Two events over the last week illustrate just how hypocritical so many professors and university programs of Middle Eastern studies have become when it comes to politics and principle.
First, consider the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the oldest and most prominent professional organization for professors whose field of study loosely correlates with the Middle East.
Why then does MESA not oppose the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli academics in which so many of its members engage?
In response to President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily freezing entry to the United States for citizens of Yemen, Sudan, Iran, Syria, Somalia, and Libya, MESA joined as a plaintiff in the lawsuit to overturn the executive order, which MESA president Beth Baron, a City University of New York (CUNY) professor, writes in MESA's April 2017 newsletter is a "Muslim ban." In response to the Supreme Court's unanimous decision to issue a limited stay on lower court rulings against the Trump policy, MESA released a statement declaring, "We believe that the exclusions of people from six Muslim-majority countries is discriminatory and does damage to academic institutions in the United States. We continue to believe that the EO is at odds with fundamental principles upheld by MESA including the commitment to the free exchange of ideas." So far, so good. But, if that's the case, why then does MESA not oppose the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli academics in which so many of its members engage? Indeed, as an institution, MESA has changed its bylaws to allow greater political activity and recently passed a "right to BDS resolution." Baron's program at CUNY passed a BDS resolution, as well, and Baron herself has pledged to boycott Israeli academics. In short, for all its lofty rhetoric about academic freedom and the right to travel, MESA seems to believe that such rights should be first passed through a political and perhaps religious litmus test: When it comes to the Middle East, Muslims and Arabs welcome, Jews and Israelis not.
Second, consider yesterday's court decision allowing the US government to seize a Manhattan skyscraper owned by the Alavi Foundation to compensate victims of terrorism who won a court judgment against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The New York Times explains:
The jury, which deliberated for one day after a month of testimony, found that the Alavi Foundation, which owns 60 percent of the 36-floor skyscraper at 650 Fifth Avenue, violated United States sanctions against Iran and engaged in money laundering through its partnership with Assa Corporation, a shell company for an Iranian state-controlled bank that had owned the remaining 40 percent... The judge wrote that she had reviewed a "massive amount of evidence" and was "firmly convinced" that the foundation "takes directives from Iranian government officials, and its day-to-day operators have been appointed by Iranian officials to ensure conformity with the interests of the government of Iran."
Anyone even cursorily involved in Iranian studies knew exactly what the Alavi Foundation is and where it stood politically. And yet, many academic programs and professors — Columbia University, for example, and the former Brown University (and current University of Minnesota) Professor William Beeman — solicited or took grants from the Alavi Foundation, never mind Alavi's close connections to Iranian intelligence and security forces. That's their decision — many universities and professors live in their own moral university — but then why would they rant and rave about the Koch Brothers? Do Middle East and Iranian studies professors really believe that taking money from an Islamic Republic front is somehow acceptable but the funding of two prominent Americans who fund a range of charitable outlets should be stigmatized? Again, politics has so warped Middle Eastern studies that professors can no longer even recognize their own hypocrisy.
MESA, for all its grandstanding, is fast becoming a hate group rather than a true academic umbrella, and universities themselves have become unanchored. If knowledge is the true goal, perhaps it's time to go back to the basics: recognize that political theories can never supplant reality, free discourse means dealing with people and ideas who disagree, and people only boycott when they know they cannot win on the merits of their own arguments.