A few days after Sept. 11, in Palo Alto, California, an organization called the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center staged a demonstration against U.S. foreign policy and, in particular, against any military response to the terrorist attacks. The highlight of the rally was a speech by Joel Beinin, a Stanford University professor.
"Why do they" -- meaning Arabs -- "hate us?" Prof. Beinin asked rhetorically. He answered by denouncing Israel and U.S. sanctions against Iraq. He did not explicitly gloat over the Sept. 11 attacks: It was offensive enough that he sought to rationalize them. Prof. Beinin's boilerplate rant was noteworthy for one reason: He is president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), an organization of American and Canadian scholars who study the Middle East and the Islamic world.
Tenured ideologues of his sort are cultural cliches. English departments, for example, have professors who cry racism at the suggestion that Shakespeare's sonnets are better than gangster rap. Philosophy departments have professors who argue that empirical truth is a Euro-centric conceit. Yet no discipline has been more disfigured by ideology than Middle East studies.
For years, too many university specialists ignored the militant side of Islam or denied that it existed. They claimed that the extremist Islamic threat was an illusion, manufactured by bigots looking for a new villain to replace the defunct Soviet empire. Just six months before the Sept. 11 attacks, one university expert criticized the "terrorist industry" for scaring Americans with "farfetched horrible scenarios."
Besides, what right did the West have to make judgments about the Arab world? Efforts to promote democracy represented "a world hegemonic discourse of Western cultural imperialism," as another prominent professor of Middle East studies complained.
No wonder that, today, these would-be experts have been written off by policymakers and many media. The real authorities on the region are instead coming from outside the universities: military and counter-terrorism experts, intelligence analysts, journalists and independent researchers. It was, for example, outside scholars such as Daniel Pipes (formerly with the U.S. departments of state and defence) who began tracking suicide terrorism in the 1980s. A former CNN reporter, Steven Emerson, produced the 1994 documentary Jihad in America, which sounded the alarm about militant Islam.
The scandal of Middle Eastern studies is documented in the book Ivory Towers On Sand. Its author, Martin Kramer, holds a PhD from Princeton and is editor of the Middle East Journal. His book catalogues how, owing to political correctness, anti-West bias and wishful thinking, many university professors became what amounted to apologists for terror. As Prof. Kramer notes, their credibility collapsed with the twin towers.
You'd think that, humiliated, university experts would hesitate before pronouncing again on the Middle East. But recently, Prof. Beinin, the MESA president, issued a memo to colleagues urging them to initiate a public campaign to explain "why our understandings of the Middle East are often at variance with popularly held views."
For years, western academics downplayed the danger of radical Islam or peddled the lie that Islamists were actually democratic reformers. The "experts" can continue to sell this spoiled bill of goods if they wish, but fewer and fewer people are buying.