Academic Standards, R.I.P.
by Michael Rubin
June 14, 2005
Princeton University continues to consider hiring embattled Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi for its newly-endowed Robert Niehaus chair in Contemporary Middle East Studies. Khalidi, a specialist on Palestinian politics and history, has become controversial for his highly politicized mix of polemics and history. He has sought to rebut criticism, arguing that questioning his scholarship infringes on his first amendment rights. Speaking at Columbia University on April 4, 2005, for example, he said, "Freedom of speech and academic freedom are particularly necessary for unpopular and difficult ideas, for conventional ideas, for ideas that challenge reigning orthodoxy."
Khalidi is right about the importance of freedom of speech, but he misses the point. Academic freedom is meant to protect scholarship, not replace it. For any history professor, the core of scholarship is the ability to uncover and interpret primary source material. High school students might select sources uncritically in order to prove their thesis, but history professors must evaluate not only what the source says, but also its veracity and perspective. Judgment matters. Next to plagiarism—of which Khalidi has also been accused recently—deliberate omission, failure to judge sources, and eschewing primary source and field research are the greatest academic sins a professor can commit.
In 2004, Khalidi authored Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East in which he argued that U.S. government officials had entered into the Iraq conflict ignorant of Middle Eastern history. Unlike others academics and critics of Bush administration policy, Khalidi refused to travel to Iraq to conduct his research. Instead, he made Iraq a template upon which to impose his theories. His failure to engage Iraqis is reflected in his ignorance of Iraqi history. His narrative failed to mention Saddam Hussein's murder of tens of thousands of Shi‘i Marsh Arabs, and the ethnic cleansing of cities like Kirkuk and Sinjar. Polemics may forgive sins of omission, but scholarship should not. Worse, while his narrative ignores Saddam's chemical weapons attack on Kurdish civilians, in the Iraqi equivalent of Holocaust denial, he questions Saddam's complicity in a footnote.
The devil, though, is in the details. Khalidi demonstrates an unwillingness to utilize primary sources and an inability to access source credibility. He relies repeatedly on the Asia Times, implying the source to be a newspaper when, in reality, it is an internet fringe commentary newsletter. In other footnotes, he relies on the work of the Guardian's Brian Whitaker and Independent columnist Robert Fisk, both of whom their colleagues say embrace conspiracy theories, eschew ethics, and fabricate stories. He quotes former Pentagon official Karen Kwiatkowski discussing her experiences with Iraq planning. The bipartisan U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence interviewed Kwiatkowski about her allegations of intelligence manipulation and, according to its publicly available July 7, 2004 "Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq" and found her claims unsubstantiated if not fraudulent. When queried by Senate investigators, Kwiatkowski could not cite a single example to back her accusations. Many other journalists also distanced themselves from Kwiatkowski whose web commentaries are replete with anti-Semitic conspiracy. Khalidi, however, adopted her rhetoric blindly. She may have lied, but her claims fit his thesis.
The most serious indictment of Khalidi's scholarship, though, is his embrace of the work of Robert Dreyfuss. Dreyfuss is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a contributing editor at The Nation, but the preface to his 1980 book Hostage to Khomeini places him as the Middle East Intelligence Director for the Executive Intelligence Review, the magazine of the Lyndon LaRouche movement. LaRouche is the perennial presidential candidate and conspiracy theorist who was convicted of fraud in 1988 for a scheme in which he bilked retirees to finance his organization. Among the theories he has pedaled is that Queen Elizabeth II is a drug dealer, 1984 Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale is a deep-cover Soviet agent, and Jewish American officials like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Doug Feith are Israeli agents. While Dreyfuss now disassociates himself from the LaRouche movement, arguing that LaRouche veered to the right while Dreyfuss moved to the left, the style, content, and accuracy of his reporting has not changed. Much of his writing including that referenced by Khalidi still parallels those theories advanced in LaRouche publications.
Khalidi committed professional negligence by using Dreyfuss' material without evaluating quality. Good scholars do not rely on sources of whose credentials they are unaware. To be fair, Khalidi is not alone in his reliance on Dreyfuss. University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole, who has called criticism of Khalidi's work "a McCarthyite witch hunt," has repeatedly directed his readership to articles by Dreyfuss, recommends Dreyfuss' blog, and has parroted Dreyfuss' theories about the dual loyalties of Jews in American policy.
Khalidi is entitled to his free speech, but cloaking it in the rubric of academic freedom is dishonest. College freshmen who constructed arguments on fringe internet commentary and embraced the findings of conspiracy theorists would fail courses. His twisting of facts and failure to evaluate sourcing for the sake of political gain undercuts the opus of his work.
First amendment rights should always allow Khalidi and his defenders to say what they want. But academic freedom should not mean casting aside all scholarly standards. Lawyers also can say what they want, but they cannot substitute legal legwork for fantasy when arguing cases or penning law journal articles. Society would look ill upon doctors who used their free speech rights to withhold cancer treatment from a patient, and instead urge them to eat nothing but pineapples and ketchup. Free speech does not absolve anyone from professional incompetence. Nor should it supplant academic rigor, fieldwork, and research.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.
Related Topics: Middle East studies | Michael Rubin
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