In his latest video message, Osama bin Laden tried to justify al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks on American citizens on the grounds that we pay taxes to our government:
"The American people are the financiers of the attacks against us; they are watching — through their elected senators — the spending of taxes that pay for planes bombing us in Afghanistan, armies occupying our land in the Arabian Peninsula, tanks [used] against the Palestinians and fleets putting Iraqi children under siege."
But bin Laden missed the diversity of American society. Thus, Americans are also paying taxes to support professors in Middle East Studies programs who openly sympathize with al-Qaeda's "position" and oppose American values, American interests, and America's war on terror in the Middle East—and even launched a boycott of a federal program intended to boost U.S. national security by providing scholarships to students who want to study Arabic.
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) was founded in 1966 as a self-described "international organization for those involved in the study of the Middle East" housed at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Today it boasts more than 2,600 members.
The strategic importance of the Middle East during the Cold War and the United States' growing dependence on its oil made the U.S. government sit up and take notice of the region. The government turned to the academy for analysis, offering millions of tax dollars to support studies of the region, and a discipline was, if not born, reborn.
Previously, studies of the Middle East had followed a European model that emphasized the humanities, including languages. This old-school model, redolent of dusty Oxford and Heidelberg scholars, could be stuffy and esoteric at times, and presumed the superiority of the West, but it grasped the importance of history, particularly ancient history, in this region and had no trouble facing basic facts like the fact that the Koran commands holy war. It did not suffer from the delusion that everyone is really an American under the skin.
The new model de-emphasized both. The move away from teaching languages in particular had dire implications for U.S. national security, as it led to a shortage of people who could actually speak and understand Arabic languages in our intelligence agencies. The crisis that this shortage presented became clear during the 1991 Gulf War. In response, Congress under the leadership of then-Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.) established the National Security Education Program (NSEP), which provides grants to students studying the languages and cultures of regions critical to U.S. national security. In return, graduates are required to work either for federal offices or agencies involved in national security affairs or in higher education.
Appalled by the idea of federal grant recipients actually having to work for the money, MESA flipped. MESA, along with the African Studies Association and the Latin American Studies Association, passed resolutions refusing to cooperate with NSEP. Not only did area studies professors refuse to apply for or accept funding from the program (not necessarily a move to be discouraged), but they even refused to recommend the program to potentially interested students.
Fending off the competition in this manner, flush with government grants, American Middle East scholars continued to shy away from humanities and emphasized instead the politics of the region, offering predictions on how the area would change. The problem was that they got almost everything wrong. Blinded by ideology and wishful thinking, seduced by tax and foundation money, scholars of the Middle East consistently miscalculated the political climate of the region they claimed to be experts about.
Avoiding the politically incorrect topic of Islamic terrorism, Middle East scholars insisted that the United States could bring peace and democracy to the region only by supporting Islamic fundamentalists. According to former MESA president and director of Georgetown University's Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding John Esposito, Americans needed to "transcend their narrow, ethnocentric conceptualization of democracy" in order to embrace "Islamic democracy", which, "though unlike the Westminster model or the American system", could still prove capable of forging "effective systems of popular participation". In other words, Western bigots needed to get over thinking that their conception of democracy was the only conception of democracy. (Of course, Westerners tend to understand democracy according to its Western conception because democracy is a Western concept. But that's not politically correct to admit.)
As for Islamist terrorism, well, it wasn't really much of a threat. Most Islamic movements had realized that violence was counterproductive. The 1990s, according to Esposito, promised "to be a decade of new alliances and alignments in which the Islamic movements will challenge rather than threaten their societies and the West".
MESA member Fawaz Gerges, a Sarah Lawrence professor specializing in international relations of the Arab world, went further, condemning "the terrorist industry" that strikes "fear and horror in the American psyche". In March 2001, Gerges wrote: "Should not observers and academics keep skeptical about the U.S. government's assessment of the terrorist threat? To what extent do terrorist ‘experts' indirectly perpetuate this irrational fear of terrorism by focusing too much on farfetched horrible scenarios? Does the terrorist industry, consciously or unconsciously, exaggerate the nature and degree of the terrorist threat to American citizens?"
