The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is convening its annual conference and meeting in Denver starting today. But what will its members celebrate? 2022 has been a dismal year for MESA.
In 1966, leading scholars of Middle East studies founded MESA. As Martin Kramer described it, "they had built an academic empire, supported by the universities, the foundations, the corporations, and the taxpayers." Today, that empire is in ruins, dominated by hyper-politicized advocacy, masquerading under the jargon term "praxis," Greek for action.
The published program for MESA's annual meeting in Denver this week shows an industry all consumed with academic fads and pushing agendas on global warming, race, and gender. It looks more like the program for a Modern Language Association convention. Whereas MESA once avoided overt advocacy, today it revels in anti-Israel activism. In March, for example, MESA took off the mask by voting to endorse the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. It's no wonder today's undergraduate students majoring in Middle East studies learn little that is useful to American interests.
Some of this year's sessions devoted to the environment and climate change seem oddly detached from the study of the Middle East. One might find panels on topics like "Environment, Climate Change, and Urban Planning" and "Climate, Water, and Ecology" in the gatherings of any number of academic disciplines, especially in the liberal arts. Only "Thinking with Iraq on Climate Change" hints at anything relevant to the Middle East.
Race will be big this week, too, with many sessions devoted to such topics as "Transnational Anti-Racist Movements," "Racial Categories and Racialized Bodies," and "Race and Racialization in Egypt." An entire roundtable of learned participants will convene to discuss "Race and White Supremacy in Middle East Studies."
Gender will also be a hot topic, from "Gender and Political Participation" to "Transformations in Gender Culture" and "Constructing and Challenging Gender Norms." Were it not for a session on "Rural-Urban Womanscapes and Fourth Wave Feminism In Morocco" and a roundtable on "Solidarities Across Borders: Teaching and Writing Women, Gender, and Sexuality History in MENA," one might forget that MESA is ostensibly focused on the Middle East.
More on point, MESA is about demonizing Israel and promoting Palestinianism. The 80 percent of its members who voted for the BDS endorsement will not be disappointed. First, they will find authorization of their fantasy that there is a country called Palestine. The second session of the entire meeting is titled "Finding Arab Palestine in Israeli Archives."
Once the narrative has been agreed upon and applauded, there will be opportunity to play the victim and bemoan the perilous state of academic freedom in a roundtable discussion titled "Permission to Narrate: Palestine in the American Academy." Another panel, "Doing Palestinian Ethnography While Palestinian," looks like a wordplay on the "driving while black" expression.
A session titled "Contemporary Palestine: Critical Perspectives and Arguments on Control, Autonomy, and Resistance" seems designed both to affirm the truth of "Palestine" and introduce another of MESA's obsessions: expressions of resistance.
Ah, yes: The Left loves resistance and resisters. MESA especially loves those who resist Israel. "Resistance" has become a favorite euphemism for terrorism. When it comes to celebrating resistance, MESA will surely shine this week. It will undoubtedly congratulate itself on its advocacy, for instance in a session called "Rethinking Internationalist Solidarity with the Palestinian Revolution."
MESA will celebrate all forms of resistance this week. "Literature as Resistance: Social Unrest and Catastrophe" will roll seamlessly into "Activism, Resistance and Rebellion." Findings will be confirmed in "Political Economy, Forms of Resistance and Policy Challenges in (Post)Conflict Contexts," and in "Medicine, Politics, and Resistance," though I doubt there will be much rethinking in a session titled "Rethinking Resistance and Transnationalism in the Middle East and Its Diasporas."
MESA will devote a great deal of attention to "anti-colonialism" this week, in such sessions as "Anticolonial and Anti-Imperial Mobilizations." But expect "de-colonialism," anti-colonialism's offshoot, to get some attention as well, in "Decolonial Praxis: Translation and Method in Arabic Studies."
And what would an academic conference in December 2022 be without some attention paid to Covid-19? MESA participants will never know, because a full ten sessions will be devoted to "Afterlives of Quarantine: Space, Materiality, and Biopolitics in the Eastern Mediterranean." There will be opportunity to compare experiences in "The Compassionate Classroom: Teaching Middle East Studies in the Covid Era" and in "Managing the Pandemic."
Oh, to be a fly on the wall this Saturday, when MESA convenes a special session titled "After the Vote: The Transformative Power of MESA." No doubt the vote refers to the BDS vote. But will MESA's leaders celebrate?
Will they celebrate the decisions by the University of Arizona and Florida State University not to renew their MESA memberships in the wake of the BDS endorsement?
Will they celebrate the recent survey of Middle East studies specialists conducted by the University of Maryland and George Washington University showing that fewer and fewer of them are asked by the government for their expert consultation?
As for the "transformative power of MESA," all there is to celebrate is the transformation of a once-great and powerful academic association into an irrelevant one, and of Middle East studies into just another liberal art.
A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, where he is also a Ginsburg-Milstein fellow.