American intervention in the Middle East will cause "massive unrest throughout the Arab world." The international coalition built to support it won't hold, because the U.S. declines to condemn Israel—and Muslim countries can't "withstand this sort of double standard." The actual war won't go well, either: "It won't be easy to force them out without resorting to bloody hand-to-hand combat. It's my guess that they'll fight and fight hard, even if you bomb them with B-52s."
These dire warnings ought to give President Bush pause, as they come not from ordinary scholars of the Middle East but from men who would seem to be scholars among scholars: the current president of the Middle East Studies Association (R. Stephen Humphreys of the University of California at Santa Barbara) and a former one (Rashid Khalidi of the University of Chicago). Yet they were talking to a different President Bush, and their ten-year-old alarms dealt specifically with the Gulf War. They were, as it happens, wrong on each count: There was no anti-American revolution throughout the Arab world, the coalition against Saddam Hussein stood strong, and Iraqi soldiers presented little resistance to Operation Desert Storm.
Much has been made in recent weeks of the CIA's failure to penetrate Osama bin Laden's terrorist cells and prevent thousands of deaths—a failure in what the spooks call "human intelligence." Left almost untouched in the recriminations following September 11, however, is another kind of human-intelligence disaster, which has occurred at American universities. Despite receiving millions of dollars in federal grants over several decades to develop an expertise on Islam and Arab culture, the academy has done little but offer spectacular misreadings and terrible advice. Higher education has seen plenty go wrong over the last generation, but the inability—and often the refusal—of professors in Middle Eastern studies to prepare the country for mass terrorism or help it cope with the aftermath may eventually be considered one of its most damaging failures.
When the field of Middle Eastern studies was first conceived in the 1940s and 1950s, it was part of a broader movement known as "area studies." There was a consensus that Americans didn't know enough about parts of the world they would increasingly have to engage during the Cold War, such as the Soviet Union, East Asia, and Latin America. The Middle East initially didn't receive as much attention, but it, too, developed as an academic field and took on greater importance over time.
Scholars in the U.S. had not neglected the Middle East—the American Oriental Society was founded in 1842—but their interests lay primarily in antiquity. In 1949, the Committee on Near Eastern Studies observed that "at no university does there appear to be a person who would claim to be an expert in the economics, sociology, or politics of the present-day Near East." Middle Eastern studies promised to change this by approaching the region with the hardheaded methodologies of social science. Above all, it promised to be relevant. Private foundations were crucial supporters in these early years, but it wasn't long before Congress poured tax dollars into the endeavor. In 1958, Middle Eastern studies started to win financial aid through the National Defense Education Act, a funding mechanism that continues to this day. In 1962, the government devoted foreign-currency surpluses to the purchase of Arabic books—massive numbers of which were then donated to research libraries. Because of the government's enormous investment, today there are about 125 centers and programs devoted to Middle Eastern studies, located at colleges and universities across the country. They have awarded thousands of bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the leading professional organization of Mideast specialists, boasts a current membership of more than 2,600.
As part of its quest for relevance, Middle Eastern studies came to think that it should not merely understand current realities but also advocate positive changes. Scholars became reformers; professors believed they could help nudge the Arab world toward modernization. These motives seemed innocent—even beneficial—but they complicated the scholars' supposed mission, because interpretation and activism are two different things. An aggravating weakness of Middle Eastern studies is that, like area studies generally, it is not moored in traditional academic disciplines. "Area studies are profoundly touched by what's immediate," says Philip Siegelman, a China specialist retired from San Francisco State University. "They're under the constant threat of losing their objectivity and distance." Area studies—along with women's studies, black studies, and the like—are responses to dramatic events and social movements. They typically attract students and teachers with passionate political commitments that wind up impeding objective research. Other disciplines are hardly immune to these corruptions, but area studies and their kin are especially vulnerable. Although several sub-fields of Middle Eastern studies have flourished—there is much outstanding scholarship in early history, legal history, and art and architecture—these subjects are far removed from contemporary strategic concerns. It is no coincidence that some of today's truly great interpreters of the Middle East, such as Bernard Lewis of Princeton and Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins, have not emerged from institutions associated with Middle Eastern studies.
