Not all of the Middle East's conflicts are being waged in the blood-soaked lands of this region: the battles are raging in America's ivory towers, too. The latest evidence is the jousting between MESA and its new rival, ASMEA.
Founded in 1966, the Middle East Studies Association, whose annual conference is wrapping up on Tuesday in Montreal, is a grouping for 2,600 academics and other specialists on the region. It defines its mission as one that "promotes high standards of scholarship and teaching, and encourages public understanding of the region and its peoples through programs, publications and services that enhance education, further intellectual exchange, recognize professional distinction, and defend academic freedom." MESA has been notably active in the latter sphere, lately leaping to the defense of professors involved in high-profile disputes related to their critical views of Israel. These include Normal Finkelstein of De Paul University, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University. Critics of MESA and its membership broadly accuse it of being overly sympathetic with Arab causes and reflexively critical of American and Israeli policies.
To the rescue of impressionable American minds that might be influenced by MESA and its fellow travelers is a new group that will challenge MESA's tendencies: the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, founded by Bernard Lewis of Princeton University and Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University. Critics of this faction, in turn, broadly call them Orientalists and opportunists, too quick to cover Washington's Middle East policies. Lewis and Ajami were important intellectual supporters of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. ASMEA will host its first conference next April in Washington.
Lewis told the Chronicle of Higher Education that "the study of the Middle East and of Africa has been politicized to a degree without precedent...there is an acute need for objective and accurate scholarship and debate, unhampered by entrenched interests and allegiances. Through its annual conference, journal, newsletter, and Web site, ASMEA will provide this."
That's reminiscent of the outlook of Campus Watch, another post-9/11 group formed expressly to monitor the teaching of Middle East studies in the U.S. and Canada with a view to addressing "five problems: analytical failures, the mixing of politics with scholarship, intolerance of alternative views, apologetics, and the abuse of power over students." Supporters have hailed CW as an "antidote to academia's incessant anti-Americanism." CW's critics have denounced it as a "noxious campaign... intended to silence... perfectly legitimate criticism, by tarring it with the brush of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism..."
So the civil war in the American academy rages on. Enlightenment is certain to be the first casualty.
--By Scott MacLeod/Cairo