Blogs > HNN > Fred Donner and the Failure of Intellectual Integrity in Near East Studies

Nov 20, 2005 9:40 pm


Fred Donner and the Failure of Intellectual Integrity in Near East Studies



It can be amazing sometimes to discover the frequency with which appeals to academic expertise end up concealing utter nonsense. For a remarkable example of this, consider a letter from Fred M. Donner, professor of Near East Studies at the University of Chicago, in the Nov. 16 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly, the alumni magazine of Princeton University. (To get to the Donner letter, click the preceding link, go to" current issue," and then go to"letters to the editor." The magazine typically goes by its abbreviation, PAW.)

For a few months now, a controversy has raged at Princeton over the possibility that Princeton might hire Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi to serve as its (Princeton's) Niehaus Chair of Near East Studies. Generally speaking, opinion on the matter falls into three relatively neat camps: (1) those opposed because of Khalidi’s views on the Israel-Palestine issue, (2) those in favor for the same general reasons, and (3) the indifferent. For months, the controversy has consisted of partisans of camp (1) attacking partisans of camp (2) and vice versa. (Personally, I fall into camp (3).)

One opens the Nov. 15 issue of PAW with the pro-Khalidi camp responding to the anti-Khalidi's camp’s claim that Khalidi is “a pseudo-academic,” and “a person with a political agenda rather than a scholar…” The chief representative of the pro-Khalidi faction turns out to be Prof. Donner, a Princeton alum. The defense he offers of Khalidi is notable only for its astonishing illogic—illogic that does little to help Khalidi and less to enhance Donner's credibility as a witness in Khalidi's defense.

“I had the good fortune to be a colleague of Khalidi’s for almost 20 years,” Donner tells us. “I can assure [the reader] that Khalidi is truly a scholar of the first caliber, not a ‘pseudo’-anything.”

Fair enough: being someone’s colleague for 20 years can in principle give you a chance to get to know him well enough to comment on his capacities as a scholar. The trouble is, having been Khalidi’s colleague for twenty years, Donner doesn’t profess to know very much about Khalidi’s scholarship: “I do not follow the Israel-Palestine debates, or Khalidi’s writing, closely enough to know whether he has in fact declared his endorsement of a ‘one-state’ solution” to the Israel-Palestine debate.

Too bad that Khalidi’s scholarship is on…the Israel-Palestine debate. So evidently, we've learned that Rashid Khalidi is a first-caliber scholar—--from a person who's just confessed ignorance as to his scholarship. Good going.

From this brazen contradiction Donner manages to compound the effrontery by poisoning the well: “If Princeton refuses, or has already refused, even to consider inviting him to join its faculty, it will be because Princeton, not Khalidi, has a political agenda.”

A real inferential tour de force, isn’t it? A man who doesn’t know the internal workings of a job search well enough to know what decision has been made, or even whether it's been made—and doesn’t know the candidate’s scholarship well enough to know even the most elementary facts about it—has no qualms about telling us that if the candidate isn’t hired, it must be obvious to all that he was the victim of a conspiracy. Rarely has self-confessed ignorance been more skillfully transmuted into certainty. Throw an academic title around, apparently, and anything goes.

Considering Donner's performance, it gets a little nauseating when academics like him harp on the uniqueness of academic expertise and the integrity of the academic peer-review process. For an example of that, also by Donner, consider this petulant little review, originally published in the MESA Bulletin, of Ibn Warraq’s book The Quest for the Historical Muhammad. (Disclosure: Ibn Warraq is a friend of mine, and from January 2005 to June 2005, I was Executive Director of ISIS, the organization he co-founded.) Here we learn that unlike Rashid Khalidi, Ibn Warraq has an agenda that vitiates his claims to having produced a work of Donner-caliber scholarship:

Most problematic of all, however, is the compiler’s agenda, which is not scholarship, but anti-Islam polemic. The author of an earlier book entitled Why I Am Not a Muslim (1995), “Ibn Warraq” and his co-conspirator “Ibn al-Rawandi” detest anything that, to them, smacks of apologetic; for this reason they criticize harshly several noted authors for their ‘bad faith’ or ‘moral ambiguity.’

Yet this book is itself a monument to duplicity. The compiler never has the honesty or courage to divulge his identity, even though a list of contributors (pp. 551-54) gives a biographical sketch of all the other contributors who, unlike “Ibn Warraq” and “Ibn al-Rawandi”, are already well-known.

