Forthcoming, MESA Review of Middle East Studies © 2009 by Middle East Studies Association of North America, Inc.
Shortly after 9/11, my late mother Margaret Harris called me. She was as distressed as we all were about the attack on the twin trade towers which she interpreted as an attack on the American character. Osama bin Laden ought to know we are not like that, she began, and discussed with me the ways in which we could educate bin Laden and his followers about the real nature of the American people. She had decided to write a letter to convince him that Americans were not the evil devils that the Muslim world made them out to be. Her Americans were kind and generous, not capable of the violence ascribed to them she said repeatedly. Her excitement was palatable, so I was reluctant to interrupt until I could no longer keep it in. Mom, I said, where are you going to send the letter?
That conversation has returned to me often, as I have encountered the ignorance, bewilderment and paranoia generated on campuses and in the wider public by the events of 2001. It makes me wonder how our role as scholars of the Middle East in North America was changed or how it should be changed by the new world order that has gone so badly awry since that day in September. Like most of you, I presume, I am emerging from a period of silence, having been rendered speechless by the awfulness of events and the meaningless of the response to them in the Bush years. But it is no longer wise for us to remain speechless. The production of knowledge, through scholarly research, teaching and publication, the very heart of who we are and what we do, is undergoing a profound fragmentation, not just because of the reassertion of a new American enemy following 2001, but also because of the influence of the worldwide web, and the creeping corporatization of the universities and colleges where most of us work. I personally believe the very idea of the university and its potential to contribute to the common good is threatened.
For the next few minutes, I would like to ask you to consider with me two ways we know the Middle East: via curiosity research, and via disciplinary imaginations. By curiosity research I refer to the evidentiary explorations which are at the heart of academic life, and by disciplinary imaginations, I mean the epistemologies of our fields of research.
Curiosity research is a term that the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council recently unwisely proposed to call individual research grants, to distinguish them from large, collaborative and multi-partnered projects. Needless to say, academics from the humanities and social sciences were incensed by what they perceived to be the devaluation of their research in the term. The uproar that followed led the Council to retract the proposal. Present-day prickliness aside, curiosity does drive the impulse to research, and what keeps it alive is the anticipation of discovery of new sources and new evidence in difficult, out of the way places. I don't know when I was first stricken with bibliothequeophilia, but once bitten, I have never lost my pleasure in the space, timelessness and infinite possibilities represented by libraries, archives and books. Access to the intellectual heritage of mankind represented by these spaces is fundamental to open societies and the very basis of the uniqueness of North America. To quote Anthony Grafton, "only the use of footnotes and the research techniques associated with them makes it possible to resist the efforts of modern governments, tyrannical and democratic alike, to conceal the compromises they have made, the deaths they have caused, the tortures they or their allies have inflicted." (In his The Footnote: A Curious History Harvard, 1999, p. 233) Or, as a hadith tells us: "one scholar is more powerful against the Devil than a thousand worshippers."
The North American scholarly enterprise we take for granted was very much a work in progress a hundred years ago. The great gathering in of the artefacts of civilization, the end of the enlightenment age, was at its peak, and is exemplified by the magnificent and monumental buildings of the era. Putting aside arguments about cultural heritage, colonialism and the rape of national patrimonies for just a moment, it is worth celebrating such achievements as the New York Public Library, completed in 1911, inspiring to my mind because of the word "public" in its name, still in the top ten of the largest libraries in the world. Another of the monuments of the age, The Metropolitan Museum of New York, first built in 1880, acquired its Beaux-Arts façade in 1902. The present museum occupies 2,000,000 square feet of Central Park, twenty times the size of the original building.
But it is the contents of such libraries and museums and how they are used which concern me today. Scholars of the early twentieth century understood the world as containable in universal categories, but also recognized that disciplines, especially those of the newly emerging social sciences, had specific vocabularies and taxonomies. This is most reflected in the Library of Congress classification scheme, introduced in the first decade of the twentieth century, and close to universally applied in college and university libraries today. The LC classification remains both a map of general human knowledge of the period as well as a genealogy of specific disciplines, and is constantly undergoing revisions.
