On Thursday November 10, 2011, approximately sixty people gathered for a lecture hosted by the University of California, Los Angeles's Center for Near Eastern Studies. The event was titled, "Taking Stock: The Arab Uprising on the Eve of Their First Anniversary" and it featured two history professors, James Gelvin of ULCA and Juan Cole of the University of Michigan.
Though the two-hour event promised to illuminate the various particulars and multi-layered realities of the Arab uprisings, it quickly dwindled into a platform for the type of postcolonial, anti-American, and anti-Israel rhetoric typical to the field of Middle East studies, and certainly to the notoriously biased Gelvin and Cole.
Gelvin began by noting that although each Arab uprising has its own historical roots and contexts, there were four principle causes: failed neoliberal U.S. policies; demographics; the international food system; and the "brittle" nature of Arab countries. Under the aegis of "benefits for compliance," he claimed, the Middle East was introduced to a form of "crony capitalism" that led to economic inequality. He went so far as to insist that the "Arab world, the recent strikes in Israel, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the Chilean student strikes" were all reactions to these allegedly failed economic policies. In Gelvin's myopic and reductionist view of the world, all revolts result from an egregious "rift between the rich and poor."
Cole followed suit by claiming that "progressive youth . . . spearheaded this movement with real sympathies for the working class." Downplaying the role of religion in each revolt, he scoffed at suggestions that the Muslim Brotherhood has been a major player in the Egyptian uprising. "These revolutions," he maintained, "are largely secular and national." Cole must have missed the June 2011 Gallup poll showing that:
[A] majority of Egyptians (69 percent) want religious leaders to have an advisory role in writing national legislation. Egyptians say they support the Muslim Brotherhood more than support other parties.
When a woman from the audience asked him about the success of the Islamist Ennahdha party in Tunisia's recent election, Cole, after deeming the question "good," proceeded to change the subject. "Most of our news is capitalist news," he stated, and then asked the audience: "How many of you heard about the strikes in Israel this summer?" A fourth of the audience raised their hands. "There's a reason that so few heard about the revolts," he added conspiratorially. What this had to do with the Tunisian election remains a mystery to which, apparently, only the "capitalist news" is privy.
During the question and answer session, both Cole and Gelvin—engaging in an ahistorical and asinine comparison—insisted that the Occupy Wall Street movement and last summer's tent protesters on Israel's Rothchild Avenue took "inspiration from Tahrir square."
When asked by a student why both Muslims and Christians have voted for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Cole—in typically apologetic form—answered that "Hezbollah has done a good job of rebuilding the infrastructure and protecting the Lebanese from Israel."
Several questions revolved around Syria and the failure of its revolution thus far, to which Cole responded:
The U.S. and Israel are not interested in changing the regime in Syria. Syria is good for the U.S. and it's good for Israel.
He never explained how the Assad regime in Syria—despite all evidence to the contrary—is good for either the U.S. or Israel, when in fact it's an ideal candidate for regime change. In Cole's conspiratorial mindset, the U.S. and Israel are behind everything, even when it's not in their interests.
When a member of the audience described recent protests in the Palestinian territories, Gelvin noted that, "these uprisings in many ways are the most interesting to observe." Referring to a group that calls itself "Gaza Youth Breaks Out," Gelvin proudly put forth the opening line of its manifesto: "F— Israel. F— Hamas. F— Fatah. F— UN. F— UNWRA. F— USA!" Given that the group's manifesto also promises to "start by destroying the occupation that surrounds ourselves," it's little wonder that Gelvin was so taken with them.
Continually deflecting attention towards the U.S. and Israel, the two speakers evinced a troubling state of affairs in the field of Middle East studies. Instead of asking the difficult and, at times, uncomfortable questions regarding the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East, both Gelvin and Cole whitewashed the revolutions by downplaying the role of religion and framing the discussion around economic grievances. The Arab uprisings are still unfolding, but what may be needed is an uprising in academia.
Please email your concerns and comments to UCLA's Center for Near Eastern Studies (email@example.com) and the University of Michigan's Department of History (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Judith Greblya wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at email@example.com.