Politics & Policy

Getting Nervous?

Middle East specialists (try to) defend their clique.

For some time now, I have been criticizing the field of Middle East Studies. Despite the discipline’s refusal to study terrorism, and despite the field’s one-sided hostility to American foreign policy, practitioners of Middle East studies have been raking in millions of taxpayer dollars (including a substantially increased post-9/11 subsidy) on the claim that their work strengthens our national security. That money needs to be substantially cut. Just as important, the remaining subsidy need to be turned from an open-ended entitlement, effectively controlled by its recipients, into a program that is supervised on the model of other federal grants of academic aid (Fulbright scholarships, for example).

My calls for reform in the funding of Middle East Studies appear to have caught the attention of Middle East specialists, one of whom has produced a detailed reply to my writings on the subject. According to Juan Cole, blogger and professor of Middle Eastern and North African History at the University of Michigan, my criticisms of MESA (the Middle East Studies Association) are so ill informed as to make me “look like a clown.” After noting that I am affiliated with the Hudson Institute, which has “links to the Israeli Right as well as to Jewish neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz,” Cole raises doubts about my ability to hold an informed opinion on the matter of government aid to Middle East Studies. Having run a search on me that failed to turn up any publications in online author indexes, Cole notes that my “only trade appears to be in garish opinion.” Cole also claims that someone who speaks no Arabic or Persian is in no place to venture an informed opinion on government subsidies for Middle East Studies. (No doubt, Cole excuses the congressmen and senators who actually vote for the subsidies from this language requirement.)

Cole’s attempt to defend Middle East studies raises plenty of interesting issues. I’ll get to those in a moment, but first let me reply to Cole’s attack on my credentials, and on my supposed ignorance of MESA. On the question of my links to Jewish neoconservatives, it’s even worse than Cole says. I have actually published in Commentary, a magazine formerly edited by the notorious Jewish neoconservative, Norman Podhoretz. As for my academic credentials, I have a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Harvard University, post-doctoral training at the University of Chicago, a book with Columbia University Press, scholarly articles, conference papers, etc. I have taught at the University of Chicago, and for several years, at Harvard. My fieldwork was conducted in both English and Hindi.

True, my specialty was religion and psychology in South Asia, not the Middle East. But my training and teaching were interdisciplinary and comparative. I took courses in, and worked with professors who were specialists in, the three major religions of South Asia: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Many of my teachers had dual specialties in the Middle East and South Asia. And while my academic writing and field research focused on Hinduism, I have always written comparatively, and continue to do so in my work as a public intellectual.

Of course, the truth is, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that something is wrong with contemporary Middle East Studies. Any thoughtful person can come to an informed opinion on that subject. Given the importance of the Middle East to American survival, and given the fact that the government is being asked to subsidize Middle East Studies, thoughtful citizens (with or without Ph.D.’s) ought to concern themselves with this subject. But I do think my own experience in the academy has helped me to get a handle on what’s been going on in Middle East Studies.

For Cole, my “clownish” ignorance consists chiefly in my having portrayed MESA as a “research institute” or a “political action committee,” whereas in fact MESA is merely an apolitical professional association with members who hold a wide range of opinions on controversial issues. And as Cole continually notes, MESA itself does not receive any money from the U.S. government. Of course, I am perfectly aware of all these facts. Cole here isn’t attacking any actual mistaken statements of mine, only what he claims I “attempt to imply.”

But my point is that, despite the fact that it ought to be operating like the apolitical professional association that it claims to be, MESA does indeed function far too often as a political action committee. It is telling, for example, that Cole never bothers to address one of my chief complaints-the fact that MESA has for many years asked its members to boycott the National Security Education Program (which grants student scholarships in exchange for government service in a national security related agency). In “Ivory Scam,” I showed that, despite denials, the boycott of the NSEP by various area studies associations is in fact politically motivated.

Cole’s continual repetition of the fact that MESA gets no federal funding is deeply misleading. MESA itself does not receive federal funding, but it stands as an advocate for its members, many of whom do receive such funding. If MESA has no connection to the question of government funding, then why does Cole end his defense of MESA with a plea for readers to write Congress and request more funding for Middle East Studies?

Instead of forthrightly acknowledging and defending the leftist political drift of Middle East Studies, or granting and defending MESA’s role in encouraging government subsides, Cole adopts a strategy of across-the-board denial. This puts him continually at odd with himself, as well as the facts. Cole denies that MESA uses the occasion of its frequent meeting in Washington to establish its relevance to national security, or to curry favor with Washington officials. Yet in the same piece, Cole argues for an increase in federal subsidies on grounds that Middle East Studies helps us meet “foreign policy challenges,” and brags about MESA’s Washington conference having been addressed by the undersecretary of state for the Near East.

