"The American empire is going down."
So declared history professor and former president of the Middle East Studies Association, Joel Beinin, on the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center (PPJC) cable television program, "Other Voices" (watch here) last week in Palo Alto.
Following an "extended leave" from Stanford University in 2006 based on what Beinin then described as the university's "minimal institutional interest in the study and teaching of the modern Middle East," a two-year stint as director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt, and rumors earlier this year that he was to land a position as director of the Middle East Studies Center at Portland State University, Beinin is back at Stanford this Fall.
If the PPJC interview was any indication, Beinin's anti-American, anti-Israel venom remain intact. At the same time, he made a number of surprisingly candid statements not often heard from Middle East studies academics.
Beinin followed up his pronouncement about the supposed demise of the "American empire" by conceding that the superpowers most likely to take America's place, China and Russia, were hardly benign or democratic in nature, and that "people will suffer in the process." But he seemed pleased that the "U.S. will no longer dominate the next century," for it will "force Israel to make changes in the Middle East."
Accordingly, Beinin described Israel as "solely dependent on the U.S." and not, as some would have it, "the tail that wags the American dog." Beinin further skewered the Walt-Mearsheimer "Israel Lobby" hypothesis by noting that there are a number of lobbies in the U.S. and that the process is a legal and legitimate one.
Beinin was similarly forthright about the problems afflicting Egypt and the tyrannical nature of the Egyptian regime, led by Hosni Mubarak. He spoke about the struggles faced by trade unions, the "dysfunctional" educational system, the persecution of the Baha'i, and the corruption of law enforcement, which, as he described it, responds to citizen complaints of any sort with arbitrary imprisonment and torture. One might wonder how Beinin justified his prestigious stint at AUC, or as described in a 2006 interview with Egypt Today, his "comfortable life in Egypt's capital," considering the oppressive nature of his patrons.
The answer lies in Beinin's blame-America first approach. While acknowledging the existence of Islamists and the prevalence of the "imperialism/Zionism/capitalism" trope in Egypt, Beinin placed responsibility for the current state of affairs upon U.S. aid to Egypt. Egypt, as he noted, is the second largest recipient of U.S. aid next to Israel, a fact often lost upon the Israel-obsessed crowd. The U.S. "needs an unpopular government in Egypt" to maintain the "peace treaty with Israel," he concluded.
When asked by a member of the live audience who benefits from the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, Beinin pointed the finger at U.S. arms dealers and manufacturers, evangelical Christians trying to "hasten the Second Coming," and the Jewish people who, after suffering the "psychic trauma of the Holocaust," went on via the state of Israel to inflict the same abuse upon others. The identification of Nazism with aspects of Islamist ideology – despite its basis in reality – is an example of this "psychological cycle," according to Beinin.
As for the "self-destructive behavior" of the Palestinians, Beinin again blamed psychological trauma, but this time based on "dispossession." Beinin recognized and condemned the "terrorist outrages" of Hamas, while also noting that the group was democratically elected and thus enjoys popular support. He also pointed out the corruption of Fatah. Yet, he urged Israel to negotiate with a "unified Palestinian government" involving Fatah and Hamas, despite the acknowledged futility of such a course of action. As Beinin put it, "each side needs to recognize the other's pain." Israel retreating to the 1967 borders, abandoning all settlements, and "ending the occupation" wouldn't hurt either, according to Beinin.
In one of the more revealing comments of the evening, Beinin noted that "Egyptian intellectuals" were by far the most rigid and ideologically slanted in their political views. It was the intellectuals, he pointed out, who failed to make a distinction either between the U.S. government and the American people or Jews and Zionists, while the "common people" seemed to "get it."
Ironically, the same could be said for any number of intellectuals inhabiting the ivory towers of Middle East studies academia in the U.S., including Beinin himself. While Beinin's forthrightness on certain issues is laudable, his conclusions remain highly politicized. And questions surrounding Beinin's scholarship and occasionally unsavory tactics persist.
The fact that an audience member, during the question and answer period, described Beinin admiringly as the "counterpart" of the conspiratorial and tendentious University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole speaks volumes. So too does Beinin's status as a guest contributor to Cole's Informed Comment blog.
As Alyssa Lappen, writing about Beinin for Campus Watch in 2004, put it, "if one individual can showcase all the flaws of Middle East Studies in academia, Joel Beinin is that man."
Stanford students beware.
Cinnamon Stillwell is the Northern California Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.