In a move to counter perceived bias among academics, a Web site on the internet has been established to monitor their output. At issue is discussion of the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. VOA's Brent Hurd reports on this controversial new scrutiny of academic opinion and the response to it.
Academics, even renowned ones, have too long expressed an anti-Israel bias, says Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia. He set up the Web site Campus Watch (www.campus-watch.org) to monitor their writings and expose the bias.
The goal, he says, is to improve Middle East Studies, not suppress them.
The fact that the scholars of the Middle East are so infuriated by our criticism only confirms the fact that it is needed. Our goal is to get the scholars to do a better job. Our goal is also to get the general public more concerned about what is happening at their universities.
Martin Kramer is the author of "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America." He expects Campus Watch to give some solidity to these studies.
Most academics are not used to the scrutiny that government officials and the media are used to. There are countless media watches, where officials and journalists have their work scrutinized and criticized on a regular basis. Academics aren't used to it. But the fact is it is happening. It is not just happening at Campus watch. If you go to University Web sites you will find that today students are evaluating their professors. These evaluations are not just for the professors to read in the privacy of their own studies, they are on the internet. It is a kind of consumer movement on the part of students now to do precisely the same thing. I think University professors have to come to terms with the new world in which they will be subjected to much greater scrutiny. First of all by their students and also by outsiders who have more access to what goes on in the University thanks to the fact that a lot of it is available on the internet.
That is all very well, say some of the academics under scrutiny. But where does criticism end and censorship begin? Campus Watch, for example, describes some professors as apologists for suicide bombers. It asks students to provide information on wayward professors.
John Esposito (ES-pah-ZEE-do), professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, is one of those cited for bias by Campus Watch. He says as a result, he has been deluged with hate mail, some of it threatening.
I had an e-mail saying being unpatriotic is treason, and one can expect as a traitor to receive the appropriate punishment. I think the people that are uncritically supportive of Israeli government policy have a problem with anyone who talks in a nuance way about the Palestinian side of things. They simple want to see all Palestinians discredited. They have a problem when someone says if you want to understand Palestinian rage, you have to understand where that rage is coming from, just as if you want to understand Israeli rage, you have to understand where that rage comes from. And that often comes from political realities on the ground which have to do with territory, levels of violence and terror.
Professor Esposito says Campus Watch has taken some of his statements out of context and misrepresented them. He was accused of "blaming America" in the aftermath of the September eleventh terrorist attacks. He says it is clear from his own quotes that he said no such thing.
Mr. Pipes replies that anyone discussing the Middle East these days is sure to be criticized. It goes with the territory.
Mr. Esposito is in public life, as am I. If you want to be on television, write books, give interviews on radio, you expect a certain amount of vulgar, nasty and even sometimes threatening responses. I in no way encourage it, but it is something I am completely used to.
Professor Esposito says he is an established author and can withstand hostile e-mail assaults. But what about a newly appointed professor seeking tenure; that is, a permanent position at some university?
It is less a problem for me because I have a long established record. I have my own professional reputation. So there are a lot of people who disagree with me, but they respect me. The real question is what they wind up doing to non-tenured faculty how vulnerable they are to these accusations and charges.
Daniel Pipes concedes Campus Watch is not perfect. So it offers space to critics who are allowed to speak their mind.
We have something on the web site itself called "Campus Watch in the news," which gives a complete rendition of articles in print about the web site, many of them unflattering. But we put them on.
As an example, Campus Watch noted that more than 100 scholars have denounced it and quoted one of them saying its work is "slimy."
That, however, does not mollify the critics. Joel Beinin (BAY nin), professor of Middle East history at Stanford University and a former president of Middle Eastern Studies of North America, says Campus Watch does not lead to serious debate.
They don't engage in substantive scholarly criticism of anybody's work. They simply say X person expressed Y opinion, and that's outrageous and apologetic for terrorism, and therefore we don't like them.
Rashid Khalidi (rah-SHEED ka-LEE-dee), professor of history and Near Eastern Civilizations at the University of Chicago, says Campus Watch is obviously intended to chill opposition. "What they are trying to do," he told the Washington Post, "is exclude from public debate opinions that go against the neo-conservative consensus that dominates discussion of policy on Iraq or on the Israeli conflict by smearing us."
Given the war between Israel and the Palestinians, says Robert Freedman, it is all too easy to get caught up on one side or the other. Under the circumstances, it is hard to banish bias from scholarly discourse.
Professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University, Mr. Freedman says there is an inherent imbalance in Middle East Studies in America:
There are more Arab states in the Middle East than there is Israel. People who are trained in Arab studies tend to be exposed more towards a pro-Arab than a pro-Israel balance in the course of their college studies. Twenty Arab countries. One Israel. It is pretty clear what the balance is.
But Professor Freedman warns of carrying criticism too far. Debating an adversary is one thing, silencing him another.
I have been blacklisted myself. I had gone and talked to (Palestinian leader) Arafat back in 1989 to see if he were serious about his offer of peace when he was still in Tunis, and there were some organizations that blacklisted me for even having the audacity of talking to Arafat. I am not big on blacklisting.
It looks as if Campus Watch is going to be kept very busy. Many scholars who have not been cited for errors are asking to be included among the suspects.
Judith Butler, professor of comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, says she would be enormously honored to be counted among those who are struggling for justice.
Daniel Pipes says alternate points of view tend to be excluded from American universities. He says "You have got to subscribe to the party line, and then you can make your career. If you don't, you're out."
To which critics reply: must Campus Watch be the alternate party line?
For Focus, this is Brent Hurd.