Six months later, refusing to play along with the academy's kinder and gentler presentation of Islamic extremism, Osama bin Laden "challenged" America. If September 11, 2001, were the first occasion on which bin Laden had issued such a challenge, comments like Gerges' would be an embarrassment. But they are much more than that, for bin Laden had "challenged" the World Trade Center once before in 1993, the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. Horrible these harbingers of future attacks were; far-fetched they were not. The academics just didn't want to be confused with the facts.
Perhaps someone unfamiliar with the hubris and hypocrisy infecting the academy would have expected the flames of last September to burn the blinders off the eyes of Middle East scholars once and for all. That someone would have been wrong.
Six days after September 11, Stanford University professor of Middle East History Joel Beinin delivered a speech titled "Why do they hate us?" at a pacifist rally opposing the soon-to-commence war on terrorism. To answer his question, Beinin cited the "sight of American-supplied F-16 fighters and Apache helicopters bombing civilian targets", U.S. sanctions against Iraq, and, of course, U.S. support of Israel, which has engaged in a 34-year "occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem" and employed "disproportionate … force in attempting to suppress the Palestinian uprising over the last year". Beinin called for Americans to seek to understand "something about the historical conditions that inflamed the rage of those who attacked us on September 11" before they "embark on a long campaign against a shadowy enemy".
About ten weeks later, Beinin took office as president of MESA. This telling event transpired at the organization's annual conference, held that November in San Francisco. If one didn't look too deeply, the conference actually provided a glimmer of hope that MESA had seen its flawed analysis collapse with the Twin Towers. The light from the fires emanating from the other side of the country revealed a glaring omission from the conference program: There was no discussion scheduled on terrorism, owing naturally to the discipline's see-no-evil approach to its region of interest.
While rescue workers crawled through the rubble of the towers looking for victims, MESA conference organizers scrambled to throw a terrorism panel together, and it looked for a moment as though reality might be getting through. That illusion crumbled as soon as the panel itself began. According to The New Republic, presenter after presenter referred to "so-called terrorism". Picking up a baton from their newly minted president, the assembled academics criticized and condemned America. Blasting the war on (so-called) terrorism, Georgetown's Michael Hudson declared, "We have not shown that our actions differentiate us from those who attacked us."
Taking MESA's reins at the conference, Beinin inherited the spectacular unveiling of his field's blindness. While bin Laden provided the visual effects in September, Martin Kramer's Ivory Towers of Sand, an analysis of the Middle Eastern studies field hit the bookstores a month later. The book's publication ignited a controversy over MESA and particularly over their continued presence on the federal dole. Hoover Institution fellow Stanley Kurtz, in particular, questioned the wisdom of pumping Middle East Studies full of cash in view of their resounding failures to provide any useful analysis.
The cheek with which leftist ideologues commit the very sins of which they shrilly accuse others is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in Beinin's July 16, 2002, e-mail message to Middle East Studies Center and Program Directors:
"You are probably aware that the public attack on American Middle East studies and MESA in particular that began with the publication of Martin Kramer's Ivory Towers on Sand has continued throughout the year in the mass media with articles … as well as radio shows by one Stanley Kurtz (a fellow a the Hoover Institution located uncomfortably close to my office)… While the intellectual criticisms of MESA members are mostly mean[-]spirited, ad hominem, and spurious, there is a significant threat to Middle East studies from this assault."
Beinin goes on from his slur against Kurtz for writing mean-spirited, ad hominem, and spurious articles about MESA to define the threat: MESA stood to lose its government goodies. In the face of this dreadful threat, Beinin called upon his colleagues to write counter-articles pointing out all the good things Middle East studies provides, advocate "lively discussion of Middle Eastern affairs", and "explain why our understandings of the Middle East are often at variance with popularly held views."
In other words, let's not worry about improving our understanding of our subject matter so as to avoid repeating the failures of the past; let's just get the public relations machine in gear to make sure we keep our funding.
Ah, the academy.
Leslie Carbone, former executive director of Accuracy In Academia, is the author of Slaying Leviathan: The Moral Case for Tax Reform (forthcoming).