What a difference a popular uprising makes.
It seems like just yesterday that the Middle East studies establishment was busy defending Iran's theocratic regime and its president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from the alleged predations of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy. Yet in the wake of the unrest in response to the stolen election, suddenly American academics have succumbed to intellectual honesty and moral clarity. Despite the best efforts of the Iranian regime to drum up conspiracy theories blaming the West for the uprising, the Iranians themselves have taken center stage.
This signals quite a shift. When Ahmadinejad, the supposedly elected leader at the heart of the current crisis in Iran, spoke at Columbia University in September 2007, his appearance was applauded by many academic apologists as a means of "reaching out." Columbia University Islamic studies professor Richard Bulliet went so far as to act as an intermediary between the university and the Iranian regime in arranging the appearance. As reported by the New York Sun in September 2007:
In a meeting of the Columbia faculty senate on December 8, 2006, before the university extended and then rescinded an invitation to the Iranian president to speak on campus, Mr. Bulliet argued in favor of providing him a platform. Mr. Bulliet said he attended a breakfast meeting with the Iranian and found him to be a "very reasonable speaker, a very effective debater."
One would be hard pressed to describe Ahmadinejad's typically inflammatory and conspiratorial tirade at Columbia as reasonable. Yet it was university president Lee Bollinger's harsh introductory remarks that caused outrage. Over 100 faculty members, including a number from Columbia's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department (MEALAC), signed an open letter to Bollinger condemning his "disrespectful language." The standard accusations of racism, threats to free speech, and warmongering ensued.
Bulliet painted Ahmadinejad as the victim, describing him as "the slight, relaxed, well-mannered Iranian who sat stolidly through President Bollinger's blistering attack." He complained to the New York Sun that "in a culture where hospitality is venerated, audiences in the Middle East were shocked by Mr. Bollinger's rebuke." But what was truly shocking was Bulliet's blindness towards Ahmadinejad's true nature.
Today, Bulliet seems to have experienced an epiphany. In a recent New York Times op-ed, he likened the young Iranian protesters to America's Baby Boomer generation and used very different terms for Ahmadinejad. As he put it:
The boomers themselves, and particularly the women among them, chafe under the behavioral restrictions enforced by Ahmadinejad's regime. They long to connect with the world and hate seeing their country humiliated by Ahmadinejad's outrageous public pronouncements.
If only Bulliet had applied such insight when he helped broker Ahmadinejad's talk at Columbia.
Hamid Dabashi, Columbia's Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature and MEALAC Chair, took a similar route. Dabashi was one Bollinger's most strident critics, penning a lengthy screed in Al-Ahram Weekly in October 2007 in which he accused him of inhabiting "the self-righteous domain of a white man and his civilizing mission" and of acting like "the president of diehard Zionists at Columbia." He was particularly incensed that Bollinger called Ahmadinejad a "cruel and petty dictator," asserting that:
I am against Ahmadinejad and the system over which he presides, but he is an elected official, not a "dictator" in the technical sense of the term. The republic that he represents is a theocracy, but that theocracy works through a very complicated division of power in various official and unofficial, elected and unelected, democratic and despotic, centers of gravity, of which Bollinger seems to know next to nothing.
This was not Dabashi's first defense of Iran's allegedly democratic system. In a 2003 AsiaSource interview, he stated that "within the Islamic Republic, there is a democratically elected government." He also claimed that the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 counterterrorism measures had created "political conditions [in the U.S.] worse than those found in the Islamic Republic [of Iran]."
Yet Dabashi has since changed his tune. As he told CNN last month:
I am absolutely convinced that what we are witnessing is a turning point in the history of the Islamic Republic. We are seeing a rise of a new generation of Iranians who are not taking it anymore. This is no longer just about this election, this is full-fledged civil disobedience.
Now that the emperor is wearing no clothes and crowds in Tehran chanting "Death to the Dictator" have Ahmadinejad in mind, Dabashi isn't so eager to rally to his side.
University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole, who once implied that the Iranian-initiated confrontation between Iranian boats and U.S. Naval ships in the Straits of Hormuz in January 2007 was a GOP-fabricated conspiracy, has finally turned on Tehran. Writing at his blog last month, Cole offered up a compelling list of the "Top Pieces of Evidence that the Iranian Presidential Election Was Stolen." Summing it up, he noted: "The post-election situation looks to me like a crime scene."
In a rare reference to the Iranian regime's propensity for anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism, Cole, writing last month at Salon.com, pointed out that opposition candidate "Mir-Hossein Moussavi complained that Ahmadinejad's bizarre downplaying of the Holocaust had made Iran a laughingstock." This is the same Juan Cole who steadfastly insisted that Ahmadinejad was mistranslated when he said that Israel should be "wiped off the map" at the World without Zionism conference in October 2005. Perhaps now that masses of Iranians are rejecting him, Ahmadinejad doesn't appear quite so credible.
While these examples provide a ray of hope, it's unlikely they foretell a new era of dispassionate analysis in the field of Middle East studies. In spite of the Iranian regime's blatant corruption and brutality, many of these same professors are urging President Obama to continue his administration's futile plans for negotiation with Ahmadinejad.
Juan Cole has contended that "the outcome of the election…changes little for the Obama administration," while Richard Bulliet told Bloomberg News that "the U.S. and foreign governments will have to resign themselves to dealing with the Ahmadinejad regime." Meanwhile, Columbia University international affairs adjunct professor Gary Sick, writing at his blog, fretted that "this election is an extraordinary gift to those who have been most skeptical about President Obama's plan to conduct negotiations with Iran."
In other words, it's back to business as usual.