The office of MESA president is mainly honorific; the associated duties are normally not particularly onerous. The very capable staff of the secretariat does most of the hard work involved in running this organization. None of you could have known at the time of the MESA elections in the summer and early fall of 2000 that you would be giving me the opportunity to serve as your president in the post-September 11, 2001 era, when public interest in the Middle East, demands on those with expertise in the region, and incongruously, attacks on MESA, university-based programs in Middle East Studies, and more than a few individual MESA members have reached unprecedented levels. Serving as your president in this period has been a more exciting ride than it would have been at almost any other time I can imagine; I thank you all for making it possible. I would also like to acknowledge my wife Miriam, who also received a fuller plate than she could have imagined as a result of my serving as MESA president. Her support has always been indispensable in everything I have done.
Many people have said that September 11 "changed everything." At the risk of appearing callous and insensitive, I would like to suggest that this is not exactly so. Of course, September 11 did "change everything" for the 3,000 victims who perished at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon that day as well as for their families. Their loss can never be restored. Many others close to ground zero suffered intense trauma that may well have long term repercussions. But these personal losses are not the usual referent of the assertion that September 11 "changed everything."
There has also been substantial erosion of our civil liberties and of public tolerance for dissent since September 11. Our government is holding hundreds of individuals without charges and without allowing them access to a lawyer. Just this week a federal appeals court has greatly expanded the powers of criminal prosecutors to use wiretaps obtained from intelligence operations in prosecuting national security cases. Hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs in the United States and Canada have increased. Arabs and Muslims traveling to the United States – even those who have visited previously and have no connection to organizations advocating politically motivated violence of any sort have been subjected to onerous screening processes to obtain a visa. Several individuals who expected to participate in this meeting were prevented from doing so. Others stayed away fearing they would be harassed or humiliated. Some university administrations have publicly criticized or sanctioned faculty members for expressing opinions critical of U.S. Middle East policy. Self-appointed guardians of patriotic rectitude have attempted to prescribe the proper way to study Islam and the Middle East, if not to proscribe it altogether. Neo-conservative propagandists have launched a McCarthyite-style smear campaign against MESA and some our most prominent members. But those who have asserted that September 11 "changed everything" are not principally preoccupied by these matters.
Most of those who make this claim seem to mean that Americans can no longer feel secure living in a fortress immune to the dangers and uncertainties of the world. Many Americans have believed that our country was uniquely protected by God, geography, or military might. But that sense of invulnerability was illusory. The United States is not somehow uniquely protected from the consequences of its actions in the world. The belief system of those who thought otherwise was devastatingly undermined on September 11.
However, September 11 was not the first time in recent history that Americans have been shocked and surprised by Middle East-related events. The lesson that what the United States does and does not do in the Middle East can have severe consequences for our people and our interests could and should have been learned some time ago. It was not. Hence, it is far from certain that we will draw the appropriate conclusions from the pain and distress we experienced on September 11.
Following the Iranian revolution and the overthrow of Muhammad Reza Shah, the U.S. embassy in Teheran was overrun on November 4, 1979 by militants claiming to follow the line of Ayatollah Khomeini. Fifty-two embassy staffers were taken hostage, precipitating a crisis that persisted for 444 days until January 20, 1981. The immediate impetus for the seizure of the embassy was the news that the ousted Shah had arrived in the United States for medical treatment. The militants demanded that he be returned to Iran.
In 1953 this same Shah had fled Iran following a botched coup by the CIA which sought to remove the nationalist government of Muhammad Mosaddeq because it had nationalized Iran's oil. The CIA and its local allies regrouped; the coup succeeded; and Muhammad Reza Shah was restored to the Peacock Throne. Hence, the notion that the Shah's arrival in the United States was part of a plan to return him to power, although unsubstantiated, was not outlandish.
The seizure of the American embassy in Teheran was a manifestation of the internal struggle within the Iranian revolutionary regime. Through such public dramas, Ayatollah Khomeini consolidated his leadership, imposed rule by mullahs loyal to him, and eliminated other elements of the revolutionary coalition that overthrew the monarchy from access to power. Relatively little of that story was prominently reported in the American mass media.
