Middle Eastern Studies and the Politics of Intimidation

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and the Politics of Intimidation. Ali Banuazizi. Adeep paradox besets the field of Middle Eastern studies in the United States these days. On the one hand, there is ...


Middle Eastern Studies and the Politics of Intimidation Ali Banuazizi


deep paradox besets the field of Middle Eastern studies in the United States these days. On the one hand, there is a wide recognition of the critical need for expert knowledge and deeper understanding of the Middle East and the Muslim world as the United States faces some of its most vexing and high-stakes challenges in this troubled region. Whether it is in dealing with the problems of religious extremism, human rights, or political reform and democratization; the war against international terrorism or the prevention of nuclear proliferation; securing reliable access to the region’s vast energy resources; coping with the consequences of an ill-conceived war in Iraq; or helping the Palestinians and Israelis achieve a just and durable peace, the Middle East seems destined to remain at center stage of U.S. foreign policy for many years to come. However, in spite of these pressing policy issues, and at a time when America’s relations with much of the Muslim world are fraught with misunderstanding, distrust, and hostility, the field of Middle Eastern studies and the preeminent academic association that represents it in the United States and Canada (the Middle East Studies Association of North America [MESA]) are subjected to a barrage of unfair attacks and are accused of irrelevance to the nation’s foreign policy concerns, ideological bias, and distortion of the truth in their portrayals of the political realities in the Muslim world and the threats they pose for U.S. national interests.1 As with other area studies, the field of Middle Eastern studies has certainly had its share of controversies since its inception in the aftermath of World War II. It has both benefited from and at times been constrained by the various intellectual and ideological currents that swept through the social sciences and the humanities, as well as fads and fashions indigenous to the field itself, over the past half century.2 These include the modernization paradigm; dependency and world-systems theories; uncritical or even apologetic assessments of “political Islam” as an ideology that is conducive to “democratization from bottom up”; and somewhat optimistic expectations that the growth of “civil society” (meaning social formations of all types outside the state apparatus), even in societies in which democratic norms and individual rights are largely absent, can help weaken authoritarian rule and promote a transition to democracy. Furthermore, as the intellectual heir to Oriental studies, the field found itself vulnerable, both intellectually and politically, to Edward Said’s trenchant critique in his

1. For a sweeping critique, if not a denunciation, of the Middle Eastern studies field, see Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on the Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001).

2. For a broad historical survey of the many controversies in the field and a response, specifically, to its recent critics, see Zachary Lockman, Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004), especially pp. 215–67.

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groundbreaking work, Orientalism (1978). Feminist and gender-based perspectives, too, have continued to pose new research questions, adding a significant critical dimension to the study of Middle Eastern societies and cultures. So long as such challenges to the field arose from theoretical, methodological, or even ideological difference among scholars with a serious interest in Middle Eastern studies, they played a positive role in stimulating healthy debates, new insights, and the rethinking of many ideas formerly taken for granted. But over the past several years, and particularly in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Iraq war, intellectual criticism seems to be giving way to ideological battles, derision, ad hominem attacks, and politically inspired attempts to discredit the field as a whole. A major complaint against the field is that it has not sufficiently engaged issues that bear directly on U.S. national interests and policy toward the region.3 Thus, for example, Middle East specialists have been faulted for failing to foretell threats to the nation’s security by Muslim religious extremists—a charge that confuses the function of scholarship with that of intelligence gathering and analysis. Still another criticism has been that scholars in the field of Middle Eastern politics favor the Palestinian side in the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.4 While it would be disingenuous to deny that such a sympathy toward the Palestinian cause exists among these scholars, there are considerable differences among the supporters of the Palestinian movement in the field when it comes to its specific goals and strategies—as there are indeed among the supporters of the Israeli side of the conflict. What is contrary to the spirit of open and scholarly debate is the often reflexive characterization of any criticism of Israel’s policies

