When Middle East Scholars Bury Their Heads in the Sand

Culture Watch

Mr. Harris is the managing editor of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

Interested in knowing more about “The Rug Producing Bazaaris of the Holy City of Qum”? Curious about the “Ceramic Production & Consumption in Almohad Seville”? Fascinated by the latest scholarship on “Changes in Religious Celebrations among Moroccan Immigrant Women in the Netherlands”?

If so, then the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference on November 23-26 in Washington was your cup of tea. But if you want to gain insights into the dangers of militant Islam to America, you’ll probably want to take a pass on this particular meeting.

In fact, in a conference of 558 papers or presentations, the topic of terror or terrorism appears exactly twice in the presentation titles. And even then, both instances refer to America’s “War on Terror,” distancing the speakers by use of quotation marks.

For that matter, the “Al-Qaeda” is mentioned exactly once. “Fundamentalism” also appears only once. Islamist movements in the Arab world are presented in only one panel, and couched as “resistence movements,” and “Militant Islam” is not the subject of a single paper.

In contrast, the date September 11 does appear often in the title of sessions and papers; it is even in the title of the presidential address (“Middle East Studies After September 11”). This subject is not viewed from the perspective of American interests or American policy but from its impact on Middle Easterners.

A “thematic conversation” dilates on “September 11 and the Muslim Public Sphere.” A round table addresses “Where the Palestinian Problem is Heading in the Post September 11 Environment.” Papers address such issues as “Effects and Aftermath of September 11 on Palestinians in the U.S.” and “Islamic Legal Interpretations and Responses to the September 11 Attack.” Curiously, the only mention in the entire program of American suffering is a paper titled “American Muslims Post September 11.”

In short, not a single scholar presented a paper concerning militant Islam’s war on America in the entire MESA conference of 2002.

Other topics are also conspicuous by their absence from the meeting: Palestinian suicide bombing, the targeting of civilians, and anti-American incitement.

It’s not as though the members of MESA have not been urged to take up subjects useful to the country as a whole. After 9/11, the Bush administration increased federal funding by over $20 million, or 26 %, for International Education and Foreign Language Studies, the largest single year increase in the program's history. This money, and the many more millions U.S taxpayers spend on Middle East studies through Dept. of Education fellowships and grants has essentially brought forth a big goose egg.

The conference reeked of apologetics. Take the subject of women, a topic taken up by over 60 papers or events. Only one specifically discussed Islamism and feminism, and then only in Morocco. Issues such as the oppression of women, their lack of basic rights, and the brutality they suffer under any militant Islamic rule would seem to rate more than a single paper.

Instead, such topics as “Coffee Houses in Bahrain” and “Persian Humor in an International Context”were discussed.

Despite the Middle East and militant Islam dominating the American national debate, the scholars of these subjects have chosen to opt out and either bury their heads in esoteric subjects or offer blatant apologetics.

Taxpayers and university donors take note what you are paying for.

This piece first appeared on frontpagemag.com and is reprinted with permission.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Rafael Gomez - 12/8/2002

What good is the Bill of Rights if John Ashcroft & Bush can shred it in a second by labeling anybody an "enemy combatant"?
What good is it if Supreme Justice Scalia can say in public that the US Government derives it's ultimate authority from God, not from the people?

Maybe that's not a problem for you because you probably look anglo-saxon and your name doesn't sound strange, and you probably don't hold any view that might be extremely controversial or "dangerous", like those of the scholars you seem to hate so much. Freedom is real only when you are free to espouse and make public ideas and opinions that do not conform to the majority.

You mention jails. Mexican jails are certainly horrendous. But Mexico doesn't have more than 0.6% of it's population behind bars (it has barely 0.1% and a much, much poorer population). A golden cage is still a cage! I quote from a report issued by the UK government:
"Over 8 million people are held in penal institutions throughout the world, either as pre-trial detainees (remand prisoners) or having been convicted and sentenced. More than half of these are in the United States (1.7m), China (1.4m) or Russia (1m). Russia has the highest prison population rate in the world, some 685 per 100,000 of the national population, followed by the USA (645), the Cayman Islands (575), Belarus (505), Kazakhstan (495), Belize (490), the Bahamas (485) and Singapore (465)."

True freedom comes obviously at the cost of considerable disorder and decreased safety, but it's freedom nonetheless, and everything hasa price. You want to be totally safe from terrorists and crime? Convert the US into a police state where everybody thinks the same way and has exactly the same opinions. That's the kind of country that Bush & Co. are very successfully building, while US citizens are hipnotized in front of their TVs.
While the founding fathers of this country pledged life, honor, and property to the fight for freedom, US citizens of today are pledging freedom and honor to defend life and property. Sad!

