Following my recent articles on the plight of post-Sept. 11 American academia, I received an e-mail informing me that a new website was being launched to monitor anti-Israel academics in the United States. The Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, a well-known pro-Israel center run by the polemicist Daniel Pipes, says the aim of the new website, dubbed Campus Watch, is to monitor US academic institutions, which have apparently been taken over by enemies of America. As the site puts it, "American scholars on the Middle East, to varying degrees, reject the views of most Americans and the enduring policies of the US government about the Middle East."
The group thus plans to "monitor and gather information on professors who fan the flames of disinformation, incitement and ignorance … and make available its findings on the internet and in the media." The ultimate objective is to classify academics as pro- or anti-American, and organize the "pro" in Masonic-style circles of patronage and solidarity, while inciting the media and the public against those classified as "anti," and to manipulate funding and appointments to the benefits of loyal elements.
This is a rather ingenious approach that brings together the advantages of mob intimidation, KGB-style state-supported monitoring and intimidation, and the vigilante activism of fascist and fanatical groups. Its success thus looks extremely likely.
Soon, American universities will be churning out only Soviet-style propaganda adulating the peace-loving nature of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and explaining the mysteries of why the ungrateful Palestinians do not appreciate the favors bestowed on them by stealing their land, killing their children, denying them jobs and imposing on them round-the-clock curfews.
Campus Watch started its crusade (is this the right word for the pro-Israel center?) by "blacklisting" eight prominent Middle East experts and 14 universities. This isn't bad for one week's work.
An instant reaction came from about 100 academics who agreed that these tactics of intimidation were outrageous. Judith Butler, a comparative literature professor at Berkeley, led the group in writing to Pipes, saying: "I have recently learned that your organization is compiling dossiers on professors at US academic institutions who oppose the Israeli occupation and its brutality, actively support Palestinian rights for self-determination as well as a more informed and intelligent view of Islam than is currently represented in the US media. I would be enormously honored to be counted among those who actively hold these positions and would like to be included in the list of those who are struggling for justice."
Butler's letter was circulated to other colleagues and many have joined her in this protest.
Pipes' intimidation tactics were vociferously criticized as a manifestation of McCarthyism and an attempt to bring the "thought police" to American campuses.
The fact that the site has a "snitch corner" (a link allowing students to grass on their teachers) was also seen to smack of Stalinist and fascist tactics. But the most devastating criticism was the most obvious one: Why not contest academic positions within academia itself? Isn't that what universities are all about? Why do Pipes and his colleagues not want to contest academics at their own level, and think they need a sniping center established outside academia in order to hit at their opponents?
One Pipes critic, Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University, has a simple explanation: Pipes is a failed academic who could not make it on the campus and wants to vent his venom on academics.
The Pipes gang has its own equally plausible explanation. And who better to sell it than the National Review's Stanley Kurtz, the hero of a previous article (The Daily Star, Sept. 25). Writing last week in defense of Pipes et al., Kurtz acknowledges that many ask: "If some scholars of the Middle East are biased or in error, wouldn't it be better for other scholars to challenge them to reasoned debate within the walls of the academy itself? Why stir up partisan passions on matters best fought out in seminar rooms, scholarly journals, and university press books?"
And Kurtz answers the informed: "Well, yes. The best way to challenge anti-American bias within the academy would be to do so in scholarly venues. Trouble is, there are virtually no scholars left in the field of Middle East Studies (or anywhere else) to mount such a challenge."
That is an extraordinary claim to make, and also an admission of failure on the part of Pipes and his group. If not a single academic exists who shares their views, then how can they hope to regain control of the academic institutions?
It would appear that the preferred tactic at this moment is not to take over academic institutions, but to destroy and paralyze them. The well-tried and tested "bin Laden Option" of "suicide attacks" on academic institutions is being adopted. Those engaged in these attacks will commit academic suicide, for they will forever lose their credibility and no academic will ever want to work with them. However, in time, they may create enough mayhem and intimidate enough people sufficiently to destroy and disorient key academic institutions and hamper their input on the debate on the Middle East.
One key question is: What purpose would this serve? The express purpose of the vigilantes in question is to remove all criticism of Israel and its brutal policies and prevent academics from influencing US policy toward the Jewish state. However, this effort appears to be superfluous, since legislators and policymakers in the US are fully behind Sharon's policies, and don't dream of criticizing Israel. So why the fuss?
The only plausible explanation is that the pro-Israel crowd wants to pick a fight for a mere show of power. Like other over-zealous pursuits, this course of action is potentially self-destructive. American academics have, contrary to the accusations of Pipes et al, been largely silent regarding injustices promoted by America abroad. Moving the battle to their own turf will convince them that freedom for Palestinians and academic freedoms at home are inextricably linked. In other words, they will be forced into a battle they have done their best to avoid fighting.
Going back to the Campus Watch site itself, one important name appears to be mysteriously missing from the blacklist. As inaccuracies about the Middle East go, one biased Middle East expert who published a book in 1983 with the fundamentalist title In the Path of God deserves to top this famous blacklist of misleading experts. In it, he surveyed the rise of fundamentalism in Muslim countries, arguing that only one Muslim country, Algeria, appears immune to this scourge and deserves to be a model to other Muslim nations.
The name of this perceptive author? Daniel Pipes!
Abdelwahab El-Affendi is a senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star