At a press conference in February 1980 an exceptionally bold reporter asked President Jimmy Carter if the CIA's restoration of the Shah to power in 1953 might have something to do with arousing the Iranian anti-American sentiment that expressed itself in the hostage crisis. Carter replied that this was "ancient history" and that it was not "appropriate or helpful" to discuss it. Such willful historical amnesia, which is so deeply rooted in American culture and politics, enables assertions like "everything has changed."
One thread of this story leads, a few years later, to Israel's invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982. Ariel Sharon, then Israel's Minister of Defense, was the godfather of the strategy of invading Lebanon to destroy Palestinian national sentiment and pave the way for Israel's annexation of the West Bank. U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig hoped that this adventure would contribute to building an anti-Soviet strategic consensus in the Middle East, a miscalculation which was one of the factors that led to his resignation. After receiving a "green light" from the Reagan administration, Israel fabricated a pretext for launching its invasion.
The hostilities were concluded with an agreement that the PLO would evacuate its fighters from Lebanon while the United States would guarantee the security of the Palestinian civilians left behind. Between September 16 and 18 Maronite Phalangists commanded by Elie Hobeika raped, tortured, and murdered between 700 and 3,500 unarmed Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps under the eyes of Israeli forces who had occupied Beirut.
None of those involved were ever brought to account for the massacre. On June 18, 2001, twenty-three survivors of Sabra and Shatila filed charges in a Belgian court against Ariel Sharon for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Elie Hobeika was mysteriously assassinated in Beirut on January 24, 2002, two days after he met with Belgian senators and confirmed his willingness to testify against Sharon in the case.
The failure of the United States to honor its promise to protect the Palestinians and its alliance with Israel provoked anti-American sentiments among some Lebanese and Palestinians, which were manifested in attacks on U.S. forces when they returned to Lebanon after the Sabra and Shatila massacre. US naval vessels off the coast of the Shuf briefly participated in the Lebanese civil war in support of the Phalange. Meanwhile Israel, which had been for several years an active ally of the Phalange, still occupied a large portion of Lebanon. In April 1983 a car bomb at the U.S. embassy in Beirut exploded killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. Another car bomb at the U.S. marine barracks in Beirut in October killed 241 marines, the largest number of casualties suffered by U.S. armed forces since the Vietnam War.
The newly established Hizb Allah was responsible for these bombings. In addition to these and other attacks on U.S. French, and British citizens, from 1982 to 1992 organizations apparently linked to Hizb Allah abducted some 45 U.S., British, and French citizens and held them hostage for varying lengths of time. Iranian revolutionary guards arrived in Lebanon shortly after Israel's invasion and encouraged the formation of Hizb Allah. Thus, Israel's invasion of Lebanon and the initial U.S. toleration of it were among the factors indirectly responsible for the radicalization of the Lebanese shi`a community.
There was a significant long-term cost to the American people – to say nothing of the cost to the Iranian and Lebanese people – for the ill considered CIA intervention in Iran in 1953 and for giving a green light to Israel's invasion of Lebanon and failing to uphold the commitment to protect Palestinian civilians in 1982. Hundreds of Americans lost their lives or experienced protracted suffering. Many fewer Americans were harmed than on September 11, and the relevant events took place in Teheran and Beirut rather than New York and Washington, DC. But the same principle applies. Deploying the enormous power of this country irresponsibly in the Middle East and around the world ultimately puts American lives and interests at risk.
The reasons for the attacks on Americans in Iran and Lebanon in 1979 and throughout the 1980s were largely unknown to most Americans, allowing politicians and pundits with little understanding of the histories of those countries to disseminate highly simplified, if not ridiculous, explanations of their import. Articles and books explaining that shi`a Muslims had a propensity for violence and terrorism proliferated. Sensationalist writers described a global terror network based in the Soviet Union and the linkage between "communist totalitarianism and Islamic (and Arab) radicalism." Some scholars joined this band wagon. A new field of "terrorology" emerged, with its own journals, conferences, and research institutes. This popular and scholarly literature informed the discourse of the first American "war on terrorism" during the mid-1980s.
