Field of Battle

A Frenchman fries Middle East studies in the U.S.


As 2004 comes to a crashing halt, one of the groups that, arguably, most deserves to fly through the windshield is the Middle East academic priesthood in the United States. Reeling from tsunamis of infighting, the angry community recently received a Christmas rebuke from French scholar Gilles Kepel on the opinion page of the Financial Times of London.

Kepel wrote, "Middle East studies faculties across America are bogged down in political infighting, waging Internet offensives that from a scholarly perspective seem shallow and petty. This battle, over the 'right' and 'wrong' approaches to teaching the region's politics, history and culture, has already caused considerable damage to academia and is now jeopardizing U.S. ability to decipher a complex area in which America is deeply engaged."

One can disagree with Kepel: Scholars have always been shallow and petty. Internet offensives are merely a technologically proficient variation on an ancient theme. However, he is on the money in warning of two things: America is today in desperate need of Middle East expertise, and very little has been forthcoming—at least outside partisan think-tanks that "have agendas, be they political, cultural or religious [so are unsuitable] for scholarship and pursuit of knowledge." And this self-inflicted marginalization of Middle East studies has encouraged the government to home in on a discipline it mostly distrusts.

Ideology has indeed rent the academy. The more obvious divide is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but the most important split today is over interpretation of American behavior in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq. At a more profound level, though, the quarrel is over how the West supposedly regards the East, and whether or when it has dominated and exploited it and indeed interpreted and studied it for those ends. That said, Kepel is not staking out a position in the dispute: he is equally bothered by strident "pro-Arabs" and "pro-Israelis", by those intolerantly on the left and on the right.

An essential text to follow the furious clash of mortarboards is Martin Kramer's Ivory Towers on Sand, a pamphlet written in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, which seeks to explain why Middle East studies have failed in America. (For another view, a critic of Kramer, Zachary Lockman of New York University, penned a loosely parallel book on the Orientalist debate, of which more below). Kramer, an Israeli-American, is a bogeyman for those in Middle East academia who sympathize with the Palestinians, but more importantly who subscribe to the view that the United States is defined by neo-colonial ambitions in the Arab world.

In his book, Kramer identified what he saw as several problems in the field: overt politicization; the unwillingness of many scholars before 9/11 to examine terrorism, as that didn't fit into a dominant paradigm depicting the Arab world as a region worthy of empathy due to its colonial and post-colonial subjugation; the misuse of government funds earmarked for language training by Middle East studies centers so they could advance more ideological programs, all grafted onto a reluctance to collaborate with the U.S. government; and, finally, too eager a readiness to embrace the teachings of the late Columbia literature professor Edward Said, whose 1978 book Orientalism provided the template explaining the "structures" of Western control over the Middle East, particularly through scholarship, which many in the field have embraced as a seminal statement of their own beliefs. (Charles Paul Freund wrote a postmortem of the Orientalist critique in the December 2001 issue of Reason.)

One might debate the sweep of Kramer's characterizations (many Middle East scholars simply don't work on contemporary affairs), but Kepel does agree with an essential tenet of his argument: The Middle East studies field has, since the 1980s, tended to be broadly divided between "Saidians" and "Lewisians" (for the Princeton professor Bernard Lewis, who has generally considered Western influence in the Middle East something positive).

This may be oversimplifying the many strands of a complex field, but it is undeniable that the sharpest dividing line in Middle East studies is that delineating where one stands on the substance of Western power and its historical impact on what Said so sweepingly referred to as "the Orient." The fact that the largest collection of Middle East scholars in the United States, the Middle East Studies Association, was recently offered a choice for president between two men tending to subscribe to the post-colonial critique, showed that the consensus lies among the Saidians (the winner was the University of Michigan's Juan Cole, who maintains a blog that has of late become a lightning rod in cyberspace).

