Editors' Preface: Since September 11, 2001, public interest in Middle Eastern studies has surged worldwide. In the United States, the government has responded with a large public investment in Middle Eastern studies, pumping tens of millions of dollars

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Editors' Preface:

Since September 11, 2001, public interest in Middle Eastern studies has surged worldwide. In the United States, the government has responded with a large public investment in Middle Eastern studies, pumping tens of millions of dollars into existing Middle East centers and launching new initiatives in area and language studies.[1] In the United Kingdom, the academic stewards of Middle Eastern studies have mounted their own effort to persuade the British government to open the public purse.

In March 2002, academics, government officials, and business representatives convened at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London for a workshop on the state of Middle Eastern studies. Its deliberations were summarized in a June report prepared by the vice president of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES), entitled "Middle Eastern Studies in the United Kingdom: A Challenge for Government, Industry, and the Academic Community."[2]

The background to the report is the relative decline of Middle Eastern studies in Britain over the last thirty years. The waning of empire, budgetary austerity, politicization, brain drain to America—these and other factors have eroded Britain's former preeminence. "One must deplore the loss of British leadership in Oriental and African studies," wrote the late P.J. Vatikiotis, founding chair of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Oriental and African Studies.

The wealth of American universities may be irresistible, but money is not the only reason for the loss of leadership. It is rather the "Woolworth's" mentality and approach, of relating "sales" (i.e. students) in cleverly packaged courses to income, the expansion of so-called part-time enrolment for diploma and certificate short courses ... which effectively undermine sustained quality academic work. Thus if there was a time when polytechnics aspired to become more like universities, now universities are hustling to become more like polytechnics.

In the 1970s, wrote Vatikiotis, "we suddenly lost most of our star quality colleagues," some of whom fled across the Atlantic. (The most famous instance: Bernard Lewis, who taught for thirty years at the School of Oriental and African Studies before leaving for Princeton in 1974.) "Quick income-generating exercises of 'servicing' business and industry" transformed those left behind into "overpaid schoolmasters and 'academic butlers.'"[3]

The odor of decline deterred students. In 1991, Vatikiotis declared it "impossible to recruit and train a new cadre of U.K. students and younger academics in Oriental and African studies." Those who did sign on "are not comfortable or proficient in the exotic language(s) of their regional speciality," and labored in an "overmanaged and bureaucratized environment" that discouraged "bold and arresting work."[4] Ten years later, Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics underlined the result: "There is an enormous shortage of people under forty-five years old in Britain who are able to write about the Middle East." Those who did enter the field were improperly trained: "There is no time allowed to learn languages and comparative history, and there is too much emphasis on abstract skills." Instruction was "not appropriate for training a research community for the twenty-first century."[5]

The United Kingdom does have a large infrastructure in the field. There are centers for Middle Eastern or Islamic studies at Birmingham, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Leeds, London (School of Oriental and African Studies), Manchester, and Oxford. The School of Oriental and African Studies and Oxford each have thirty affiliated faculty who teach and research the Middle East.

But it has been a difficult infrastructure to maintain. Some of these institutions depend heavily on gifts from wealthy Arab and Muslim governments and individuals, to a degree unparalleled in the United States or continental Europe. The sultan of Brunei paid for the showcase building of the School of Oriental and African Studies, and the emir of Sharjah has funded Arab and Islamic studies centers, including new buildings, at Durham and Exeter. Saudi Arabia has funded an Islamic studies center at Oxford. This dependence sets obvious limits on research agendas. There are also radicalizing influences: a few centers have become loci of political agitation by Middle Eastern students. No longer quiet redoubts of academic study, they have been turned into battlefields.

This is the background to the BRISMES report. It is a plea for a renewed social contract between academe, government, and business, with a mind to bringing about what its author calls a "national renaissance" of Middle Eastern studies in Britain. Perhaps its most striking feature is the explicit willingness of the academics to place their enterprise at the service of their own government, including the security services and intelligence. The plea for additional funding is couched expressly in the language of British "national security." It seems unlikely that the British exchequer will put up the proposed endowment of £40 million. But the report's suggestion that new funding be "overseen by a national committee comprising academics and the policy and business communities," creates new terms of reference for administering any additional resources.

Middle Eastern studies in Britain suffer from the same intellectual ailments as their American cousins. What they do not share is the sense of entitlement that pervades American Middle Eastern studies, an attitude fostered by many years of automatic subsidies from Washington. The BRISMES document is not only a window on the problems and prospects of Middle Eastern studies in the United Kingdom; it might well serve as a model for the kind of discussions between academe, government, and business that should be taking place in the United States.

