For the most part, Middle East studies and Islamic specialists in the United States are boisterous about the bounty of students, opportunities, and money they have come into due to the prominence of their region in the American debate. (For one example, see "Harvard Celebrates Middle East Studies.") But, as reported by Scott Jaschik at the InsideHigherEd.com website, when talking among themselves, the tone sometimes gets darker. Jaschik relates a "thematic conversation" on "Publics in Crisis: Academia and Activism in Middle East Studies" that took place Nov. 20 at the Middle East Studies Association's annual meeting.
Zachary Lockman, author of Contending Visions of the Middle East : The History and Politics of Orientalism and the Middle East studies establishment's would-be answer to Martin Kramer, spoke of a "disconnect" that bedevils the field: while internally it is stronger every day, its influence outside of academe is perhaps at an all-time low. Others in the session picked up the latter theme of woe:
Speaker after speaker — both those who prepared remarks and audience members — said that their knowledge was being ignored by the country, and especially by its leaders, at a time when that knowledge may be more crucial than ever before. On some areas of public policy, Lockman said, academics can be found briefing national leaders and serving as talking heads on television. On the Middle East, he said, those roles are largely being filled by people in the military or think tanks — "not us," he said.
Horrors. Worse yet:
Not only are Middle East scholars ignored, but they are attacked by "right wing crazies" who create Web sites to distort their work, scare off younger scholars from going into the field, and confuse the public, he said. While acknowledging that study of the Middle East is bound to be controversial, Lockman said that the current attacks on Middle East studies are "unprecedented" for the field.
The above may be read as a back-handed compliment to Campus Watch, indicating its effectiveness in showing the failure of Middle East studies. (Though, speaking of back-handed compliments, Lockman's is mild compared to that Miriam Cooke's: "Campus Watch is the Trojan horse whose warriors are already changing the rules of the game not only in Middle East studies but also in the US University as a whole.")
At the MESA discussion, depression was quickly setting in:
As more professors spoke, the mood in some ways became more gloomy to participants as many questioned whether Middle East studies is in fact respected in academe. Several speakers said that much of the growth of the field is in history, cultural studies and political science — with other disciplines skeptical.
To pull themselves out of this collective funk, participants took up possible remedies to enhance their influence. Jaschik reports that "Much of the discussion that followed concerned strategies for engaging the public (and eventually policy makers)." Specific ideas flowed about adopting union tactics, learning from the National Council of Arab Americans, and speaking to high schools, church groups, and others.
Then, mirabile dictu, Malik Mufti of Tufts University injected a note of political realism into the discussion: While endorsing the idea of reaching out, he
warned that it will be difficult. American students are patriotic, he said, and will be skeptical of analysis from Middle East scholars "if we project ourselves as hostile." And in a session in which numerous disparaging remarks were made about U.S. military activity in the Middle East, Mufti said that a major target for outreach by scholars needs to be the military. However much this fact may depress scholars, he said that for years to come, "the military will be the front line of American engagement with the Middle East."
Will Malik's wise counsel be heeded?