Many professors keep regular blogs, but few are as widely read, and as controversial, as Juan Cole's Informed Comment. Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan, is both an example of how an academic may share his expertise with rigour and plain diction—and that such expertise is in demand, judging by the size of the blog's readership, which Cole says attracts 600,000 to a million visits a month—and, depending on who you ask, an example of how Middle East scholars are too politicized and rather un-American.
Early this month, a group of Middle East historians and academics—including Princeton's Bernard Lewis and John Hopkins political science professor Fouad Ajami, and others who generally support a robust U.S. foreign policy—started a new group called the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) to counter what they say is the politicization of Middle East studies by academics such as Juan Cole and organizations such as the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), which Cole is a member of and once headed. MESA is holding their annual conference in Montreal this weekend.
Cole disputes such charges, saying ASMEA is "exclusively ideological, for people on the right." (ASMEA did not return calls from the Mirror). The biggest problem facing Middle East academics, however, is the pressure by off-campus interest groups that disagree with a professor's stances, he says.
"Outside groups, non-specialists, intervene because they don't like the conclusions," he says. "The politicization of scholarship is very dangerous. Scholars are like canaries in a mine. They are on the cutting edge of research, and most sensitive to dangers in a society. If you silence them, you're poking out the eyes of society."
Few topics are likely to raise as much controversy as the Palestine-Israel conflict and U.S. policy in the Middle East, subjects Cole often blogs about. Cole will chair a panel on the topic this weekend during the annual MESA conference in Montreal, focusing on the case of two political scientists, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who authored an essay and a book on the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in the American government and its decision to invade Iraq—a taboo of scholarship, judging by the denunciation of Walt and Mearsheimer by pro-Israel groups in the U.S.
Walt and Mearsheimer, both respected scholars in the Realist school of political science, were asked to write an essay about the topic for The Atlantic Monthly, which wound up spiking the article (the essay was finally published overseas, in the London Review of Books). "I don't think the Mearsheimer and Walt case changed anything," says Cole. "Everyone in academia already knew that messing with right-wing Zionists was dangerous. Anybody in the field feels pressure, and one point is to complicate tenure cases."
Over the past few years, pro-Israel groups and advocates have protested the tenure bids of several professors they considered anti-Israel, including DePaul University political theory professor Norman Finkelstein and Barnard College anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj. In Finkelstein's case, his bid was denied by the senior administration after his department voted to accept it. Cole had a similar experience when he was considered for tenure by Yale's history department. The department voted to grant him tenure, but the administration chose to veto the recommendation, in part because of his blog, according to a university official who spoke to the Jewish Week newspaper. The Jewish Week also reported that opponents who accused Cole of anti-Israel statements began a letter writing campaign to Yale's donors, many of them Jewish, according to the newspaper, asking them to intervene (the newspaper reported that four big donors protested hiring Cole to the administration).
"The disturbing thing is the attempt to intervene in the specific academic process," says Cole, adding that the pro-Israel groups are one among many interest groups that intervene in hiring decisions. "It used to be the government, now it's private interest groups," he says.
Although taking positions on such topics may seem to be an occupational hazard to scholars, especially non-tenured scholars, Cole says, "Academics in a democracy have a responsibility to speak up."
More academics are using the Internet to cut through the middlemen of conventional media. "There is an enormous thirst for expertise and for a less surface reading of things," he says. "The U.S. is in a quagmire in large part because decisions were made by people who were uninformed about the Middle East. If people want more quagmires, they can be sanguine about the silencing of [academics]."