Libraries and their beehives of unsung workers supported the western civilization curriculum of the early twentieth century, which was built on that universe of disciplines largely to reassert (perhaps to reassure the public of) the achievements of the west in the midst of the ashes of World War I. Secularism muted the religious voices, considered too passionate, and colleges and universities, in their own versions of the reformation, were gradually divesting themselves of their intellectual origins in religious organizations. Theology departments became Religious Studies departments. History reoriented itself as a social science, eschewing the philosophical for the rational and quantifiable. Objectivity and personal integrity were preferred to doctrinal authority. The study of the Middle East in the United States in that scheme remained tied to ancient history, the archaeology of ancient Mesopotamia, or ancient Egypt and the literature and languages of Christianity and Judaism; the study of the Holy Land, but not Islam, nor Africa; Aramaic and Hebrew, but no Arabic; Sanskrit, perhaps, Indo-European after all, but no Persian, with rare exceptions. We (here I mean Americans) can speak of the judeo-Christian tradition, because we are taught it, but we are less comfortable with the idea of the "Abrahamic religions" or "three monotheisms" as a source of common Mediterranean, if not human heritage, in spite of several decades of genuine efforts to convince us otherwise by scholars in our fields.
We (and here I mean those who study Middle East) are late comers to this system of knowledge. Historicism, that is, the scientific objectivity of linear, progressive history, was exported to the Middle East with missionary schools and nationalist historians largely after WWI. In North America, area studies arose in mid-century as a means of organizing knowledge about the parts of the world which did not fit (or were not present in) the structure I have outlined. Underwritten by the U.S. Department of Education, Middle Eastern studies programs proliferated, supported by major library buying programs for contemporary Arabic, Persian and Turkish book production. The primary interest of the U. S. government was in training linguists and political scientists. We needed to learn the languages so we could explain the politics of the region that became the flashpoint of the cold war.
Edward Said informed us of the potential dangers posed by the essentialist and Orientalist approaches to the study of the Middle East, but he also admitted "to having faith in the ongoing and literally unending process of emancipation and enlightenment that, in my opinion, frames and gives direction to the intellectual vocation." Knowledge production of the Middle East in the United States is dependent on the manuscript, book and material culture collections alluded to above, most of which surpass almost anything in the Middle East.
However, libraries and museums are also serendipitous and organic collections of knowledge, dependent on financing, donors, avid collectors, subject expertise and politics. In that regard, they can be seen as sites of contestation, vulnerable to destruction, and subject to the winds of public opinion and fashions. It should surprize none of us that books in the Middle East vernacular languages, for example, remain among the last to be catalogued, for want of language expertise, and almost the first to be removed to remote sites or pulped when overcrowding demands more space or to make room for computer terminals in the new communication hubs our libraries have become.
You will say I exaggerate about the potential for destruction and dispersal, that it only happens in places like Bosnia and Iraq, but in the 1990s it was learned that many of the prestigious libraries in the United States had microfilmed significant numbers of little used newspapers and periodicals in the name of preservation and pulped the originals, with the result that some survive only in microfilm form, a technology that has not proved durable. We should be grateful to the members of the Middle East Librarians Association, who have seen to the preservation of periodicals and newspapers of the Middle East, many of which are not to be had in their country of origin. In what must be seen as a great irony, I discovered recently that my library at McMaster was removing all the serials now fully represented by online database services, packing them up and sending them to Syria, just one example of the great dispersal that will follow.
Think of the very public dispute over the new Parthenon Museum in Greece, where a brand new building has an empty exhibit hall awaiting the return of the Elgin marbles from the British Museum. Or, even more interesting, the new partnership between the Paris Louvre, now a franchise, and Abu Dhabi to have the renowned classical statue "Winged Victory" on permanent exhibit at Saadiyat, the new island cultural center of the Gulf. The return or sharing of "national treasures" is democratization of culture on a grand scale. I worry rather about small scale but significant losses, such as the pleasure of touching an eighteenth century printed book, or of the long slow process of research acquired by pulling books off massive shelves and discovering something: a new phrase, a new author; or embarking on new journeys in exotic archives for new pieces of the human puzzle.
Libraries themselves are becoming virtual spaces. McMaster University Library operates an island in Cybrary City in Second Life, the virtual world, where you will also find many major universities offering services of various sorts to avatars of real people who buy education and get into debt just like real world students. And books, of course, are now electronic, with portable reading devices such as Kindle putting a universe of knowledge at our fingertips.