The author of the report is Professor Anoush Ehteshami, vice president and chair of council of BRISMES and immediate past director of the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Durham. He is the author of After Khomeini: The Iranian Second Republic (1995) and many studies on Middle Eastern security.

The Problem in a Nutshell

The tragic events of September 2001 and their continuing aftermath have again highlighted the importance of the Islamic world and the Middle East in particular to international stability and to Western security. Since September, we have learned of the many close associations between Islamic groups straddling the vast expanse of the Muslim world, organising themselves with impunity in locations hitherto inaccessible to the international community. The September attacks also highlighted the need for a better understanding of the cultures of the Muslim world, the Islamic civilisation in its broadest terms and the politics and socioeconomic structures of Muslim societies. The West has learned since September that despite its continuing involvement with the Middle East and the Muslim world, it in fact lacks the depth of expertise to allow it to interpret and engage with this important part of the world.

More than ever, therefore, government and industry need to understand the Middle East and the wider Islamic world, whether for reasons of national security or commercial interest; but U.K. institutions concerned with the Middle East and the Islamic world are reaching the point where they will no longer be able to provide the expertise essential to such an understanding. A modest investment in Middle Eastern studies could put this right: £40 million (the amount proposed) is a small sum of money compared with the national interests at stake.

On 18th March 2002, representatives of government, industry and academic communities and research institutions met at the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] to take stock of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies in the U.K. The conclusions were disturbing, namely:

  • Government and industry need the services of U.K. institutions concerned with Middle Eastern and Islamic studies (whether in terms of output of graduates or availability of experts who can be consulted as and when required).
  • Neither government nor industry is likely to receive the services it will need in the future, largely because U.K. institutions concerned with Middle Eastern and Islamic studies are no longer able or willing to sustain the level of investment needed in these areas without substantial external support.
  • Reduced expertise will also affect the information available to the non-government sector, e.g. the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and civil society in general, including members of the media for whom impartial information is essential if news reports are to be well-informed and balanced.
  • Industry currently tends to recruit from overseas to meet language requirements, but this in turn often leads to the necessity to improve the English of employees.
  • The security services, which have a nationality requirement, are finding it increasingly difficult to attract candidates with a training in Middle Eastern languages–indeed they are currently experiencing a particular shortage of speakers of Arabic. Recruits with other Middle Eastern languages are also sought urgently.
  • Some Middle Eastern languages (including Kurdish) are not being taught at all in the U.K. The absence of these is potentially a huge threat to national security.
  • The situation is likely to worsen because of the continuing erosion of expertise, especially through the imminent retirement of a whole generation of senior specialists in the field.
  • Universities, which were funded to create area studies programmes in the 1960s, have to some extent reneged on their undertakings. It is difficult to locate the legacy of support generated through the Hayter and Scarborough [sic] initiatives, for example.[6]

Taking Stock

Regarding the needs of commerce, industry, and other employers, the following requirements were identified:

  • The Security Service is currently experiencing a particular shortage of speakers of North African Arabic and urgently needs individuals with other Middle Eastern expertise as well as in-depth knowledge of the geography, historical background, and other socioeconomic and political trends of the region.
  • Security Service and other agencies require linguists to work on counter-terrorism, serious crime, and counter-proliferation. Together, these agencies will seek to recruit 15-20 Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, and Pushtu speakers (with capability in the dialects as well as the 'educated' versions of the languages) during the present Financial Year (2002/03). The need is not only for language skills: a good knowledge of the politics and culture of the region is needed as well. All three agencies find it difficult to recruit enough such experts.
  • Middle East studies departments help in ways other than the simple provision of recruitable linguists. For example, for GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters],[7] they provide teaching materials and assessment for in-house courses, refresher/language enhancement courses, and a community of native speakers who can offer tuition in languages outside the mainstream of university provision.
  • The media do not recruit area specialists but do rely on them on a daily basis for expert input. But a reduced availability of academics who specialise in the Middle East and North Africa means that journalists' ability to write sensibly about the region is also reduced. This is also of interest to government, which needs debate on key areas of policy to be informed by knowledge and expert insight.
  • Community relations: the intake of British Muslims to Islamic studies courses can help to generate a more informed debate on Islamic issues within the U.K.'s Muslim communities.
  • Businesses operating in/on the Middle East and North Africa and wider Islamic regions can be more flexible than [government] when recruiting specialists, as commercial companies can dispense with the nationality requirement.
  • For British executives, however, a working knowledge of Middle Eastern and North African languages (for social interaction, or dealing with customs or roadblocks, etc.) gives a real advantage. Some acquaintance with the Qur'an and other literature can also help to establish empathy.
  • For generalist grades (that is, non-specialist diplomats), the FCO's selection procedures only give preference to those with specialist knowledge of certain parts of the world if there is nothing to choose between candidates, on other criteria. Middle East and North Africa Research Group (MENARG) and other Groups in Research Analysts (RA)[8] working on the Islamic world do, however, need area specialists with relevant language skills. Many applicants for RA posts are not fully equipped linguistically and require expensive and time-consuming training after recruitment.

