The Middle East Studies Left
by Jonathan Calt Harris
November 6, 2003
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) meets for its annual conference on November 6-9 in Anchorage, Alaska. The event displays the work of hundreds of Middle East specialists, and thus offers a good barometer of the state of the field of Middle East studies.
It has come under criticism of late for its many failings. Martin Kramer showed in his book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America how it is riddled with extremist educators, analytical errors, and political activism. "The field is pervaded by hostility to American aims, interests, and power in the Middle East, and peopled by tenured radicals who think of the United States as the incarnation of racist imperialism."
Last year's MESA conference, held in Washington, DC, was noteworthy for the refusal of participants to discuss issues of terrorism and militant Islam. Out of five hundred papers presented, just one solitary study dealt with Al-Qaeda. Not one paper dealt with militant Islam. Suicide bombings were labeled "resistance." When 9/11 was in fact mentioned, it was in the context of Arab suffering. The association's president, Stanford University's Joel Beinin, lauded his colleagues' "great wisdom" in refusing to study terrorism.
The MESA president installed at that meeting, Columbia University's Lisa Anderson, expressed a readiness for changes, noting that the study of terrorism "has not been a priority" and admonishing her collegues for a "collective abdication of responsibility" for the field's tendency to cling to "flickers of electoral politics and glimmers of economic privatization" while neglecting the "stubborn durability of the authoritarian regimes." Anderson went on to say that her Middle East collegues, "reluctant to jeopardize access to visas and research authorizations…failed to speak out about the often appalling circumstances of their friends and colleagues [in the Middle East]." 
Did the MESA members make progress over the past year? Indeed, the current MESA conference offers a few encouraging signs, but it also displays too many familiar problems.
Of nearly three hundred papers, panels, and presentations over a four-day conference, the words "terror", "terrorist," "terrorism," "attack," and "suicide bombing" do not appear once. In contrast, eight papers discuss "American Orientalism," an allusion to the late Edward Said's theory of a racist West that is incapable of understanding the Middle East. The nine papers on women in the Middle East somehow manage to avoid the topics of "honor" killings or female circumcision.
Israel is rarely mentioned except in discussions of "expropriation of Palestinian Refugee Land" and "occupation." Zionism, or Israeli nationalism, is the topic of only three papers. By contrast there are five papers on "Palestinian Nationalism" and an additional fifteen papers presented on other Palestinian issues.
There is also some progress. Three scholars will present papers on "Islamic Activism" and five will address "Rescuing Islamic Political Theory from the Jihadist Ideology." MESA is also offering a special session on the Middle East legacy of Nobel Peace laureate Ralph Bunche, the UN negotiator who brokered four armistice agreements between Israel and Arab states after the 1948 war. Less inspiring is the composition of the panel on Bunche: Joel Beinin, Georgetown's Michael Hudson, Naseer Aruri of the University of Massachusetts – all driven anti-Zionists.
MESA's film festival is a mixed bag. Three of the 48 films deal directly with terrorism or militant Islam. Of six 9/11-themed films, four examine the Arab-American perspective after the attacks, and two films actually present a Saudi perspective, featuring interviews with the parents and relatives of, as MESA delicately puts it,"the accused hijackers." MESA describes one terrorism documentary with characteristic glee: "Cynicism and outrage animate this exploration of how American foreign policy has fueled resentment around the world."
But other films are more promising. "Islamic Fervor" documents the struggle of the reforming regime in Morocco and its efforts to resist Islamic extremism. Two movies examine the reality of Islamist violence toward women.
In short, it appears that Lisa Anderson's efforts to make MESA discourse more relevant may have had some small successes. Some Middle East specialists may have started to reform. Still, many spend too little time on the problems of radicalism and corruption, harping instead on anti-American themes.
Now, a new question looms: will incoming MESA president, Laurie Brand of the University Southern California, continue with Anderson's improvements? Her record is not promising. The incoming MESA honcho routinely condemns American foreign policy. For example, she has stated that the reasons for the war against Saddam Hussein had "nothing" to do with liberating Iraq. She places all blame for Arab-Israeli violence on Israel: "There is no peace without justice, and there is no justice under occupation."
Thus are MESA's small improvements potentially in jeopardy.
 Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washinton DC, 2001.
 Martin Kramer, "MESA Culpa," Middle East Quarterly, September 2002.
Jonathan Calt Harris, "Academia Silent on Militant Islam,"Frontpage Magazine, November 25, 2002.
 Martin Kramer and Lisa Anderson, "Middle Eastern Studies: What Went Wrong?" Special Policy Forum Report, Policywatch, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 16, 2002.
 Martin Kramer, "Glasnost in MESA,"MartinKramer.org, April 2, 2003
 Online Program, http://fp.arizona.edu/mesassoc/MESA03/2003panels.htm
 Online FilmFest Program, http://fp.arizona.edu/mesassoc/MESA03/pdf/FF03%20program.pdf
 Cynthia Johnston, American in Beirut Marches Against U.S. 'Terror', Reuters, Thursday, May 1, 2003.
Related Topics: Middle East studies | Jonathan Calt Harris
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