Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami have finally taken a long-overdue leap: they have formed the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) in an effort to break the 'intellectual' monopoly of the Middle East Studies Association of North Africa (MESA).
This is the tale of a band of revolutionaries who have escaped to a sanctuary where they shall be free to preach a new faith. Using an Islam-inspired parable, this is similar to the story of the early Muslims who broke away from the stranglehold of Quraysh tribe and its inflexible observances to the old pagan gods.
Lewis and Ajami are preaching a new way of looking at the Middle East, while MESA perpetuates all that is generic and insipid about how America understands that region—it's tainted by Saudi financing to boot, just like Quraysh was beholden to the revenues that its deities brought to Mecca! But America and the world cannot afford to lounge around in the blissful lethargy of intellectual shallowness now that the jihadists of the Middle East—many of them Saudis or fueled with Saudi money—have declared their war and delivered their bomb-laden calling cards.
Naturally, the MESAists are up in arms against Lewis and Ajami, whom they accuse of heresy and witchcraft, having cast a spell on George Bush's mind. The MESAists have shunned both Lewis and Ajami for decades but now find themselves threatened as this new faith gathers more force and its ranks are swelled by new believers. The MESA-allied blog-mob has broken out in agitation and denunciation!
Tribal warfare in pre-Islamic Arabia always featured two celebrated heroes: the finest warrior of the tribe and its most electrifying poet. This hallmark also presented itself in the early battles between the Muslims and Quraysh. Those ritualized battles began with a duel between the two famed warriors of either side, the mubareza, and was followed by the mubahella, a duet of fighting words as one tribe's most accomplished poet matched his (or her) wits against those of his (or her) opposite number.
ASMEA boasts Bernard Lewis as its intellectual warrior—a man with a breathtaking comprehension of the Middle East—and Fouad Ajami as its richly erudite and thoroughly convincing poet who can make sense of that region to any audience. Together, they are a formidable pair for the ASMEA clan, but who can the MESA tribe put up to match the Lewis-Ajami duo?
The ASMEA and MESA divide also breaks along the supporters of the Iraq war and their detractors, so maybe that's the arena where we should look for possible match-ups.
How about Juan Cole and As'ad Abu Khalil? Okay, okay, I'll admit it: I'm being facetious here since this pairing is the intellectual equivalent of a carny and his performing monkey.
But who else? John Voll and Rashid Khalidi? Joel Beinin and Shibley Telhami? William Quandt and Helena Cobban?
Are you kidding? Would you match any of those against Lewis and Ajami? That would be, in the words of a dear wise friend, "like bringing an abacus to a microchip fight."
The doyen of the anti-ASMEA universe is John Esposito, who once served as the president of MESA. Esposito? C'mon, I mean, is this guy even proficient in a Middle Eastern language? How could he possibly square-off against Bernard Lewis who is fluent in four Middle Eastern languages (Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and Hebrew), two dying regional languages (Syriac and Aramaic), and one dead imperial language (Ottoman)?
Esposito is also the recipient of Saudi money; how can someone living off the largesse of the Saudis be expected to criticize Saudi Arabia, a country that is demonstrably responsible for some of the greatest ills facing the Middle East?
That's why MESA shies away from discussing contemporary Middle Eastern issues for fear than any controversy may scare away the funders.
Can we all agree that Iraq is an important issue, and that such important issues should be front and center among the priorities to be discussed by Middle Eastern scholars? Yes? Good. Then why is it that during MESA's upcoming annual conference only five (yes, FIVE) panels are dedicated to Iraq out of a total of 206! Whereas there are at least a dozen panels dedicated to gender and sexuality studies!
Furthermore, there doesn't seem to be a single panel that seriously sets out to discuss jihadism during the whole four day stretch of the conference.
MESA is willfully out of touch with reality and this year's program is a clear indictment of that fact. Lewis and Ajami are trying to bring Middle Eastern studies back into the real world.
Lewis and Ajami are accused of counseling the Bush administration on its Middle Eastern policy and hence 'politicizing' the academy. Why was it okay for Sovietologists to give counsel to the powers that be during the Cold War, but it's objectionable when Middle Eastern experts weigh in during the war on terror? MESA objections fall into the category of influence-envy; Lewis and Ajami are listened to because they know what they are talking about. Their feedback is relevant and important, whereas MESAists are busy pontificating about proto-feminist tendencies among rural basket weavers of 18th century Hama.
Why did this happen to MESA? There are very capable and brilliant scholars who show up to MESA conference and present papers, and believe me, when it's good, it's really good. But instead of being heralded as MESA's shining face, they have been marginalized by the fuddy-duddy apparatchiks who run the show. These apparatchiks hide their intellectual mediocrity by shouting at the top of their voices: their shrillness, usually on left-of-center issues, distracts from the vacuity of their academic output, and their role model for this sort of theatrical behavior was a man called Edward Said.
As far as I'm concerned, Robert Irwin, author of last year's For Lust of Knowing, has given the world the definitive account of why Said's Orientalism (1978) was wrong and fraudulent.
Said was never a Middle East expert; his scope was comparative literature, a field which has mutated into the playground of every maladjusted and culturally insecure academic misfit pining for 'authenticity'—thanks to Said's 'pioneering' work!
It's interesting that in 1983, Said actually thought he was up to the challenge and publicly debated Bernard Lewis. Lewis was joined by Leon Wieseltier, while Said was paired up with Christopher Hitchens. Lewis trounced Said and made him look like a man totally out of his depth. Isn't it ironic that Hitchens, like Lewis and Ajami, stands today as that rare breed of intellectual who's still for the Iraq war, even though the chaff that first aligned itself with the wind have hurriedly pleaded their mea culpas (...I'm looking at you George Packer). So, in a sense, Hitchens was won over after he recognized that Lewis was speaking with far greater authority than a poser like Said; Hitchens' conversion is what usually happens when one combines authenticity with intellectual curiosity and a dose of courage.
So there you have it, the two most knowledgeable scholars of Middle Eastern studies, who also happen to be committed supporters of the Iraq war, are finally smashing the idols of the MESA tribe and declaring that there will be a new way of looking at the region.
Or, as the early Muslims put it on the eve of their victory over Quraysh:
جاء الحق وزهق الباطل إن الباطل كان زهوقا
[I should note, for the purpose of full disclosure, that I know both Lewis and Ajami personally but have never discussed ASMEA or MESA with either of them.]