Thanks to Candace de Russy and Campus Watch I've found a moving cri de coeur from Juan Cole, professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan. Cole is disturbed at the recent establishment of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) by academics dissatisfied with the existing Middle East Studies Association (MESA), and by the increasing signs that outside interests are trying to exert influence on the academic world for ideological reasons of their own. He sees these developments as symptomatic of the politicization of Middle East studies.
Outside groups, non-specialists, intervene because they don't like the conclusions. 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.
This view of the importance of scholars to society surely owes more to vanity than it does to reality. Leaving that aside, how credible is Juan Cole as an opponent of the ‘politicization of scholarship'? Well, I haven't read his latest book, Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East, but I have a very clear idea of what it's all about because the author has spelled it out:*
French Egypt and American Iraq can be considered bookends on the history of modern imperialism in the Middle East … There are many eerily familiar resonances between the two misadventures, not least among them that both began with supreme arrogance and ended as fiascoes. Above all, the leaders of both occupations employed the same basic political vocabulary and rhetorical flimflammery, invoking the spirit of liberty, security, and democracy while largely ignoring the substance of these concepts.
Nothing politicized about that, then. Of course not: the politicization that suits us is never perceived as politicization (as post-modernists are always keen to tell us). On 11 September 2001, Cole reports, he had written about half the book. ‘I had no way of knowing then', he writes, 'that a book on such a distant, scholarly subject would prove an allegory for Bush's Iraq War'. As if it had the slightest chance of ending up as anything else.
As for the poor canaries, they were taken down mines because of their high sensitivity to carbon monoxide, which they ‘detected' by breathing it in. Their eyes had nothing to do with it.
* For a thorough dismantling of Cole's tendentious and politicized version of history, see Martin Kramer's ‘Juan Cole loses head'.