In the age of innocence, perhaps, an apocryphal tale has it that the United States Senate was deliberating a legislation that would've made foreign languages mandatory in public schools. There, in that august body, stood one demurring senator with the Holy Scripture in one hand, and pontificated that if the Lord accepted English for His Bible, so do I for our children.
The veracity of such an anecdote notwithstanding, now the US Congress is in fact considering an act that would putatively regulate the international studies programmes that receive government funding under Title VI.
Title VI programme provides about $90 million for various area studies centres in US universities. The funding was established during the Cold War era, when the US Government felt it needed to understand the world better to combat the spread of communism.
But since 9/11, the Middle East studies centres have come under close scrutiny from pro-Israel, right-wing groups that claimed the horrible misdeeds of 9/11 were a glaring testimony to the failure of such study centres and their inability to predict such events.
If this were an intellectual exercise pointing to the failures of any discipline to achieve its goal, it would have been quite understandable. But the controversy made it way to the sanctified halls of the Congress in a bid to revise the Title VI.
The House of Representatives, obliged, and passed (HR 3077) International Studies in Higher Education Act on October 21, 2003, and sent it to the Senate for consideration.
The preface to the proposed changes to the international studies programmes read: "The events and aftermath of September 11, 2001, have underscored the need for the nation to strengthen and enhance American knowledge of international relations, world regions, and foreign languages. Homeland security and effective US engagement abroad depend upon an increased number of Americans who have received such training and are willing to serve their nation."
But what followed has raised eyebrows throughout the academic community. The new act, if passed into law, would mandate the Secretary of Education to monitor the extent to which the activities of area study centres in universities "advance national interests, generate and disseminate information, and foster debate on American foreign policy from diverse perspectives."
It exhorts these centres not to place undue restrictions on students "who seek employment with the US government or any agency thereof".
A reference to Middle East Studies Association of North America, among other area studies associations, a rebuff to the Pentagon-funded National Security Education Program that would've provided grounds for recruitment to intelligence and security agencies back in 1990's.
The act rankled academics the most when it provided for the establishment of a board to oversee how the Title VI funds were being dispensed - a sort of ministry of truth. The board will be composed of seven members.
The education secretary would appoint three, of which two would be recommended by federal agencies with "national security responsibilities". The majority and minority leaders of the US Senate would recommend two members; and the House's majority and minority leaders would recommend the remaining two.
Given the pervading political climate in Washington, it is clear the composition of the board will be drawn from the most tendentious groups and think-tanks that were pushing for such a legislation. So, who is behind this legislation?
Genesis of the legislation
The intellectual provenance of the current legislation is due in part to a book published just after 9/11 by the pugnacious Martin Kramer, titled "Ivory Towers on Sands: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America".
Kramer, a long time associate and director of Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies, returned to the US where he became affiliated with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which also published his book.
Kramer, in that book and other publications, criticises Middle Eastern studies in US universities for having "failed to predict or explain the major evolutions of Middle Eastern politics and society over the past two decades. And, further, he's specifically called on Congress to cut off funding for these study centres.
So who is responsible for the crisis of Middle Eastern studies? Kramer lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said and his book Orientalism. Said, a polymath, "whose pyrotechnic display of erudition", according to Kramer, "dazzled Middle East specialists wilfully into submission to his radical worldview and epistemology.
An epistemology that could be summed up in three words: resistance, revolution, liberation". An insinuation to the Marxian epistemological stance that philosophers "have only interpreted the world...the point is to change it".
Kramer continues his rant against Said's Orientalism as the main culprit for this mess. "Orientalism helped the academic left - and especially the Arabs and Muslims among them - achieve intellectual and institutional hegemony in US Middle East studies."
He further argues, "The field has been decimated by the impact of Edward Said's post-colonialism and cut off from the American mainstream by the influx into faculty ranks of ideological radicals and activist immigrants." Notice the conspiracy-mongering and xenophobia in such a statement.
Kramer does not leave it at that. He provides an alternative epistemology to the currently prevailing one, albeit of a most anti-intellectual and pharisaic nature. He suggests that a reformed Middle East studies programme would take its point of departure from the premise that the US "plays an essentially beneficent role in the world."
Kramer helped launch, along with Daniel Pipes, a rebarbative Islamophobe, the "Campus Watch" website in the fall of 2002, which monitors universities. It urges students and faculty members to report on their teachers and colleagues for their anti-US and anti-Israeli bias.
Originally, the website contained dossiers on several scholars for their unacceptable political position on Islam, US foreign policy, Arab-Israeli conflict, which was removed when it drew sharp criticism from many professors around the country. The website was attacked for its McCarthyist "witch hunt".
Kramer added insult to injury by issuing a warning: "Well, academic colleagues, get used to it. Yes, 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 scrutinised. Your websites will be visited late at night."
The US Congress, a pillar of US democracy, is lending a helping hand for such deleterious views. Woe to political and academic freedom!
Dr. Albadr Al Shateri is a political analyst and writer from the UAE