When my colleague Marsha Pripstein Posusney of Bryant College and I organized a workshop, entitled "The Study of the Middle East and Islam: Challenges after 9-11," at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University last spring, I naively assumed it would come off without friction. After all, I thought, we were not even talking about the Middle East—instead, we were addressing the academic context of Middle East studies in this country. Our event brought together a range of scholars and professionals whose work has been challenged since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, including people from academe, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) including the AAUP, university administration, academic publishing, and the U.S. Department of State.
As we planned the workshop, we had no difficulty enumerating the challenges facing the research and teaching of topics related to the Middle East and Islam. On the one hand, there are the new visa restrictions that have made it increasingly difficult to bring students and scholars from the region to U.S. campuses. On the other, there are the growing pressures from outside academe for supervision of Middle East studies curricula and research. Since September 11, a small group of NGOs has argued that the academy has been too critical of U.S. foreign policy and lobbied for congressional oversight of Middle East studies courses. Other NGOs have appointed themselves monitors of university curricula and have vilified instructors deemed to be promoting "dangerous" views in the classroom. Similar pressures have been placed on publishers, making it difficult for some researchers—particularly those whose work addresses the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—to find outlets, jeopardizing their career advancement.
In our study of the situation, we found that the new challenges were having a mixed impact on Middle East studies research and teaching, in no small part because they appeared concomitantly with an upsurge in interest in Middle East studies. Undeniably, the careers of many of our colleagues have been tragically affected by the coordinated slanders of monitoring groups such as Campus Watch. At the same time, interest and funding for Middle East studies research and teaching have expanded nationally in the last few years—and more Middle East studies scholars are finding employment than ever before. While too many scholars have been deported from or denied entry to this country for what appear to be mere ideological reasons, the number of students studying Arabic, Persian, and Turkish has exploded, and course offerings in Islam and the history and contemporary politics of the Middle East continue to grow across the country.
These new challenges in Middle East studies, I thought, were uncontentious facts. As we were to learn, however, not everyone at Brown University shared our opinion.
Some weeks before our conference, we became aware of organized efforts to disrupt our workshop, efforts that involved at least one member of the Brown staff. In a meeting in April, Brown Students for Israel, a pro-Likud "Israel advocacy" group,met with organizers from the David Project and, according to students present at the meeting, our workshop was one of the foci of discussion. The David Project is the organization that played the leading role in surreptitious efforts to record classroom discussions at Columbia University a few years ago and, along with the conservative group Campus Watch, was largely responsible for the vicious ad hominem attacks on Arab and Muslim faculty in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department there. At the campus meeting, Serena Eisenberg, the Hillel rabbi (an employee of the Brown chaplain's office), encouraged students to intervene "confrontationally" at the workshop and to record clandestinely the presentations of the speakers.
But it was only when one of our workshop participants, Ken Stern of the American Jewish Committee, asked us to coordinate meetings between him and students at Hillel that I began to realize what we were facing. Rabbi Eisenberg was reluctant to coordinate between Stern and her students because, as she told me, it was inappropriate for us to have organized a Middle East event without consulting her or Brown Students for Israel, the student group she mentored. She singled out workshop participants Stephen Walt and Juan Cole as being particularly "biased" in their views of the Middle East, and criticized us for taking money from the Muslim Students' Association (MSA) at Brown. I corrected her, for our support had come from the Middle East Studies Association (MESA).
That same morning, someone at Brown had posted to a neoconservative Israel advocacy Web site in California that the workshop was an "outrage." The evidence? That we had not consulted with Hillel and Brown Students for Israel, that our invitees were "biased," and that we were funded by the MSA. The posting encouraged Brown alumni to withhold their support from the university and urged citizens to contact the provost with their complaints. Soon, this charge was reposted on a number of campus monitoring sites, including Campus Watch.
The online wave of criticism against Middle East topics at Brown was déjà vu. Only months earlier, Brown students had decided to invite Nonie Darwish, an Egyptian woman who left Islam for evangelical Christianity, and whose public talks are facilitated by a small, coordinated network of right-wing Israel advocacy NGOs, like Daniel Pipes's Middle East Forum. Darwish's message is simple—Islam is a brutish, misogynist religion, and Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Darwish had been initially invited by a group of students at Hillel. But when members of the Hillel executive board consulted with the chaplain's office, they began to realize how extreme and inflammatory Darwish's denunciation of Islam was—and they backed off the invitation.