According to Cole, the idea that dissenters from leftist political orthodoxy are denied positions in Middle East Studies is “plain silly.” After all, asks Cole, how could “grass roots” hiring at colleges and universities across the country be managed by a kind of nation-wide political conspiracy? Anyone who’s spent time in the academy knows that it is filled with scholars who consider it their moral duty to advance leftist causes by giving jobs to like-minded scholars, while freezing conservatives out. I don’t know whether Cole is fooling himself, on this point, or whether he thinks he’s fooling us, but his claim that there is no political bias in faculty hiring is so ludicrously disingenuous that it destroys his credibility.

On the question of the failure of Middle East Studies to confront the reality of terrorism and militant Islam, Cole gives us more contradiction and denial. On the one hand, Cole claims, Middle East Studies is really about history. Asking MESA to hold panels on contemporary terrorism, says Cole, is rather like asking literary scholars to comment on the resignation of Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil. A little later, Cole reverses himself and claims that contemporary politics are relevant after all, and that MESA members have in fact studied terrorism and fundamentalism, “ad nauseam,” for the last 25 years.

Professor Cole might have spared us these contradictions had he known that his leader had already given away the store. To her great credit, MESA’s new president, Lisa Anderson, recently attended a forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, at which she responded to Martin Kramer’s Ivory Towers in the Sand, the book that launched the recent wave of criticism of Middle East Studies. At that forum, Anderson went surprisingly far in conceding the validity of Kramer’s critique. In particular, she agreed that terrorism had been excluded from study for too long. So it would appear that the president of MESA herself has already conceded the point that Cole still contests.

Martin Kramer’s remarks at that Washington forum are a good place to go for a true picture of what’s been happening in Middle East Studies. Kramer points to MESA’s lionization of Edward Said’s politically tinged scholarship and advocacy as evidence of the field’s political bias. Yet Cole denies my claim that Middle East Studies is dominated by followers of Edward Said’s “post-colonial” paradigm. Cole’s evidence is the low number of direct citations of Said’s work in MESA’s journal. That is ridiculous. Said is foundational. He launched an academic paradigm, and no longer needs to be cited directly for his influence to be reflected in a wide array of works.

I’ve seen for myself how pervasive the influence of the post-colonial theory is, in anthropology, in South Asian studies, and in a wide variety of associated disciplines. During the Washington forum, the place of Edward Said and post-colonial theory on Middle East Studies was the one topic MESA president Lisa Anderson consistently avoided. She didn’t seem to want to talk about Said and his followers, either to acknowledge their influence, or to pronounce on the character of that influence. (And in his response to me, Cole is also reluctant to openly defend Edward Said and the post-colonialists.) I was at the Washington forum with Martin Kramer and Lisa Anderson, and when I questioned Anderson on the influence of Said, the only thing she had to say was that the post-colonialists were no more dominant in Middle East Studies than elsewhere in the academy. Quite so. That is exactly the problem.

My time as a scholar of South Asia not only gave me an indication of Said’s influence across the disciplines, it also gave me a sense of what a field that does not shy away from the subject of terrorism and religious fundamentalism can look like. Many scholars of South Asia are preoccupied with religious fundamentalism and inter-religious violence. I may often disagree with what these scholars have to say, but the interesting thing is that many liberal and post-colonial scholars in South Asian Studies are almost obsessed with religious fundamentalism and violence, whereas scholars in Middle East Studies often avoid these topics. The difference can be explained by American foreign policy. Since America sees little threat from South Asian fundamentalism, scholars freely focus on the topic. But because Middle Eastern fundamentalism does threaten the United States, scholars of the Middle East have avoided saying anything about Islam or terrorism that might seem to give support to American foreign policy. We have all paid the price for that tendentious political decision.

Finally, Cole takes me to task for complaining about Middle Eastern Studies, even though I draw on the work of Diane Singerman, a member of MESA’s Executive Board. I did in fact make use of Singerman’s excellent book in my piece, “With Eye’s Wide Open.” But my using a book authored by a MESA officer hardly means that I can have no fair objection to the trend of Middle East Studies. Actually, Singerman’s work runs against that trend, since she attends to family structure and other cultural barriers to modernization in the Middle East. As a rule, cultural topics like this are avoided, because they tend to take the onus for the region’s problems off of United States foreign policy.

The most interesting thing about Singerman’s book, however, is her discomfort at her own analysis. Singerman expends a good deal of effort trying to explain why her book should not be read as a cultural explanation of Egypt’s difficulties with modernization. Yet that is exactly what her book is. So Singerman’s book is very much the exception that proves the rule about the ideological blinkers of contemporary Middle East Studies.

I’ve been privileged to help bring the critique of Middle East Studies offered by courageous and dissident specialists like Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes to a larger audience. I think the time I spent in my own little corner of the academy makes me a good person to play that role, and gives me a helpful comparative perspective on the controversy. I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether Juan Cole is right about my supposed ignorance and folly. But one thing I energetically deny is that it takes a linguistic or area specialist to grasp the elementary fact that American taxpayers have been taken for a ride by the Middle East Studies Association. Very soon now, I believe we are going to have some legislative proposals that will help put a stop to the madness. Stay tuned.

Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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