The Problem with Middle East Studies: A Microscopic Investigation


Mr. Pipes (www.DanielPipes.org), director of the Middle East Forum, is Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

As one of the few pro-U.S. and pro-Israel voices in the field of Middle East studies, I find my views get frequently mangled by others in the field – thus I have had to post a 5,000-word document titled “Department of Corrections (of Others' Factual Mistakes about Me)” on my website.

Usually, the precise evolution of such mistakes escapes me. Recently, however, I discovered just how one developed in three steps and confronted the two academics who made the errors. Their unwillingness to acknowledge their errors illustrates the mixture of incompetence and arrogance of Middle East studies as it is, unfortunately, too often practiced in the academy.

(1) In “The Muslims are Coming! The Muslims are Coming!National Review, November 19, 1990, I wrote about some of the reasons for Western fears of Muslims:

Muslims have gone through a trauma during the last two hundred years – the tribulation of God's people who unaccountably found themselves at the bottom of the heap. The strains have been enormous and the results agonizing; Muslim countries have the most terrorists and the fewest democracies in the world. Only Turkey (and sometimes Pakistan) is fully democratic, and even there the system is frail. Everywhere else, the head of government got to power through force[,] his own or someone else's. The result is endemic instability plus a great deal of aggression.

Despite such problems, I concluded, “none of this justifies seeing Muslims as the paramount enemy.”

(2) Yahya Sadowski, then of the Brookings Institution, quoted the bolded line of the above paragraph in an entirely different context in “The New Orientalism and the Democracy Debate,” Middle East Report, July-August 1993, p. 14. Discussing Western considerations of democracy’s prospects in the Middle East, Sadowski wrote:

The thesis that Middle Eastern societies are resistant to democratization had been a standard tenet of Orientalist thought for decades, but in the 1980s a new generation of Orientalists inverted some of the old assumptions and employed a new vocabulary which allowed them to link their work to a wider, international debate about the relationship between “civil society” and democratization. These updated arguments sought to prove not only – as neo-Orientalist Daniel Pipes put it – that “Muslim countries have the most terrorists and the fewest democracies in the world,” but that they always would.

Sadowski quoted my words accurately but turned their meaning upside-down; he transformed my rather prosaic observation of fact into part of a grand theory that I never enunciated – and which, for the record, I repudiate. Throughout my work, I stress mutability and change and argue against historical essentialism concerning Islam. I see the Muslim world as changing and avoid extrapolations from present-day circumstances to the future. I make a point not to say something will “always” be a certain way. Further, contrary to Sadowski, I hold that Islam and democracy are indeed compatible.

Joel Beinin of Stanford University and Joe Stork of the Middle East Report then gave the Sadowski article legs by reprinting it in their co-edited 1996 University of California Press book, Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report; I am quoted on p. 34.

(3) Then along came Yakub Halabi, at the time a Ph.D. student at the University of Denver, with “Orientalism and US Democratization Policy in the Middle East,” International Studies, 36 (1999), pp. 385-87. Halabi relied on Sadowski’s distorted version of my words and further elaborated on it, now in the context of his discussion of Western attempts to understand how a passive Muslim people could have brought off the Iranian revolution:

The neo-orientalist school emerged in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. It was an attempt to remove the anomaly in the orientalist approach that could not explain why a Muslim society rebelled against the Shah. … Orientalists as well as neo-orientalists, however, ignore any sort of modernity or novelty in Islamic societies in general and in the Iranian revolution in particular.

Halabi went on to note that some analysts depicted Islamic movements as not just radical but also anti-Western and anti-modernist.

One such writer Daniel Pipes, for example, depicts Muslims as “permanent” anti-democrats and terrorists. In his words: “Muslim countries [not only] have the most terrorists and the fewest democracies in the world, but that they always will.”

“In his words”? Hardly; I said nothing of the sort. Halabi changed my meaning by ascribing the word “permanent” to me, though it appeared nowhere in my essay; by adding two words in square brackets; and by falsely ascribing Sadowski’s phrase to me. To complete the transformation, he even altered Sadowski’s language, changing the final bolded word from “would” to “will.”

As with Sadowski’s perversion of my sentence, I disavow the fictitious quote Halabi attributes to me.


(1) Sadowski and Halabi turned my simple statement into the linchpin of their quite distinct generalizations about “Orientalism.”

(2) I wrote to each of Sadowski and Halabi, requesting a retraction and an apology. Sadowski did not respond. Halabi wrote back and justified his inaccuracy with a reference to post-modern subjectivity, with its convenient insouciance toward such concepts as truth and falsehood: “This is the way I understood and interpreted your article. When you write an article, you cannot control the way others interprete [sic] it.” Such defiant subjectivity undermines the scholarly enterprise.

(3) How to explain that two specialists hostile to my outlook each mangled my words? I see two possibilities: That they did so purposefully; or that bias colored their reading. I doubt they did so intentionally – no one wishes to be caught out and ridiculed for making errors. My hunch is that, in their eagerness to discredit someone whose approach differs from theirs, they read my analysis hastily and prejudicially, prompting the sequence of mistakes documented here. Such attitudes have contributed importantly to what Martin Kramer characterizes as “the failure of Middle Eastern studies in America.”

