While the popularity of Middle Eastern Studies programs at universities across the country has increased significantly in the wake of Sept. 11, these programs have recently come under fire from campus watchdog organizations.
The Modern Language Association recently released a study showing a 92 percent increase in enrollment in Arabic Studies classes nationwide since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Government funding has also increased significantly and experts on the Middle East are in demand at universities around the country.
However, a national backlash has arisen against Middle Eastern Studies programs and the professors who specialize in the region. Conservative think tanks and watchdog organizations have launched massive e-mail campaigns against these programs and have pushed for more congressional control over departmental funding.
"It's very sad that people have allowed this to happen," said professor Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said chairman of Middle East Studies at Columbia University. Khalidi has personally been the victim of intense scrutiny and criticism from watchdog organizations such as Campus Watch.
"The assault on me and the area of Middle Eastern studies is supported by nothing but slander and innuendo," he said. "At a time when greater understanding of the Middle East is a national need, these groups are trying to intimidate people in the field."
Campus Watch is a Web site dedicated to monitoring Middle Eastern Studies programs on college campuses and revealing the alleged problems with the programs and the professors who specialize in them. The organization, which operates out of Philadelphia, was founded by Daniel Pipes as an offshoot of the Middle East Forum, also located in Philadelphia.
Although many Middle Eastern Studies departments at universities have recently come under scrutiny, Penn's Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies has managed to escape the criticism.
"While there are serious issues involved at the national level, it hasn't produced any kind of violent verbal reaction like we have seen elsewhere," Arabic professor Roger Allen said.
"I don't see at Penn this emphasis on the extremes. There is a desire for rational discussion."
While Allen feels that Penn has managed to avoid the polarizing national debate on Middle Eastern Studies that has taken place, he still acknowledges the severity of the current situation.
"The national mood to me is very ugly right now," he said. "The fact of the matter is that polarization has taken place and the views of the extremes on any issue are the views which are heard the loudest."
Government subsidies for Middle Eastern and other area studies programs, totaling $95 million, have recently been called into question by these same conservative organizations. These organizations are pushing for an advisory board to supervise the distribution of funds to the programs in question.
These proposed changes were passed in the U.S. House of Representatives with unanimous approval and are now awaiting consideration in the Senate.
Although government subsidies account for a small percentage of funding for Middle Eastern Studies programs, professors and academics are alarmed at the attempts to undermine departmental freedom.
"To try and say that some oversight committee is to base funding of Middle East Studies on someone else's assessment of what is right and wrong and what is fact or not is something that I find deeply disturbing," Allen said.