The Middle East Forum Reaches Twenty Years

by Daniel Pipes
And it looks like it will need to be around for quite a while longer.

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Middle East Forum.

January 24, 1994, was absolutely the wrong moment to establish an organization that worried about the Middle East. As one potential donor impolitely asked: “Who needs you?” The U.S. victory in Kuwait, the Soviet collapse, and the Oslo Accords had left Middle East watchers feeling uncharacteristically sanguine. As I joked at the time, it was an opportunity to improve one’s tennis backhand and barbequing technique.

So, at our start, we had to work hard to convince the public that dangers were brewing. That meant dwelling specifically on problems. For example, I wrote in the introduction to the first issue of our journal, the Middle East Quarterly:

With the end of the Cold War, the Middle East becomes the most militarized region in the world. Situated in the vortex of Europe, Africa and Asia, the persisting enmities of the region joined to new military technologies portend much trouble both within and outside the region.

It was a tough sell and, frankly, we struggled financially through the 1990s. When the world caught up with our darker vision, what with 9/11, the Afghan and Iraqi wars, and the growth of Islamism, our topics catapulted to the very center of American and world attention, giving us a unique occasion to get out our message. And when the situation finally settled down slightly, along came the Arab upheavals and the Iranian nuclear buildup to roil things again and keep us up burning the midnight oil.

A few observations on the past two decades:

• I chose our slogan, “Promoting American Interests,” to emphasize that U.S. analysts tend to forget this dimension, and to imply that when Americans pursue their interests, as well.

• The Forum came into existence as a traditional think tank right on the cusp of the Internet revolution. In our first years, we sent information by mail, depended on paper publications to get our writings out, faxed when in a hurry, and lugged tape recorders to events. The Internet quickly transformed our lives, making possible 20 million page visits to our website, putting us on Facebook and Twitter, permitting most of the professional staff to live anywhere, and making it possible for the office to be functional when everyone’s at home during a snowstorm (as happened just this week).

• Although the Middle East is in our name, we have also focused heavily on Middle Easterners living in the West, figuring that our knowledge of the region could usefully contribute to an understanding of these new populations and the issues they raise.

• As a research institute, not being based in Washington or New York (we’re in Philadelphia) has shaped our role and helped define our niche: We neither focus on the day-to-day issues that drive government policymakers nor calibrate our work for media attention. Rather, we specialize in big-picture interpretations.

• Founded in large part to offer an alternative to the analyses coming from the Middle East–studies establishment, MEF has done so in two main ways: Positively, the Middle East Quarterly — with me as the first editor, followed by Martin Kramer, Michael Rubin, Denis MacEoin, and (currently) Efraim Karsh — offers a detailed interpretation of the region. Negatively, Campus Watch presents a feisty and frequent critique of what the academics are offering.

• Inspired by the success of that effort, we founded three others. Islamist Watch focuses on countering nonviolent efforts to promote radical Islam, efforts we consider even more dangerous than the violent ones. The Legal Project protects the rights of those of us who express ourselves on Islam and related topics. And the Washington Project, headed by Steven J. Rosen, influences U.S. policy vis-à-vis our favorite region.

Of the many — board, donors, staff, fellows, and volunteers — who made our work possible, I extend a special thank-you to Amy Shargel, MEF’s director. She was there with me at the kitchen table in January 1994 when we planned the Forum, and she has run its administration nearly the entire time since. Together, we built the organization. I am indebted to her for her intelligence, initiative, and integrity.

Looking to the future, the greatest challenge, to be candid, is to find successors to us founders. It will not be easy to identify individuals who can nurture our creation and then develop it their own way. But I am optimistic that the Forum’s best days lie ahead.

Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2014 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.