For many years, Middle Eastern studies was gripped by optimism about the region's future and its supposedly inevitable embrace of modernity. The field then experienced a series of demoralizing blows, starting with the 1967 Arab–Israeli War and continuing through the 1970s with the Lebanese civil war and the Iranian revolution. Edward Said's seminal book, Orientalism (1978), made matters worse by indicting virtually all previous Western scholarship on the region as ill conceived and racist. These disruptions came at a time when the Left was beginning its long march through the faculty lounges. As Martin Kramer reports in Ivory Towers on Sand, a comprehensive new monograph published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "Middle Eastern studies came under a take-no-prisoners assault, which rejected the idea of objective standards, disguised the vice of politicization with the virtue of commitment, and replaced proficiency with ideology." Scholarly standards suffered so much that perhaps the most fundamental problem with Middle Eastern studies today is that many of the so-called experts associated with it can't communicate in Arabic. "How are you supposed to understand the culture if you can't even speak the language?" asks one eminent historian of the Middle East.
Despite these problems, MESA continued to insist on the relevance of the field. In 1979, it called Middle Eastern studies "one of this country's greatest resources for understanding and learning to live with an ever more vital part of the world." Yet it was about to embark upon its most breathtaking failure, something so wrongheaded that it bordered on the delusional—and left the U.S. woefully unprepared for September 11.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Middle Eastern studies professors consistently downplayed the threat posed by Islamic radicalism. Many of them suggested that Islamic movements were in fact engines of democracy and reform. John Esposito of Georgetown University, a leading light in Middle Eastern studies, predicted that the Islamic violence of the 1980s would wane; in 1992, he wrote that "the Nineties will prove to be a decade of new alliances and alignments in which the Islamic movements will challenge rather than threaten their societies and the West." In congressional testimony that same year, Esposito's colleague John Voll, on the eve of becoming MESA president, defended the Islamic government of Sudan (currently one of seven states on the State Department's list of terrorism sponsors): "It is not possible, even using exclusively Western political experience as a basis for definition, to state that if a system does not have two parties, it is not democratic." In order to appreciate this emerging reality, wrote Esposito and Voll together in 1994, Americans would "have to transcend their narrow, ethnocentric conceptualization of democracy." Anybody who disagreed with these rosy assessments was treated with suspicion. As Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul recently told the New York Times, "That is the trouble with writing about Muslim people. There are people of the universities who want to run you out of town, and they're paid to."
A related pastime among the Middle Eastern studies set involved the search for a "Martin Luther" of the Islamic world—a figure who would spark a liberal religious reformation. In his monograph, Kramer describes several pathetic episodes of American scholars advancing one candidate after another for this role, only to have their hopes dashed when their favorites proved to be anti-Semites or intellectual lightweights. Their wishful efforts would seem comic if they had not had the side effect of distracting scholars from more vital tasks. Writes Kramer: "The academics were so preoccupied with ‘Muslim Martin Luthers' that they never got around to producing a single serious analysis of bin Laden and his indictment of America." The closest thing to it, perhaps, is a 1998 Foreign Affairs article by Bernard Lewis; the best book-length treatment is probably Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, by congressional staffer Yossef Bodansky, published two years ago. The Taliban also has escaped the critical attention of Middle Eastern studies; the best book on it is by Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist.
Despite all the happy talk about Islamic democratization, terrorists continued to direct incredible levels of violence against the U.S. throughout the 1990s, attacking barracks in Khobar, embassies in Africa, and the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Middle Eastern studies was so unwilling to confront this grim reality that shortly after terrorists first tried to topple the towers, in 1993, Columbia University's Richard Bulliet responded by organizing a conference not to explain what had happened or why, but to address anti-Muslim prejudice. "Some Muslims from New York are going to be tried for seditious conspiracy to commit criminal acts," he noted. "A guilty verdict will send a chill of fear throughout America." Never mind the chill of fear that the terrorists themselves sent through their murder of six people, and attempted murder of thousands of others; it was a chill that perhaps did not make us shiver enough. Earlier this year, Sarah Lawrence College professor Fawaz A. Gerges added to the chorus by saying Americans were not sufficiently complacent about terrorism: "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 un consciously, exaggerate the nature and degree of the terrorist threat to American citizens?" (Note that when Gerges speaks of "the terrorist industry," he isn't referring to bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.)
