The refusal of the American academy to squarely face the terrorist threat to the United States — either before or since September 11 — will redound to its everlasting shame. Yet there is reason to believe that the academy's multiculturalist blinders represent more than a sad and silly waste of intellectual energy — more, even, than the spiritual corruption of a generation of America's youth. There is reason to believe that the reigning multiculturalist foolishness of the American academy may be directly connected to the intelligence failure that led to September 11.
A report that the Clinton state department may have actually stopped our government from accepting vital intelligence on Osama bin Laden's activities offered by the government of Sudan raises a disturbing possibility. According to the report, a "politicized" state department passed up the opportunity to receive critical intelligence on bin Laden, simply because that intelligence did not fit the department's "conventional wisdom." But what was conventional wisdom at the state department, and where did it come from? Quite possibly it came from one John Esposito — the most prominent contemporary American scholar of Islam. Esposito has long been an advocate of political power for Islamic fundamentalists, and during the Clinton years Esposito served as a foreign-affairs analyst for the Near East and South Asia branch of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the state department. Esposito's bad advice may have had a great deal to do with the state department's foolish refusal even to look at critical intelligence on Osama bin Laden's activities.
Esposito's story has only recently been brought to public attention by Martin Kramer's extraordinarily important book, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. (For my own account of Kramer's book, click here.) Esposito's clever adaptation of Edward Said's "post-colonial" theory holds that the political program of Islamic fundamentalism is in fact democratic, and that it is only our narrow Western definition of democracy that refuses to see this. For Esposito, those who see "democratic" Islamic fundamentalism as a threat to America's security are simply repeating, in a new form, the simple-minded anti-Communist prejudice of the Cold War era. So for fear of playing into America's alleged proclivity for racist prejudice, Esposito and his followers, for years, have simply refused to study Islamic terrorism. Most especially, they have refused to study Osama bin Laden and his influence in the Islamic world, even going so far as to condemn those scholars and government officials who have long taken the threat from bin Laden seriously.
In his book, Kramer reports that during the Clinton years, Robert H. Pelletreau, then head of Near Eastern affairs at the Department of State, spoke at the opening of Esposito's influential "Center for Muslim Christian Understanding" at Georgetown University, and that the Department of State helped to channel money to support Esposito's activities through the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP).
The state department had good reason to be interested in Esposito. Having traveled extensively in the region, Esposito had connections with Islamic fundamentalists all over the Middle East. It only made sense for the United States to keep open a potential line of communication to the Islamists. But the report that the state department turned away valuable foreign intelligence on bin Laden because that information contradicted the department's "conventional wisdom" raises the disturbing possibility that the people running the Department of State may actually have believed what Esposito was telling them.
And why not? Esposito was — and is — the most important American scholar of Islam. (At least, that is the judgment of the academy. Bernard Lewis is the rightful holder of that title, but the academy rejects him.). One might be inclined to forgive the state department for thinking that Esposito, a one-time president of the Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA) and creator of the most influential academic paradigm for understanding Islamic fundamentalism ought to be able to tell our government something useful about current religio-political trends in the Middle East.
But that apparently rational conclusion fails to reckon with the madness of the contemporary academy. Actually, the "post-colonial" scholars who dominate Middle Eastern Studies — most of them deeply hostile to American foreign policy — have long stigmatized and ostracized academicians who work with the American government. Esposito was only able to get away with forging government ties because his fellow scholars knew that his sympathies were with the fundamentalists. With experts in Middle Eastern languages and cultures in short supply, the state department — partly because it had few other options, and partly, no doubt, out of liberal naïveté — ended up relying on Esposito for its assessment of the Islamic fundamentalists. Nothing could have been more ill advised. Quite possibly, the state department, under the influence of Esposito's advise, simply repeated the willful blindness to bin Laden's terrorism that Esposito had already established as proper behavior for the American academy.
In a now-infamous statement made only six months before September 11, Esposito follower Fawaz Gerges said:
Should not observers and academics be skeptical about the U.S. government's assessment of the terrorist threat? To what extent do terrorist "experts" indirectly perpetuate this irrational fear of terrorism by focusing too much on far-fetched horrible scenarios?
It hard to be more embarrassingly wrong than that, but Esposito himself managed to come pretty close.
It now turns out that Esposito published an article called "The Future of Islam" in the Summer 2001 issue of The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, just a few short months before September 11. In that article, Esposito makes his usual derisive comparisons between Ronald Reagan's belief that the Soviet Union was an evil empire and those who see a serious threat to America from Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. But Esposito goes further and attacks even the limited and inadequate antiterrorism legislation on the books before September 11.
Esposito ends with a brief reference to Osama bin Laden. But he doesn't really say anything about bin Laden himself. Instead his preoccupation is with what a gift bin Laden is to Esposito's enemies — those intelligence officers and pundits who actually see Islamic fundamentalist terrorism as a threat. There is indeed a parallel to the Cold War here. The American Left was always more interested in Ronald Reagan's belief in the evil of the Soviet Empire than in the fact of Soviet totalitarianism itself. So, too, Esposito cannot bring himself to say anything about bin Laden, other than the fact that bin Laden's very existence gives comfort to Esposito's enemies in government and academe.
So this is the scholar who was subsidized and sought after by the Clinton state department as a key intelligence adviser on the Middle East. And this is the man who represents the best the American academy can do when it comes to the study of contemporary Islam. Surely John Esposito's advise must have contributed to the climate that led the Clinton state department to reject vital intelligence on bin Laden's activities when it was all but handed to us on a silver platter. Who can say, then, that the corruption of the American academy by the dogmas of post-colonialism and multiculturalism has had no adverse practical consequences for our country?
It is time to take the academy back. Following Martin Kramer's recommendation, "Title VI" subsidies for programs of Middle Eastern studies — nearly all of which are dominated by the post-colonialist orthodoxy — must be significantly pared back. (The time for a battle over funding will be this spring, at the hearings of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Education.) That money needs instead to be plowed into programs beyond the control of the academy's new dogmatists — useful programs (like the National Security Education Program) that will build up real and meaningful expertise in Middle Eastern languages in students committed to government service. A serious cut in government subsidies for conventional programs of Middle Eastern studies will provide the sort of salutary shock to Deans and Provosts that might lead to real reform — the admission to the academy of at least a small cadre of scholars (now thoroughly excluded by the post-colonial dogmatists) who view United States foreign policy as something other than the root of all evil. Such a change might even lead to so unprecedented an event as an actual debate at a some future meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, rather than the convening of yet another one-sided anti-American-foreign-policy cheering section.
Since September 11, John Esposito has continued to be widely quoted in the media as a Middle East expert. It's time that some more pointed questions were put to Esposito about his own failed intellectual paradigm, and about the nature of the advice that he gave to the Clinton state department. Certainly any congressional investigation into the intelligence failures that led to September 11 needs to take testimony from Esposito. In a piece published in Current History in 1994, Esposito derisively presents the following quotation from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in December of 1992 as an example of silly and prejudiced hysteria over the alleged threat posed by Islamic fundamentalist terrorism:
Our struggle against murderous Islamic terror is also meant to awaken the world, which is lying in slumber. We call on all nations, all peoples to devote their attention to the greater danger inherent in Islamic fundamentalism [, which]...threatens world peace in future years.
Who's words have proven more prophetic — the prime minister's or the scholar's?