MESA members, to our everlasting shame according to some pundits, did not participate much in the scholarly field of terrorology. In my view, there was great wisdom in this abstention. The terrorologists have not accomplished a great deal of practical or intellectual significance. Their studies have not noticeably decreased the incidence of acts of violence against civilians throughout the world. Nor have they enhanced our understanding of the causes of such acts. What they have done is to focus attention on tactics and symptoms, thereby impeding investigation into historical and social causes. This is an ostensibly pragmatic, but fundamentally misguided, approach to understanding terrorism. If the term is to be understood in any useful rather than propagandistic way, terrorism must be regarded as a social and historical phenomenon, not a moral or political epithet.
In the traditional fashion of historians, what I've done here is to tell a story with a few asides and an implicit analysis. The story does not justify anti-American sentiment and attacks on American citizens, but offers an explanation for them. The distinction between understanding and justification is a basic component of any critical pedagogical method. However, since September 11 there have been far too many voices eager to efface this distinction and with it any possibility of comprehension.
As a child I learned from the Mishnah "that whoever kills a single soul, the Bible considers to have killed a complete world. And whoever sustains and saves a single soul, it is as if that person sustained a whole world." Similar language appears in the Qur'an: "That is why We laid it down for the Israelites that whoever killed a human being, except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be deemed as though he had killed all mankind; and that whoever saved a human life shall be deemed as though he had saved all mankind." I believe that civilians should not, under any circumstances, be killed or punished for the acts of their government or of others, even their family members. That moral principle tells us nothing about what we should do when it is violated or why it is so often violated, leaving ample room for investigation, analysis, and debate.
The Responsibilities of Intellectuals
What are the responsibilities and the possibilities for intellectuals with expertise in the Middle East after September 11? Middle East Studies is not a science; it is an interpretive endeavor proceeding from the never fully realizable aspiration to achieve empathic understanding of its subjects. The pain and shock of September 11 are indisputably profound and genuine. But they are not an adequate basis for understanding and responding to the events. So first and foremost we must be sources of reliable information and, on the basis of it, encourage reasoned public debate.
In providing such information, I suggest that three elements should shape our presentation: 1) an awareness of historical contexts; 2) an international perspective that takes into account the global impact of events and the competing interests and understandings at play in any given circumstance; and 3) a commitment to explanation rather than pretentious claims to scientific certainty and prediction.
I have already suggested one approach to the historical contextualization of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. Much more could be said about this, and other approaches are easily imaginable. But the contention that Muslims or Middle Easterners hate the United States for what it is rather than because they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that it has done something to harm them, must be dismissed as arrant nonsense. It presumes that the peoples of the Middle East are inherently irrational, anti-democratic, or anti-modern. There surely are such tendencies among Middle Easterners and Muslims (as there are among Europeans and Americans, we should note). But the majority of the people of the Middle East are no less capable of understanding their basic economic and political interests than those of the United States.
It is one of the great pleasures and privileges of scholarly life that our work often takes us around the world. Few Americans have the opportunity to have friends in London, Paris, Jerusalem, and Cairo. All talk of globalization is just so much corporate advertising unless we take seriously the values, opinions, and interests of the peoples with whom we are enmeshed in circuits of culture, commerce, and power.
Much of what we normally do as scholars and as teachers is not directly relevant to September 11, however broadly construed. Nonetheless, in my view the exceptional circumstances, which seem likely to persist for some time, demand of us that we stretch beyond our routine activities and speak to issues of current concern to the general public. Many of us may hesitate to do so because we are not specialists on Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia or political Islam, and so on. However, I am certain that every person in this room knows more than the average American television newscaster about these and a host of other topics that should be occupying the minds of the public in this country and beyond. I encourage all of you to share what you know and to speak about it in a language that is accessible to the general public.
We cannot and should not speak with one voice as authorities whose academic expertise gives us exact knowledge of the best way to protect Americans from acts of terror, to remove Saddam Husayn from power, to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, or other such desirable goals. When we address such topics we express our opinions like any other citizens. Nonetheless, I believe we should speak publicly about such topics because our opinions are likely to be much better informed than most citizens.
