The epistemological crisis besetting North America universities is evident across disciplines, from the humanities to the soft social sciences. And while considerable attention has been paid to the politicization of those fields most in the public eye—American history and English literature come readily to mind—no area has been more thoroughly corrupted than Middle East studies (MES).
That this decline has occurred in recent decades is both unsurprising and unfortunate. It would be peculiar if MES were spared the intellectual ravages of related fields, but the very instability that plagues so much of the Middle East makes the descent of MES into a quagmire of tendentious, politicized, and often shoddy scholarship and teaching especially regrettable.
Just when the West faces serious, prolonged challenges to its way of life from Islamist terrorists bent on replacing liberal democracy with Sharia law, the reservoir of reliable, dispassionate, university-based expertise on this difficult, complex region is drying up.
This means that today's students encounter a generation of professors known more for their hostility toward the West—most particularly America and Israel—than for their dedication to rigorous research and teaching. In brief, we've gone from the scholarly study of Bernard Lewis, the professor emeritus of history at Princeton, to the activist den of Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University, whose hostility to Israel and America matches that of the man for whom his endowed chair is named, the late Edward Said.
Said has long been the most influential writer in contemporary MES. His 1978 book Orientalism indicted generations of scholars as racist minions of colonial powers whose work marginalized Arabs and Muslims. That it is demonstrably a work of inferior and politicized scholarship, laden with errors of omission and commission, has mattered little to the profession.
Today, Said's disciples act as gate-keepers to the field of MES, a role that allows them to keep their field "pure" by blocking the hiring of scholars hostile to their views, or by purging or marginalizing professors who value scholarly rigor over radical chic.
I'll close with two pieces of evidence that further illustrate the scope of the problem.
Khalid charged in 2003 that the Iraq war, "will be fought because these neo-conservatives desire to make the Middle East safe not for democracy, but for Israeli hegemony…. For these American Likudniks and their Israeli counterparts, sad to say, the tragedy of September 11 was a godsend: It enabled them to draft the United States to help fight Israel's enemies."
The Wahhabi Saudis have poured tens of millions of dollars into American MES programs, most notably at Georgetown and Harvard universities, which received $20 million each from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Such largesse makes less likely the production of scholarship that is either critical of tyrannical regimes, terrorism, or anti-Semitism, or positively disposed toward Western ideas and influences, or efforts at self-defense in the war on Islamist radicals.