The 11 September 2001 attacks and their aftermath, the War on Terrorism, have spurred a lively debate in American academic circles on the state of Middle East studies. Academics specialising in this field have been accused of failing to predict the 11 September attacks because of political bias, and this allegation has led to continuing attacks on the discipline and its practitioners, even going so far as to call for the defunding of academic centres in the US dedicated to the study of the Middle East in favour of setting up or funding alternative, "more patriotic" centres.
One of the leading voices in the attack on Middle East Studies has been Michael Kramer in his book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Kramer, an Israeli-American scholar, is former director of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, known for its connections to Israeli military intelligence. The book was published in October 2001, just after the attacks, but it had been written months earlier. However, the events of 11 September gave the author's arguments additional weight with the public at large.
In an article published in the Wall Street Journal on 15 November 2001, Kramer described US Middle East Studies as a "very sick discipline -- one that did nothing to prepare America for the encounter with Muslim extremism, and that can't contribute anything to America's defense." He was particularly critical of scholars' analyses of Islam and Islamism: "In order to burnish the image of contemporary Islam, they downplayed the growth of Muslim extremism, helping to lull America into complacency." He singled out writers such as John Esposito, John Voll, Richard Buillet, and Dale Eickelman for having produced, in his opinion, a distorted view of Middle Eastern reality. Kramer also attributed a lot of what he perceived as being wrong with the field to the influence of Edward Said and his book Orientalism. Kramer, therefore, urged officials in Washington to ignore the advice of these academic experts when weighing policy issues. "Mr President, don't waste your time. The professors don't meet the course prerequisites," he wrote.
Kramer also called for a decrease in the funding allotted to academic institutions hosting Middle East Studies departments by re- examining the financial aid given to the discipline under Title VI of the International Education Act of 1958. Kramer's attack on the field was directed particularly at the private and non-profit Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) and its 2600 members, who are specialists in various disciplines related to the Middle East and Islam. However, in the main Kramer singled out those studying Middle East politics for criticism, not caring to acknowledge the work of those historians, anthropologists, sociologists and literary critics who also work within the framework of Middle East studies.
Kramer's attack was paralleled by others, notably by those coming from Daniel Pipes and Stanley Kurtz, and it spurred a wave of articles in defense of the discipline by professors in various branches of Middle East Studies. Kramer's arguments were rebutted and his claims on the state of the field denied.
Nevertheless, the crisis that the discipline is going through is not an altogether recent development. It has roots in arguments against "area studies" in general, arguments that took on new dimensions after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the perceived crisis of Middle East Studies in US universities was even the subject of a MESA presidential address by historian Rashid Khalidi in 1994, Khalidi giving his lecture the title, "Is there a future for Middle East Studies?" Khalidi outlined the intellectual, political and financial crises facing the discipline and urged its practitioners to reach out to their communities and not be isolated on academic islands -- in other words to interact more fully with the larger disciplines they belonged to and to question the relevance of research before embarking on it. Such advice remains relevant today.
In an e-mail interview, MESA's current president, Stanford University historian Joel Beinin, emphatically denied that Middle East Studies in the US are under threat. In fact, he explained, "the intellectual critique of area studies that followed the end of the Cold War has subsided in the face of the obvious need for knowledge about the Middle East and Central Asia. This has been recognized by the US Congress, which allocated $20.5 million in new funding to international area studies programmes in fiscal year 2002, a record increase of 26 per cent."
Roger Owen, professor of Middle East History at Harvard University, seems to concur. "Middle East studies are not under threat per se," he said, "but obviously they are under the threat of greater politicisation than usual." The field, however, was benefiting from increased interest with larger enrollment and more federal money for teaching Arabic, he added.
Owen agrees that though there were worries in US academic circles about reduced funding for area studies after the end of the Cold War, by the mid-1990s these had passed away "due to revived government interest in people with languages and area knowledge -- the result of special problems in places like Kosovo, Somalia, etc." Owen adds that "there is also much more interest in Central Asia, but that started after the collapse of the USSR."
Beinin agrees: "There is certainly an increased interest in Central Asia, including Afghanistan. This was an area that used to be covered, though not very well, under the rubric of 'Soviet studies.' Now that the Muslim Central Asian countries are no longer a part of the Soviet Union, it is clear that to study them properly we need to know the languages and specific histories of those regions. There are very few institutions in the US dedicated to this. I would not be surprised to see some new ones develop and to see programmes in Russian and Soviet studies expand to pay more attention to these countries."
