The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) held its annual meeting at the Marriott Hotel in Washington on Nov. 19-22, 2005. Held at the Wardman Park Marriott Hotel in Washington, it was similar to previous MESA conferences. As in the past, it was dominated by the Palestinian issue and the papers presented on this subject were for the most part anti-Israel (with the exception of the usual Israel panel); and as before, the organizers failed to achieve their goal of attracting the attention of major media outlets, the public and government officials – a problem discussed at this year's meeting. On the other hand, MESA's dismal financial situation has somewhat improved, partly thanks to a gift from Saudi Aramco.
There were two positive exceptions to the usual pattern: MESA's outgoing president delivered a plenary speech calling on the members to look at the moral implications of suicide bombings; and the meeting included a well-attended panel on Iran that was probably the most professional. balanced and constructive discussion I have heard in any panel at the 15 MESA meetings I have attended.
The Palestinian Issue
Martin Kramer points out in his blog that more papers at this meeting were devoted to Palestine than to any other country, even though MESA is supposed to deal with the entire Middle East and North Africa throughout history and across many disciplines. Kramer further observes that this number was higher than at any previous MESA meeting since Sept. 11.
Perhaps the most preposterous presentation was made by a graduate student at Wisconsin-Madison in a panel entitled "Security and Violence in Palestine." The presenter, Nasser Abu-Farha – a Jenin native and resident – entitled his paper "The Making of a Human Bomb: State Expansion and Modes of Resistance in Palestine." In his presentation, he characterized Palestinian suicide bombings as "cultural practice," "cultural poetics," "cultural discourse," "cultural expression," and "cultural assertion." Abu-Farha did make one useful point: He said that Marwan Barghouti became a "national leader" because he was "the first Fatah guy to legitimize suicide operations."
In the same panel, Rachael Rudolph, a graduate student at West Virginian University, consistently referred to suicide bombers as "martyrs" and to suicide attacks as "martyrdom." She described suicide bombings as a "rational decision-making outcome," "legal resistance," "post-modern cultural production," and "cultural martyrdom."
In a panel on refugees, Noura Erakat, a Palestinian-American graduate student at the Berkeley law school, described her efforts to bring a law suit in an American court against Gen. Ya'alon for damages caused to Palestinians in the Jenin "massacre." She quoted approvingly a Jenin refugee who said after a charity group offered her food, "I don't want dinner, water or food; I want Sharon dead."
Failure to Become Relevant
At the 1994 MESA annual meeting, MESA president Rashid Khalidi delivered a keynote address entitled "Is There a Future for Middle East Studies?" His theme was the failure of MESA members – particularly university professors – to make their work relevant to the media, the public, and policy-makers. He called on them to seek media interest in MESA's work and to persuade senior officials that they have an important contribution to make to policy-making. Despite the professors' best efforts, this has not happened. I have never seen a MESA meeting even mentioned in the major media (except the Chronicle of Higher Education), nor have I spotted any senior U.S. official in those meetings.
This year's annual meeting was no exception. Indeed, the panelists at a "thematic conversation" entitled "Publics in Crisis: Academia and Activism in Middle East Studies" lamented MESA's failure to become relevant and proposed ways to correct the problem. This failure, however, does not detract from the success of MESA critics of Israel to acquire dominant positions in most Middle East programs at colleges across the country.
At the 2004 MESA conference, MESA's president described a dismal financial situation. This year, the report pointed to more positive results of MESA's efforts to raise funds. In particular, MESA succeeded in receiving a gift from an oil company; last year MESA's president reported that her efforts to get money from oil companies had ended in failure. This year's gift -- $20,000 for IT projects – came from Saudi Aramco, a company owned by the Saudi government. Notably, last year MESA's president said the organization would not seek any government money.
At the same time, all of MESA's assets are worth only $766,000; its investment profit is only $40,000.
The program included a business meeting open to all MESA members. The meeting got out of hand when the discussion turned to a letter sent last May by MESA President Ali Banuazizi to the President of the British Association of University Teachers (AUT), Angela Roger.
The letter, sent in the name of MESA's Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East and North Africa (CAFMENA), expressed "profound disagreement with [AUT's] recent decision calling on its members to ‘refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, or joint projects'" with Haifa and Bar Ilan universities. The letter urged AUT to rescind the boycott, strongly condemning it on the basis of "respect for… academic freedom." MESA's letter may have played a role in AUT's subsequent decision to rescind the boycott.
The several dozen MESA members attending the business meeting were outraged by CAFMENA's decision, which was also approved by MESA's board, loudly expressing their disapproval. Efforts by Banuazizi and CAFMENA chair Joe Stork to defend the letter were vociferously rejected.
The meeting was extended by an hour and a half beyond its allotted time to enable all the letter's opponents to express their objections. Finally a vote was called on a resolution demanding that the board reconsider the letter. The resolution stipulated that should the board decide to revoke the letter, no further action was necessary; should it decide to stand by the letter, the board would have to bring the matter to a vote by all of MESA's 2,600 members (who would likely decide to rescind the letter). The resolution was adopted by a majority of 44-to-1. Banuazizi said the resolution would become binding once it is found to be compatible with the organization's bylaws.
Should the resolution become binding and should MESA rescind the letter to AUT, it could provide useful ammunition to AUT members who are clamoring for the revival of the boycott.
Unlike any presidential address I have ever heard at a MESA conference, this year's address, by outgoing MESA president Ali Banuazizi – an Iranian-American professor at Boston College – challenged MESA's members on a particularly sensitive topic. Titling his address "Sacrificing the Self and Others in the Way of God," Banuazizi referred to suicide attacks as "suicide terrorism," and called on the members to consider taking a moral position on this phenomenon. I detected quite a few people in the audience shaking their heads and whispering to each other; Banuazizi got a far less enthusiastic ovation than had his predecessors.
Next year's MESA presidential address is likely to strike a very different note. MESA's new president is Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, whose blog deals mostly with alleged Israeli transgressions.
The second surprise was a highly professional, balanced and constructive panel on Iran, the likes of which I had never attended in a MESA conference. Under the title "U.S.-Iran Relations," the panel featured Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center, as well as Fred Halliday of the LSE, Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations and Hadi Semati of Tehran University and the Woodrow Wilson Center. The panel was chaired by MESA president Ali Banuazizi. All the speakers delivered substantive, well-thought-out presentations – including Semati, who was quite critical of his own government.
Despite these two positive exceptions, MESA's 2005 annual meeting was for the most part a repeat performance of the ills afflicting all previous meetings of this supposedly academic organization.