In the course of the seminar, participants discussed and highlighted the key problems associated with regional/area studies in Britain and the place of Middle East studies within it. The participants, who had great experience and expertise in their fields, agreed that Middle East studies' core problems were caused by five main factors:

  • First, the current HEFCE [Higher Education Funding Council for England][9] funding formula does not recognise the difficulties involved in learning non-European languages (labour intensive, small group size teaching, etc.). These need to be identified and supported.
  • Second, research bodies also seem to fail to support area studies. The ESRC [Economic and Social Research Council][10] is a case in point. Because of their increasingly 'thematic' approach and funding allocation, the importance of regional studies seems to be downgraded in their research-funding programmes.

More broadly, it was found that:

  • The paucity in scholarships and research grants in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies has had a direct and deleterious effect on postgraduate student numbers in the field. This in turn has affected the types of research conducted by home students. All participants agreed that the future of regional studies lay in training the next generation of British nationals. Lack of funding for research has meant that few students are now being trained to take up posts in British universities and think tanks.
  • It was made alarmingly clear that the field is about to face severe staffing difficulties as senior staff retire and institutions fail to replace them with individuals with similar kinds of expertise. It is also clear that scholars are not being trained, even to enter at the junior level.
  • The lower priority now associated with language learning is adversely affecting student recruitment and is likely to result in fewer trained linguists with a specialism in the Middle East and Islamic world. This will naturally mean that Middle Eastern studies departments will not have the depth of expertise that they should, with the implicit consequences for national security that this will entail.

Participants in the Workshop identified the need to have the skills, experts, and the necessary infrastructure in place so that our current and future leaders may be better placed to collate and interpret information and foresee crises that will continue to emanate from this complex, dynamic, and strategic part of the globe. Investment is needed now to secure the current very high standards in the field and ensure that the valuable infrastructures already in place will not perish through inadvertent neglect.

Britain is regarded as a world leader in the field of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies. Students from all round the world, including from the Middle East, come to this country to take advantage of its considerable intellectual wealth and resources in this area; it makes strategic sense for Britain itself to capitalise on this expertise and to invest in its future.

State of the Field

  • Many senior specialists will be retiring within the next 5-10 years. In many cases, there are no obvious replacements.
  • Where academics interested in the region are teaching in universities without Middle East studies departments, there is no guarantee that, when they retire or leave, they will be replaced by Middle Eastern specialists.
  • The trend towards short-term funding for posts means that academics cannot take on Ph.D. students, as the academics cannot be sure that they will be around to see the work through to its conclusion. This is one reason why a younger generation of area specialists is not emerging in the U.K. to take over.
  • Another aspect of funding has a similar effect: in order to maintain cash flow, U.K. universities have to take a high proportion of fee-paying foreign students—who generally return to their own countries rather than remaining to teach, write, and provide expert services here. The universities are currently doing a wonderful job in training research specialists from all around the world except Britain. They are thus training Britain's competitors. Very few home students are emerging with Ph.D.s in the Politics of the Middle East, for instance—a fact seen as being directly attributable to the funding and the funding bodies' procedures which are often perceived as lacking in understanding of what is needed in this field of studies.
  • Britain's Middle East/Muslim world experts find themselves in a very competitive international environment. France and Germany may already have the edge over the U.K. in terms of knowledge of the Middle East because of the existence of French-funded research institutions working in and on the region (e.g., CERMOC in Amman, CEDEJ in Cairo, and CEFAS in Sana'a). There are also French research institutes in Tashkent and Samarkand and in Uzbekistan. The Deutsche Morgenlaendische Gesellschaft funded by the German Federal Government (Ministry of Education and Research) has institutes in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Turkey. Again, this collaboration enhances knowledge of the Middle East. Other European countries are forging ahead of the U.K. in this field.
  • Private funding is obtained for research projects but rarely for teaching posts.
  • Private funding for Islamic studies often comes from Muslim sources. This funding has to be accepted because of the lack of government funding, but there are often strings attached: for example, Sunni funders may dictate that their money cannot be spent on the study of Shi'ism.
  • When money is tight, language teaching (a labour-intensive activity) is often the first area to suffer. For example, posts for language assistants may be cut.
  • However, the techniques of language teaching have improved–excellent results have been obtained from a new Arabic syllabus which has adopted a new approach to the relationship between spoken and written Arabic. The shift in teaching and learning methods will be beneficial to the policy and business communities. Persian and Turkish are benefiting from a similar revolution in teaching and learning methods.
  • The security services are currently experiencing a shortage of speakers of North African Arabic and shortages in other Middle Eastern languages are also anticipated.
  • Some subjects of genuine contemporary relevance have simply disappeared from U.K. universities—Kurdish, Central Asian, and some Afghan languages are striking examples.
  • There is very little work being done in U.K. universities on the role of women in Muslim societies and their contribution to the public sphere including peaceful resolution of conflicts.

