WASHINGTON - Nearly 2,000 people gathered here recently in a hotel auditorium to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict. The U.S. State Department agreed to send a representative, and David Satterfield, the No. 2 man in its Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, got the call. It was a miserable assignment, for the audience was almost unanimous in its hostility to both Israel and the United States.
Mr. Satterfield tried to be reasonable. The Palestinians have suffered greatly and deserve an independent state, he acknowledged. In the end, though, he told the the crowd what it didn't want to hear, that Palestinians have no future unless they renounce terrorism. He said that suicide attacks against Jewish civilians make it difficult for Israel to believe its neighbours want peace, and also damage Arab interests globally. His listeners were enraged, and Mr. Satterfield endured a barrage of denunciations.
The audience was filled not with bandanna-wearing anti-globalization protesters or Third World diplomats -- the usual suspects who blame western cultural imperialism, personified in Israel, for the world's ills. Rather, Mr. Satterfield had come to address the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), an organization of academics from important universities in North America and around the world. Campuses have long been hotbeds of political dissent, an often healthy phenomenon because it creates a climate of intellectual excitement. But the radicalization of Middle East studies is worrisome. The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks are usually held up as a failure of intelligence, but really they represented a failure of university "experts" who mischievously downplayed the threat of Muslim fundamentalism. For years, scholars dismissed as racist and fearmongering any suggestion that something nasty was gestating in the Arab world. Some MESA professors even presented Islamism as a positive, reformist movement.
Last year, the editor of the journal Middle East Quarterly blew the whistle on his own profession. Writing after the Twin Towers fell, Martin Kramer accused his colleagues of being apologists for terror by sanitizing the image of contemporary Islam, and of lulling Americans "into complacency." He tore into MESA for refusing, in an official statement, to describe the attacks as "terrorism" and for expressing more concern for victims of U.S. "misguided retaliation" than for future victims of al-Qaeda.
Mr. Kramer amplified his thesis in a book, Ivory Towers on Sand, and he is now a reviled figure within MESA. Not surprisingly, he skipped this year's annual meeting. "I don't go where I'm not welcomed," he explained on his Web site.
But his warning that departments of Middle East studies are staffed with ideologues was substantiated.
The highlight of the three-day conference in Washington was a barnburner of a speech by Stanford University's Joel Beinin, the outgoing president of MESA. Invoking the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Beinin mocked Americans for thinking they should be "uniquely protected from the consequences of (their) actions." He heaped contempt on foreign-policy analysts -- "terror-ologists," he called them -- who go on television to discuss Islamic extremism. He denounced the president of Harvard University for suggesting some weeks ago that anti-Israel activism on campus is mutating into anti-Semitism. Finally, Mr. Beinin accused "neoconservative true believers with ties to the Israeli right" of orchestrating a smear campaign against him and other Middle East experts. MESA members gave him a standing ovation. (The full text of Mr. Beinin's speech is available at fp.arizona.edu/mesassoc .)
It's no secret that the Muslim-Arab world is racked with social and political problems. "The wave of democracy that transformed governance in most of Latin America and East Asia in the 1980s and early 1990s has barely reached the Arab states," noted the United Nations Development Program recently. The UN report calculated that the economic output of all 22 Arab states combined is smaller than that of Spain.
One would have thought that the peculiar case of Middle East underachievement would interest scholars of the region -- and it does, but mostly as a vehicle for criticizing Israel. Granted the Palestinian question is an irritant, but the Middle East is a big place and surely the reason that Egyptians, Saudis and Syrians are hungry and uneducated has more to do with the failings of their own governments than with Israel. Nonetheless, MESA members had a special preoccupation with the Jewish state. The conference plenary session focused on Israel, as did a "special panel" earlier in the day featuring a speaker from the notorious anti-Zionist organization, International Solidarity Movement.
Of the 800 or so papers presented at the conference, none examined, for example, the epidemic of intolerance in Arab countries. Egyptian TV has been broadcasting a multi-part series based on the anti-Jewish classic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but no one seemed to think this significant or even interesting. When asked why, one panel moderator said it didn't strike him as an appropriate scholarly topic. (Whereas, apparently, a paper titled "Witness to the Occupation," delivered by an activist with no PhD or university affiliation, did constitute scholarship.)
Many presenters examined anti-Arab discrimination in contemporary North America, but there was hardly a peep about oppression of Arabs by Arabs in the Middle East. The papers that did touch on radical Islam were technical and heavy with jargon. Fair enough; this was a scholarly conference. But it was conspicuous that the academic fog miraculously cleared when Israel came up. The professors were studiously detached, even dry, when discussing Osama bin Laden, but full of righteous passion on the subject of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
What accounts for the bias? For one thing, many MESA members are Arab or Muslim. MESA past president Rashid Khalidi, of the University of Chicago, even worked as an adviser to the Palestinian delegation during the negotiations leading up to the Oslo talks. It is not in itself inappropriate that Middle East specialists should have personal ties to Arab countries. After all, professors of black history or literature tend to be black, and scholars of Catholicism and the papacy tend to be Catholic. The difference is that there are plenty of African-American intellectuals who oppose affirmative action and Catholic intellectuals who criticize the Church. The MESA constituency, however, has no inclination for self-criticism.
There are exceptions, of course. Last year, a Muslim scholar named Khalid Duran published a book that was candid about the dangers of religious extremism and the treatment of women in some Islamic societies. But death threats forced him into hiding and he did not attend this year's gathering.
A recurring complaint at the conference was that the media rarely consult MESA types when reporting on the Middle East, going instead to non-university experts in think-tanks or the military and security establishments -- the "terror-ologists" that MESA president Joel Beinin detests. But MESA professors are unreliable sources.
It was the professors who, embarrassed by Sept. 11, tried to sell the line that al-Qaeda was an aberration, representing only the tiniest fringe of Islam, or that jihad denotes not holy war, but a benign struggle for self-improvement. The vast majority of Muslims certainly are not terrorists, but journalists who visited mosques in North America and abroad after Sept. 11 realized that Osama bin Laden had more sympathy than professors of Middle East studies wanted the public to know. The professors insisted categorically that Islam was a religion of peace, end of story. Reporters, a cagey bunch, quickly realized that the reality was more complicated.
Do the professors believe their own propaganda? There was a telling incident on the first day of the conference. An enormous book fair had been set up in the hotel exhibition hall, where participants could schmooze and check out each other's publications. A disproportionate amount of the material dealt with some aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict, almost exclusively from the Palestinian point of view.
Suddenly, at the far end of the hall, there was a loud boom, like an explosion. Had the convention been a gathering of mathematicians or sociology professors, they presumably would have walked over to see what the noise was. MESA members instead stampeded for the exit, elbowing their way up the escalators to safety.
Turned out it wasn't a bomb but only a blown air conditioner, and there were lots of embarrassed smiles as everyone filed back in. But for a group that insists the terrorist threat is a fiction, manufactured to justify persecution of minorities, they sure seemed awfully jumpy.