HEADS IN THE SAND? They should have seen it coming. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, a scholar of Middle Eastern studies says academics in his field were sleeping on the job. Their starry-eyed optimism about democratic revolution blinded the field to the realities of the region, he says.
"It is no exaggeration to say that America's academics have failed to predict or explain the evolutions of Middle Eastern politics and society over the past two decades," writes Martin Kramer in Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, which was published last week by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. As a result, although an accurate appraisal of the Middle East has become crucial to U.S. foreign policy, Mr. Kramer says scholars shouldn't count on continued support from the federal government.
"Time and again," he writes, "academics have been taken by surprise by their subjects; time and again, their paradigms have been swept away by events. Repeated failures have depleted the credibility of scholarship among influential publics. In Washington, the mere mention of academic Middle Eastern studies often causes eyes to roll."
Mr. Kramer, an American who earned his doctorate in Near East studies at Princeton University, is a senior fellow of Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and the incoming editor of Middle East Quarterly.
He accuses the field as a whole of misunderstanding the growing role of Islam in the culture and politics of the region, in part because it has been dominated by scholars searching in vain for signs of the secular, democratic, populist movements in the Arab world that they themselves would prefer.
Thanks to those ideological blinders, he writes, the field has systematically ignored the rise of Islamic extremism, underestimated the stability of autocratic Arab governments, overestimated the transforming power of civil institutions in Arab countries, and misread the capacity and desire of Palestinians for democratic rule.
The discipline was founded in part to assist U.S. policy making in the region, he points out. Yet the field now disdains practical and empirical scholarship, he says, and actively discourages its members from working with the federal government, even as a dozen major academic centers of Middle East scholarship accept federal subsidies. Independent think tanks and journalists are now more likely to have the government's ear.
Mr. Kramer's book is the product of two years' work. But the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon may make his critique more urgent. In a lecture this month at the Washington office of the institute, a nonprofit think tank for Middle East issues that endorses Israeli positions, Mr. Kramer said that not only has academe's failure left the American public ill-informed about the nature of the terrorist threat, but any new federal push to finance more research and language training may amplify the field's problems.
"Middle East studies should be allowed to reconstruct themselves in the climate that now exists," he said. "But new appropriations would not only be a waste of money, but would delay reconstruction of the discipline."
R. Stephen Humphreys, a Middle East historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the president of the Middle East Studies Association, said he has not read Mr. Kramer's book but agreed with him in several particulars.
The field has mistakenly regarded Islam as "something of residual cultural importance and declining political salience," Mr. Humphreys said, and he acknowledged that the "predictive power" of American scholarship of the Middle East has been poor. "But I'm not sure that's particularly characteristic of Middle East studies" among specialties in political science, he added.
He also agreed that his field is estranged from the nation's policy makers. "I think it is the case that there is distance and alienation," he said. "Partly, it's generational. Part of it has to do with the ethnic background of many Middle East specialists. Partly, it's a generalized feeling among many Middle East specialists that U.S. policy is impossibly wrongheaded on so many levels, and many don't want to be tainted by it."
"What academic study has done is provide a far richer and deeper and more nuanced description of the cultures of the Middle East than we had 20 or 30 years ago," he added. "What we do with that knowledge is another question."