Indeed, for scholars who study the Islamic world, it has been both the best of times and the worst of times. A shocked American public -- suddenly clamoring to understand why they hate us so much, has been scooping up books on Islam by the thousands. Journalists are calling constantly for interviews. Academics who have devoted their lives to studying labor movements in Egypt and images of women in Persian literature are, remarkably, in high demand for speaking engagements.
"I feel like I've been talking non-stop the last two months about why the American self-perception as a people promoting freedom and democracy is not shared by many people overseas," said Ann Lesch, a professor of political science at Villanova University. "And people are surprised to learn about the wide variety of Islamic political movements, because they tend to identify them all with bin Laden."
Despite the attention, these are trying times for the discipline. A palpable blend of defensiveness and anger permeated the MESA proceedings. For at a conference attended by more than 1,500 academics from all over the U.S., the Mideast and the rest of the world, the most conspicuous shadow was cast by someone who wasn't even there: Martin Kramer, an American-born Israeli and the past director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, who recently launched a frontal assault on MESA and the entire discipline with a harsh critique in his new book, "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America."
Kramer's basic thesis -- which he repeated in a scathing Wall Street Journal opinion piece that appeared, with exquisite timing, just days before the conference -- was simple. According to his bill of indictment, Middle Eastern scholars have adopted a knee-jerk, leftist "third worldism." They have failed America by consistently downplaying the threat of radical Islamic movements, and by criticizing U.S. foreign policy in Israel and throughout the entire region.
"This very sick discipline," wrote Kramer in his Wall Street Journal article, "did nothing to prepare America for the encounter with Muslim extremism, and . . . can't contribute anything to America's defense." Martin's salvo unleashed a wave of similar expressions of disgust from the usual suspects on the right, such as The Weekly Standard and National Review, who lambasted the scholars for not predicting the World Trade Center attacks.
To be sure, the conference attendees did not focus exclusively on responding to the harsh conservative critique. In many ways this academic gathering featured the traditional elements of all academic gatherings: chatter in the hallways (albeit in Arabic and Turkish as well as English); major networking for information on job openings and publishing opportunities; the chance to browse through hundreds of obscure and arcane books and journals, and lots of noshing.
Many of the panels, too, could not have been farther afield from the current national obsession with contemporary radical Islam. The dozens of offerings included such, um . . . discriminating presentations as "Political Factions of the Court of al-Mustansir, 436-448/1045-1056," "Algerian Arabic and French: Borrowing, Code-Switching or ...?," "Raqqa Revisited: The Ceramics of the Saljuq Successor States, and "Ibn Quzman's Zajal No. 90: The Zajal between Qasida and Maqama" -- the latter from a panel called "Engaging the Arabic Ode, Part II: Genres and Disciplines."
But a sense of urgency remained tangible throughout the three days, and those who joined the debate over the validity and direction of the discipline -- and they were many -- did so with gusto and conviction. Many criticized Martin as having a sharp pro-Israeli bias -- "he's the Likud Party Middle East scholar," remarked one -- and dismissed as absurd the idea that they had not warned of the dangers of Islamic extremism. Instead, they argued, government policy types have simply chosen not to listen to scholars who have pinpointed U.S. behavior in the region as a major source of contemporary anti-Western sentiment. "In fact, the administration has not wanted to hear from people whose point of view is not theirs, so there's been no real dialogue, and that's been the case at least since Reagan," said Stanford University history professor Joel Beinin, the new president of MESA.
Martin is clearly right in one respect, however: As a group, the vast majority of MESA members appear to be far more understanding of and sympathetic to the grievances of people in the Middle East than almost all of the political pundits and retired generals expostulating on Larry King Live and Hardball, not to mention the average American whose foreign travel experiences are limited to seeing the Eiffel Tower and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Although they generally condemn the September attacks, the scholars also tend to be highly critical of U.S. foreign policies supporting repressive regimes in order to protect the flow of oil, as well as our insistence on maintaining sanctions against Iraq despite the devastating effect on the civilian population, and long-term unwillingness or inability to force through a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.
