Last year was a bad year for academia. Every week, the Chronicle for Higher Education documented faculty disillusionment, student anxiety, staff burnout, and the lingering censorial snitch culture that thrives on COVID. Yes, 2022 was full of high-profile disappointments, from Yale University coddling its crybully law students who demand protection from opinions they don't share, to the University of Minnesota forcing medical students to recite a woke oath, to Stanford University's list of forbidden words, issued at year end like some progressive pope's Index prohibitorum. If higher education is indeed imploding, nowhere are the fault lines more visible than in the field of Middle East studies.
Martin Kramer reminded the world in Ivory Towers on Sand (2001) that "America invented Middle East Studies" but then degraded the invention by consigning it to critics of America who, by the 1970s, had "rejected the idea of objective standards, disguised the vice of politicization as the virtue of commitment, and replaced proficiency with ideology." Today, the profession designed to serve America's national interest instead serves the interests of its professors and their students.
According to a new, comprehensive report by the National Association of Scholars, Middle East studies departments, centers, initiatives, and programs are doing very little to advance the national interest. Instead they have "shifted their focus from terrorism to immigration and Islamophobia ... from national security issues to cultural issues and the promotion of tolerance."
The field of Middle East studies has lost its purpose. It no longer trains our diplomats and area specialists effectively but does a bang-up job of inculcating hatred for Israel, as was illustrated when the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) voted in 2022 to join the anti-Israel BDS movement. It wrapped up the year in December with an inane conference in Denver revealing its newfound obsessions with climate change, race, and gender.
Middle East centers and programs spent the year embracing Islamists, losing both federal funding and respect, and falling under the spell of the rest of academia. Middle East studies programs are now driven by the same obsessions that permeate departments of American studies, English, and sociology: white supremacism and intersectionality, decolonization and indigenous rights, the social justice goal to take down the "carceral system," and, of course, gender identity. The once-vibrant and important field has become just another liberal art.
When the University of Pennsylvania's Middle East Center lost its Title VI federal funding in 2022, the subsequent student and faculty complaints made clear that the center existed mostly as a social club for students from the Middle East and North Africa. One student complained that she would lose her $15,000 FLAS Arabic Studies Scholarship as a result. "It's really taken a toll on me," the distraught junior told the Daily Pennsylvanian. "It's not just about the money; it's about the environment, the campus culture."
A representative of Penn's Muslim Student Association told the Daily Pennsylvanian that the loss of funding would mean the loss of "a crucial part of ensuring visibility and understanding of the often misunderstood people that make up many Middle Eastern nations."
If it's visibility he craves, he might consider transferring to Arizona State University, which opened a new Center for Muslim Experience in the U.S. (CME-US) in 2022. It promises "to host poetry readings and musical performances, curate exhibits documenting Muslim lives and invite Muslim stand-up comics, actors, inspirational speakers and writers to ASU for public events."
The truth is that Title VI funding is almost irrelevant at this point. The ideological takeover of Middle East studies is so complete that loss of money will not even slow down its efforts at "downplaying the dangers of Islamic radicalism, while suppressing objective scholarly inquiry into the fundamentals of Islam and the state of the Muslim world," as Asaf Romirowsky and Alex Joffe put it. Control over Middle East studies is accomplished through the journals, in the hiring and tenure committees, and by the academic zeitgeist.
On Nov. 9, Penn's no-longer-federally-funded MEC hosted Ahmad Qais Munhazim for an event titled "Queer Afghanistan, Where Bombs Drop, Where Men Dance." The description of the event states that Munhazim (they/them) will explain how "murats, queer and trans Afghans ... participate in queer worldmaking by dancing." The assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, apparently argued in this in-person, non-Zoom lecture "that queer and trans individuals in Afghanistan challenge the masculine structures of war through their bodies, dance and coded language, creating de/colonial queer worlds at home and in the diaspora."
Penn is not the only Ivy League school to make headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2022. Consider Brown University (which I call the Providence Front for the Liberation of Palestine), one of the most anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian schools in the nation. Middle East studies professor Beshara Doumani, the Mahmoud Darwish Professor of Palestinian studies, is currently on leave from Brown in order that he may serve as president of the Palestinian Birzeit University, which is effectively run by Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
When Brown announced in 2020 that it had endowed the first American school of Palestinian studies, it called Darwish "a towering and beloved figure of Palestinian and Arab literature and humanistic values." But his poetry shows that Darwish was no humanist. He was a Palestine Liberation Organization scribbler of "resistance" poetry. His most famous poem, "Identity Card," ends with the lines: "But ... if I get hungry, / I eat the flesh of my usurper. / Beware ... beware ... of my hunger, / And of my anger" [ellipses in original]. Clearly, the people who run Brown University have trouble distinguishing art from agitprop, but they really pushed the envelope in 2022 by celebrating notorious cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal (born Wesley Cook).
