One of the world's foremost Islamic scholars warned Friday that Middle Eastern studies programs have been distorted by "a degree of thought control and limitations of freedom of expression without parallel in the Western world since the 18th century, and in some areas longer than that."
Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, made the remarks in the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, an organization Lewis chairs.
His address, titled "Studying the Other: Different Ways of Looking at the Middle East and Africa," examined the development of Middle Eastern studies and the challenges it faces inside and outside of academia.
These difficulties arise mainly from post-modernist thought, the current, combined orthodoxies of multiculturalism and political correctness, and a "clash of disciplines," primarily between historians and Arabic linguists, which have undermined the serious, objective study of Islam.
"It seems to me it's a very dangerous situation, because it makes any kind of scholarly discussion of Islam, to say the least, dangerous," Lewis said. "Islam and Islamic values now have a level of immunity from comment and criticism in the Western world that Christianity has lost and Judaism has never had."
The study of foreign cultures, literature, and language in which Middle Eastern studies programs in the West have their roots in a uniquely Western and in particular European tradition, Lewis said. Except for a few minor exceptions, Arabic studies were undertaken mainly in Europe beginning in the Middle Ages and were established for several reasons — none of them European imperialism, as is alleged by critics of the Western study of Islam, which has come to be known as "Orientalism."
An important reason this tradition grew in Europe was the issue of language. While major civilizations such as China, India and the Arab-Islamic world got along with one major language, European Christendom was different, both because its inhabitants spoke a number of languages and because they had to learn the difficult and rather exotic languages of Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek in order to read their sacred texts.
Thus the business of studying and mastering an alien and difficult language "was part of ordinary life for Europeans in a way that never happened in the Islamic world or India or China," Lewis said.
The Protestant Reformation also posed a strong reason for the study of Arabic, as Catholics and Protestants, who were in competition with each other for converts, turned their scholarly interests toward the Middle East, which then had a significant Christian population; Christian Arabs in turn were motivated by contact with Western civilization to visit and participate in the intellectual life of Europe.
The post-modern idea that Middle Eastern studies in Europe grew out of a desire to exploit the culture and people of the Middle East was a fallacy, Lewis said. On the contrary, for many centuries, Europe was the one threatened rather than the one threatening, he said.
"Advocates of that particular school of historical nonsense seem to overlook the fact that from the beginning of the 8th century to the end of the 15th century, the Arabs ruled much of Spain and Portugal, and part of that time they also ruled Sicily and southern Italy, they advanced into France and conquered a large part of that — Europe was very, very much under threat by an Islamic advance," Lewis said.
After the reconquest of Europe by Christendom, the Islamic attack continued, this time in a great wave initiated under the Ottomans, he said.
"One must acquit both the Arabs in Spain and the Turks in Eastern Europe of, shall we say, Orientalism . . . in that they never showed the slightest interest in the languages or cultures of the countries that they conquered," Lewis said. "That aspect of imperialism I think cannot be brought against them, but they stayed for quite a long time and their presence was seen as a serious threat by the various European countries."
Having taken over a whole string of hitherto Christian countries, from Syria and Palestine to Egypt and North Africa and into southern Europe, Islam was seen as a rival to Christianity; thus priests and nuns learned Arabic in order to study and translate the Quran and render more effective arguments against what was then seen as the major danger, Lewis said.
Additionally, Arabic translations of Greek texts had given Europe access to ancient knowledge, particularly ancient science, another important motivation for Middle Eastern studies, Lewis said.
This desire to gain purely practical knowledge of ancient Greece was where the Arabic interest in foreign culture was primarily concentrated, Lewis said. In founding the flourishing Arab-Islamic civilization, the conquering Arabs displayed a lack of interest in languages and culture not only in North African and parts of Europe but also at earlier points in history, Lewis said. "What is remarkable is the total disregard for the previous civilization in the Middle East," he said. "Their history was forgotten, their language was forgotten, their scripts were forgotten, they knew absolutely nothing about them because they were not interested in them, nor did they show much interest in the outside world."
In contrast, Europeans showed a largely impractical interest in Arabic, Lewis said. When the first academic chairs were established in Europe, Arabic wasn't even the predominant language in the Muslim world. In fact, the official language was Turkish, but European academies didn't study that language for the same reason they didn't study English, French, or German — because these were modern languages and thus not worthy of the attention of scholars.
As for the specific charge of imperialism, one need only look at some important dates, Lewis said. The first French chair in Arabic studies dates from the early 16th century; the first French incursion into an Arab country, "which one might in any sense call imperialist," dates from the end of the 18th century, more than four and a half centuries later.
"The disparity in that particular theory and the actual historical process is such that at times I have found myself asking myself a rather troubling question," Lewis said. "The question is, where does ignorance end and falsehood begin?"
The philological and theological tradition of European scholarship that developed originally among Christian monks for the study first of Christian and then other sacred texts has been ignored by those who take a disciplinary approach to Arabic scholarship, such as sociologists, political scientists, and especially historians — and vice versa. But they need to come together, and to that end, he said he thought people coming out of the region could make the best contribution.
"That is the kind of situation in which we find our studies at the present time, and it seems to me that we are beset by difficulties, on the one hand, as I said, a clash of disciplines, a lack of mutual recognition [among academic schools] . . . and on the other, the deadly hand of political correctness," Lewis said.
The Counter Terrorism Center's Guide to Language
The trend has made its way into non-academic spheres as well.
On the same day Lewis spoke, the Associated Press reported that the Extremist Messaging Branch at the National Counter Terrorism Center had prepared a memorandum in March titled "Words that Work and Words That Don't: A Guide for Counterterrorism Communication" that set federal guidelines in describing terrorists and their organizations.
The memo, which was drafted for distribution by the State Department, told federal agencies not to use terms such as "Jihadist," "Jihadi," or "mujahedeen" to describe terrorists because "calling our enemies ‘jihadis' and their movement a global ‘jihad' unintentionally legitimizes their actions." Instead, federal agents should use the terms ‘terrorist' and ‘violent extremist,' which are widely understood, accurate definitions that deny the enemy any level of legitimacy.
The memo also said, "we are communicating with, not confronting our audiences. Don't insult or confuse them with pejorative terms such as ‘Islamo-fascism,' which are considered offensive by many Muslims."
"Caliphate" also had positive implications, according to the memo, and shouldn't be used when explaining al Qaeda's goals. "Salafi," "Wahhabist," "sufi," "ummah" and other theological terms were also off limits unless the speaker could discuss their varied meanings.
Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report in January examining the way U.S. Muslims reacted to phrases to describe terrorists and recommended improvements, according to the AP. That report called for caution "in using terms such as, ‘jihadist,' ‘Islamic terrorist,' ‘Islamist,' ‘and ‘holy warrior' as grandiose descriptions," also for reasons of legitimacy.