The Way Forward

There is little disagreement that better understanding of the Middle East and Islamic world is of great importance to Britain's national interest. The highest levels of government have already strongly underlined this fact. Britain needs a national strategy in order to understand the forces and the players shaping the strategically vital Middle East region. With the United States now limiting access to its universities, think tanks and other resources for Middle Eastern and Muslim country nationals, it seems to make very good sense for the United Kingdom to capitalise on its historic and recognised links with the Middle East to intensify its relations with the Middle East and Muslim worlds and encourage educational and broader Track Two contact with individuals and institutions of this area. The United States has already recognised the need for a better understanding and is making more intensive investment in the development of expertise in the languages, societies, and polities of the Middle East and the Muslim world.[11] Foresight and investment of equivalent magnitude are needed in the U.K. if we are to maintain our comparative advantage in the volatile period ahead.

The United Kingdom must complement any extra provision for languages and the religions of the region with new funding for posts in a broad range of social science and humanities related fields. Politics and international relations, geography and geopolitics, economics and Islamic finance, history, gender and anthropological studies are the vital disciplines in which Britain has already distinguished herself and must therefore continue to support. The deep-rooted understanding that U.K. experts have accumulated of the politics, geography, geopolitics, economies, and societies of the region must therefore be protected and nurtured.

The United Kingdom, for its own future interests, should follow the American model with regards to provision of extra resources. The extra funding should be ring-fenced and overseen by a national committee comprising academics and the policy and business communities. It should be the case that the funds are endowed in such a fashion as to ensure that institutions become guardians of these posts in perpetuity, thus guaranteeing a national spread of expertise.

The report concludes with a proposal for the establishment of a £40 million endowment, half of which would go to creating new academic positions at established centers, and the other half divided between student scholarships and post-doctoral fellowships.—Eds.

[1] Martin Kramer, "Arabic Panic," Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2002, pp. 88-90.
[2] At http://www.dur.ac.uk/brismes/report%20-%20ME%20studies%20in%20the%20UK.htm. The report was summarized in Education Guardian, June 18, 2002.
[3] P.J. Vatikiotis, Among Arabs and Jews: A Personal Experience 1936-1990 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991), pp. 140-1.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Quoted in Education Guardian, Sept. 12, 2001.
[6] The Scarbrough Report (1947), the issue of a royal commission, provided the mandate for the initial expansion of Middle Eastern and other African and Asian studies in post-war Britain. The Hayter Report (1961), produced by a subsequent commission, represented the British response to the post-Sputnik acceleration of area studies in the United States. Both reports served as blueprints to the rapid growth of Middle Eastern studies in the United Kingdom in the 1950s and 1960s.—Eds.
[7] This is the British intelligence unit for electronic surveillance, the equivalent of the National Security Agency in the United States.—Eds.
[8] These groups form the research branch of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.—Eds.
[9] This council is the leading public funding body for teaching and research in British universities and colleges.—Eds.
[10] This government-funded council funds research on issues of importance to business, the public sector, and government, and supports training in the social sciences.—Eds.
[11] At this point, the author gives a description, omitted here, of the additional Title VI appropriation of January 2002 (see Kramer, "Arabic Panic," pp. 88-90); and the National Flagship Language Initiative (see Martin Kramer, "MESA Culpa," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002, pp. 82-4).—Eds.