Perhaps no single figure better represents the lamentable situation of Middle East studies (MES) today than Professor Natana J. DeLong-Bas, a Georgetown graduate who currently teaches at Brandeis University and Boston College. Her specialty happens to be Wahhabism, the ultrafundamentalist Islamic sect and state religion in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism inspires al-Qaida and its variants--including the Sunni jihadists currently murdering U.S. and coalition troops, as well as Shia Muslims, in Iraq.
DeLong-Bas is a professional apologist for Saudi extremism. She recently reached a depth of mendacity about radical Islam it is hard to imagine her exceeding. In an interview with the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat of December 21, 2006, while visiting the desert kingdom, DeLong-Bas announced that she had found "no convincing evidence that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks on the World Trade Center." Her interview was made public in translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) at www.memri.org.
In a long colloquy clearly intended to flatter her Saudi patrons, DeLong-Bas claimed that she had been studying the works of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabi sect, for a decade, and had read all of them. But she was forced by a persistent Saudi reporter to admit that she had never read the Islamist preacher's correspondence, which critics of Wahhabism and other Saudis consider key to understanding him. She rambled on, claiming that Islamist terror has nothing to do with radical religious interpretations, and with an almost absurd predictability blamed everything wrong in the Muslim and Arab world on the U.S. and Israel. She even described the "democracy" of terrorist groups like Hamas and the Wahhabi agents in Somalia as superior in achievement to U.S. democratization efforts.
Intellectually, Natana DeLong-Bas fits comfortably in the philosophical milieu of contemporary MES. For the majority of MES scholars in the U.S., certain clich�s--little more than slogans--have become the foundation for teaching a new generation of American scholars. These truisms include the claim that radical Islam is a construct fabricated by Western "Orientalists," that all the problems of the Arab and Muslim nations are caused by Western economic rapacity, and, of course, that American support for Israel is the principal cause of Arab and Muslim discontent.
Prior to September 11, a relatively unknown DeLong-Bas appeared to be little more than one of many disciples of John L. Esposito, a renowned Georgetown professor and Islamist apologist who directs the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. She was a mere research assistant at Georgetown, completing a dissertation on Wahhabism and co-authoring a second edition of Esposito's volume Women in Muslim Family Law (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002).
When the fact that 15 out of 19 of the 9/11 suicide squad were Saudis came to America's attention, and scrutiny of Saudi Wahhabism began, Esposito introduced DeLong-Bas to the media as an "expert" to counter suspicion about the Wahhabi danger. DeLong-Bas argued in The Boston Globe as early as 2003 that the writings of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the eponymous sect, were moderate and unthreatening and treated other Muslims, as well as non-Muslims, tolerantly and fairly.
This outlandish opinion, delivered in the wake of the atrocities less than two years before, was fleshed out when her volume Wahhabi Islam was published by Oxford University Press in 2004. There she presented Wahhabism as anti-jihad and so benevolent as to be even feminist. Her book seemed to have been rushed into print with official Saudi support: DeLong-Bas thanked such individuals as Faisal bin Salman, whose status as a Saudi prince she failed to mention; Abd Allah S. al-Uthaymin, son of a notoriously extreme member of the Wahhabi clerical class in the kingdom; and Fahd as-Semmari, director of the King Abd al-Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. She also acknowledged the latter foundation for financial support. Even during the worst period of American academic accommodation to Soviet Communism, in the late 1980s, it is difficult to imagine an American academic scholar admitting direct receipt of funding from Moscow.
But Saudi Arabia, as we all know, is different, and DeLong-Bas is remarkably candid; she soon became the most strident defender of Wahhabism in the West, and especially in academia.
Western politicians and academics, who determine and interpret, respectively, the course of world affairs, are more to blame for the public's ignorance of Middle East affairs than are the media. As an experienced news reporter for a major American daily, I believe most reporters simply followed the practice of the profession. Acting as "first responders" similar to firefighters, police, and nurses, they accumulated quickly-observable facts and then turned to academic "experts" to analyze them. It was among American professors of Middle East studies, rather than on the battlefield, that truth became the first casualty.
The totalitarian influence exercised over MES is profoundly alarming. A small list of sensible and well-developed American authorities in the discipline has challenged MES stereotypes, but these critics are frequently attacked, isolated, and ostracized.
Why should this "treason of the intellectuals" matter to most Westerners? Because it implies treason to civilization. Its effects may even be worse for the Muslim world than for the West; but the field of Middle East Studies lacks any conscience about the consequences of its practitioners' surrender to ideology.
Stephen Schwartz is author of The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role in Terrorism, and Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism [www.islamicpluralism.org]. He was a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1989 to 1999. He writes for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.