Middle East studies in the News
The Clash Over Middle East Studies
Brandeis University plans to open a Center for Middle East Studies this fall that, officials there say, will be free of bias.
It will not be solely focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is what most centers pay attention to, says Jehuda Reinharz, the university's president. And it will be "ideologically free," he says, "to the extent we can make that possible."
But offering a program in Middle East studies whose ideology offends no one may prove to be no less difficult than dividing an ancient homeland between two warring peoples.
Scholars of Middle East studies today find themselves in the middle of a war of ideas as politically charged as the region they study. The discipline's critics, often conservative supporters of the Bush administration, have denounced the programs as anti-American and anti-Israeli and have called for the creation of an advisory board to review them. The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed a bill to create such a board; the Senate will consider the measure within the next few months. Many faculty members and administrators, however, argue that such a board would curtail their academic freedom.
At the center of the debate is what the centers actually do, whom they are training, and what they are training them for.
Legislating Cultural Diversity
The first stone was cast in June, when Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, told a House subcommittee that many academics in Middle East studies were biased against U.S. foreign policy and discouraged students from entering government service.
The influential postcolonial theory of Edward Said, the late Columbia University professor of English, promotes the idea that "it is immoral for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power," Mr. Kurtz told the subcommittee. The centers, many of which receive funds under Title VI of the Higher Education Act -- generally three-year grants of no more than $500,000 -- rarely balance Mr. Said's work with that of scholars who disagree with him, Mr. Kurtz said.
The centers should correct that imbalance, he said, or else risk losing federal money. "Unless steps are taken to balance university faculties with members who both support and oppose American foreign policy, the very purpose of free speech and academic freedom will have been defeated," Mr. Kurtz told the panel.
His testimony helped persuade the House last fall to pass HR 3077 unanimously. The bill would create an advisory board to ensure that foreign-language and area-studies programs that accept federal funds "reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs."
The board, made up of political appointees, would review the programs but not run them. Three members of the board would be named by the secretary of education, and one each by the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate. "Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize the International Advisory Board to mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education's specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction," the measure says.
Professors of Middle East studies fear not what such a board is supposed to do, but what it would try to do.
Amy W. Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association, says advisory boards in other programs, like that of the National Science Foundation, function as peer-review panels -- made up of academic experts in the field -- and so should the Title VI board. Otherwise, she says, political appointees, lacking expertise in Middle East affairs, would fall back on their particular political biases instead of any real knowledge when reviewing the centers.
Although the bill's language forbids the board to control curricula, the "potential for meddling is still very great," says Ms. Newhall, an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Arizona. "Proponents certainly see it as intrusive." In fact, she says, "they're looking forward to it."
Mark Smith, director of government relations at the American Association of University Professors, says the presence of an advisory board would intrude on academic freedom and create "a huge, intimidating force over curriculum decisions, books chosen," and "approaches taken to the subject." Professors, and not legislators, he says, should be the ones responsible for determining course content.
Nezar AlSayyad, chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, says the idea for the advisory board is part of an effort by the Bush administration to wrest more control over what gets said in academe and in the news media.
"We get money from the federal government," he says. "That does not mean we do what the federal government says. As academics, we have academic freedom. That's our God-given right. Being in the academy means that we're allowed to form opinions actually based on intellectual discourse, not on political position."
A Particular Need
Area-studies centers were first created during the cold war, when the United States decided that it needed to know more about the languages and cultures of the rest of the world, including the Middle East.
Of the 118 area-studies centers receiving Title VI funds from the U.S. Department of Education, only 17 focus on the Middle East, up from 14 in 2001. Their areas of study usually include the Arab countries, Iran, Israel, and Turkey.
The House bill applies to all area-studies programs, including those on Russia, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. But Middle East studies gained new relevance -- and a bigger audience -- after September 11, 2001. There is little doubt that the bill is aimed squarely at Middle East studies.
Arizona's Ms. Newhall says she saw the enrollment in her class, "Middle East Humanities," jump from about 250 students before the terrorist attacks to 400 this fall. Jon Mandaville, director of the Middle East Studies Center at Portland State University, in Oregon, says his first-year Arabic-language class has grown from 19 students before 2001 to 50 students this year.
Neither of those classes is taught at a Middle East-studies center. The centers can use their Title VI funds to pay only for language instruction, fellowships for graduate students, and special lectures and discussions. Courses themselves are carried on by language or history departments. In fact, some professors and administrators at the centers scoff at the idea of a review board, noting that lectures about such subjects as 19th-century Moroccan poetry shouldn't need reviewing.