Far more serious is the fact that this book is religious polemic attempting to masquerade as scholarship. It is a collection of basically sound articles, framed by a seriously flawed introduction, and put in the service of anti-Islamic polemic dedicated to the proposition that Islam is a sham and that honest scholarship on Islam requires gratuitous rudeness to Muslim sensibilities.

I am not an expert on the historiography of early Islam, so I make no judgment about the strictly historiographical issues involved here. I do know a thing or two about the mechanics of scholarship and argumentation, however, and that's all I need to make three comments.

1. Donner assumes here that scholarship and polemic are somehow incompatible. If so, it follows that his own obviously polemical review is not scholarship, either—a predicament that raises the obvious question, “If polemics nullify someone’s claims to scholarship, why don’t they nullify the claims of Donner’s review?”

It would be an interesting task, incidentally, to apply Donner's scholarship-polemic dichotomy to Rashid Khalidi’s work. Is Khalidi's book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East a scholarly one or a polemical one? Your call, Professor Donner—assuming you’re familiar with the book.

2. Donner accuses Ibn Warraq of “duplicity”—presumably a scholarly as opposed to polemical claim—in asserting that Ibn Warraq’s refusal to divulge his identity is a matter of cowardice. Evidently, Donner is either too stupid or too disingenuous to state the reason for Ibn Warraq’s use of a pseudonym: Ibn Warraq’s views put him in physical danger, and no one has the moral or scholarly obligation to divulge his identity if doing so would increase the risk of such danger.

Does Donner have an argument showing us either that (a) he knows that Ibn Warraq is not in physical danger or (b) that despite being in danger, Ibn Warraq is a coward for not divulging his identity? If so, I would be very interested in his having the “courage” to put the argument in print. As for (a), recall that it is Donner himself who stresses at every turn that he knows nothing about the author’s identity. How then would he know whether or not Ibn Warraq is in physical danger? He wouldn’t. But a discrepancy of that sort would only matter if the author were interested in complying with the laws of logic--or had the integrity to care about the ethics of discourse.

3. Donner complains that the Ibn Warraq book is not real scholarship, and yet admits that the book contains “basically sound” papers. The trouble, then, must rest with Ibn Warraq's Introduction. And what exactly is the trouble there? No answer is forthcoming, apart from the fact that the tone of the writing is “rude”—a remarkable claim, coming from a reviewer who has just (falsely) accused the book’s author of “duplicity,” and more or less cavalierly invited him to commit suicide. The non-specialist reader will at this point find himself wondering how the rudeness of a claim affects its claims to truth—a topic that the scholarly Prof. Donner manages neither to raise nor to answer.

Reflecting on all this, one begins to wonder a bit about things like intellectual standards and integrity—as in, “Does Donner have any?” And what are the standards of a profession that allows such a vacuous, malice-saturated and ill-written review to see the light of day? The next few sentences tell the tale: scholarship on Islam, we are told, does not count as scholarly unless it massages the tender and easily-offended sensibilities of Muslims. The answer to the question about integrity would therefore appear to be “no.”

This is the caliber of what claims the mantle of expertise in the Near East Studies establishment. Bear it mind the next time you hear some famous scholar of Near East Studies pontificating about this or that"specialized" topic while slinging his (or her) academic credentials at you, and expecting the credential-slinging to perform the task of intellectual intimidation. Try not to be intimidated for a change. Just apply the usual standards of rigor that apply to any inquiry and ask yourself whether these"informed commentators" and"experts" really measure up. You may be surprised to see what you find. And what you don’t.



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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Not a single word of what you've just written responds to a single word of anything I wrote. Adult discourse requires a little bit more than petulant whining, I'm afraid.

The fact that Donner is well known or smart doesn't mean that his views are true, does it? (Answer: no.)

I can't help pointing out that if being unknown really were a problem for the soundness of one's argument, a person with an actual name would be bound to do better than someone who doesn't appear to have one.



Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Well, I'm sorry to say that I think your defense of Donner is a pretty obvious failure. He may be your advisor. You may like him. But not a thing you have said even remotely touches my argument. My argument is based on the texts that I mentioned, and based on those texts, my argument is both unimpeachable--and as yet, unimpeached. Frankly, since Donner is your advisor, feel free to convey my eagerness to have this out with him personally.

