Having recently published an article on the plight of post-September 11 American academia, I was surprised to receive an e-mail informing me that a new website was being launched to monitor anti-Israeli academics in the US. In my earlier piece, I have said that US universities are likely to be one of the more serious casualties of the George Bush's war on terrorism. New draconian regulations on immigration are likely to dry up the steady flow of overseas student that kept American academic life flourishing. The attack on civil liberties and the right-wing onslaught on academic freedoms is likely to take care of what is left then.
However, the announcement of the new enterprise (dubbed Campus Watch) by the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, a well-known pro-Israeli centre run by the polemicist Daniel Pipes, shows that the danger is much more present and clear than hitherto feared. Campus Watch says its aim 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 U.S. 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 organise 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 which 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. Very soon, all that American universities will be churning out Soviet-style propaganda adulating the peace-loving nature of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and explaining the mysteries of why the ungrateful Palestinians do not appreciate the favours bestowed on them by stealing their land, killing their children, denying them jobs and imposing on them round-the-clock curfews.
Unfortunately, not many academics are in favour of this prospect. Campus Watch started its crusade (is this the right word for the pro-Israeli centre?) by "blacklisting" eight prominent Middle East experts and fourteen universities. This is not bad for one week's work. But most academics were furious. An instant reaction came from about a hundred academics who agreed that these tactics of intimidation were outrageous. Led by Judith Butler, a comparative literature professor at Berkeley, they wrote 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 honoured 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 circulated her letter to other colleagues and many have joined her in this protest.
Pipes's intimidation tactics were vociferously criticised as a manifestation of McCarthyism and an attempt to bring the "thought police" on 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? What Middle East professors write and say is not theology, but is subject to endless debate: in class rooms, in seminars, in journals, conferences, books etc. Why does Pipes and his colleagues not want to contest academics at their own level, and think they need a sniping centre 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 that is why he wanted to vent his venom on academics. However, the Pipes gang has its own equally plausible explanation. And who better to sell it that the National Review's Stanley Kurtz, the hero of our last piece? Writing last week in defence 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 he 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 gross failure on Pipes and his group. If not a single academic exists who shares their views, then how could they ever 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 (that is impossible if you do not have a single ally in any of them), but to destroy and paralyze them. The well tried and tested "Bin Laden Option" (or more appropriately here, the "Samson Option" to quote Simon Hersch) of "suicide attacks" on academic institutions is being adopted. Those engaged in these attacks will commit academic suicide, for they will forever loose 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 apparently crystal clear: to remove all criticism of Israel and its brutal policies and prevent academics from influencing US policy towards Israel. However, this effort appears to be superfluous, since legislators and policymakers in the US are a hundred and ten per cent behind Sharon's policies, and do not dream of criticizing Israel. It would appear that few academics, if any, ever read academic books and learned journals on the Middle East, or want to. So why the fuss?
The only plausible explanation of his policy is that the pro-Israeli crowd wants to pick a fight for a mere show of power. Like other overzealous 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 the battle they have done their best to avoid fighting.
Going back to the site itself, one important name appears to be mysteriously missing from the black list. 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 black list 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 Muslims nations. The name of this perceptive author? Daniel Pipes!