Charlotte Allen's article about the creation of Asmea, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (Asmea), as an alternative to the highly-politicized MESA, the Middle East Studies Association highlights an important point: It's hard to be a centrist ("Bernard Lewis Takes on Political Correctness in Middle East Studies," Weekend Journal, May 2).
Bernard Lewis, described by Ms. Allen as the "eminence grise" of Islamic scholars, was prompted to create this new body because MESA -- now dominated by disciples of Edward Said and "political correctness" -- stifles true analysis. Most MESA activities, including panels, papers, and symposia, are nowadays evaluated through rigid and cartoonish anti-Israel, anti-U.S. filters.
What is disturbing and perhaps inevitable is that Asmea may end up being hijacked by the opposite extreme. In fact, Asmea research may end up as equally uncritical and trite as MESA's, just from the opposite political spectrum.
A pattern is clearly emerging; there appear to be fewer platforms for moderate, centrist voices. Mainstream moderates may make up the overwhelming majority in almost every area of discourse, but they are often overshadowed by the more passionate extremes. Mainstream media increasingly cater to audiences primed for "affirmation" rather than "information." It is not just the institutions that are to blame, but all of us as products of these institutions.
Founder & President
Regarding Charlotte Allen's attack on the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) and attempt to praise the newly founded Association for Study of the Middle East and Africa:
She claims that "in today's highly politicized academic climate, many scholarly societies forbid their members to consult for the U.S. military or intelligence services. The scholarship of Asmea's members may be the government's only academic resource for information useful in current Mideast conflicts."
In fact, scholars from across the political spectrum (including members of MESA) have been regular resources for U.S. agencies for decades and continue to be. MESA has never forbidden its members from consulting for the U.S. military or intelligence services.
Bernard Lewis was not a founding member of MESA and has not been a MESA member for 20 years.
Ms. Allen also asserts that MESA "has gradually been taken over by disciples of Edward Said (1935-2003)." MESA membership reflects tremendous diversity in scholarly interests and approaches, as well as political orientations. The 2007 Montreal program of 209 panels that Ms. Allen mischaracterizes included presentations on urban landscapes, Ottoman history, Persian literature, and early Islamic thought, as well as a wide range of perspectives on contemporary issues such as Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and U.S. foreign policy.
Amy W. Newhall
Middle East Studies Association