Martin Kramer is editor of Middle East Quarterly and author of the acclaimed study Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001). He is past director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former visiting professor at the University of Chicago, Cornell University, Brandeis University, and Georgetown University. Ivory Towers on Sand shows why academe was unprepared for the recent radical Islamic terror attacks on America. He spoke to the Middle East Forum about his findings on March 14, 2002.
Americans were unprepared for the events of 9/11 for many reasons, but one of them certainly is the erroneous information they received from academe. A closer look at Middle East studies in America reveals that the universities have been a thoroughly unreliable guide to the Middle East itself.
Edward Said & Co.
A generation ago, the field of Middle East Studies was led by those who founded new academic centers in the 1960s. They secured government funding and a place of some prestige among their colleagues. These academics, however, failed to predict the Palestinian awakening in the 1960s, the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s, and Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979. This left them vulnerable to an academic insurgency.
Edward Said, a Palestinian professor and activist, exploited these failures in Middle East Studies and built a new empire upon the first generation's ruin. By identifying the failures, and accusing the establishment of ethnocentric racism against Muslims-"Orientalism"-he set the field on a new course.
Not only did Said's campaign discredit the founders. It provided a rationale for bringing more Arabs and Muslims into the field, on the assumption that they would be untainted by prejudice. But many of them continued to adhere fervently to political causes. The revolution in Middle Eastern studies rested on the ascendance of the left and ethnic constituencies, leaving the field more politicized than ever before.
The new mandarins promised to get things right. Unfortunately, this new generation of scholars made things worse. This new movement has met with repeated and collective failure.
Islamism and Civil Society
Two issues preoccupied Middle East Studies in the 1980s and 1990s. One was militant Islam. The other was civil society.
Academics predicted the emergence of a Middle East filled with benign and non-violent Islamist movements. They forecast that these moderate movements would challenge the West, but not threaten it. These academics adamantly denied the potential of terrorism and showed contempt for those who argued that large-scale terrorism was possible.
Further, according to academic predictions, the Arab world should have expected a mushrooming of pluralism, a flourishing of civil society, and the withering away of the authoritarian state so common to the Middle East in the last century.
The September attack is evidence that Muslim movements in the Middle East never moved toward this new age of tolerance. Indeed, the 1990s were dotted with terrorist attacks, like the attacks against the World Trade Center, the embassies in East Africa, as well as the threats of Palestinian terrorist organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The destruction of the World Trade Towers last fall was just a culmination of a decade of Islamist terrorism. The influence of radical extremists like Osama Bin Laden far exceeds the combined influence of the Muslim Martin Luthers touted by the "post-Orientalists."
Academics presented the Middle East as they wished it to be, instead of accurately evaluating the realities of Middle Eastern society.
An Era of Error
The Middle East studies community is small, with members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) totaling just 2,600 members. The internal dynamics of this closed, self-referential group have rendered them intolerant of diverse opinions, and often impervious to outside evidence.
This dynamic of "group think" has evolved in Middle Eastern studies because of limited accountability, limited peer review, and limited academic opportunities. All of these factors have led academics to be more focused on academic survival, and have enslaved them to dogmatic adherence to the academic fashion of the day.
This steady decline in the credibility of America's Middle East academic specialists has led Washington to dismiss them as a viable source of information. Think tanks have filled the gap - often with highly qualified analysts who produce no-nonsense analyses, as opposed to the jargon-filled studies produced by overspecialized academics. Journalists, to a certain extent, have also filled this gap. This has been a source of endless frustrations for academics.
The tragedy of September 11 did not force academics to reconsider their assumptions. Instead, they continued in their tradition of apologist behavior. The bulk of these academics chose to blame American foreign policy for the attacks. They warned against inflaming the "Muslim street," and argued against aggressively pursuing terrorists.
For example, one Harvard professor wrote in the campus newspaper that the Palestine question was the reason for September 11th, and that a successful agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would have prevented it. This is groundless. While there is evidence that the Palestine question may have conditioned an Arab response to September 11th, the claim that Palestinian issues produced September 11th rests on no evidence whatsoever. It is simply an instance of biased speculation.
Another example from a sociologist at the State University of New York linked Israel's use of American-made F-16 fighter jets as the impetus for the hijackers to destroy the World Trade Towers. This, too, is pure speculation.
While September 11 provided academics with unprecedented media exposure, they once again proved incapable of moving past their own prejudices and commitments, and largely failed to deliver accurate and reliable analyses.
All the Wrong Moves
Unfortunately, Washington has taken the wrong steps to stimulate change. In December, Congress authorized an immediate 26 percent increase in Title VI funding under the Higher Education Act, which is the major funding instrument for area studies-an additional windfall totaling $20.5 million dollars. Congress clearly indicated that Middle Eastern programs should receive much of this aid and underlined an urgent need to increase language fluency to increase the understanding of Muslim culture and politics.
Ironically, the primary objective of Middle Eastern studies programs is not to produce language experts, but merely to teach language as a supplement to other fields of study. Increased aid to Middle Eastern studies under Title VI will only allow the field to duplicate itself. Indeed, it is hard to see the benefit of giving these scholars more leverage, given that their interests are generally detached from issues relating to national security.
These professors' assumptions should have been shattered after September 11. Unfortunately, at a time when the field should have acknowledged its greatest intellectual crisis, leading to a period of intense soul-searching, funds and enrollment for Middle Eastern studies have increased. There is no incentive for scholars to engage in self-criticism. Needed change has been delayed.
What Should Be Done?
For forty years, taxpayers' money has supported these troubled academic programs. Title VI of the Higher Education Act allots federal funds for over a dozen Middle East research centers. Middle Eastern studies programs receive aid, but are not held accountable for how they serve the needs of the American public or the United States government. Funding should not be cut off for Middle Eastern studies, but there should be reform of the procedures by which it is allocated. Alternatives to Title VI should also be enhanced, most notably the National Security Education Program and the Defense Language Initiative.
The problem is that many Middle East centers are hostile to these alternative programs, because they are designed to prepare students for national service, not scholarship. Middle Eastern studies should be made to understand that they have an obligation to do more than reproduce themselves. They must also do their share in preparing Americans to meet the challenges that emanate from the region.
When the reform of Middle East studies comes, it will have to come from within, through generational change. But interested alumni, trustees, and taxpayers, can and should express their views to universities administrators and their elected representatives. Middle Eastern studies must change; such change may eventually be one of the long-term consequences of September 11.
Summary account by Jonathan Schanzer, research associate, and Sarah Campbell, research assistant at the Middle East Forum.