California State University, Fresno (CSUF) is in the process of developing The Middle East Studies Project, a collection of interdisciplinary courses that, by 2009, it hopes to offer as a minor in Middle East studies.
But, already, some in the Fresno community are raising red flags about what direction CSUF's Middle East Studies Project will take. Considering the biased nature of Middle East studies departments across the country – and California is no exception – their concerns are not unwarranted.
The project is being spearheaded by Dean of the College of Humanities Vida Samiian; one of the co-directors is her husband, Sasan Fayazmanesh.
In November 2003, Samiian organized 'Palestine Day' at CSUF. Speakers included the renegade Israeli academic Ilan Pappé on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Saleh Abdul Jawad on 'The End of the Two State Solution: Apartheid, Bi-national State, or the Final Stage of Socioside,' the film Jenin, Jenin, which falsely depicted a 'massacre' that never occurred, the film Gaza Strip, and more. Jewish students who attended said that the atmosphere was not only anti-Israel, but also anti-Semitic.
And Fayazmanesh? In a recent interview, he says:…the Middle East Policy of the current administration has been determined by the "neoconservatives," individuals who virtually see no distinction between the "interest" of the U.S. and Israel and might even put the "interest" of the latter above the former. — (The U.S., Israel and Iran: An Interview with Sasan Fayazmanesh)
He names seven 'neo-cons,' six of whom are Jewish, and then goes on to talk about the power of the Israeli lobby in the U.S. Indeed, he likes to use the expression 'USrael' to express the idea that U.S. policy is identical to that of Israel.
It is hard to believe that a program led by these two will present an unbiased view of the Middle East.
The piece goes on to examine the course description for "Islamic Art and Architecture," which is to be taught by CSUF professor of art and design Sameh El Kharbawy. As one might expect, it's filled with the type of post-colonialist, anti-Western rhetoric that is endemic to the field of Middle East studies.
The course promises to delve into "the construction of the modern 'Islamist-Orientalist' subject," "Islam's engagement with radical social and political theory; its flirtation with utopianism and mass culture; its encounters with colonialism and war," "critical issues of post-colonial identity, exile, cultural hybridity," and, finally, to expose "course participants…to their role in the construction of modern identities." Orientalism author Edward Said, observing his handiwork, would have been proud.
A cursory look at some of the instructors involved raises further questions about the project's potentially politicized nature.
Sasan Fayazmanesh (referenced above), a professor of economics at CSUF, will continue teaching the course, "Political Economy of the Middle East." Fayazmanesh has written for publications such as the Review of Radical Political Economics, CounterPunch and Z-Magazine. All three are heavily oriented to the left and, at least in the case of Counterpunch, virulently anti-Zionist. The site regularly features conspiratorial articles about "neocons," the "Israel Lobby," "Israel's hidden hand," and so on. Fayazmanesh, who is described as "an expert on Iran," was interviewed by Counterpunch in 2004 and blamed "Israeli policy" for U.S. attempts to prevent the Iranian regime from acquiring nuclear weapons. So much for objectivity.
Mary Husain, a lecturer in CSUF's Department of Communications, will be teaching courses titled, "Middle Eastern Film Criticism," "Middle Eastern News Analysis," and "Intercultural Communication" as part of the Middle East studies minor. While media analysis is indeed important to the study of the Middle East, it's uncertain what sort of perspective Husain will bring to the table.
A 2005 article co-authored with CSUF professor Kevin J. Ayotte and published in the National Women's Studies Association Journal titled, "Securing Afghan Women: Neocolonialism, Epistemic Violence, and the Rhetoric of the Veil," gives some idea. The abstract (the full text of the article is available only by subscription) notes that the authors are arguing for "a feminist postcolonial criticism that will provide a more nuanced understanding of the nature of gender insecurity in the post-cold war world."
Such tortured language is all too common where women's studies and Middle East studies meet. The oppression of Muslim women must forever be laid at the doorstep of Western "colonialism" and obscured by academic jargon, lest its actual roots be exposed. If this is what CSUF students can expect from Husain, then there are legitimate concerns at hand.
In addition to coursework, CSUF's Middle East Studies Project will offer a Summer Study Abroad Program to be co-hosted by the American University in Cairo (AUC). Among AUC advisors on courses in Middle Eastern studies and political science, the notoriously biased Stanford history professor Joel Beinin (currently on extended leave and serving as director of Middle East studies at AUC) provides cause for apprehension. As Alyssa Lappen once put it in an article for Campus Watch, "If one individual can showcase all the flaws of Middle East Studies in academia, Joel Beinin is that man."
Although it may be too early to tell, none of the above bodes well for CSUF's Middle East Studies Project. Continued vigilance is indeed in order.