By the way, the title "Department of Homeland Security" has such a fascist and totalitarian ring to it! I thought the Dept. of Defense was in charge of "homeland security" (what else is it supposed to "defend" other than the "homeland"?) Maybe they should rename it "Dept. of Offense."

I have strayed too far already from the main topic of this discussion, so I stop here.


mark safranski - 12/8/2002

Mr. Cushman does an excellent job of parroting MESA's ostensible explanation for its policy of obstructionism without once, of course addressing the ethical and legal dimensions I have raised. I predict sometime soon one or more of these profs will in fact be sued by a student and the lawsuit will succeed in collecting damages and changing university policies.

MESA has little or no interest in the " spy " angle, this is a hastily assembled fiction to justify a policy after the fact. Actual historical ( or scientific ) research of any kind is inherently subversive to authoritarian regimes like those that populate the middle east and Islamic nations. Most western intellectual researchers who are not already apologists for these regimes ( a fair description of some MESA members though by no means all)arrive under suspicion not because they may someday work for the US government but because their activities deal with things paranoid dictatorships regard as " state secrets" or " internal affairs".

MESA is attempting to control keep control of the academic discourse over Islamist terrorism by restricting who acquires language skills only to those prospective scholars who agree to subscribe to Edward Said's party-line and labors mightily to discredit any critical voices that might be raised. The former is not within their purview to control nor can their positions stand the scrutiny of public debate.

I'm beginning to understand their affinity for the authoritarian polities- debate is much easier when you conduct a monologue.

Bill Heuisler - 12/8/2002

Mr. Gomez,
You are right to bring up all the clingy, obsessive interfering rules and regs we have allowed to grow under our feet and in our lives. In the last fifty years Americans have tried to regulate every problem/fault out of their lives and have embraced Nanny Government at all levels. But we still have our bedrock here - our Constitution and Bill of Rights. No other nation possesses such limitations on its government.
Having lived and worked in Mexico and other Latin American countries half my life, I can attest to the impersonal, liberty possible in these countries. However, this liberty/license is a careless, negligent freedom from niggling restraint rather than real stainless steel independence from The State.
Don't agree? Argue with a Mexican cop. Criticize the Panistas in Northern Sonora, the PRI in Mazatlan or question the local Federale in his big, new Suburban with the heavily tinted windows. Government is like a sleeping bear in places like Mexico - make the wrong noise, get eaten and nobody will give you a second thought. Want the Law of the Jungle? Try a Mexican jail for a few months. Guatamala? Forget about it.
Government is restrained in the US; we have tangled ourselves in small encumbrances, but still have the Big Rights to complain, elect and - in the end - defend our homes with deadly force. Look around, Mr. Gomez, but don't run a roadblock in Jalisco.
Best, Bill Heuisler

Rafael Gomez - 12/7/2002

I'll have to digress from the main subject of this discussion to address Mr. Heuisler's comment about the US being the freest country in the world. I hear such comments very often and I cannot resist answering it this time.

Mr. Heuisler,
as a relatively well traveled foreigner living in the US, I can tell you that there are a lot of countries that are as free or even freer than the US, depending on what your preferred freedoms are. It's funny how americans are so brainwashed to believe all these nice fairy tales about the US. This country certainly has a lot of very nice things, otherwise I wouldn't be here, but it's certainly not the freest country in the world.
I feel less free here (from Government intrusion in all aspects of my life) than back home (a South American country).

I'll give you some off-beat examples: In the state where I live, it's a crime to have oral sex with my wife. I cannot buy a bottle of wine on a Sunday. I cannot swim naked in a river or lake (I'll end up in jail if I do it). I cannot swear or use certain words in public, where children might hear me, or I risk running afoul of the law. I have to pay a hefty fine if the grass in my yard is longer than so many inches. Etc. Etc. These may sound like trivial things, but add them all together (all the miriads of little and big laws regulating every aspect of life) and you will see that it's not the paradise of freedom that americans believe.

People in the US that have not lived in other places don't realize how pervasive is the presence of the government and the police, and the huge number of laws regulating every aspect of life, compared to other places. While it may not be less free than most other developed countries, it's certainly not significantly freer than many of them.

Bill Heuisler - 12/7/2002

Mr. Cushman,
Any relativism is foolish, but your remarks indicate you see no difference between the US and terrorist groups like Shining Path.
Perhaps you don't see the US as the last best hope for freedom in the world. Perhaps you have been innoculated with that Marxist/Maoist dream of destruction and rebirth. Too bad.
You must know Professor Guzman's Sendero Luminoso is suffused with militant Maoist doctrine. Does Pol Pot ring a bell?. You don't have to be a world traveler or an elitist intellectual to know Shining Path is one of the most ruthless terrorist groups in the Western Hemisphere; its stated goal is to destroy Peruvian institutions and replace them with a Communist Peasant Revolutionary Regime.
Mr. Cushman, a tip, scholars don't do well in "CPRRs".
Show me a Maoist regime not awash in blood. Show me a country more free than the US. Get your head out of your scholarly ass. One man's spy is another man's freedom fighter.
Bill Heuisler

Gregory T. Cushman - 12/6/2002

It is a cruel irony that Mr. Safranski's position on this subject actually GETS IN THE WAY of the creation and exchange of knowlege between other countries and the United States.

I think many of the commentators on this website have no idea that their empty defenses of "freedom" actually INHIBIT the free and open inquiry of scholars in the rest of the world, as well as the creation of useful knowledge.

There is a simple reason why MESA and many other area studies organizations (such as the Latin American Studies Association) object to the support and/or recruitment of students by U.S. military, state department, spy organizations, and the like WHILE students attend U.S. universities. Such involvement creates the perception that most, if not ALL area studies students and scholars are engaged in activities designed to aid or defend U.S. foreign policy abroad.

US researchers routinely face barriers to their field work, even from governments friendly to the US, because of this perception. Potential interviewees decline to participate in research projects because they fear their comments will come back to haunt them--or they will be branded as collaborators just for talking to U.S. citizens, no matter what their ideological position. Documents and statistics are withheld ("lost") for similar reasons. Scholars (and not a few spys) are routinely subject to bureaucratic barriers designed to prevent spying under the guise of research.

I often get the idea that commenters on this website have little on-the-ground experience in other countries. Among my many Peruvian friends, even those quite friendly to the idea of an authoritarian "war on terrorism" (a campaign that has been ongoing for years in this Andean country), suspicion of U.S. scholars and their ties to U.S. foreign policy is very real.

Chauvenism is an offense to freedom of inquiry.

Richard Stevens - 12/6/2002

Another reason 'many scholars are staying far away from any research that might have anything to do with militant [I]slam and terrorism' might be that there is personal risk for any Muslim scholar who publishes that militant Islam is a misinterpretation of the Koran and should be condemned. As recent events in Nigeria and Iran demonstrate, deviation from the approved theology can be fatal to the apostate.

(The old Soviet-era joke: an American bragging that he can stand in front of the White House and criticize the President with impunity and a Russian replying that he too can stand in front of the Kremlin and criticize the President without risk.)

In the West, there is less risk to critics. But, as the cases of Salman Rushdie and Pym Fortun show, the risk is not zero.

Here in the US, even if the opinion of a Muslim scholar puts him 'in the cross-hairs of the thought police', the consequences - threatening emails, a blizzard of competing argument - will not deprive him of his freedom or his life.

Gus Moner - 12/5/2002

I fail to see the ‘problem’. Living in a free society is about exchanging perspectives and opinions. These people, with their unique perspective and knowledge see the world this way. Agree or not, it’s part of the on going dialogue that makes democracy healthy. That’s one of the values we are fighting terrorists to exercise freely.

Going so far as to demand adherence to official government doctrine is a lot like Soviet style education. Once you let that cat out of the bag, government will dictate what can be taught and learned, and you’re on your way to official indoctrination. Let people think and exchange ideas instead of bullets. Stop meddling to control what is taught.

Too many have died for the right to read and think what they want. Other teachers, never mentioned in articles bemoaning those who teach and think what you dislike are not ever scrutinised because you like what they preach. But, who is teaching and who is indoctrinating? Moreover, who decides, the likes of you? Pity our future in that scenario.

Thomas Gallatin - 12/5/2002

I agree with the gist of Gomez's comments but would like to dissent slightly by pointing out that (as far as I can see) Pipes, Harris and the WOULD-BE "thought police" have thus far failed (not entirely, but mostly) in their attempts to impose a sort of latter-day McCarthyism on university campuses. Otherwise, why would they need to resort to flaky websites like HNN to fling their vitriol ?

If scholars are "deterred" from research that might appear "anti-American", that is probably due more to very understandable feelings of solidarity among Americans post 9-11, and the less defensible but still understandable pressures of conformity coming from mainstream news media and society, rather than to the efforts of lunatic fringe groups such as Campus Watch. Things would be much worse if those nutcases were actually succeeding to any significant extent.

Rafael Gomez - 12/5/2002

If Mr. Suetonius had read my posting carefully, he wouldn't be asking these questions.