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R.R. Hamilton - 7/23/2008

While I appreciate Mr. Eckstein's defense of Christianity, in the interest of accuracy I would ask him to note the following:

As far as my (admittedly limited) research reveals, the last Protestant ("heretic") to be burned at the stake in Western Europe was in Lisbon about 1755. The last one to be burned at the stake anywhere in Christian Europe was in Russia about 1825.

art eckstein - 7/20/2008

Mr, C, you simply cannot compare the stranglehold that Islam in many places has over the individual and over society in general with anything going on in countries where Christianity is dominant.

The Catholic Church in Italy may be a special case, but even there it is not as powerful in Italy as Islam in its various modern totalitarian versions is in 20 countries I could name. To give you one example, there are 8 Muslim countries where apostasy from Islam is punishable by DEATH by the government.

That is not true in any country where Christianity is the major religion. I don't think you can point to a Christian example of this except 500 years ago. But that's the point: religions evolve, and we are talking about the situation today. Today, Christianity is simply not as malevolent and all-controlling as Islamofascism.

You seem to posit an "essense" of Christianity that is theoretically totalitarian . But the earliest Church wanted nothing to do with the governments of the time, didn't use them to impose conformity, and a conformist life-style insofar as it existed was imposed by community pressure (which the Muslims still do very powerfully of course) but not by government (which the earliest Muslims, from the start, demanded that government do). And modern Christians have no trouble with governments that do not impose their religious wishes: however much they want those wishes imposed, they do not see governments that do not impose them as illegitimate--while Islam ALWAYS wants control of the government, and views any government that is NOT imposing Islam via state power as illegitimate.

These are fundamental and grim differences which you persistently and stubbornly overlook.

Religions evolve, and so it is unscholarly to talk about some sort of "essense." The problem is that Islam, while still having potential for "progressive" forms of this particular belief (they were strong in the 19th century), has been far more imbued with totalitarianism from the beginning, and if it is evolving, its default mode seems to be evolving backwards into the seventh century.

Example: When al-Qaeda in Iraq controlled large parts of the big city of Mosul, the local Musul bread which everyone loved was banned because it wasn't in the Koran, ice was banned (in the Iraqi summer) because it wasn't in the Koran, soccer was banned because it wasn't in the Koran--all on PAIN OF DEATH.

I simply do not believe you can point to anything like this going on in Christianity as it has evolved--or, at THIS level of desired control, at any time anywhere in the past.

The "pox on all their houses" attitude misses the real differences as the religions have evolved.

The example I once gave you points out the difference: the last abortionist was murdered by a fanatical Christian a decade ago; last year Muslims killed 34,000 civiians in iraq alone and each one in the name of Allah, to which we must add dozens of Jews, and hundreds of Hindus (India) and Christians (in the Philippines and Nigeria).

The difference in the scale of religiously-inspired violence ought to be striking to you.

John Chapman - 7/18/2008

In the link Pipes gives in this article he says “The fact that majority-Muslim countries are less democratic makes it tempting to conclude that the religion of Islam, their common factor, is itself incompatible with democracy. I disagree with that conclusion,” says Pipes.

Sorry, but I go with the “tempting” conclusion. Democracy is not compatible with Islam (in its present form) and, going a step further, I believe both Christianity and Islam are incompatible with “democracy”. First, democracy takes many forms: if it’s America’s style, than it becomes a very dodgy thesis when speaking of democracy in America. Both religions are totalitarian in nature so maybe Pipes means that Islam, as long as it evolves into something that is not Islam, is only then compatible with “democracy” (whatever that means). If that is the case, then I agree with Pipes. Secondly, primitive Christianity is no longer in style (even though fundamentalists would like it to be) and has evolved into something I don’t believe the early (primitive) Christians would have recognized today as “Christianity” ; it is used more as a political tool to control and create a submissive society, it has crept into every orifice of our military (think Christian Embassy). But even so, in essence it is still totalitarian like Islam where submission to a higher power like a king or a god is mandatory. In the Roman Catholic Church physically and symbolically it resembles the court of a king, a Basilica, and on the Protestant side, a typical old fashioned law court. The courts of kings were supposed to have been done away with after the Magna Carta but we’ve seem to have come nearly full circle in America where now our President has the power of life and death on any American citizen.

Pipes goes on to say in his article on his website that “Such evolution is not easy for any religion. In the Christian case, the battle to limit the Catholic Church's political role lasted painfully long.”

What? The RCC still has an extremely strong political in Italy; one minuscule example being that Italians are still required pay a income tax to the church. Another is that poliicians like Berlescioni (sorry for the mis-spelling) play on the fears of the Italian Catholics to his political advantage).

Louis Nelson Proyect - 7/15/2008

I agree with Mr. Pipes that Moslem societies are capable of democracy. All they need is the jackboot of American occupation to bring that about.