There has been an enormous demand for Middle East expertise in the United States following September 11. The clearest evidence of this is that in FY 2002 a parsimonious Congress augmented funding for Title VI and Fulbright-Hays international studies programs by $20.5 million – a record increase of 26%. Middle East and Central Asia studies, assailed as an intellectually unrespectable artifact of the Cold War era throughout the 1990s, are no longer on the defensive in the public arena. High school teachers have been retooling and drawing on the outreach programs of Title VI Middle East Centers and other university-based scholars to prepare themselves to teach more about the Middle East and Islam. Enrollments in courses with Middle Eastern and Islamic content, including basic language classes, have increased by as much as 100% at colleges and universities across the country. Many institutions have authorized new faculty appointments, a sharp reversal of the trend of the last decade.
To be sure, some social scientists remain committed to a style of analysis in which the messy conditions of the Middle East and much of the rest of the actual world are marginalized as "externalities." A recent study documented that in the top seventeen political science departments in the United States, six have no tenured or tenure track faculty members with even a partial specialty in the Middle East and only five of the seventeen have a faculty member whose primary area of specialization is the Middle East. Five of these departments offer no courses whatsoever on the Middle East; and no department offers more than four courses.
This study accepts the rankings of the departments as determined by USA Today and might be suspect on that basis. Nonetheless, I believe it is symptomatic. I also believe that this is going to change because of the perestroika movement in the discipline of political science in which several MESA members have been involved and because political science will forfeit its claims to analyze the real world if it ignores a part of it which has imposed itself so forcefully on the consciousness of the readers of USA Today.
The budgets of many universities remain severely constrained due to fiscal follies of legislatures or short-sited voters and the current economic downturn. Yet there is broad public agreement that ignorance of the Middle East and of Islam is a luxury our society can no longer afford. This recalls a bumper sticker distributed in California after some people began to understand the devastating impact of Proposition 13 on public education: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."
On the Purported Demise of Area Studies
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of Middle East area studies have been greatly exaggerated. During the 1990s many manifestos proclaimed that as a product of the Cold War, area studies was shaped by the political discourse of a bygone era and mired in overly descriptive and untheoretical particularism. Hence, we were advised to cast our lot with our individual disciplines, which have a more universalist outlook. The critique of the insularity of Middle East studies was appropriate, though I am not convinced that Middle East studies was or is any more insular than Chinese or Russian studies, or American studies for that matter.
Much of the critique of area studies assumed an opposition between universalist disciplines and particularist area studies. The histories of the disciplines suggest that this is a false dichotomy. The modern, professional, discipline of history emerged in the late 19th century primarily in the form of national histories of Europe. Its foundational categories – nations and national states – are ill-suited for the study of the premodern and even the modern Middle East as well as much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Nonetheless, these categories and the specific historical trajectories of Western Europe and North America were presumed to be universal. A vast body of social theory – modernization theory – was developed to explain how and why everyone – peasants, handicraft workers, nomads, etc. – who was not "modern" became or would soon become so.
Most social theory is based on data drawn from a narrow range of human experience. As Kenneth Prewitt has argued, "The project of American social science has been America." Thus, the bulk of American political science is concerned with voting, public opinion, democratic pluralism, and other phenomena of marginal relevance to understanding how power operates in much of the world, and arguably in this country as well. Many political scientists who studied the Middle East understood this and focused their attention on the political elites. The Iranian revolution represented a crisis for elite studies because those committed to that approach were surprised by the events and had no tools to explain the popular movement that brought about the change in regime.
The critique of area studies was also based on a misperception of its history. Middle East area studies began to emerge, not during the Cold War, but during the interwar period. James Breasted articulated his vision for the comprehensive study of ancient Near Eastern civilizations with the establishment of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute as early as 1919. Princeton University established its Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures and brought Philip Hitti from the American University of Beirut to teach there in 1927. Under Hitti's leadership, Princeton became the first center for Arabic and Islamic studies in North America. He organized an interdepartmental Committee on Near Eastern Studies that offered summer programs in 1935, 1938, and 1941 with courses in languages, history, and culture of the Islamic Middle East to those "who have become convinced of the necessity of acquiring some competence in the Arabic-Islamic phases of their respective disciplines." In 1947 this project became the first interdepartmental Program in Near Eastern Studies in the United States.
