Congress was smart enough to jack up funding for university-level Middle Eastern studies after the 9/11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan. If Americans are going to be waist-deep in that tortured part of the world, more of us need to speak the languages and know the cultures. Now lawmakers must resist a clumsy campaign by pro-Bush administration ideologues to shape college Middle Eastern studies to their liking and to curb academic freedom in ways not seen in the United States since the darkest years of the McCarthy era.
Campus Watch is an organization set up by conservative scholar Daniel Pipes as an adjunct to Middle East Forum, a think tank dedicated to "promoting American interests in the Middle East." Campus Watch monitors professors by having students report ideas that run counter to administration policy. When Rashid Khalidi assumed the Edward Said Chair of Middle East Studies at Columbia University last year, he became the target of an Internet campaign questioning his patriotism. What was Mr. Khalidi's crime? He opposed the U.S. going to war in Iraq. This made him, in Mr. Pipes' words, "a left-wing extremist" guilty of academic "bias" and "lack of balance."
Another Campus Watch watchbird is Martin Kramer, who teaches Arab history at Tel Aviv University. He has written, "Academic colleagues, get used to it. You are being watched. Those obscure articles in campus newspapers are now available on the Internet, and they will be harvested. Your syllabi, which you've also posted, will be scrutinized. Your Web sites will be visited late at night." Mr. Kramer later described the tone of these remarks as "tongue in cheek." They would be funnier if Campus Watch was not deadly serious in its open attempts to control academic teaching and writing on the Middle East.
The most dangerous Campus Watch initiative involves legislative changes that would increase congressional oversight of $95 million in government subsidies for Middle East and other area-studies programs. The Pipes group is pushing Congress to set up an advisory board to make sure university programs "reflect diverse perspectives and a full range of views." A diversity of views is necessary for a vital academic program. But nothing would be worse than to have congressionally appointed thought police establishing minimum quotas for officially approved ideas, which is what Campus Watch seems to be after.
Ignorance of and indifference to the wider world have long been a handicap as the United States emerged as a superpower and has been forced to engage our critics and foes and the countries that feed our voracious appetite for oil. The 9/11 atrocities jolted the country out of its parochialism, and Congress was right to turn to our great colleges and universities for understanding of the world. Now it must make sure that that search for understanding is not squelched or contaminated.