On the question of Khalidi, you have simply conceded my case. It was Donner who claimed, ridiculously, that he somehow knew that if Khalidi wasn't hired or invited, only ulterior motives could explain it. Where, Manan, is your argument here? The distinction between being hired or invited is absolutely immaterial. What is the actual, direct evidence of ulterior motives that Donner claims to have? Do you have it? Does he? If so, reveal it. Let me repeat, and let us have a direct answer: what is the evidence? You accuse me of misinference but you haven't responded to my argument and haven't identified the misinference. Try again.

As for Ibn Warraq, let me set aside that you simply have ignored most of what I have said. What then is your position on the issue you manage to raise--duplicity? The "most damning critique" you say is not the one about duplicity but about lack of scholarly bona fides. OK. What then about the accusation of duplicity, which you rather forgiving set aside as though it wasn't made? I hate to make you face facts, but it was made, and I would like an answer from your advisor as to why it was made and on what basis. Granted, that claim wasn't made about the volume, but to say that is merely to state the trivial and obvious. It was made about the person, and I am demanding that Donner have the courage to defend it in a public forum. A person willing to make such reckless charges should answer for them, and his failure to answer should be charges as a failure of integrity. It doesn't really matter whether you know him or not. He is being put to the test.

You needn't lecture me about how an institution ties someone to standards of accountability. I am the one demanding Donner's accountability, and doing so from an academic position. Let's see Prof. Accountability meet the high academic standards he purports to espouse.

As for how much of Donner's writing I have read, it is an utter irrelevancy. I wasn't critiquing his writing as a whole. I was critiquing his review. Can you defend it? Can he? What you have offered me is the oldest trick in the book: argument by appeal to "all those citations out there." The substandard nature of the review is thereby to be excused by the brilliant nature of everything else he's produced. Sorry: no. Let's grant ex hypothesi that every single thing he's ever written is just the epitome of brilliance. Fine. What then about the review? Are you defending it or what?

I truly love the claim about lack of Arabic scholarship. Your claim is:

1. Donner doesn't know Ibn Warraq's identity, hence doesn't know the caliber of his Arabic scholarship.
2. Hence, Ibn Warraq's Arabic scholarship is deficient.
3. And darn it, if only Ibn Warraq would tell us who he is, so that we could discern how good his scholarship is!

This is the tangle of equivocations into which Donner has plunged headfirst--now with your eager benediction. It would be one thing if Donner identified the scholarly deficiency. He doesn't do that. What he suggests is that the scholarship is deficient because it is polemical and because the volume has omissions. Anything you want to say about my arguments on that score? You may note that these facts are rather conspicuously "omitted" from your attempted defense of Donner. In any case, I've noted it.

As for my claim about Near East Studies, it is not a generalization about all scholars. It is a statement about one scholar: Donner. It is simply true that despite his malfeasances, Donner can more or less with impunity say the sorts of things he says. Given the caliber of what he has said, that does raise the question of how a review like his ended up in the MESA Bulletin.

But maybe it's time to convey the message that impunity only goes so far. That's the message I intended to convey, and I am exceedingly glad that it has precisely hit home.


l e d - 3/25/2006

just to let you know, professor donner is a very smart person, why argue? just because you dont agree doesnt mean you have to bash his theories or statements. grow up. at least people know who he is, unlike you.


Manan Ahmed - 11/21/2005

1. What is the actual, direct evidence of ulterior motives that Donner claims to have?

Honestly, I fail to see your confusion. Donner is _responding_ to a claim that Khalidi is a 'pseudo-academic'. It is, I reiterate, a RESPONSE. He is not claiming any knowledge of any direct ulterior motive. Just asserting that, in his view, a Khalidi candidacy would deserve a wholly-unbiased review.

2. "I wasn't critiquing his writing as a whole":

Yes, you were. You write: "Reflecting on all this, one begins to wonder a bit about things like intellectual standards and integrity—as in, “Does Donner have any?” That reads like a blanket statement if I ever saw one.

3. "I truly love the claim about lack of Arabic scholarship. Donner doesn't know Ibn Warraq's identity, hence doesn't know the caliber of his Arabic scholarship."

From the review: "This inadequacy is revealed by, for example, inconsistent handling of Arabic materials, and by the fact that neither "Ibn Warraq" nor "Ibn Rawandi" contributes any original arguments to this debate." I regret that I didn't specifically "note that fact" earlier.