"There are two answers to the question of why other people may hate us," said University of Chicago history professor John Woods, who is also the director of the school's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
Either they hate us for what we are, or they hate us for what we do. If you follow the first line of reasoning, that stops the discussion. If I have blue eyes, what can you do about that except poke my eyes out? The administration tries to favor that line, because then it's a justification for taking action. But if they hate us for what we do, it forces you to reflect on what that might be. You may reject the reasons, but you have to take them into account.
And unlike many Americans who tend to view the conflict in Manichean terms, MESA members generally avoid characterizing all Muslims as essentially Other. The conference was mercifully free of discussions of "good versus evil," "us against them," "a battle for civilization and our way of life," and all the other catchy but self-aggrandizing phrases that have cluttered the public dialogue for the past three months.
But sympathizing with the grievances, stressed Noor-Aiman Khan, a Muslim American graduate student from the University of Chicago who is married to an Egyptian, does not in any way imply support for the perpetrators of September 11 or opposition to efforts to bring them to justice. It is simply a way to help explain why bin Laden and his cohorts have been able to manipulate public opinion in the Islamic world by citing long-standing complaints that resonate with the experience of others in the region.
Because most Middle East scholars have lived in the area and developed close relationships there, noted Khan, they usually feel great empathy for the concerns and perspective of the people. "A lot of us feel torn between two worlds," she said. "I'm from rural Minnesota, but I don't see people in the Middle East as an enemy the way the rest of the world is seeing it. It doesn't do any credit to history to not look at why there's anger and hatred against the U.S., but that doesn't lessen the tragedy of what happened."
Some of those present denied that the policy debate had impacted the mood at the conference. Yet awareness of the Kramer book was evident at the booth of its publisher, the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, which had sold more than 60 copies by the end of the second day, according to Alicia Gansz, one of the booth attendants. Not all the purchasers were happy about it, apparently. "One high-ranking MESA member said, 'I guess I'll have to buy this piece of trash, even though I regret it,'" confided Gansz, leaning forward and lowering her voice.
And the MESA business meeting held during the conference further highlighted the degree to which the book had focused and sharpened the debate. Outgoing MESA president R. Stephen Humphreys, a professor of history and Islamic studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said that before the World Trade Center attacks he had hoped to simply ignore Kramer's rhetoric. "I thought it would be just a pebble in a pool," he said. "Then 9/11 came, and the whole world changed. And they have exploited this to the max, so we feel we're obligated to enter the situation in some way."
Humphreys said MESA hoped to place under contract a professional communicator to present the association's perspective clearly and effectively. He pointed out -- with a wry self-awareness frequently lacking in academics -- that these basic public relations skills were beyond the capabilities of many of those assembled, notwithstanding their combined brainpower. "For professors to do this is difficult," he said. "It takes time, and we're terrible at it. We tend to speak in professor-ese."
Presumably, part of MESA's goal would be to demonstrate that its members have the sort of nuanced understanding of the situation that Humphreys himself expressed in a statement published in late September in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the article, he urged Muslims to "do some serious soul-searching" about "the roots of massive violence in the name of Islam" and not to lay the entire blame on American foreign policy.
"The overwhelming majority of them [Muslims] are revolted by the events and regard them as wholly contradictory to any recognized Islamic teachings," he wrote. "How is it, then, that such a strain of violence has taken root in their world and found a considerable spectrum of supporters? Why do other Islamic voices, which in the past marked the mainstream religious tradition, seem so feeble and ineffectual right now?"
Like Humphreys, many of those attending the conference appeared painfully aware of the tightrope they must walk in maintaining their independent posture without being dismissed as idiots, hopeless leftists or traitors. And perhaps that, as much as anything, accounted for the strong sense of relief that some of them expressed feeling in San Francisco, a sense that they could -- at last -- relax among colleagues who understood the situation in a way that most others did not.
"For me personally it has just been wonderful," said Mary Wilson, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "People always hug here, but it's notched up a level in intensity. You get tired of always having to explain the basics to people. Here, you don't have to do that -- you can jump right into the more difficult questions. And that's comforting."