That is to say that Middle East studies was emerging with an autonomous intellectual agenda before the Cold War and the concerted intervention of the U.S. government. That agenda was shaped by missionary and petroleum projects distinct from, although allied with, the interests of the state and whose success required empathic understanding of Middle Eastern peoples. For this reason those with Middle East expertise were regarded with suspicion in some circles, including parts of the academy. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 provided financial support and public sanction for the growth of Middle East area studies and simultaneously attempted to mobilize academic knowledge for the purposes of the state.
From these revised understandings of the relationship of area studies to disciplines and the history of Middle East studies we can learn several things. First, while situating our research and teaching in relationship to existing bodies of knowledge and intellectual conversations remains imperative as ever, we need not feel overly inferior about the marginality of the Middle East in the structure of disciplinary knowledge. As September 11 made painfully clear, it is those who did not think that the Middle East or Islam were worthy of study who were insular, if not myopic.
Islamic social movements are a major phenomenon of global modernity, and it is impossible to understand the contemporary world without giving them a prominent place. Islamic social movements were also a prominent feature of an earlier phase of globalization – the era of the new imperialism from the 1870s to 1914. It too, cannot be adequately understood without accounting for them. And, as Janet Abu-Lughod has argued, Islam was the cultural cement of the 14th Eurasian commercial system. A very strong case can be made that for most of the last 2,000 years, China and the Islamic world – not North America and Western Europe – have been the dominant centers of global economic and cultural power.
Hence, in several different historical eras Middle East studies can play an important role in implementing Dipesh Chakrabarty's call to provincialize Europe and along with it the categories of knowledge that emerged with the global dominance of Europe and North America. This is a worthy project not because Euro-American culture deserves to be regarded with more suspicion and hostility than any other culture, but because powerful as the United States now is in relation to the rest of the world, that power is situated in contingent historical conditions, whether we like it or not. Historically informed and self-critical awareness of the categories of our knowledge and the sources of our power is a good antidote to imperial hubris.
The early history of Middle East studies also teaches us that our project has always involved the collaboration of scholars of Middle Eastern origins with those based in North America and Europe. Middle East studies as we know it is inconceivable without institutions like the American University of Beirut, the American University in Cairo, and Robert College; publications like L'Egypte Contemporaine and Revue du Monde Musulman; and individuals like Philip Hitti, Albert Hourani, and Charles Issawi. American Middle East studies is a cosmopolitan product. This has always been a source of anxiety, and in some cases outright panic, for those dedicated to policing the boundaries of knowledge and public discourse and enforcing a narrow view of American interests. We should embrace it as a reason for pride.
Middle East Studies and the State
Middle East studies has had a shifting relationship with the U.S. government and its adventures in the region. During the 1950s and 1960s modernization theory was the regnant social science orthodoxy. It was fully compatible with the project of expanding the post-World War II informal U.S. imperium. In those decades many scholarly studies praised U.S. allies in the Middle East – Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Iran – as successful examples of modernization.
The 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the second Lebanese civil war, and the Iranian revolution undermined the appeal of modernization theory and stimulated critical intellectual projects that were directly or indirectly inspired by the global upsurge of 1968. Among the most enduring of them is the Middle East Research and Information Project, with which I have been proudly associated for nearly 25 years.
Some have suggested that scholars of the Middle East have been especially prone to adopt approaches critical of U.S. government policy in the region which is their object of study. But even a cursory look at the literature of Latin American studies or scholarship on any other area of the world, including the United States, reveals that this was a broad intellectual tendency that was especially strong in history, sociology, and literary studies.
