Islamic extremism was the dominant topic this past weekend at the first conference of a new organization for scholars of the Middle East and Africa. The Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, or Asmea, was formed last fall by two conservative academics as a scholarly counterweight to a much-larger group of Middle East scholars.
One of the new group's founders, Bernard Lewis, serves as its chairman. A professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, he gave the keynote address here at the meeting, where the theme was "Evolution of Islamic Politics, Philosophy, and Culture in the Middle East and Africa: From Traditional Limits to Modern Extremes." Fouad Ajami, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins University, is Asmea's other founder and vice president of its academic council. (Mr. Ajami was traveling and did not attend the meeting.)
Mark T. Clark, a professor of political science at California State University at San Bernardino, is president of the association, which has 500 members in 40 countries. He told The Chronicle that he was concerned particularly with the pressures that "political correctness" in academe has put on younger scholars.
"What we think we can bring to the table is an opportunity for those who are untenured, or even tenured, to have a voice, to have an opportunity to participate," said Mr. Clark, who is also director of the National Security Studies center at San Bernardino. "We really want to encourage a whole new generation of scholars ... and not just in a literary understanding, but in a conceptual whole."
In large part, the new group is intended to provide an alternative to the Middle East Studies Association, or MESA, which was created in 1966 and which Asmea's founders believe has become too overtly politicized. Mr. Lewis was also a founding member of MESA, which has 2,700 members and an annual meeting (held last November in Montreal) that spanned more than three days and had more than 200 panels and presentations (The Chronicle, November 19, 2007).
Asmea's inaugural meeting was, unsurprisingly, a more modest affair. In addition to Mr. Lewis's keynote address, the group organized six panels and two round-table discussions over two days. A spokesman for the group said just over 200 members attended.
In keeping with the conference's theme, many of the presenters took up Islamic extremism in papers with such titles as "Legal Terrorism in the Name of Islamic Justice: The Case of Iran" and "General S.K. Malik's The Quranic Concept of War and Today's Jihadism." But those papers, and the subsequent discussions in question-and-answer periods, offered few diversions from politics and polemics on Middle Eastern issues.
Old Battles, New Venue
Many of today's scholarly conflicts in Middle Eastern studies find their roots in a battle commenced by the publication in 1978 of Edward W. Said's Orientalism. A central proposition in that book is that the history of Middle Eastern studies is woven inextricably with the West's imperial ambitions in the region.
Mr. Lewis was a principal target of Mr. Said's book, and a spirited combatant in subsequent controversies over its argument and influence on Middle Eastern studies. And though Mr. Said died in 2003, Mr. Lewis's keynote address demonstrated that he is still willing to break a lance with his late polemical foe and those who have followed him.
Employing a mix of dry wit and forthright invective, Mr. Lewis said he saw a "uniquely Western and uniquely distinctive" quality at the heart of Middle Eastern studies: Scholars in the West have taken keen interest in the cultures and history for their own sake, while their counterparts in the Arab and Ottoman worlds (and those in ancient Greece) largely did not do so.
"If you look at the Arab civilization, the great Islamic civilizations," said Mr. Lewis, "they took some interest in antiquity, but only in what was useful. They managed to have a lot of ancient Greek stuff translated into Arabic, but medicine, science, astronomy, mathematics. Even philosophy, because philosophy was thought to be of practical value at that time. Now we know better, of course."
The audience laughed at that and other quips in the keynote address. Amid the sly asides, however, Mr. Lewis struck a clear picture of a scholarly landscape for the study of Islam and the Middle East under threat from competing disciplines and forces, which he identified as "postmodernism," "political correctness," and "multiculturalism" in academe.
"It seems to me a dangerous situation," he said, "in which any kind of scholarly discussion of Islam is, to say the least, dangerous."
Mr. Lewis concluded his talk with hope that Asmea would be a corrective to that danger. "We are beset by difficulties," he said. "On the one hand, we have the clash of disciplines, and the lack of mutual recognition between them. And on the other, the deadly hand of political correctness. I can only hope that this organization will make a significant contribution to change that."
Emphasis on Africa
In the contemporary fireworks over the Middle East and its politics, the association has committed itself to engaging scholars on the issues confronting Africa.
One of the highlights of the meeting was a round-table discussion on Africa on Friday morning, moderated by J. Peter Pham, an associate professor of justice studies, political science, and African studies at James Madison University.
During the discussion, Richard F. Vercauteren, a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Marine Corps, indicted the lack of strategic focus on Africa by American officials. "We have policy makers that are clueless, clueless, on the policy on Africa," he said.
General Vercauteren also urged an immediate interagency push—which would include the State Department and development agencies in the federal government—to help African nations, but he acknowledged the limits that other American commitments have placed on such an effort. "How do you do that with Iraq, Afghanistan, and all the other issues going on?" he asked.
Michael Vlahos, a senior staff member in the national-security-analysis department at the Applied Physics Laboratory associated with the Johns Hopkins University, provocatively suggested that current regimes in Africa may be akin to the "successor kingdoms" that sprang up in Western Europe after the fall of Rome in the fifth century and that sought both identity and legitimacy from the Byzantine Empire.
While he sees the United States and some European countries—and also China—playing a similar role to that of the Byzantine Empire with many nations in Africa, Mr. Vlahos judges the effort as unhelpful and corrosive to prospects for long-term change in Africa. "We're engaged in sustaining a system we asserted," said Mr. Vlahos. But the danger in doing so, he continued, was that outside interests are "holding back the evolution of new identities that will allow [Africa] to go somewhere."
Mr. Clark, the association's president, said that Asmea's focus on Africa is a key part of its mission. "It's a neglected region," he said. "If you think of it, how many Africa scholars do we have? Not many. ... And the problems of Africa are enormous, almost mind-boggling."