Politics & Policy

Sidestepping the Sandstorm?

Reforming Middle Eastern and African Studies.

Entrenched special interests. Inflexible ideologues. Influence peddling. Bloated bureaucracies. These maladies, at first glance, seem to depict life inside the Washington beltway. Readers of NRO know, due to its excellent blog Phi Beta Cons, that these ailments also afflict large swaths of American higher education. But just as both presidential candidates this year promise to challenge the status quo in our nation’s capital, a dedicated core of professors and administrators has worked tirelessly to reform academic life on our college campuses. They have sought to return the American university to its original purpose: liberal education, not ideological indoctrination. They have challenged the political correctness that asphyxiates intellectual inquiry in academia. Progress has been made, yet much work remains.

Several organizations have played a prominent role in this campaign of renewal, including the National Association of Scholars, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Other reform groups have focused on specific disciplines, such as the Historical Society and the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. Their members understand that the desultory state of scholarship in these two subjects is a manifestation of the larger syndrome plaguing higher education throughout the nation.

One field long notorious for its orthodoxy is Middle Eastern studies. In 2001, Martin Kramer detailed this state of affairs in his investigative account, Ivory Towers on Sand, describing how the pressure to hew to the party line — all problems in the Middle East are the direct result of Western imperialism, for example — represents the antithesis of a genuine academic culture. A subtle conformity has long permeated the flagship professional body, the Middle Eastern Studies Association. Complicating matters in recent years is the influx of agenda-driven foreign funding, particularly from Saudi Arabia, whose Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal donated $20 million each to Georgetown and Harvard in 2005 to establish centers of Islamic-Christian understanding (ably documented by NRO’s Stanley Kurtz). It seems, at times, as if the vista of Middle Eastern studies is more clouded by an intellectual sandstorm than open to the light of rational inquiry.

ASMEA

This hazy university landscape has meant that much serious thinking about the region has previously taken place in private think tanks, such as the Middle East Forum and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But reform has finally come to campus in the shape of a new scholarly group, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. Like its counterparts in history and literature, ASMEA offers a dynamic alternative for scholars. It is, according to its mission statement, “a non-partisan, non-profit organization that promotes the highest standards of academic research and teaching in Middle Eastern and African studies and related fields, through programs, publications, and services that support its members, the international community of scholars, and interested members of the public.”

ASMEA is committed to defending academic freedom. It promotes the free exchange of ideas. It is avowedly apolitical and interdisciplinary in nature: its members approach the Middle East and Africa from the perspectives of women’s studies, literature, economics, anthropology, history, political science, national security studies, and related disciplines. Importantly, it supports the professional development of undergraduate and graduate students. It offers an array of services to its membership. It hosted its first academic conference in April, 2008, and the proceedings will be published in the late spring of 2009. It will soon launch a scholarly journal, a monograph research series, an interactive website, book awards, and various campus events.

Unique to ASMEA is its strong focus on Africa. This is the first scholarly organization to include both the entire continent of Africa and the Middle East within its remit. J. Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and ASMEA’s vice president, notes that this makes sense, since “most scholars see linkages between the two geopolitical spaces of the Greater Middle East and Africa, e.g. Somalia.” He observes that “[c]urrent events remind us of how these two regions have historically been — and remain — very much linked.”

In its brief existence, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa has enjoyed rapid growth. Founded less than a year ago (in November, 2007), it has more than 625 members, who hold degrees in over 35 different disciplines, hail from 40 countries, and are affiliated with 300 universities throughout the world. At its first meeting in April, 2008, according to Philip Carl Salzman, professor of anthropology at McGill Univeristy, “[m]any of the difficult issues of contemporary conflict were tackled head-on in ASMEA conference papers.” Likewise, its “inaugural conference was a breath of fresh air,” asserts Mr. Raymond Ibrahim of Washington, D.C.

ASMEA has attracted criticism from academics, to be sure. As reported on FrontPageMag.com, Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, claims that it is “exclusively ideological” and just “for people on the right.” Laurie Brand, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, says that its directors are “at the forefront of the neoconservative support group for the [Bush] administration.” Bassam Haddad, director of Middle East Studies at George Mason University, asserts that is “a response, rather than an organic expression of a desire to learn.” By way of contrast, Patrick Creamer, ASMEA’s director of public relations, highlights its reformist nature: it was, indeed, ‘born out of an organic desire to learn’ in the truest sense. This association blossomed because many in the academic community felt the status quo quashed their efforts to engage in the discussion. Scholars want a true academic association where all ideas are discussed and research is judged on its merits, not whether it passes the litmus test of the status quo.” ASMEA’s members thus do not shy away from topics that other academics deem too controversial, or settled, such as the nature of Islamic terrorism, the meaning of jihad, or textual exegeses of the Koran.

‘AN EMINENT DEGREE OF CURIOSITY’

ASMEA is located squarely within the Western intellectual tradition. Bernard Lewis, chairman of the organization’s academic council and, with Fouad Ajami, one of its co-founders, emphasized this connection in his keynote address to the inaugural conference in April. Drawing upon the insights of one of eighteenth-century England’s finest writers, Samuel Johnson, he said:

I wish to situate our profession, the academic study of the Middle East, in a historical context. And I would like to begin with a quotation from the famous Dr. Johnson, from one of his conversations recorded by Boswell. He says, “A generous and elevated mind is distinguished by nothing more certainly than an eminent degree of curiosity. Nor is that curiosity ever more agreeably or usefully employed than in examining the laws and customs of foreign nations.” A very interesting statement, I feel, and as I shall try to demonstrate, one uniquely Western, uniquely distinctive of this Western Civilization of which we are the heirs at the present time. And I use the word “we” in the widest sense.

The members of ASMEA share Dr. Johnson’s “eminent degree of curiosity” and Bernard Lewis’s expansive definition of an academic community, especially in relation to the study of the Middle East and Africa. Due to their efforts, these two fields are being reformed and renewed. A new intellectual foundation is being constructed, not on the shifting sands of political correctness, but on the bedrock of free scholarly inquiry.

Joseph Morrison Skelly, a college professor in New York City, is the treasurer of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa.

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