3. For a well-reasoned critique of the field’s reportedly meager contributions in the arena of U.S. foreign policy, see Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, “Thinking Outside the Tank,” National Interest, no. 78 (2004–2005). 4. The controversy involving several faculty members and the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department at Columbia University is a case in point. For accounts of this bitter debate, the nature of the allegations, and the university’s response, see

in its conflict with the Palestinians as biased toward the Palestinians, apologetic toward Islamic extremism, anti-American, or simply antiIsrael—and thus, ipso facto, anti-Semitic. In several recent cases that illustrate this attitude of intolerance, the views of Israel’s critics, whether voiced in class or in their scholarly work, have been taken out of context, distorted, posted on special Web sites, passed on to tabloid papers for further amplification, and exploited by opportunistic politicians.5 Such intimidating tactics, whose only conceivable goal is to suppress critical debate and impugn the integrity of those who hold contrary views, stand in sharp contrast to the far more open and substantive academic debates that take place in Israel itself about the country’s relationship with its neighbors, its treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as its own Arab citizens, and the difficult concessions that need to be made—on both sides—for a just and enduring peace. In a new initiative, begun in 2003 and designed to apply pressure on the field from the outside, several pro-Israel lobbying groups and their neoconservative allies have rallied legislative support in over a dozen states as well as in the U.S. Congress to pass laws that would purportedly ensure “balance and fairness” in publicly funded academic programs dealing with U.S. foreign policy and international studies. A new bill in the House of Representative (H.R. 509), which replaces earlier legislation (H.R. 3077) that was passed by the House in 2004 but died in the Senate, is making its way at this writing through the U.S. Congress. The bill calls for the establishment of a governmentappointed advisory board (including two members from government agencies that have national security responsibilities) to ensure that

N. R. Kleinfield, “Mideast Tensions Are Getting Personal on Campus at Columbia,” New York Times, 18 January 2005; Brock Read, “Columbia U. Professor, Criticized for Views on Israel, Is Banned from TeacherTraining Program,” Chronicle of Higher Education,” 22 February 2005; and Karen Arenson, “Columbia Panel Clears Professors of Anti-Semitism,” New York Times, 31 March 2005. A detailed report on the entire affair, prepared by an ad hoc committee appointed by the university president, was released on 30 March 2005 and may be found on Columbia’s Public Affairs’ Web site, www.columbia.edu/cu/news/05/03/ ad hoc grievance committee report.html.

5. For a penetrating and cogent analysis of the threats to academic freedom in the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, see the following two essays by Jonathan R. Cole, the former provost and dean of faculties at Columbia University (1989–2003): “The Patriot Act on Campus: Defending the University Post-9/11,” Boston Review 28, nos. 3–4 (2003); and “Academic Freedom under Fire,” Daedalus 135, no. 2 (2005).

6. “H.R. 509: To Amend and Extend Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965” (109th Congress, 1st session), p. 20, lines 22–24; the full text of the proposed legislation may be found at www .govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=h109-509.

7. For an account of these lobbying and legislative efforts, see Paul Fein, “House Panel Endorses International-Studies Legislation That Some College Officials Have Criticized,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 June 2005.

Politics of Intimidation


Ali Banuazizi

such programs “better reflect the national needs related to the homeland security.”6 The real targets of the bill, by all accounts, are believed to be the dissenting or noncompliant voices in the field of Middle Eastern studies.7 As the leading scholarly and professional association with a diverse membership and some forty affiliated organizations, MESA has never spoken with a single voice on such policy issues as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the war on terrorism, the invasion of Iraq, and the like— and I hope that it never will. What also needs to be emphasized is that the overwhelming majority of scholars in the field work on aspects of the Middle Eastern and Islamic civilizations that have little or nothing to do with contemporary political issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Bush administration’s new grand strategy to “reconfigure” the Middle East. MESA’s principal mission is to promote scholarship on the Middle East and Islam, using a variety of approaches and ranging across the many disciplines that comprise the field, including history, the social sciences, religious studies, the arts, languages, and literature. Through the work of its Committee on Academic Freedom, MESA has steadfastly defended freedom of expression and inquiry for scholars and public intellectuals in the region and, more recently, in the United States. I am certain that this well-established association, which will be celebrating its fortieth anniversary in 2006, has the esprit de corps and the intellectual resources to take seriously criticisms of its scholarly and professional activities while rebutting ill-intended and unfair criticisms of its work and mission. Its commitment to being an open, inclusive, and vibrant professional association is best judged by its readiness to welcome and accommodate all scholars, practitioners, and students in the many fields of Middle Eastern studies, regardless of their ideological or political orientation.