The disgruntled members of the board who had been outvoted decided to go public and, within hours, pieces began to appear across a range of right-wing print and online venues such as the New York Sun, Campus Watch, and David Horowitz's Frontline Magazine. The articles claimed that free speech at Brown had been censored by the MSA, members of which soon received chilling death threats. The president's office fielded a barrage of calls from alumni and donors who threatened to withhold money if the university allowed Muslims to stifle speech. In the end, the Office of Student Life helped to bring about a public correction of the facts and also agreed to pay Darwish's high fee for a rescheduled appearance. One of the students involved in the leak, a prominent member of Brown Students for Israel, was reprimanded because the leak had threatened the safety of Muslim students at Brown. In her talk at Brown this past spring, Darwish committed so many basic factual gaffes concerning modern Middle Eastern history and Islam that many in the otherwise friendly undergraduate audience turned against her. The question and answer period was so contentious that the faculty sponsor called it an embarrassment to Brown.
In this context, the attacks on our workshop touched a nerve on campus since, once again, the attackers attempted to forge a spurious linkage between Muslims at Brown and "outrage." The Office of Student Life formally requested that Campus Watch correct the mistake, and it obliged. No death threats resulted this time, but the provost's office heard many complaints about Brown's having allowed our workshop to take place. And many colleagues were alarmed that a non—faculty Brown employee had attempted to interfere so brazenly in the content and form of an academic event.
The fallout from this controversy was mixed. Aware that the David Project and the Hillel rabbi had encouraged students to disrupt and record our event, we felt we had to take precautions. We decided to tape the entire event ourselves so that we would have a complete record of what was said. We also hired a Brown University police officer for the event. Fortunately, the workshop went off without a hitch. The audience members who had come prepared for confrontation directed their comments at only two of our invited speakers—Stephen Walt and Juan Cole—and they were frustrated by the fact that both were speaking about the technical and practical issues of academic freedom. Representatives from the David Project attended and announced themselves as they asked prickly questions, but that was all.
Rabbi Eisenberg appeared at the beginning, but left, assured that members of Brown Students for Israel would take good notes. For those of us used to the contentious discussions that attend lectures in Middle East studies, our event was remarkably sedate. It's hard not to think of the controversy in hindsight as a tempest in a teapot. But it could have had very different consequences had we organizers been untenured faculty.
The most direct repercussions of the controversy surrounding our workshop rebounded on those at Brown who were most vociferously attacking us. Motivated in part by the fact that the Campus Watch attacks on us seemed to originate with Rabbi Eisenberg, and by the fact that she was also implicated in the earlier slander of the Muslim Students' Association, students from Hillel itself began to raise complaints to campus administrators.
To appreciate this situation, it is useful to remember the heterogeneity of Brown Hillel. Although any campus Hillel is part of a national organization, its character reflects the specific interests of its local members. Given that Brown is a fairly diverse place (despite its reputation), the community of Brown Hillel is by no means monolithic—it is home to observant and secular Jews, former Israel Defense Forces intelligence officers, and barefoot anarchists—even on issues of Israel. By emphasizing one element of Hillel's mission statement—"Israel advocacy"—to the degree that she did, and with the inflection that she did, Rabbi Eisenberg had been alienating the significant part of Brown's Jewish community who do not see Jewish nationalism as a central part of what it means for them to be Jewish. Other Hillel students who are attached to Israel also had serious disagreements with the pro-Likud, pro-settler aspects of Eisenberg's advocacy for the Jewish state.
As we later found out, we were not the first faculty members she has attempted to censor—on more than one occasion, she had contacted faculty after perusing their syllabi to request that they add more "pro-Israel" material to their course readings. Our workshop, and the controversy that Brown Students for Israel and Rabbi Eisenberg attempted to create around it, seems to have been the catalyst for bringing some of these discussions out into the open. Days after our workshop, Rabbi Eisenberg resigned her position, ostensibly for personal reasons. Whatever led to her departure—there was mounting faculty complaint about her interference in curricular matters—the incident she provoked is a rich one to consider.
Elliott Colla is associate professor of comparative literature at Brown University. He is author of Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity and translator of works of contemporary Arabic literature, including Ibrahim Aslan's novel The Heron and most recently Idris Ali's Poor.