Jamal, who adopted the Arabic name in 1971, was sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Long a darling of the academic Left, he is now an honorary Ivy Leaguer. As Brown explained in a press release, its Pembroke Center and the John Hay Library have "acquired a vast set of records, writings and artwork from political activist Mumia Abu-Jamal." Political activist, not murderer.
Brown is giving Mumia the full archival celebrity treatment: "Among the materials is a thick, heavy pair of glasses that Abu-Jamal famously wore for many years; journals, which feature his personal thoughts, poems and legal arguments; and part of a painstakingly detailed visitor list Abu-Jamal is still required to maintain to meet with people from the outside world."
Why celebrate a cold-blooded killer like Mumia? And how will Brown outdo itself in 2023? Perhaps it will purchase the musical catalogue of Charles Manson or the prison journals of Sirhan Sirhan.
It has become something of a trend in academia to lionize certain violent criminals, portraying them as "political prisoners" of an unjust system. As Amanda E. Strauss, director of Brown's John Hay Library, explained, "The carceral system touches millions of Americans' lives, yet the historical archive has a scarcity of stories of incarcerated people."
Brown may have been just emulating Harvard, which cozied up to another radical cop-killer, H-Rap Brown, born Hubert G. Brown, in its "pluralism project." The similarities between the two former Black Panthers are remarkable. Brown, a convert to Islam (in Attica prison, 1971) who now goes by the name Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, was convicted of the March 16, 2000, murder of Fulton County, Georgia, Deputy Sheriff Ricky Kinchen and the attempted murder of Kinchen's partner, Deputy Aldranon English. In spite of mountains of evidence against them, both have been taken up as causes célèbres by the Left.
Lest anyone think that only Ivy League schools are prone to glorifying radical Black Panther cop-killers, many steps down the collegiate totem pole, the State University of New York at Brockport also got in on the action in 2022 by embracing Jalil Muntaqim (born Anthony Bottom), who killed NYPD officers Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones in 1971. The former Black Panther, like Al-Amin also a Muslim convert, had been rejected for parole twelve times and was released in October 2020. He registered to vote (illegally) in the November 2020 election but suffered no consequences for it. SUNY Brockport announced in March that it had invited Muntaqim to speak on April 6 under the auspices of its "Promoting Excellence in Diversity" program.
The event was originally described as "an intellectual conversation on his time with the Black Panthers and serving nearly 50 years as a political prisoner." Again, "political prisoner," not murderer. Public outrage prompted the change from an in-person to a virtual event, "for the SUNY Brockport community." Registration was opened on April 1, and on April 6 the school announced that the "event is full and registration is now closed."
For a hint about how that talk went, check out a webinar Muntaqim gave on a website called "People's Dispatch" for a Black August 2022 feature titled "The system cannot be redeemed, it has to be destroyed."
Finally, Indiana University, the site of another Title VI–funded Middle East Center, brought shame on itself with a webinar on December 14 titled "Global War on Terrorism and its Impact on Muslim Charitable Institutions," co-sponsored by the Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA). The featured speaker was the convicted Palestinian Islamic Jihad fundraiser Sami Al-Arian, currently masquerading as a scholar for Turkey's not-so-strong strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The event, hosted in conjunction with the Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA) and Indiana University's Muslim Philanthropy Initiative and McKinney School of Law, treated Al-Arian like an area-expert sage with compelling advice on antiterrorism legislation. In reality, he is a confessed terrorist looking for a way to fund other terrorists under the cloak of charitable organizations.
Al-Arian was introduced as an "extraordinarily well known ... Professor at Istanbul Zaim University in Turkey [who] has numerous publications in many interrelated fields including education, research, religion, interfaith and he is coming at us today specifically around the areas of civil rights and human rights."
The event was apparently so embarrassing for Indiana University that Amir Pasic, dean of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, issued an apology for including Al-Arian. In their enthusiasm for Al-Arian's "academic work and recent efforts organizing a global conference on Islamophobia," Pasic admitted that IU "failed in our due diligence to consider his past."
Investigative Project on Terrorism founder Steve Emerson summed it up nicely: "As the IU-backed program again makes clear, too many academics are not interested in acknowledging or pursuing the truth." This is at the root of the problem. In their zeal to condemn America, American interests, and American history, too many academics are willing to overlook everything good and great about the country and everything bad and vile about its enemies. By jumping on the bandwagon and perpetuating the charade that America is an "Islamophobic" nation with a prison system designed to prey on black men, the Middle East studies industrial complex will likely continue to give the full-blown "man of letters" treatment to cop-killers, antisemites, and terrorists.
I expect more of the same in 2023. It will likely be a difficult and depressing year for academia, with Middle East studies departments joining other liberal arts departments working synergistically to undermine American interests. Perhaps the only light moments will come as Stanford University struggles to rename its master's degrees, now that the word "master" has been declared verboten.
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.