I refer to a tiny part of the great online revolution before us. We all know how miraculous it is, as true for the collections of images of great art and maps as it is for books and articles. It is the new pool of universal knowledge, celebrated by Sergey Brin, one of Google's founders, as "A Library to Last Forever," (in a recent op-ed in the New York Times). While I am awestruck as the rest of us, I think George Carlin said it best: "It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the stockroom." Everything and nothing is accessible, and while we derive great benefit from the speed and vast resources of the web, we spend inordinate amounts surfing the vast ocean, while cautioning students about good and bad "knowledge". Information is not knowledge. It is the analytical process, still unidentified in the great DNA map, which turns information into "knowing". In the global internet, our students are technologically savvy but culturally fragmented and parochial. As scholars, students and teachers, we can no longer distinguish between then and now, between real and virtual, between evidence and propaganda. The digital tracking of our every wish and instant supply of a life-time of documentary material will ultimately make curiosity research irrelevant.
In spite of my reservations, I wonder where "we" are in the great web environment. I am speaking of Middle East research tools, not political blogs, or Campus Watch, or Counterpunch. Blogospheres have moved the Palestine-Israel debate into new realms, some of which are very raucous and potentially productive. Not all of us are inclined in that direction. Where are the "collaboratories" of the Middle East digitized environment? And where are the open access collections of articles in press or not, of open source manuscripts and archival documents? This new online environment will alter radically and permanently the way we access and disseminate knowledge and it behooves us to dive in rather than just surf the web.
But what will it do to our disciplinary objectivity and authority in the humanities and social sciences, another legacy of the hundred year old system sketched above. I believe the fragmentation I have described extends to how we organize our subjects. The professionalization of our disciplines has resulted in valuing not the production of knowledge, but the production of the producers of that knowledge. We are the twenty-first century guilds. Have we as scholars not encouraged a "fractionalized marketing" of our disciplines, refining a different epistemology, and opaque terminology for smaller and smaller fields of research, cloning our students and insisting upon the incessant production of articles and a book from still young scholars as passage into the guild? It is easy enough to blame the special interest groups, to shout about victimization and neglect, but have we not enclosed ourselves in like-minded gated communities of our disciplinary worlds?
Our additional problem as a scholarly community is that we remain deeply aggrieved and frozen in time around the Palestinian question, or, in the case of those who study the Ottomans, the Armenian question. 1915, 1948 and now 2001 can easily be described as the anni horribiles [years of horror] for those who lived through them but also for those who study the events as the decades pass. MESA itself, it will be remembered, was created as a non-political organization to encourage the study and understanding of events as they unfolded after 1948. The study of Islam and Muslims (in terms of scholarly activity and positions at our universities) has received most impetus from the events of 2001. The post-2001 thirst for information and intelligence is driven in part by the great American witch hunt for Muslim terrorists which prompted Alain Gresh, editor of Le monde diplomatique to comment: "It cannot be long before a U.S. scientist will discover an Islamic gene, which will explain why Muslims are so different from the rest of humanity." ("Malevolent Fantasy of Islam August 2006) If the craziness of the last decade has taught me anything, it is that the Judeo-Christian understanding of the world is deeply embedded in the American psyche, in spite of, not because of the pressure of political action groups like AIPAC. The war on terror, real and rhetorical, the continuation of the cold war of the American empire, which has stymied so many of us, should be viewed by rather as the golden opportunity to break some of the Gordian knots of the field.
Most of us, however, find it difficult, terrifying perhaps, to insert ourselves into the Punch and Judy shows that the Palestinian-Israeli debate has become on our campuses. I assume that many of you are also as weary as I am of the hijab debate, or the east vs. west bi-polar vortex (now cast as Islam and the rest) which presently passes for dialogue about who had it first, and who is more civilized in public discourse. ("They have culture: we have civilization.") Academic activists on the question of Palestine and these other topics have my greatest respect, but most of us shy away from the politics of shouting. We do not want to be interpreters, accused when we speak out of bias or misinformation. We want to be educators, and our subjects and our passions to be foundational to knowing the Middle East in North America.
There are other perils before us impeding an open dialogue, however, which are rooted as much in the nature of the contemporary university as in the political arena. That knowledge has become commodifiable we would all agree on, although few of us profit much from the sale of our research. That universities have become corporations is just beginning to sink in. As Wendy Brown, philosopher at the University of California recently said, universities are now about "disseminating market values to every domain of human existence, and she added, the beast (of privatization) is already inside the house."
One consequence of importance to us is the declining support for curiosity research. Research instead is valued for its contribution to corporate and government agendas. In our case, the BIG PHARMA [the media label for the power and punch of the pharmeceutical companies in the world of scholarship and marketing] phenomenon is MINERVA, the Department of Defense money, adjudicated by the National Science Foundation, tagged for social science research on security, conflict, and terrorism. Although academic researchers have long served as consultants to the military-industrial complex, this is the first time that such an overt collaborative effort, with very significant funding, has influenced the social sciences in particular.