In December 2001, Congress added $20-million to Title VI, which governs foreign-language and area-studies programs, mostly for Middle East and Central and South Asia studies. The total budget now stands at $95-million. A report that accompanied the appropriations bill said that the purpose of the increase was to produce more Americans with expertise on the Muslim world.
It "wasn't to generate 25 more professors," says Martin Kramer, editor of Middle East Quarterly and a proponent of the review board. "Title VI was supposed to increase the number of graduate students working in Muslim areas, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, from 200 to 400." The hope was that these people would then go into government service, he says.
But Middle East-studies professors often dissuade graduate students from pursuing careers in national security and discourage scholarly work on terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, says Mr. Kramer. "The message being sent is [that] doing anything related to Islamic extremism or groups that perpetrate terror is 'terrorology,' and that's not what we do," he says.
Mark Tessler, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who edits a series of books on Middle East studies, disputes Mr. Kramer's contention by ticking off several of the titles published this year by Indiana University Press. They include Islamic Activism: Exploring Political Violence in Algeria, Hamas in Palestine, and Islamic Women in Yemen.
"The notion that [these centers] are not doing their job and that they're soft on terrorism and anti-Israel -- that is just not the case in my experience," says Mr. Tessler, a former director of the Middle East Studies Center at the University of Arizona. He earned his Ph.D. from Northwestern University, lived in Israel for more than three years, and studied at Hebrew University of Jerusalem during one of them.
Taking the Money
Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia University's Middle East Institute, contends that critics of the field are actually intent upon a "witch hunt." Mr. Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia, has faced considerable scrutiny already. Some critics routinely accuse him of support for Palestinian terrorists and prejudice against Israel. This is the same group, he says, that has convinced House Republicans that there is gross bias against the United States and Israel in Middle East studies.
Mr. Khalidi doesn't know whether Columbia's institute will continue to seek federal money if an advisory board is created. "It depends on the language," he says. If the board "did have the kind of prosecutorial intent to search out malfeasance that is presumed but does not exist, that would be objectionable," he says. "The university might feel this was political infringement on academic freedom."
Kenneth D. Whitehead, a former director of educational programs at the Department of Education, says academe's concerns are unfounded. For eight years in the 1980s, he was executive director of a Title VI advisory committee. In 1987, the Reagan administration and Congress agreed to eliminate several advisory panels, including the one for Title VI.
The decision was made for financial reasons, says Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education. "The federal government was running a budget deficit," and "each advisory board cost $500,000," he says. The move to disband the Title VI board created no controversy, he adds, and it died quietly.
Mr. Whitehead, a career Foreign Service officer who speaks Arabic, says that during his tenure with the board, two university presidents led it, and that one of its members was John R. Silber, Boston University's chancellor. Also holding seats were representatives of all of the federal agencies with an interest in Title VI, he says.
The old board's purpose, not unlike that of the newly proposed version, he says, was "to promote competent language-area specialists to serve the needs of the United States."
"It's not a scary thing," he says. "What does whether or not you're competent in Arabic or Chinese or Farsi have to do with academic freedom?"
If the centers are worried, he says, "maybe they shouldn't be taking the money."
Mr. Mandaville, at Portland State, doesn't yet know whether his center, which has received Title VI funds off and on since it opened, in 1961, will reapply for the money. He would rather receive it without strings. The next grant competition is set for the fall of 2005.
To him, the language of HR 3077 implies that a center's Title VI support is conditional on "the committee's potential review of your program, whether it serves national security interests."
In the past 20 years, about half of the students who have completed Portland State's undergraduate program in Middle East studies, which graduates 7 to 10 students each year, have gone on to government service, he says. The rest have gone to graduate school.
"We do serve the national interest," Mr. Mandaville says. "We always have. We don't need Congress to tell us to do this."
If the legislation passes the Senate and becomes law, he says, then "we become subject to the whims of whatever administration is in power," and to shifts in whatever part of the world dominates the news.
For now, Brandeis officials say only that they are unsure whether they will seek federal support for their new center. But the university's president, Mr. Reinharz, has some idea of one subject the program should focus on -- the study of Islam.
Plenty of think tanks and academic centers already deal with the subject of terrorism, he says. An examination of Islam, however, does belong in the new program's work, he says. Islam is "not by definition a fundamentalist religion," he says. "All religions have fundamentalist elements. Clearly it's of major concern today."
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