After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, much of American international studies became enthused by the concept of civil society because it seemed to have played a prominent role in the liberation of Eastern Europe. In the Middle Eastern context this often involved investigating the extent to which Islam is compatible with democracy. This research agenda was not a conspiracy of anti-American radicals who wished to obfuscate the true character of Islam; it was encouraged by circles in and close to the U.S. government.
Several other conceptual approaches and research agendas have mobilized varying degrees of enthusiasm among scholars of the Middle East over the years. This is not the place to evaluate them. I simply wish to point out that some of them have been compatible with the outlook of successive U.S. governments and American interests as they define them, while others are rooted in competing views of what American interests should be. Moreover, while there certainly have been intellectual fashions and dominant tendencies, there have always been oppositional views of various kinds.
Does anyone doubt that this is the normal state of affairs in a democratic society? Humanistic scholarly life proceeds through a process of argumentation. While there is no final and absolute truth, disputation and debate, intemperate and infused with egoism as it may sometimes be, is the only vehicle we have to challenge received wisdom and open new intellectual horizons.
The holders of state power have always tried to impose an intellectual agenda compatible with their interests, as students of Middle East history know from the attempts of the `Abbasid Caliphs al-Ma'mun (813-33) and al-Mu`tasim (833-42) to impose the rationalist mu`tazili doctrine on their subjects. And there have always been those who have struggled against the imposition of doctrines associated with state power, as we know from the ardent resistance of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855) to the mu`tazili doctrine. As some would have it, the victory of ibn Hanbal in this confrontation is part of "what went wrong" in Islamic societies. We could just as easily draw a different lesson: that when states attempt to impose an intellectual orthodoxy – even an "enlightened" one such as rationalism, secularism, modernization, Arab socialism, Marxism-Leninism, or neo-liberal economics and "freedom" – they inevitably generate a resistance, which may or may not itself be enlightened. And in combating that resistance they may very likely adopt cruel and authoritarian measures that will undermine the legitimacy of whatever "enlightened" ideas they espoused. The recent histories of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Iran, and Turkey offer volumes of evidence for this proposition.
Governments ought to keep a certain distance from the academy. There will usually be plenty of scholars who will, of their own free will, choose to serve the interests of established power if given even modest incentives. If not, then perhaps they do not deserve to be served.
Let me conclude by saying something about the scurrilous attacks that have been leveled against MESA collectively and several of our members individually during the course of the last year. The gist of these attacks is that MESA has been taken over by a crowd of post-colonial studies/post-modernist radicals inspired by Edward Said and that this takeover has been facilitated because half of our membership is composed of people of Middle Eastern origins. MESA is, therefore an unpatriotic and not truly an American organization. Consequently, MESA and its members have been uninterested in warning the United States about the dangers of radical Islam. Against the prevailing opinions in Washington, our members persist in opposing U.S. policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict, on launching a pre-emptive war against Iraq, and other such issues.
Anyone familiar with MESA and its members will know that these claims are an amalgam of outright mendacity and tendentious readings of a highly selective body of the scholarship and popular writings of some MESA members. Neither the board nor the Program Committee, which is primarily responsible for the content of the annual meetings, has any interest in imposing an intellectual or political orthodoxy on the MESA membership. This would, in any case, be impossible; and that is a good thing. The board, and especially its Committee on Academic Freedom on the Middle East and North Africa, has consistently defended human rights and academic freedom. The board has also taken the position that it is in the national interest as well as the interest of advancing scholarship that there be an administrative separation between academic life and the United States government. Reasonable people might disagree about that, but I do not believe that holding one view or another on this matter is evidence of lack of patriotism.
In contrast to the fanciful notions of those who have attacked MESA, the actual history of the association since it was founded demonstrates that the range of intellectual opinion and topics open to discussion has broadened considerably over time. For example, the first annual meeting was held six months after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The board prevented formal discussion of that event at the meeting and even asked a graduate student to withdraw a proposed paper on the Arab-Israeli conflict "due to the sensitivity of the subject."
This was an expression of the gentlemen's agreement – and the founders of MESA were overwhelmingly gentlemen – that facilitated the establishment of MESA: discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict would be avoided because it would generate too much controversy and undermine the collegiality of the organization. Most importantly, as Timothy Mitchell has argued, airing of controversy on topics like the Arab-Israeli conflict would undermine the claim of Middle East studies to objective and scientific knowledge. Consequently, for years there was no discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict at MESA.
