Middle East scholars are forming a new group to promote high standards of teaching and scholarship on the Middle East.
The Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, founded by a noted Middle East scholar at Princeton University, Bernard Lewis, will challenge the Middle East Studies Association, which is dominated by academics who have been critical of Israel and of America's role in the Middle East. "Because of various political and financial pressures and inducements, the study of the Middle East and of Africa has been politicized to a degree without precedent," Professor Lewis said in a statement. "Given the importance of these regions, there is an acute need for objective and accurate scholarship and debate, unhampered by entrenched interests and allegiances."
"MESA is still fighting some of the old battles from the '60s and '70s," the president of ASMEA, Mark Clark, said. "They're dealing with nationalism in the territories, and anti-colonialism, which is far less important today."
MESA leaders yesterday denied the accusations of partisanship. "It's funny for some of the members of this group to accuse MESA of being political when they themselves have contributed to the politicization of the field," the president of MESA, Zachary Lockman of New York University, said.
The clash between the two organizations is raising questions about whether the region can be studied without an ideological pull in either direction.
"There is no such thing as apolitical discussion of the Middle East," a journalist and author who has reported extensively on the region, Jeffrey Goldberg, said. "Either you believe that the state of Israel was a justifiable response to 2,000 years of anti-Semitism, or you don't. Everything flows from this, which is why it's even hard to agree on sets of facts."
"The group is a great idea, but it's going to be a hopeless task to convince the other side that you are the objective ones and they are the biased ones," Mr. Goldberg said.
ASMEA members will be able to apply for research grants through the association, and the group also plans to offer a "syllabi bank" where professors will be able to share coursework and reading lists.
"I don't see the need for it," Mr. Lockman said. "MESA is open to everyone, there's no political test of membership. I will leave it to these folks to see if they need to organize separately."
ASMEA is planning to host its first conference in April in Washington, D.C., where members will discuss the evolution of Islamic politics in the Middle East and Africa.