4. "As for my claim about Near East Studies, it is not a generalization about all scholars. It is a statement about one scholar: Donner."

Nope. The TITLE of your post is "Fred Donner and the Failure of Intellectual Integrity in Near East Studies"!! You write: "And what are the standards of a profession that allows such a vacuous, malice-saturated and ill-written review to see the light of day?" [....]"This is the caliber of what claims the mantle of expertise in the Near East Studies establishment. Bear it mind the next time you hear some famous scholar of Near East Studies pontificating about this or that "specialized" topic while slinging his (or her) academic credentials at you, and expecting the credential-slinging to perform the task of intellectual intimidation." Again, seems pretty broadsided. Unless the "some famous scholar" should be brilliantly inferred as Donner.

5. "My argument is based on the texts that I mentioned, and based on those texts, my argument is both unimpeachable--and as yet, unimpeached".

Look. The issue I have with your post is that:

A. It accuses a scholar for having no intellectual standards and of being vaccuous.
B. It accuses the entire field to which said scholar belongs for having no intellectual standards and of being vaccuous.

And what do you have as evidence? One solitary letter to the editor? One solitary review of your friend's work? You consider that unimpeachable? I don't even consider it evidence.

How about that on the basis of a blog-post, I decide to have a strong opinion on the entire field of Philosophy? Or your entire intellectual output? Hardly fair, don't you think? Or maybe you do.

As for Ibn Warraq/duplicity/Donner/impunity, I don't know what special impunity Donner has that other members of MESA don't. MESA is a peer-reviewed journal. I suggest that Ibn Warraq write in to MESA bulletin and contest Donner's review. He may even have done it. I haven't really followed up. I am not fighting proxy wars with you over it. I just took issue with you on the points I have stated above.

In any case, cheers.


Manan Ahmed - 11/21/2005

First, I can unhesitatingly state that you are not familiar with Fred Donner's scholarship, his intellectual standards or his integrity. He is an informed commentator and, indeed, an expert on early Islamic historiography.
I know because he is my advisor.

Now, to your argument.

Donner's statement that he doesn't know _for a fact_ whether Khailidi endorses the "one state" solution does NOT mean, as you infer, that Donner does not know ANYTHING about Khalidi's scholarship. To the contrary, the letter makes abundantly clear that Donner has a high regard for Khalidi as a scholar, distinct from being a colleague and a teacher. Like any careful scholar, Donner was precise in not claiming something he did not know - Khalidi's exact position. Though, he does clarify what the term 'one state'
solution means. Incidentally, you don't seem to know that Khalidi's scholarship is NOT on 'the Israel-Palestine' debate. It is on Arab Nationalism. A topic which is a tad larger than what you stated.

As to the conclusion, your 'enthusiasm' has the better of you again. Donner writes: " If Princeton refuses, or has already refused, <em>even to consider</em> inviting him to join its faculty, it will be because Princeton, not Khalidi, has a political agenda." [emphasis added] At no point does Donner say, as you assert, that Khalidi be <em>hired</em>. Yet, you find no hesitation to claim that 1. Donner has no idea about hiring processes in the academia 2. Donner has no 'elementary facts' about Khalidi's scholarship. An inferential tour de force, indeed.

Let's move next to your 'petulant' defense of Ibn Warraq. While you confess that you are not an "an expert on the historiography of early Islam", you do feel confidant about declaring Donner as lacking in intellectual standards and integrity. I assume that you have read more of Donner than that one review? The most damning critique of the volume in that review is not Ibn Warraq's identity but that it "lacks the rigorous specialist training in Arabic studies that alone could qualify him (her?) to evaluate independently the different schools of interpretation in this field". This is where intellectual standards come in handy: the identity of a scholar ties him/her to an institution and a set of intellectual forebears and peers. That is where the hidden identity "affects its claim to truth".

To be frank, I don't think that Donner's review was "vacuous, malice-saturated and ill-written". It could have been clearer about pointing out that deficiency of Ibn Warraq's scholarship but it did clearly point out that the volume "omit[s] fine contributions that pose challenges for some revisionist ideas by H. Motzki, U. Rubin, and many others. "

However. Based on ONE letter to the editor and ONE review, your "finding" that "This is the caliber of what claims the mantle of expertise in the Near East Studies establishment" clearly appears "vacuous, malice-saturated and ill-written" to this observor.