I never said that the pressure came from a "higher authority." My opinion is that the pressure comes in part from organizations and individuals, like Campus Watch and Daniel Pipes, that have become a "thought police" of sorts. These organizations and individuals have significant resources and access to the media whith which they can launch nasty campaigns against any scholar that holds views they consider "heretical" or "anti-american." If they limited themselves to participating in scholarly discussion, debating with solid ideas and arguments, they would enrich the debate. But they engage in some forms of character assasination, keeping and publicising lists of "heretic" professors, calling any scholar that disagress with them an "anti-american traitor," etc. Such behavior is a strong deterrent for anybody with unconventional or "heretical" views who wants to participate in the debate by doing research in important areas of Islam and the Middle East. The only ones that will remain doing this research are those that perfectly conform to the ideology "blessed" by Campus Watch and Co., which are probably a small minority. And that research will probably be useless because we already know what the conclusions will be, or maybe I should say that we know what the conclusions will NOT be (we know that any possible criticism of the US is barred).

Maybe other actors also exert pressures, but here I'm referring only to these self-appointed vigilantes of Universities and scholars (Campus Watch and others).

Suetonius - 12/5/2002

Is it Mr. Gomez's contention that the reason for so few panel presentations on the current diplomatic, political and security aspects of the Middle East at the latest conference of MESA that some 'thought police' entity is opposing such research?

If that is the case, then we have a particularly interesting assertion here: there is groundswell interest in studying these topics, but there is countervailing pressure from some higher authority not to study these topics. From whom? The government? University officials not interested in promoting the study of 'hard' history at the expense of the 'soft' history of race/class/gender approaches? Funding bodies that dissuade such research? Professor-thugs who dissuade graduate students from working on topics that are not popular?

Rafael Gomez - 12/5/2002

"But if you want to gain insights into the dangers of militant Islam to America, you’ll probably want to take a pass on this particular meeting."

Yes Mr. Harris, everybody is free to study what they want, and you are free to go to any other meeting that would be more in line with your taste. And if those lunatic academics don't organize any meetings you like, feel free to organize your own.
Since when are scholars or anybody else expected to study what you or Daniel Pipes consider the "right" subjects?

One of the reasons many scholars are staying far away from any research that might have anything to do with militant islam and terrorism is that they don't want to be even more in the cross-hairs of the thought police. Any scholar researching those subjects who might come to conclusions that are "wrong" or "dangerous" or "apologetic" (as defined by the thought police) would immediately be labeled as incompetent and/or as an anti-american traitor by the likes of Mr. Harris, Mr. Pipes, and the whole Campus Watch gang and their look-alikes. Why would anybody do research on topics where they don't feel free to come to their own conclusions? The consequences of saying the "wrong" things on militant islam and terrorism can be quite unpleasant (from hundreds of angry letters and even death threats, to denial of tenure or funding).

Campus Watch and the other self-appointed Lords of Thought are very effective at inciting the virtual lynching of anybody who dares to say something they don't like. This is a huge deterrent for doing reasearch on many important subjects related to the Middle East and Islam.

How ironic that Mr. Harris and Campus Watch are now complaining about a situation that they themselves promote by playing the role of thought police. Harvest what you sowed Mr. Harris!

mark safranski - 12/5/2002

How about when MESA takes a position that its members should actively obstruct the education of students accepting federal aid in return for applying their Middle Eastern language skills and knowledge in the military, intelligence or foreign service communities after graduation ? Is that not in direct conflict with their individual contractual and ethical obligations as educators ? Where do they get that right exactly ? Why should a student, whose education is being interfered with because some bully of a faculty member doesn't like the war on terrorism, not sue the living hell out of that prof and their university ? Why would it not be correct to describe MESA's policy as pro-terrorist and anti-American ? I'd like to hear an explanation.

John Robertson - 12/4/2002

Does it occur to Mr. Harris that the "American suffering" of which he speaks, though certainly terrible enough on 11 Sept 2001, pales in comparison to the suffering to which American policies and "made in the USA" weapons have contributed in the Middle East? Does it occur to him that scholarship devoted to a better understanding of the customs, cultures, and histories of Middle Eastern peoples, when brought to the scholars' classrooms, might better educate students to expect a more sophisticated and nuanced approach in US foreign policy than that of threats to wipe out the axis of evil? Does he really believe that advancing U.S. "interests" as identified by Bush, Cheney, Rice and associates ought to be the holy grail of Middle East specialists?

Julian DelGaudio - 12/4/2002

Mr. Harris' article amounts to a call for scholars to tailor their scholarship to a particular agenda. It is an agenda of limited range and concern, driven apparently entirely by a particular political imperative. One can only wonder why he didn't also ask whether terms like "occupation," "military aid to Israel," or "Greater Israel" appeared on the agenda of the MESA. Perhaps they do, he doesn't say. Yet, what qualifies MESA as a scholarly organization is its freedom to consider any issue worthly of exploration, not just those that serve one national-political perspective.