Concerns over academic freedom loomed large over the scholarly presentations last week 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.
In an address before the group on November 18, Zachary Lockman, president of the association, said that turmoil in the Middle East had lifted the profile of those who study the region — but that scholarly approaches to the Middle East are too often passed over for political and strategic ones.
"Middle East and Islamic studies are flourishing intellectually," said Mr. Lockman, who is also a professor of Middle Eastern studies and history at New York University. But he added that many of the association's critics, including some former members who now wield influence in policy circles, still see the group as simply rehashing the postcolonial ideas of the late 1970s.
"For them, it is still and always 1978," he said, "and all of us continue to be Edward Said's slavish acolytes." (The late Edward W. Said, author of the hugely influential book Orientalism, exerted a profound effect on scholarship on the Middle East with that and other works. He died in 2003.)
Mr. Lockman also took issue with critics of MESA, as the association is known, who call the many Muslims in its membership Islamic apologists by default.
"Scholarship and identity politics do not go well together," said Mr. Lockman, who derided the idea that "by definition Muslims cannot be good scholars or teachers when it comes to the Muslim world."
'An Explosion of Cases'
Scholarship and political turmoil do not go well together either, as evinced by reports from the association's Committee on Academic Freedom.
The committee 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 A. Brand, the committee's chairwoman and a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, said the group had sent 22 letters of intervention to governments 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 presentation on the first day of the meeting, the committee summed up its work over the year. The discussion spanned concerns over the American reception of John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt's controversial book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, as well as descriptions of travel restrictions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, speech crackdowns in Turkey, and blasphemy lawsuits against professors in Kuwait.
Also in the air at the meeting was the recent 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 established a new group, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa.
That 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, a professor emeritus of Near East studies at Princeton University, was one of the founding members of MESA in 1966 and is considered by some to be the most influential living historian of the region. He eventually found a large audience outside the association, particularly for works like "The Roots of Muslim Rage," an essay that was widely read after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. 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 establishing it because study of the region had become too "politicized" — a comment understood by many as a reference to MESA, which is often accused of being critical of American and Israeli policies in the region.
But Amy W. Newhall, executive director of the association, said 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.
"MESA hasn't a brain," she said. "It's 2,700 brains."
When the association decided to hold this year's meeting here in Canada, it was partly just because the group had not met north of the border since the late 1980s, said Ms. Newhall, who is also 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 September 11, 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 Canada 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.