We have come a long way since then. No one would dare to propose that the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the mass murder of Armenians in the late Ottoman period, or the CIA's involvement in attempts at regime change Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, to name only a few controversial topics, be excluded from discussion at MESA meetings.
We have three basic options before us in dealing with such controversial issues: 1) to ignore them; 2) to try to impose conformity; or 3) to encourage free and open discussion. I am sure that the consensus of MESA members is that the third option is the only one a scholarly organization can consider.
The free and open discussion that has occurred within and beyond MESA has led to significantly expanding the range of what is considered a legitimate topic of inquiry and liberating some space for articulating previously repressed opinions. For example, when I was an undergraduate at Princeton, I was not permitted to write my senior honors thesis on the post-1948 Palestinian national movement on the grounds that the topic was less than fifty years old. Professors in Princeton's Department of Near Eastern Studies who were critical of Israel rarely expressed their views to students. There was no class on the Arab-Israeli conflict. This was not a subject for public discussion. The topic was covered in a single lecture in the survey course on modern Middle East history. Most of us were not fully aware of the differences of opinion among our teachers, even as we saw some of them maneuvering to reshape the political and intellectual tone of the department.
As a doctoral student at the University of Michigan I was told by my advisor, the late Richard P. Mitchell, that he would support me if I wrote a Ph.D. thesis on the formation of the Arab working class in Palestine, but that if I wrote a dissertation about Israel or Palestine I would likely have difficulty getting an academic job. That was the origin of my engagement with Egypt. While this has been an entirely positive experience, it was originally motivated by fear that those who held the then dominant views in the field of Middle East studies would use their power to restrict debate and impede the advancement of those with unorthodox views. I did not need much convincing that Dick Mitchell's advice was wise, as I had already witnessed the misuse of academic power on matters relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict while pursuing an M.A. at Harvard.
The intellectual boundaries of Middle East studies have been substantially redrawn since the time of my undergraduate and graduate training. This is what the self-proclaimed enforcers of academic propriety object to. Opinions which previously could barely be articulated at all now circulate relatively freely on campuses.
That freedom is now under attack and we must vigorously defend it. For example, Harvard President Lawrence Summers has clumsily attempted to police the limits of acceptable opinion on Middle Eastern topics by suggesting that calling for divestment from corporations doing business with Israel is "anti-Semitic in…effect if not…intent." One need not support the substance of the demand for divestment in order to discern the difference between even the most vehement criticism of Israel and its policies and anti-Semitism. We must resist such attempts to delegitimize dissenting opinion. They are grave threats to academic freedom and intelligent public discourse.
The administration and faculty of the University of North Carolina acted much more wisely and bravely in refusing to capitulate to attacks from the Christian right Family Policy Network and others for choosing as the summer reading assignment for incoming freshmen Michael Sells' translation and interpretation of the early verses of the Qur'an, Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations.
Those who have attacked MESA are, in the main, neo-conservative true believers with links to the Israeli right. They tend to think that phrases like "war on terrorism," "clash of civilizations," and "axis of evil" are serious explanations for what is happening in the contemporary Middle East. They are welcome to their opinions; and they certainly have no dearth of outlets for expressing them.
Many of us may feel that because the attacks on MESA are intellectually vacuous, there is no need for us to respond. In my opinion, it would be a mistake for us to dismiss such slogans - simplistic and ahistorical as they may be – as arrant nonsense. If we believe so, we must marshal the appropriate arguments to demonstrate the case. We should expose students to this material and teach them to understand the debate. And we should make our case to the broader public in whatever venues are available to us. Moreover, we cannot ignore that these notions are being propagated by circles close to the government of the most powerful country in human history in concert with unprecedented assertions of a right to make and unmake regimes throughout the world, especially in the Middle East. It is a dangerous moment when a state accustomed to thinking its dominion is absolute confronts the limits of its power, as was the case on September 11, 2001.