One can deride the suffocating tendency to contemplate the Middle East through an all-embracing prism of Western dominance, but in absolute terms the methodology is as legitimate as any other. The real question, however, is how this predisposes many in the field when it comes time to impart their expertise to the U.S. government, and influence policy. After all, if Washington is a new Rome, or some vaguely lesser edifice with global influence, then post-colonial scholars must surely consider collaboration with it as participation in an imperial or hegemonic venture. And if that's the case, then how will the modern Middle East studies field ultimately avoid isolating itself from the world of decision-making, where significance is best measured?

Recently, a friend of mine, Princeton's Michael Scott Doran, was the subject of a ruckus at his university. He is up for tenureship next year at the Near East Studies (NES) department, which has provoked a gnashing of teeth in other departments, namely History. Doran, who has written several much-publicized articles (including one on Saudi Arabia for Foreign Affairs magazine in its January/February 2004 issue), makes no bones about being politically to the right, and has consulted for the U.S. government. Those dissing Doran say the problem is his scholarship; Doran says his detractors dislike his politics. Princeton emeritus professor L. Carl Brown, who doesn't share Doran's views, nevertheless agrees with him: "I certainly buy the argument that the people attacking [Columbia University professor] Joseph Massad and Mike Doran—quite a different bunch—are attacking them because of their politics. There's no denying that."

The point is, however, that Doran wouldn't be a target for sour Princetonian dons if he were a right-wing nonentity. He is seen as a threat precisely because he has influence, and is talented enough to push his ideas forward. Instead of imitating him, and perhaps putting their own thoughts on policy tables, Doran's critics have chosen the far less demanding path of hitting him on the tenureship issue. As one history professor put it to the Daily Princetonian: "We don't want him… [In the future, are] we going to be mutually supportive or are they [NES] going to be antagonistic [by offering him tenureship]?"

In a short book, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East (which is reviewed in the January 2005 issue of Reason), Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi blamed many in Middle East academia who "have not learned how, or tried seriously, to speak clearly to broader audiences, who disdain the difficult process of synthesis and clarification that is a necessary part of communicating to the general public about complex subjects, and who are rarely institutionally rewarded for trying to do so."

Khalidi, who is very much a Saidian (though he would probably frown on being so pigeonholed), is right, but also offered a glass only half full—or empty. The real issue is whether his brethren can also speak to those in authority in a way that is convincing. This need not mean succumbing to the decision-makers, but, rather, providing them persuasively with informed choices. Right after the above passage, Khalidi fell back on a familiar lament that the reason many academics didn't express themselves is a "pervasive atmosphere of intimidation and fear" in the U.S. That's baloney: Khalidi's ideological soul mates permeate American Middle East academia, and are on talk shows or in newspapers all the time. The problem is that their institutional security often bangs up against their insecurities—in fact bald hostility—toward American power.

For example, it is a striking feature of Khalidi's own book that he barely mentions the 9/11 attacks as a possible motivator for U.S. behavior in the Middle East in the past two years. By ignoring how that decisive event shaped American attitudes he exposes his own distance from the mainstream, preferring to retreat to more familiar topography where, as his title implies, he can explain the Bush administration's behavior in Afghanistan and Iraq solely as imperial revivification.

Kepel's damning conclusion—that the self-immolation of the Middle East studies field invites the government to fill the vacuum—is one that those on all sides of the ideological divide should ponder. A field of study can grow thanks to national security concerns (look at Soviet or Chinese studies); it can even benefit, as Middle East studies centers have, from government funding. But to buy true autonomy from the state, Middle East program managers must make their efforts more practical and credible, fulfill their end of the bargain if state funds are passed on to them, and, most significantly, look for ever more private funding for their pursuits.

On the other hand, if the state is paying for programs, it should be allowed to specify its interests. By self-consciously distancing themselves from the state, even as they take its money, many Middle East specialists are committing a double fault: they are becoming irrelevant, and they are encouraging the government to ensure that they remain so.