"Assistant Professor in Islam and Modernity," "Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies," "Professorship of Islamic History," "Specialist on Islam and/or Muslim Societies, Cultures, Arts, Politics, and/or Philosophy." These are just a sampling of the positions currently featured among the employment advertisements of the Middle East Studies Association. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, there was certainly an expectation among specialists in Middle Eastern studies that attention among university planners and administrators would shift to Islam and, accordingly, there would emerge a surfeit of positions, conferences, and research projects framed in terms of Islamic studies as opposed to Middle Eastern studies.
But who could have guessed that this trend would have persisted for quite so long, and would have become quite so encompassing? Indeed, the department from which I got my PhD was, when I entered it 16 years ago, a Department of Middle Eastern Studies – and today, it is a Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.
There is a certain irony in the renaming of such a department. It was there, all those years ago, that I was taught that there was more to the Middle East than Islam, and that, from an analytical perspective, to focus exceptionally upon Islam in one's study of the region was fundamentally to miscast the dynamics of the region's history and politics. This was, of course, the error that our predecessors in the field had made when they had studied the Quran as a means by which to understand Islamist organizations, or when they had insisted that "Islam had bloody borders" – as if the faith were a geographical entity.
All of this is not to suggest that use of Middle Eastern studies as a conceptual frame is unproblematic or unworthy of challenge. The need to step beyond the once rigid boundaries of area studies is as urgent as ever, if only to render visible the manifold networks and connections that have, through history, defied such boundaries. Nor is this to suggest that the study of Islam is unimportant or inconsequential. Indeed, with the rise of organizations like ISIS that draw so heavily upon Islam as a political idiom, the need for level-headed analysis and demystification of the manifold life experiences of believers is as important as ever.
However, the recurrent recourse to Islam as a conceptual frame in contemporary academic circles – to the exclusion of alternative framings – seems pernicious and problematic in a way that Middle Eastern studies were not. Every time I teach my introductory course on modern Middle Eastern history, the emphasis in the first lecture – and, indeed, in every lecture – is on a region that defies easy categorization in light of its tremendous diversity. Indeed, arguably the whole point of the course is to encourage students to view the Middle East as a region like any other, and emphatically not exceptional in terms of purported propensities to religiosity or to violence.
There are those who suggest that Islamic studies can and should embrace all those who live in "Islamic societies" or "Muslim-majority polities." But no matter how one adjusts the semantics, framing one's field in terms of Islamic studies necessarily privileges the Islamic and the Muslim over the heretical and the heterodox, the sacrilegious and the secular – as well as, of course, the non-Muslim. Whenever the claim is made that Islamic studies are inclusive rather than exclusive, one needs to press forward the challenge: How often are those who study nonbelievers in Islamic societies or Muslim-majority polities actually hired for positions in Islamic studies?
Whenever I come across one of the new positions, conferences, and research projects framed in terms of Islamic studies, I cannot help but think of the millions of inhabitants of the Middle East whom a university administrator or planner has seen fit to dismiss or disregard with a turn of phrase – the millions who are necessarily excluded from Islamic studies because they are not believers. And in turn I cannot help but think, perhaps with a wisp of nostalgia: Whatever happened to Middle Eastern studies?