"'Intellectual thugs," huffed Rashid Khalidi, now of Columbia University. "Cyber-stalking," whined Juan Cole of the University of Michigan. "Crude McCarthyism" sniffed David Bartram of the University of Reading. "Totalitarian" thundered Jenine Abboushi of New York University.
What so outrages these academic specialists on the Middle East? It's called Campus Watch (campus-watch.org), and it's a project I started a year ago today to "review and critique Middle East studies in North America, with an aim to improving them."
Campus Watch provides peer review of a vital topic - think how many problems come out of the Middle East. Given the centrality of this region to current world politics, how the scholars fare is not a recondite matter but an issue of importance for our security and welfare.
Trouble is, Middle East studies have become an intellectual Enron. Scholars of the Middle East are:
- Incompetent: They consistently get the basics wrong. Militant Islam they portray as a democratizing force. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda they dismiss as irrelevant. The Palestinian Authority they predict to be democratic. So wrong so consistently are the academics that government officials have largely stopped asking them for advice.
- Adversarial: Many American scholars are hostile to U.S. national interests. Thus, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) board has recommended that its members "not seek or accept" U.S. government funded scholarships. That three specialists were recently indicted on terrorism charges caused no alarm among their colleagues.
- Intolerant: The field is hobbled by political uniformity and an unwillingness to permit alternate viewpoints. In one infamous case at Berkeley, the section leader of a course on Palestinian poetics made this bias explicit in the course catalog ("Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections").
- Apologetic: Specialists generally avoid subjects that reflect poorly on their region, such as repression in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Muslim anti-Semitism and chattel slavery in Sudan. The MESA president recently discouraged studying what he called "terrorology." Specialists sometimes actively deceive, for example, by denying that jihad historically has meant offensive warfare.
- Abusive: Specialists too often coerce students into regurgitating a party line and penalize freethinkers with lower grades.
Campus Watch seeks to remedy these problems with a two-pronged approach: offer specialists an informed, serious and constructive critique; and alert university stakeholders - students, alumni, trustees, parents of students, regents, government funders - to the failings of Middle East studies.
The professorate responded to Campus Watch's launch last Sept. 18 with furious allegations of "McCarthyism" and worse. This intense reaction to our work suggested that it (however reluctantly) heard our message. With time, the hysteria has subsided, replaced by an apparent resignation to our continued review of their scholarship and actions.
On its first anniversary, Campus Watch can claim to have had an impact. The U.S. House Subcommittee on Select Education held an unprecedented hearing on "questions of bias" in Middle Eastern and other area studies programs. At Columbia University, students, faculty and alumni have begun agitating against their institution's one-sided coverage of the Middle East. The University of Michigan shut down a Web site that disseminated the extreme Wahhabi version of Islam.
The Campus Watch staff lectured at 48 educational institutions during the past academic year, offering a rare break from one-sided presentations of the Middle East. Unhappily, our presence sometimes so inflamed the opposition that bodyguards, metal detectors and (in one memorable instance) mounted police were required to insure our right to speak. On the bright side, such furor prompted wide media coverage and useful debates about the Middle East and the need for diverse viewpoints.
Our Web site has attracted over a half-million visitors and Campus Watch has received warm endorsements, some from Middle East specialists ("an important step," "an invaluable service").
Students in Middle East studies report that our work has ended their sense of isolation; at Brandeis, students have banded together to form a club inspired by Campus Watch. In addition, writes a student at the University of Chicago, the atmosphere has changed for the better; the existence of Campus Watch means that instructors "have entirely stopped launching personal attacks on students who disagree with them."
In short, Campus Watch has brought Middle East studies a step closer to the open forum that it should be.