What's ailing contemporary Middle East studies? A symposium earlier this month at Stanford University provided a clue.
A paranoid fixation on imagined American and Israeli "empire"; the refusal to accept legitimate criticism; an insulated, elitist worldview; an inability to employ clear, jargon-free English; and a self-defeating hostility towards the West: these vices and more were made clear at "The State of Middle East Studies: Knowledge Production in an Age of Empire."
Professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University Hamid Dabashi captured the symposium's theme by asserting that the "Middle East is under U.S./Israeli imperial domination" and that America is an "empire without hegemony," engaged in a "monopolar imperial project."
Yet no one defined this "empire" or "imperialism." Nor did attendees learn what events in the Muslim world precipitated a more expansive U.S. foreign policy in the region after Sept. 11, 2001, or why Israel might have legitimate concerns about its bellicose neighbors.
Only Nur Yalman, professor of social anthropology and Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University, made reference to Islamic terrorism. He also reported on the atmosphere of political unease in both Egypt and Turkey from whence he had just returned.
Also popular was equating criticism of Middle East studies with a U.S./Israeli/Jewish plot. Dabashi condemned Middle East scholar and critic Martin Kramer, calling his book, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, an agent of "U.S. and Israeli intelligence." Yalman bemoaned a speech Kramer gave last year on the relatively stable geopolitical situation of Jews today, implying that such a condition represented a threat to Muslims. Dabashi denounced David Horowitz, Stanley Kurtz, Daniel Pipes, and Campus Watch for, as he put it, "helping Bush in his crusading war against Islamic terrorism."
Dabashi also singled out Stanford's Hoover Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, accusing them of acting, horror of horrors, in "the service of national security." He was particularly aggrieved that with the ascendance of these think tanks, Middle East studies were no longer under the strict purview of the "academies." He didn't mention that higher education's failure to adequately address the subject has been the cause of this evolution.
The late Columbia University English and comparative literature professor Edward Said was the undisputed godfather of the day, with countless references to his theories on post-colonialism and Orientalism. Like Said, several speakers rejected what they saw as Western condescension and hostility towards the Muslim world. Yet it was they who seemed mired in antagonism.
Discussion about the plight of women in the Muslim world was marred by anti-Western sentiment. Professor of gender and women's studies at the University of California, Berkeley, Minoo Moallem, dismissed such concerns as being part of an "imperialist narrative."
University of Washington anthropology and law professor Arzoo Osanloo picked up on this theme by decrying "Western, paternalistic attitudes towards Muslim women." Osanloo was concerned that "Islamic liberalism" would be "obscured by Western involvement," particularly in Iran.
Osanloo tried to focus on "Islamic feminism," but her insistence that women had made great strides in post-Islamic revolution Iran through the use of Sharia law was a stretch. It didn't help that she omitted any reference to the Iranian regimes' current crackdown, including brutal beatings, on unveiled women and their arrest and detention of Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian-American director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
Osanloo's stated desire to "move beyond the binarism of East vs. West" was belied by an attitude of stubborn opposition to everything Western. There was no acknowledgement by any of the women present that Western culture has given them lives that would be the envy of their counterparts in the Middle East.
Similarly, the willful blindness of a group of scholars and students denouncing the West from their positions of power and privilege in the favored surroundings of Stanford University came across as utterly hypocritical.
Hamid Dabashi and Minoo Moallem's reliance on academic jargon added to the esoteric nature of the proceedings. Schooled on a philosophical foundation of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and the obsession with semantics over objective reality found therein, both speakers were largely incomprehensible.
Expressions such as "diasphoric cultural mediators," "amphibian intellectuals," "contextualization," "performance of the self as its own other," the "inability to handle the otherness of the other," "Eurocentric partriarchy," "imperialist masculinist," "gendered Orientalism," and the obscure statement, "regions are not facts but artifacts," provide just a sampling.
It was excruciatingly boring at times, and the fact that they read straight from their own work only made it worse. The young man nodding off in his chair during Moallem's talk was an indication that the audience may not have been entirely engaged.
Thankfully, the other speakers spoke in plain English and Yalman even stated at one point that he was "uneasy with the abstract nature of the conversation."
Indeed, those concerned with the negative influence such academics may be having on future generations should be comforted by the very real possibility that their students rarely understand a word they're saying.
Cinnamon Stillwell is Northern California Representative for Campus Watch.