Once a year, the Arizona-based Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) holds a conference for its members. MESA is the national organization of students and scholars of the Middle East, with a membership of over 2,000. Of those, some 600 recently made it to Anchorage, Alaska, to attend some of the 90-odd academic panels that discussed topics ranging from studies of the colloquial poetry of Ibn Quzman to sociological analyses of the internet in Iran.
As the single representative of the entire field of Middle East and Islamic studies in the US, MESA's composition gives as accurate a guide as any to the politics of the field. The study of the region in the US has always been crisis-driven and politicized. But this has changed over the years. The first MESA was set up in 1962, but closed in 1965 because of its links to Zionist circles. Today, Middle East studies departments across the US are attacked for allegedly being pro-Palestinian.
But some changes have been less obviously political. Women now make up over 50 percent of undergraduates in the field. Since 1990, the study of history and political science related to the region has subsided in favor of religion and philosophy. "Anthropology, sociology and economics" are now "endangered species," according to Anne Betteridge, MESA's secretary. In terms of country-focus, Lebanon,Turkey,Algeria and Palestine dominate the field, whereas in the 1980s Iran topped the charts. There is a screaming absence of work on Saudi Arabia. And the MESA membership keeps getting older, despite a boom of undergraduate interest in Arabic and Farsi in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
MESA is a vibrant association, doing important work for its members – like countless other anonymous, professional associations. Unlike them, however, MESA, against its will, is no longer anonymous. It is one-half of a high-profile battle. You can't mention MESA without mentioning its nemesis: Campus Watch, a spin-off of the Middle East Forum, a conservative think tank established in 1990, and the brainchild of two very articulate and combative neoconservative Likudniks: Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer. Campus Watch is a web-based watchdog that aims to highlight and reverse what it sees as obfuscating, leftist and unpatriotic tendencies within the Middle East studies academy. Indeed, one of its staff members has already written about this year's MESA conference, though he himself did not actually attend.
Kramer, whose book Ivory Towers on Sand attacked MESA directly, has charged elsewhere that the field of Middle East studies in America is subverted by "ideologically driven or faddish paradigms," and that "Middle Eastern studies have reached a dead end." Pipes, a regular contributor to the Jerusalem Post and various publications in the US, including the New York Post, is engaged full-time in ensuring that America is not threatened by its own liberalism toward Arabs inside the country, and the liberalism of others in the Middle East academy who defend them. To those two must be added Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution in Washington, who edits the National Review online. Campus Watch took the fight to MESA; Kurtz has just taken it to the state.
On June 19, Kurtz testified before a House congressional committee against what he sees as the all-pervasive evil influence of post-colonial theory in Middle East studies – associated most prominently with the late scholar Edward Said. The right has long been furious that much state money has been going to universities and academic institutions that they believe foster "unpatriotic" ideas in their students.
Kurtz proposed that a national-level supervisory board should oversee the work done in those departments. His recommendation has been taken up. On Oct. 21, the House of Representatives passed HR 3077, the International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003. Among other amendments, it created the International Higher Education Advisory Board that is to "provide advice, counsel and recommendations to Congress and to the Secretary on international education issues for higher education." That board will have the final word on curricula taught at institutions receiving Title VI government funding for international studies, on their course materials and even on the faculty hired.
The political right believes it is fully justified in attacking Middle East studies because it says the academy is institutionally anti-American, dominated by a single academic paradigm, incapable of tolerating dissenting voices within its confines and institutionally averse to tackling subjects casting the Middle East in an unfavorable light. Those criticisms deftly turn MESA into a McCarthyist junta, but are they correct?
One MESA panel on Islamic activism was chaired by Emile A. Nakhleh, a scholar endorsed by the right-wing Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where Pipes is an adjunct scholar. Among its participants was Hussam Timani, a Lebanese Druze, Barak Mendelsohn, an Israeli scholar at Cornell University and Glenn Robinson, a Rand Corporation scholar and professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. The debate was lively, civil and instructive. It's one example, but proves a larger point: MESA is wideranging. It is exclusive only so far as it demands high standards of scholarship.
As a commissioning editor at IB Tauris in London, I shared an exhibitor's stall with Palgrave USA, whose Middle East editor is openly neoconservative. He told me: "You have to realize most of these guys here are my natural enemies." He's right. Middle East studies, like almost every other area of academe in the US, is predominantly left-wing. The same is true in the UK, France and across Europe. Here is the rub. Campus Watch attacks MESA for being left-wing, but unfortunately phrases this in different term.
In his Ivory Towers, Kramer writes: "(T)he field is pervaded by hostility to American aims, interests and power in the Middle East." Kurtz's declaration to the House committee implicitly paints the Middle East studies academy as unpatriotic. Pipes never ceases to talk of "anti- Americanism." This is sleight of hand; it is intellectual fraud. All three authors have appropriated "Americanness" to their cause. Disagree with them, and you are un-American, anti-American, unpatriotic. The study of the Middle East in the US was initiated for "patriotic" reasons in the wake of World War II, when the first language centers and scholarly institutes were set up to help provide the US government with a better grasp of the region. As Lisa Anderson, the departing president of MESA, put it in her keynote address: "The academy and the policy world cannot afford to be mutually exclusive," and back in those days they were not. The state created the academy to help it shape policy.
Today, however, the academy and policy worlds are miles apart, nowhere more so than in Middle East studies, and in no small part due to the politicking of Campus Watch, Kramer and Kurtz. Faced with an academy that, for the most part, rejects the neocon approach to Middle East policy and rejects it as being detrimental to US interests, Campus Watch and its supporters have resorted to name slinging. The "anti-American" tag in the wake of Sept. 11 has enormous resonance. True patriotism lies in saving America from such narrow and dangerous definitions of itself, and from the politicization of knowledge.
In that, MESA, not Campus Watch, is the true-blue all-American patriot.
Turi Munthe is a British literary editor andcritic. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR