islamic social and political movements through a thematic rather than a geographical lens.
After Sept. 11, Americans might appreciate the distinction. Al Qaeda, for one, reaches from
Considering the impact it has had on the world, the Al Qaeda network has been the subject of surprisingly few academic studies. But not everyone attributes this to the effects of area studies. In "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America," published in mid-October by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Martin S. Kramer argues that scholars on the left have ignored the issue for political reasons. Mr. Kramer is a senior fellow of the
"I defy you to point to one serious academic study of Osama bin Laden," Mr. Kramer said in an interview from Tel Aviv. Professors have turned a blind eye to the subject, he contends, because a generation of specialists influenced by Mr. Said's "Orientalism" have come to believe that drawing attention to violent strains of Islamic fundamentalism will merely reinforce negative Western stereotypes.
Dismissing groups like Al Qaeda as marginal and unrepresentative, they have instead turned their attention to more moderate "democratizers and reformers" who have attempted to reconcile Islamic fundamentalism with modern ideas, he says. "The scholars emphasize aspects of Islam that are of interest to them, but omit the phenomena that are on a collision course with the
For Mr. Kramer, a course that John Voll teaches at
Dr. Voll's position is that introducing students to such figures, far from distorting the true nature of Islamic fundamentalism, helps to break down at least two assumptions: that Islam and modernism are inherently incompatible, and that Islamic countries will inevitably grow more secular as they are exposed to Western notions of rationality and progress.
While the latter idea might seem absurd today, given the emergence of Islamic movements even in predominantly secular countries like
While Mr. Kramer hopes that the attacks of Sept. 11 will shake up academics who have played down the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, Dr. Voll argues precisely the opposite.
"In academic terms, I would hate to see the reaction be, ‘Oh, my God, we have to learn more about Islam because it threatens us,"" he says. "That would just create a new structure of polarities: the West versus Islam, the Huntingtonian ‘clash of civilizations,' which is one of the worst ways to reorganize the curriculum."
Over the last decade, many schools of international relations have shifted from an emphasis on security courses to human rights, globalization, economic development, and health and environmental issues like the depletion of the ozone layer and the spread of diseases in the developing world. "Americans were suddenly removed from the threat of nuclear war with the
While security courses did not disappear entirely from the curriculum, such classes have also stressed a broader range of problems instead of solely the causes and consequences of war. Dr. Hopmann, for instance, devotes time to the challenge of peacekeeping.
The pendulum will likely swing back to analyzing concrete, immediate security threats. In fact, such a shift is already under way, as the scale and implication of the attacks have shaken up various fields, from law enforcement to domestic intelligence gathering.
At its annual meeting earlier this month in
While the study of terrorism is new to most universities, which have often tucked the subject into the back end of a foreign policy course, security studies programs at some universities have not strayed from their cold-war mission: to provide "academic training for those involved in keeping the nation secure," as Georgetown puts it.
For "Political Violence and Terrorism," a course offered within Georgetown's security studies division, Audrey Kurth Cronin explains the motivations and psychology of terrorist organizations, the methods they employ, including bioterrorism, and the tools governments have used (often with limited success) to punish them and curtail their activities.
In a recent class, Dr. Cronin, a former Pentagon consultant, asked her students to review the list of groups that the Bush administration had named as terrorist organizations whose assets would be frozen. What did they notice about it?
One student pointed out that it did not include the Irish Republican Army. Another noted that no American extremist groups were included. A third wondered why the Lebanon-based group Hezbollah was not on the list, while several organizations that say they conduct philanthropic activities, like the Wafa Humanitarian Organization, were.
Professor Cronin smiled. "Definitions of terrorism inevitably reflect the values and political agenda of the person defining it," she told the class, and the language used often dictates the response: Is a bombing in
The course intends to debunk a number of popular myths. Students learn that terrorism is not a modern phenomenon—the Thugs, a Hindu cult of the seventh century, killed as many as a half million people, and Jewish extremists, the Zealots-Sicarii, used daggers against their enemies after the Roman conquest of Palestine. Nor is terrorism against the
Michael Brown, the director of
"It would be a terrible mistake to frame this as an Islamic problem and teach students to make sweeping generalizations about a billion people," he says. "The Islamic world is fantastically diverse."
As universities around the country react to what is happening, he says, "we need to be extremely precise."
Eyal Press is a senior correspondent at The American Prospect and a contributing editor at Lingua Franca.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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