Concerns over academic freedom loomed large over the scholarly presentations here at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, a group whose members sometimes confess to feeling as besieged as they do blessed by the contemporary preoccupation with their region of study.
The association's Committee on Academic Freedom reported that it was busier than ever this year sending letters of intervention in cases where it sees the freedom of scholars— either in the region or studying the region— as threatened.
"There's been an explosion of cases lately," said Gershon Shafir, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego and a member of the academic-freedom committee.
Laurie Brand, the committee's chairwoman and a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, said the group had sent out 22 letters of intervention over the past 10 months. The prime trouble spots: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the United States.
In a panel presentation on the first day of the meeting, the committee summed up its work over the year. The discussion panned from concerns over the American reception of John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt's book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, to descriptions of speech crackdowns in Turkey and blasphemy lawsuits against professors in Kuwait.
When MESA, as the association is known, decided to hold this year's meeting here in Canada, it was in part just because the group had not met north of the border since the late 1980s, said Amy W. Newhall, executive director of the association and an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Arizona. But another consideration bolstered the choice as well: lingering feelings that travel to the United States is problematic for Middle Eastern scholars, even six years after the terrorist attacks of September 2001.
"There was a certain sentiment within the board, given the difficulties of the visa situation after 9/11, that perhaps a Canadian venue would be less restrictive," Ms. Newhall said in an interview at the conference.
Whether or not the switch to Canadian ground actually made for easier travel, Ms. Newhall said, the move appears to have generated a windfall of participation.
"We had more submissions for this meeting than we've ever had before," said Ms. Newhall. "And the largest expansion is from our European members."
Ms. Newhall's tentative conclusion: For some international members of the 2,700-strong association, the impression of U.S. inhospitality toward Middle Eastern scholars has not gone away.
This year's meeting also comes on the heels of an announcement from Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, two prominent scholars of the region who are closely associated with the Bush administration's Middle East policy, that they have founded a new group called the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa.
The new group has scheduled its own conference for April 2008 with the theme, "The Evolution of Islamic Politics in the Middle East and Africa: From Traditional Limits to Modern Extremes."
Mr. Lewis is a professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, and Mr. Ajami is a professor and director of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins University.
In a written statement, Mr. Lewis, the new group's chairman, said he was founding it because study of the region had become too "politicized"— a comment understood by many as a reference to MESA.
MESA is often accused of being predominantly critical of American and Israeli policies in the region.
But Ms. Newhall said that contemporary politics have little to do with the work of scholars who study Persian poetry, say, or the late Ottoman Empire— academic interests that are fairly typical of the association's membership.