Another consequence of commodification is the export of an idealized American education, a new form of missionary impulse supported by vast imitative campuses built by governments in the Gulf or China (as at my own university). Qatar's Education City boasts Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Texas A & M, and Virginia Commonwealth. NYU is opening The World's Honors College in Abu Dhabi. Our Provost was informally asked what would happen if a scholar raised the human rights question at McMaster's university in China, and the answer was predictable. The social sciences are not to be part of the initial phase of the project. It will be assumed by our administrations at some point, however, that all of us will want to participate in these new profit-motive teaching environments, and that obligation will become part of our teaching contracts. Can we be silent on these questions?
The third external threat to our academic mission is the attack on academic freedom, freedom grounded in the 1915 American Association of University Professor's consensus about what constituted autonomy on American campuses, at a time when the U.S. government was targeting socialists and pacifists. Here, we are obviously most familiar with the sustained attempt to shut down all debate on Palestine. My experience as a member of MESA's Committee on Academic Freedom this year has taught me that there is far more at stake for the MESA academic community then just the debate over Palestine. We are speaking of the general right of intellectuals in university environments all over the world to pursue their research, and the sustained attack on the notion of a common good over a corporate right. University administrations are influenced by the loudest greased wheel, yes, but they are also most concerned about their brand and the parents of their potential customers. Heaven forbid that you might have something to say as a "citizen" of a university community. "Risk" management, fund raising, and avoidance of litigation are the overriding concerns of modern university governance. Hence, increasingly, academics are simply sidelined and represented as part of the deliverables. Tenure has become an annoying roadblock on the road to total privatization. University administrations "speak" for academics, supplying them with meaningless vision statements and riding roughshod over attempts at open debate and dialogue. Core liberal arts curriculums are giving way to online certificate programs, and utilitarian, self-financing degrees in health studies and management. There is very little left of the "curious" in our academic settings.
Can we do anything about this? Obviously I think so or I would not be here. In spite of my alarmist comments, I do see this as an opportune moment to immerse ourselves in an evolving academic life. But it requires a considerable self-inspection and commitment. Each of us needs both immersion in universal knowledge, such as world and global histories, but we must also protect the study of the distinctive aspects of our subject societies. That does not require us to become public intellectuals as much as engaged citizens of an academic community. MESA is about decades of collaboration and the herding of cats. We grow and grow. We are spread all over the United States, Canada and Europe, from small college to large research university, from private to public. It is a vibrant world we continue to construct, share, and dispute. This year's annual meeting demonstrates, as always, exciting new inter-disciplinary directions that many are taking, as well as the deep research necessary to enrich the specialized intellectual world we inhabit.
There are entire new mappings of the "Middle East" to include the Mediterranean, Eurasia and East Africa. The study of Muslim communities in Europe, of European-Middle Eastern relations, of globalization, immigration, global jihad, international legal systems and human rights have been added to our traditional disciplines and rigorous production of editions of classical texts and other tools. We must be innovative about the contributions of multi-media and computer-based research to our fields and to our definitions of tenure. We have to clamor for entrance and sustainability of our disciplines on the world-wide web, which may require a rethinking of personal authority, and proprietary rights, but then, the web challenges the entire academic enterprise, not just Middle Eastern expertise.
We need to define and disseminate unique imagineries of Middle Eastern societies that can be understood by academic and public audiences. The Middle East is very special to each and every one of us, but it is also a part of the great human web. There are assuredly other reasonable forms of engagement that we are not organizing because of the public/campus obsession with Palestine, and now with the so-called Islamofascism.
Even in the corporate university, such innovative enterprises can exist, but they must be nurtured, so that they will be supported by the institutions where we work. The impetus must come from us and our students, not massive buildings, not boards of governors, not powerpoint, twitter, facebook and not the bottom line. We need to be politic, but not necessarily political; wary, not weary. Great universities are about "risk," not risk management, about social justice and equal access to knowledge, not information. So I leave you with a simple call to action: be vigilant, take risks and collaborate. Be vigilant about what is going on at your libraries and in the senate and board rooms of your administration. Volunteer for strategic committees at home and at MESA. Take risks the next time you are asked to stretch your academic horizons. Organize a panel for Barcelona's WOCMES, the world gathering of Middle East scholars in 2010. Chart new maps that break the political straitjackets imposed on us by identity politics. Join the great collaboratories at your colleges and universities, on the web and in the world, and maybe, just maybe, we can get that letter sent to Osama bin Laden.