Daniel Pipes' appearance on Tuesday night provides us with a good occasion to remember how precious and precarious our academic freedoms are. Dr. Pipes is supposedly an "expert" on the Middle East yet he managed to skirt the real issues concerning both terror and security and the reason why so many academics have raised their voices against him and his colleagues. Alongside his obfuscation lies the organisation with which he is best associated, Campus Watch, which seeks to impress Pipes' agenda onto classrooms nationwide.
Dr. Pipes connects dots that don't exist when drawing a line through militant Islamist movements from 1978 to the present. The violence we see today is in fact a struggle between Muslims, which takes place predominantly in Muslim countries and whose audience is predominantly Muslim. Politicians use Islam in the Middle East to legitimise their platforms like American politicians would use the phrase "Christian values." Hizballah in Lebanon grew up as a result of local human rights abuses, Khomeini came to power in Iran with anti-American slogans because it was American support the allowed and encapsulated the Shah's abuses, and the Armed Islamic Group, took up arms against the Algerian government in 1992 because it was denied a free and fair election. All of the militant Islamist movements we see today arose because of different ills and injustices and lack the focus and clarity that Dr. Pipes seeks to ascribe to them.
To better understand the vagueness that characterized Pipes' lecture, start with a point which he actually got right. He mentioned that militant Islamic movements are an essentially modern phenomenon and that they draw much of their inspiration from the utopian totalitarian movements of the early twentieth century. Despite such a promising start, Dr. Pipes failed to either ask or answer the questions that such an assertion begs, nor even bothering to distinguish militant from non-militant Islamism. Just as all not all socialists seek to bring about a violent global revolution, not all "Islamists" subscribe to a violent agenda or wish to force their agenda upon anyone else. Followers of militant Islamist movements claim to oppose democracy, but the anti-democratic rhetoric is the result of democracy's delegitimization; decades of repression by American-backed authoritarian regimes that have crushed rights and liberties while speaking the language of democracy. Declaring war on people who support any agenda is facile and ineffective. Militant ideologies only gain support when their host society identifies with them; for support to go away and movements like Al-Qaeda to be defeated, policies and attitudes must first shift at home. Ironically many of the academics who first pioneered the research into the intellectual provenance of terrorism have had their view most strongly derided by the Dr. Pipes.
The most preposterous and troubling objective of Dr. Pipes' agenda is his campaign against academia. His Web site, campus-watch.org, is a smear campaign against the most well-respected and luminary professors in Middle East studies. He ascribes hidden Islamist agendas to various professors and organizations and effectively chastises the entire establishment, best characterised by his inimical relationship to the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), whose sole purpose is to be a professional guild for academicians of the specialty.
True, Dr. Pipes doesn't put people in jail, but their mention on that website makes their life a lot more difficult and serves to distract serious academics from attending to serious scholarship. What people on his list have in common is that they disagree with Dr. Pipes' views. Some are deemed unpatriotic because they fault the US for mistakes it has made in its foreign policy. Others are pilloried because they oppose the state of Israel or because they haven't decisively criticized everyone that Dr. Pipes considers a terrorist. Edward Said (whose field is literature), Fawad Girgis, John Beilin and Rashid Khalidi have all been slammed with charges of secret agendas or being anti-Semites on bogus grounds. Dr. Pipes used the example of scholars' definitions of the term "jihad" and used it as evidence that most scholars don't truly understand the gravity of the threat from militant Islamism. Campus Watch is no Consumer Report and Dr. Pipes is not "the" expert.
The final lesson for everyone out there thinking about careers in Middle East studies is that you should hope to be on Dr. Pipes' list. One of my bachelor's was in Middle Eastern studies and I saw the effects of Dr. Pipes and like-minded individuals all throughout my undergraduate career. Good professors were edged out of getting tenure because they refused to support Israel strongly enough in classes. Some were forced to emigrate from the US so they could publish in a free environment. My dream is to be on Dr. Pipes' list myself. Academia is suffering, students are suffering, and the US is becoming a less secure place because organizations like Campus Watch are trying to squeeze the world to make it fit their picture of reality.