As Beinin explained in the MESA newsletter of 2 May 2002, this increased interest has so far included $5.4 million to double the number of Foreign Language Area Studies fellowships (from roughly 215 to 430) to students pursuing advanced training in Arabic, Azeri, Persian/ Dari, Pashto, Tajik, Uzbek, Urdu and other languages spoken in Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and Russia/Eastern Europe. A supplemental $3.4 million has been allocated to existing National Resource Centers specialising in Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and Russia/Eastern Europe, and to establishing four new centres in these areas. In addition, $1 million has been budgeted to establish three new language resource centres, specialising in Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Thus, despite the calls of Kramer et al it does not look as if Middle East studies will suffer financially in the near future. "A small number of shrill neo-conservative propagandists closely linked to Israel have attacked the entire institution of American and European Middle East studies," Beinin concedes, "but they are marginal both politically and intellectually." Owen too seems to dismiss the influence of such people on scholarship, though he surmises that perhaps "there may well be people identified as pro-Arab, or pro-Muslim, in smaller, out of the way, colleges who feel constrained or worried -- and [who are therefore] more likely to exercise self-censorship."
One of the failings Kramer identified in the field was that its experts had failed to predict the 11 September attacks. "It is no exaggeration to say that America's academics have failed to predict or explain the major evolutions of Middle Eastern politics and society over the past two decades," he argues in his book. However, as Beinin explains, "no one predicted the 11 September attacks. In the first rank of those who failed in predicting the attacks are the CIA and the FBI, who are responsible for such matters. There are now reports that these agencies had, or should have had, information that might have led them to predict such attacks, if not the specific attacks of 11 September. In all likelihood the reason that they failed to interpret this information properly is that such attacks on American soil were beyond anyone's imagination."
"American higher education, even in public institutions, is not directly linked to government service, as is common in some other countries. It is not the task of scholars engaged in university based teaching and research to engage in such predictions unless they choose to. A minority of American scholars do consult with government agencies and may express opinions on such matters," Beinin said. But, as Owen succinctly put it "most people believe that we aren't in the prediction business."
Another claim made by Kramer is that Middle East Studies practitioners are "too soft" on Islamist fundamentalism and Islamism, are predisposed towards the Arab world (read critical of Israeli and US policy) and are generally too left-wing. But Beinin raises a deeper issue of concern, which is whether those who study modern Islamist movements gave adequate attention to their violent wings, such as Al- Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, the Gama`a Islamiyya, etc.
"There was, before 11 September, very little expertise on Afghanistan at all [in the United States]. But several of those few who did know something of the country were well aware of the character of the Taliban regime and of the role of the 'Arab Afghans.' It is probably correct to say that most American scholars of Islam emphasised that these violent groups are a small minority among the 1.2 billion Muslims of the world. That remains a correct analysis. What was incorrect was the view that the US is beyond the reach of such groups, even as we saw what they were doing in Algeria, in Egypt, in Palestine, in Afghanistan, and so on."
A number of scholars have also noted decreased attention being paid to Arab and Islamic studies in American universities over the past decade especially when compared to Jewish and Ottoman studies, with decreasing funding and fewer tenure-track positions available. Beinin disagrees, however, arguing that "the decline in government funding has been reversed in the current year. There is every reason to believe this trend will continue. It may be that Jewish Studies and Turkish/Ottoman studies have been more generously funded than Arab studies in the last decade or more. If so, that is due to private sources, not US government sources. There is no government funding for Jewish studies in the US. Most Arab-Americans are relatively new immigrants. They are not yet accustomed to the idea that part of what a community does to establish its cultural legitimacy in this country is to fund university programmes to study its history and culture. Some funding for Arab and Islamic studies has come to American universities from individuals in the Arab world. This is similar in character to the chairs in Turkish studies established by the Turkish government."
Yet Arab funding for academic institutions in the West -- not to mention back home -- remains minimal. Perhaps the recent political atmosphere will encourage Arab intellectual and political circles to invest more in Western academia. It is, after all, these institutions that produce the experts that eventually produce a body of knowledge about a particular area, some of which gets funnelled into policy.
It is still not clear whether the 11 September events will spur new scholarly and intellectual directions within Middle East Studies. Figures point to increased enrollments in classes relating to the Middle East, and "some colleagues have told me that enrollments in their classes increased by 100 per cent," Beinin said. "At Stanford University, where I teach, enrollment in the beginning Arabic class doubled last fall," he added. The situation at Harvard University seems similar. "Last academic year -- after 9/ 11 -- the increase was mainly for classes about Islam, now it's about everything connected with the Middle East across the board," Owen explains. "There is also a new revived interest in the Middle East as a career," he adds.
Some of these new opportunities will be within academia, Beinin explaining that "there are new positions in Islamic and Middle East Studies at many universities, even relatively small ones. Typically, these are positions in departments of History or Religious Studies. The University of North Carolina and Stanford University are among those undertaking major expansions of Middle East and Islamic studies." There has also been a huge increase over the last decade in interest in Political Islam, evident in the number of books published on the subject as well as the classes and courses dedicated to it, as Owen points out. Now that there is also a new interest in "matters such as 'why do they hate us?' among the general American public, and why has the Middle East performed so badly economically?' etc., which we have to deal with, and, to some extent, generate new responses towards. [In addition,] a whole new subject has appeared: The Middle East after 9/ 11," Owen explains.
There is also an increase in the need of US government agencies for people trained in the languages of the Middle East. The National Flagship Language Initiative (NFLI) has been designed to set up campus-based, US government-funded centres offering intensive language training in eight languages, including Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Students would receive government fellowships in exchange for service commitments. Interestingly enough, NFLI is funded through the defence budget, even though it is administered by the National Foreign Language Center, University of Maryland. This direct government link, with more than a hint of intertwining intelligence with scholarship, has left many academics apprehensive.
There have also been discussions about whether the 9/11 events will nurture a new generation of "Arabists". But, as Beinin explained, "so far no clear direction has emerged. [...] Some retired diplomats are concerned that there is not enough Middle East expertise in the State Department and other branches of the US government. The US educational system is too large and too diverse to allow any one model to be imposed on it from above. The number of people with a good knowledge of Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages and cultures is likely to increase in the coming years. Some of them will go to work for the US government in various capacities. Some of them will work for private industries and think tanks. Some of them will become teachers at colleges and universities. Their overall outlook and the topics they specialise in will depend on their own orientation and commitments when they begin their studies, the influence of their teachers, and the job opportunities available when they graduate. This is no different than has been the case in the past."
In addition, while 11 September increased American interest in all things Middle Eastern, there has also been a renewed desire among the American intelligentsia as a whole to learn something of this culture and civilisation. In some places, such as the University of Wisconsin -- Madison, an increased Muslim presence among the student body several years before 2001 meant that the university had hired three new faculty members to meet increased interest in Middle Eastern affairs. It was thus prepared to sustain the even greater interest that came after the 2001 attacks.
Though the debate over the validity of Middle East studies has now largely subsided, a recent Web site, <www.campus-watch.org>, has been set up to "monitor and critique Middle East Studies in North America, with an aim to improving them... [and] addresses five problems: analytical failures, the mixing of politics with scholarship, intolerance of alternative views, apologetics, and the abuse of power over students."
Campus Watch is administered by the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum which, according to its Web site, "holds that the United States has vital interests in the region; in particular, it believes in strong ties with Israel, Turkey, and other democracies as they emerge; works for human rights throughout the region; seeks a stable supply and a low price of oil; and promotes the peaceful settlement of regional and international disputes." The Forum's director, Daniel Pipes, has been one of the more vocal critics of MESA and the site is well- stocked with articles attacking the discipline by him and by others, most visibly by Martin Kramer. As it monitors the teaching of anything related to Islam and the Middle East in American universities, it has left professors and students worrying about another wave of McCarthyism on campuses.
Whether initiatives such as Campus Watch will lead to self-censorship and academic persecution is not yet clear. What also remains to be seen is whether the renewed interest on the part of Westerners in all things Arab and Muslim will lead to a paradigm shift in the discipline. Will it announce a new age of more sophisticated original research that does not attempt to place the Arab and Muslim worlds in preconceived moulds? Will any good come out of the intellectual arguments? Or is this all purely academic?