The anti-American sentiment runs so deep that it's not too much to ask whose side some of these scholars are on. Anne Joyce, the editor of Middle East Policy, once wrote that Jewish violence directed against Palestinians is the product of America's racist culture, "in which young Jews learned to fear and resent their inner-city neighbors. They went to the Israeli (wild) West Bank, where they could tote machine guns and harass at will." Many scholars have even celebrated hostile regimes. At a 1988 conference in Tehran, Hamid Algar of the University of California at Berkeley praised Iran's "proud record of resistance to aggression." The Khomeini government, said Columbia's Bulliet, threatened the West "not so much because of its own characteristics but because of European intolerance for any fundamentally different ideology." Harvard professor Nur O. Yalman, writing in the Harvard Crimson on September 21, called bin Laden's deeds "an act of blood revenge" and explained, "There had been too much murder going on in Israel and the West Bank for no extreme reprisals to take place." Similar comments had prompted Norvell B. De Atkine and Daniel Pipes to write in Academic Questions five years ago that MESA had transformed itself from "an American organization interested in the Middle East to a Middle Eastern one that happens to meet in the United States."
Despite all this, Middle Eastern studies professors continue to believe they have much to offer—but not to the government. Even though Congress is a leading patron of Middle Eastern studies, many scholars won't advise policymakers. When an academic research program run by the Pentagon solicited papers from federally supported Middle East studies centers to "supplement analyses and policy deliberations with the Department of Defense" in 1983, the professors would have nothing to do with it. MESA's ethics committee tried to discredit the program and dissuade members from participating. The organization eventually urged "university-based international studies programs to refrain from responding to requests for research contract proposals" and asked its members "to reflect carefully upon their responsibilities to the academic profession prior to seeking or accepting funding." (At the same time, MESA seemed to have no problem with programs that took money from Arab governments.)
There have even been attempts to cultivate irrelevance. In 1985, Georgetown University's Judith Tucker surveyed scholarship in Middle Eastern studies and was glad to report it displayed "less of the imprint of stringent policy demands" than it had in the past. She only regretted it was "not entirely free of the test of relevance to policy concerns." This appears not to have changed, judging from the program for MESA's upcoming annual convention on November 17–20 in San Francisco. There are plenty of panels on trendy feminist topics—titles include "Empowering Muslim Women" and "Gen der and Sexual Identity in Modern Arabic Literature"—but nothing on terrorism or the Taliban except a hastily organized "special session" that will discuss September 11 for two hours. MESA's formal statement on the terrorist strikes does not even employ the word "terrorism," presumably because this is a loaded term in its circles. Instead, it speaks of "condolences to all those personally affected by the tragedy"—as if this were something less than a national catastrophe.
"Middle Eastern studies probably should have taken terrorism more seriously," admits MESA president R. Stephen Humphreys. But he's still defensive: "Our field was blindsided by September 11, but so was the FBI, CIA, and everybody else who's supposed to know about this stuff." Of course, the FBI and CIA, whatever their lapses, have prevented an unknowable number of terrorist acts against Americans. And as far as the policy community goes, there really were a few Cassandras in our midst—experts who warned us about the consequences of ignoring terrorism but who were themselves ignored. They just didn't hail from the academic field of Middle Eastern studies, which, when it chooses to help at all, seems to provide nothing but bad advice. Unfortunately, there's no reason to think this will cease. As Martin Kramer notes, "There is no professional cost for substantive error in interpreting the actual Middle East. Indeed, leaders of the field do it all the time without any negative consequences."
They may even try to take advantage of the current crisis, exploiting it as a Sputnik-like catalyst for increased public funding of Middle Eastern studies. It would be a big mistake to let them do this: The U.S. clearly needs to improve its understanding of the Middle East, starting with the basic chore of bringing on more national-security personnel who can speak Arabic. We can accomplish this most readily by improving education in the traditional disciplines.
It won't be long before the professors gripe that they deserve more attention; they're frankly envious of the think-tank specialists who have come to replace them as advisers to the government. Not long after the Gulf War, MESA's then-president Rashid Khalidi—who had predicted a disaster for the U.S. in the region—sent a letter to members complaining that "the consensus of experts in the Middle East field on a given matter is ignored by leaders and governments in framing their policies."
Praise be for that.