Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes was in Cleveland recently to garner support for his think-tank's fledgling project, Campus Watch. The nationally known expert on militant Islam spoke to members of the forum's Cleveland Board of Governors about the importance of countering the misinformation and anti-Israel bias that abounds in the halls of academia.
"Middle East studies as a discipline has been corrupt for decades," says the dark-bearded, Harvard-educated historian who is soft-spoken but passionate about his mission. "We are Middle East specialists and we are trying to monitor, critique and improve the way these courses are taught in North America."
Pipes began by describing what Campus Watch is not. The project, launched in September 2002, does not deal with the issues of university divestment or anti-Israel student protests. Nor does it teach Jewish students how to become pro-Israel campus activists.
The objects of the organization's scrutiny are 1,500 specialists in Middle East studies, a field dominated by Arab scholars. Middle East studies has assumed tremendous importance in the last several years because it encompasses many subjects at the heart of the public debate. These subjects include the war on terror, militant Islam, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and U.S. relations with Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
"We are the self-appointed auditors of an intellectual Enron," says Pipes.
The Middle East Forum has identified five qualities found too often among Middle East studies professors here: analytical failures; the mixing of politics with scholarship; intolerance of alternative views; apologetics (like describing "jihad" as a benign reform movement); and the abuse of an instructor's power over students (withholding recommendations from those who don't agree with them).
In addition to teaching students and setting the tone for how the Middle East is seen on campuses, specialists in this field lecture publicly. They also offer commentary in the media and influence government by writing briefs for congressional staffers.
Campus Watch, which disseminates information through its Web site, www.campus-watch.org, hopes its "constructive criticism" will spur Middle East specialists to make needed changes themselves. In addition, Pipes says, it intends to "bring the conversation to the stakeholders in the university - the alumni, trustees, regents, parents of students and Congress - about the failures in Middle East studies.
"Our friends in the university are very upset with us, but there are rogue departments out there," says Pipes, noting that the Web site has stimulated a tremendous, largely hostile reaction.
To counter misinformation, Campus Watch spends a lot of money on meticulous research.
"We know what we publish will be scrutinized," says Pipes. "We are obsessed with getting it absolutely correct."
In the past year, Campus Watch has focused on developments at several key campuses such as Columbia, UCLA, and Stanford, analyzing the work of a number of leading Middle East scholars. It has also issued reports on the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the professional guild.
According to an article in The Jerusalem Post (Feb. 28, 2003), in 2001, MESA rushed to the defense of University of South Florida Professor Sami Al-Arian when he was suspended by the university for remarks made in a television interview in favor of jihad and suicide bombings in Israel. Decrying the suspension as breach of academic freedom, respected Middle East professors continued to defend Arian right up until his arrest last month by the FBI on charges of being the North American leader for Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Forum members have also debated Middle East specialists in person and in the media and have lectured at more than 30 universities.
Among the Campus Watch's future proposals, dependent on funding, are the establishment of fellowships to continue the research that underpins its efforts and a week-long summer seminar for university students. The latter will provide intensive instruction on topics such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, militant Islam, democracy in the Arab world, and human rights in the Arab world. Seminars for high school history teachers and for university trustees are also posited.
In the question-and-answer period following his talk, Pipes was asked what the chances are of a Palestinian state being formed. He believes that the real goal of the Palestinians is "not their own country but the destruction of Israel." Oslo, he says, didn't tamp down the Palestinian's ambitions, it whetted their enthusiasm. Calling the agreement an "expensive mistake," he suggests "it could take 30 more years before the Arabs conclude that they lost."