When the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, or Asmea, held its inaugural meeting here last weekend, the siege mentality felt by its membersâ"many of whom are conservative researchersâ"was palpable.
Even the group's renowned co-founder, Bernard Lewis, sounded a note of desolation about the state of Middle East studies in his keynote address at the meeting. Freedom to study and write on the topic of Islam, said Mr. Lewis, a professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, was under assault by a Cerberus of "postmodernism," "political correctness," and "multiculturalism" in academe.
"It seems to me a dangerous situation," said Mr. Lewis, "in which any kind of scholarly discussion of Islam is, to say the least, dangerous."
The notion that academic freedom is under serious attack is equally strong at the other end of the ideological spectrum. Exactly three weeks before Mr. Lewis's address, prominent scholars who disagree strongly with his approach to Middle East studies used similar language at a conference held at New York University's new Frederic Ewen Academic Freedom Center.
Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at NYU, cited a "major escalation" in assaults on scholarship after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and what he saw as an increasing "conflation, often quite deliberate, of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism." The attacks faced by scholars who address such issues, said Mr. Lockman, "are the price we pay for trying to maintain our integrity."
Shared but Opposite Alarm
The alarm expressed at both ends of the ideological spectrum in Middle East studies is a fascinating phenomenon. In part, the intersection of the discipline with key strategic issues of our time inevitably raises the stakes. But there is also a sense in which both sides use similar language to talk past each other to the greater public.
For those who attended the Asmea conference, the perceived threat to academic freedom is largely within the university. Mr. Lewis's views have helped shape the contours of American foreign policy since September 11, but he and his acolytes see themselves as underdogs in academe. In particular, they are haunted by the continuing powerful influence of the late Edward Said. He was Mr. Lewis's main antagonist in the battles over the direction of Middle East studies after the 1978 publication of his classic study, Orientalism, and that book's assertion that the discipline's history is woven inextricably with the West's imperial ambitions in the region remains influential.
For those at the NYU conference, academic freedom is under sustained assault by ideological forces outside academe, who are attempting to influence hiring and tenure decisions and also the publication of scholarly work. These scholars point to flashpoints created by outside actors, including a 2004 documentary by a well-financed, pro-Israel group called the David Project in which students in Columbia University's Middle East and Asian languages department said professors had sometimes made them feel uncomfortable for expressing pro-Israel views.
Common Ground on Tenure
Divergent as the perspectives on the parlous state of academic freedom in Middle East studies may be, both sides share some common ground.
One commonality was an explicit linkage between tenure and academic freedom. Much of the conference at NYU took up the adverse effects that a diminished tenured professoriate has had on the liberty of scholars to take unpopular positions. And in answering an audience question at Asmea, Mr. Lewis also stressed the value of tenure in speaking out on hot-button issues.
"A lot depends ... on whether the professors are tenured or not," he quipped. "If they are tenured, they can give honest and appropriate replies. If they are not tenured, they must either be dishonest or find some other profession."
The chilling effect of these battles on younger scholars was also articulated at both gatherings. Asmea's president, Mark T. Clark, told The Chronicle that his group had been formed in part to give younger scholars who felt alienated a more congenial platform. "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 program at California State University at San Bernardino.
At the NYU conference, Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, observed that Middle East studies was "one of the key battlefields of academic freedom in the early 21st century." But he also spoke of his deep concern about the effect that the roiling atmosphere in Middle East studies has had not only on the careers but also on scholarship in the discipline.
"Think about the effects of these campaigns on a 25-year-old Ph.D. student," said Mr. Khalidi. "'Do I work on this third-rail issue, or something safe?'"