"You are probably aware," Beinin wrote,
that the public attack on American Middle East studies and MESA in particular that began with the publication of Martin Kramer's Ivory Towers on Sand has continued throughout the year in the mass media with articles in the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, the National Review, the New York Post, and many other places as well as articles and radio shows by one Stanley Kurtz (a fellow at the Hoover Institution located uncomfortably close to my office).Let's unpack the slanders here. First, no one has cause to be made uncomfortable by the proximity of Stanley Kurtz, a distinguished contributor to these pages, a scholar, and a gentleman. Indeed, when it comes to writerly combat, Kurtz may be one of the last intellectuals in America to fight by Marquis of Queensberry rules. Second, far from being mean spirited, ad hominem, and spurious, the critique of MESA, both in Kramer's book and in the journalism it inspired, has been a model of public-spirited concern. The "public goods" provided to American society at large by Beinin and his MESA cohorts are in fact a "bill of goods."
While the intellectual criticisms of MESA members are mostly mean spirited, ad hominem, and spurious, there is a significant threat to Middle East studies from this assault. Many of the individuals associated with it (Kramer, Kurtz, and Daniel Pipes most prominently) are explicitly calling on Congress to defund Title VI Middle East Centers and to put federal money into building more reliably 'patriotic' sources of Middle East expertise. In practice, it would be difficult if not impossible to do this without relying substantially on individuals and institutions already in place. Nonetheless, in the xenophobic current atmosphere of the United States, we would be seriously remiss if we failed to make a public case for the value of our scholarly enterprise not only for its own sake, but also for the public goods it provides to American society at large.
The September 11 attacks revealed that the vaunted "expertise" of the MESA establishment was no such thing. Theirs is a tendentious, ideologically driven lefty academic enterprise. In Kurtz's unsparing phrase, an "intellectual failure." Kurtz summarized Kramer's findings in these pages last November ("The Scandal of Middle East Studies," November 19, 2001):
Throughout the 1990s, American academics simply refused to study Islamic terrorism. Instead, they searched in vain for a Muslim 'Martin Luther,' some thinker who might reinterpret the Islamic tradition so as to adapt it to democracy. Osama bin Laden could only be an embarrassment to scholars who saw political Islam as benign. To this day, American scholars have produced not a single serious study of bin Laden, his ideology, or his influence. Six months before September 11, Sarah Lawrence professor Fawaz Gerges, whose work drew on [past MESA president John] Esposito's paradigm, asked: 'Should not observers and academics keep skeptical about the U.S. government's assessment of the terrorist threat? To what extent do terrorist 'experts' indirectly perpetuate this irrational fear of terrorism by focusing too much on far-fetched horrible scenarios?'This question has received its condign rejoinder in the works of Kramer, Kurtz, and Pipes. They ask, in effect: Should not the U.S. government "keep skeptical" about MESA's assessment of the terrorist threat? To what extent did academic Middle East "experts" indirectly contribute to our unpreparedness for bin Laden by focusing too little on horrible scenarios that, alas, were not at all far-fetched?
So how does Beinin think MESA should answer this critique? Apparently by caricaturing it: "We should actively advocate the idea that lively discussion of Middle Eastern affairs, not slavish parroting of whatever pronouncements come from Washington policy makers, is the best way to promote good public policy and an informed citizenry."
Revealingly, Beinin's first two suggestions of specific outlets for MESA's new PR offensive are the lefty outfits AlterNet and Pacific News Service. The case for defunding only gets stronger.