"Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America" by Martin Kramer, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 137 pages
"Why They Hate America" was the headline splashed across the cover of Newsweek magazine on October 15, 2001, an issue devoted almost exclusively to exploring the reasons for this hatred. The editors of Newsweek, who know their readers well, successfully put their finger on a problem that has been troubling the American public and many others around the world since the terrible attack on the Twin Towers.
So why do they hate America? Actually, this is a two-part question: First, the public wants to know who "they" are. Until now, people believed that the threat came from terrorist groups, which may have been dangerous but were basically esoteric and faceless. Now, seeing the masses of demonstrators cheering bin Laden in the streets of Islamic countries from Indonesia to North Africa, and listening to the evasive and ambivalent remarks of many Muslims, even among the intellectual and political elite, America and its democratic allies are no longer sure who the enemy is.
Second, the public wonders what the source of this hatred is. As aware as they are of the criticism of the United States' policies and actions around the world, Americans continue to see themselves as fair-minded and altruistic. The bottomless hatred expressed by Muslims, hatred perhaps stronger than any the United States has experienced in previous wars, has come as a great shock.
Naturally, America has begun to look toward the academic experts, hoping for answers to these questions and convincing explanations that will shed light on this perplexing and tormenting state of affairs. For the most part, these hopes have been dashed. With few exceptions, Arabists and Middle East experts have provided the public with not much more than a jumble of cliches, not devoid of contradictions and discrepancies - mainly a rehash of things that have been said before.
To properly understand this phenomenon, we must go back 25 years, to the point where this academic community split into two camps. The leading scholar in one camp, representing the continuation of an illustrious Orientalist tradition, was Bernard Lewis (who moved from England to Princeton in 1974). His observations on the Middle East, nourished by painstaking scrutiny of 1,400 years of Islamic culture across the breadth of the Muslim world, culminated in his groundbreaking essay, "The Return to Islam."
Published in 1976 and still remembered as a landmark contribution to the literature in this field, this article analyzes the Islamic upsurge in various countries, pointing out, among other things, that "Islam from its inception is a religion of power."
After this article came others that traced the growing ferment among Muslims. In "The Roots of Muslim Rage" (1990), Lewis rejected as superficial and unsatisfactory those explanations that attribute the outburst of rage to America's hegemonic policy or its support of Israel. Rather, he perceived it is a kind of noxious weed, emanating from the depths of Islam's cultural and historical heritage. Remembering their exalted past and feeling the pain of their failures in the modern world, many Muslims - though certainly not all - are driven to "... a rejection of Western civilization as such, not only for what it does but what it is."
In another article, "License to Kill" (1998), Lewis analyzed the Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders, signed by Osama bin Laden and disseminated through the media. Lewis warned that with all the differences between the Islamists' concept of jihad and the teachings of Orthodox Islam, there is no shortage of Muslims prepared to embrace terror. "Obviously, the West must defend itself by whatever means will be effective," he noted. Recently, in a lengthy essay in The New Yorker on November 19, 2001, Lewis sums up his observations on what he defined as the "Revolt of Islam."
In 1976, the same year that "The Return of Islam" came out, the acclaimed professor of English literature, Edward Said, published an article called "Arabs, Islam and the Dogmas of the West." It was the first step toward Said's becoming the head of a new camp - the anti-Orientalists. In this article, he harshly criticized the work of several leading Orientalists, including books by Bernard Lewis. He explained that this body of scholarship clearly perceives the East as essentially different, unchanging, inferior and defined by a power-motivated West. "Only the Arabists and Islamologists still function unrevised," he wrote. "For them there are still such things as an Islamic society."
These rough ideas were developed within a year to create a comprehensive theory, expounded in Said's "Orientalism," one of the most influential books written in our times (Israelis had to wait 22 years for a Hebrew translation). Said's views on the Orientalist paradigm are too widely known to need elaboration here, but it is worth mentioning that he firmly believes that the relevance of Islam as an interpretive framework exists only in the minds of Orientalists who do not understand the complexity of the societies they are studying. (In one of his articles, Said charges that Bernard Lewis, as well as Samuel Huntington, talk about the West and Islam "as if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoon-like world where Popeye and Bruto bash each other mercilessly.") If there is opposition to the West, explains Said, it is fomented by liberation movements and revolutionary forces that exist all over the world, unrelated to Islam.
If there is no such thing as an Islamic entity, then obviously it cannot threaten the West - an idea Said expounded in his article "The Phony Islamic Threat" (1993). The experts on terrorism are the ones who are manipulating the public, prompting "speculations about the latest conspiracy to blow up buildings, sabotage commercial airlines and poison water supplies," writes Said in the introduction to one of his books, ridiculing these fears as the result of "highly exaggerated stereotyping."
Has Said changed his tune since the terror attacks on September 11? Apparently not. In an article published six weeks later in The Nation, entitled "Clash of Ignorance," he writes about "a pathologically motivated suicide attack and mass slaughter by a small group of deranged militants" and "the capture of big ideas by a tiny band of crazed fanatics for criminal purposes." The terrorists who attacked America were like all terrorists, he says. "Unedifying labels like Islam and the West ... mislead and confuse the mind."
This schematic (and inevitably personified) presentation of the two rival schools could be misleading, in that it projects an image of symmetry. This was not the case. Saidism took American campuses by storm, whereas the scholars of the school represented by Lewis were shunted to the sidelines, pursued by the label "Orientalists," which was used with a mixture of denunciation and scorn. This turnabout and its harmful consequences for Middle East studies in the United States is the subject of Martin Kramer's book.
Kramer, who demonstrates a fine grasp of the subject, shows that Middle East studies emerged in the United States in the 1950s and `60s, at the height of the Cold War, in response to the growing interest in learning more about different regions of the world. As a result, a certain type of Middle Eastern studies developed in many universities as contemporary area studies, separate from the classical disciplines yet seeking an anchor in social sciences. As a result, the discipline fell into the trap of the "development" paradigm, according to which the Western model is a universal target of all developing countries, to be pursued in a linear process of "modernization."
Later, as this paradigm lost its appeal, another problematic trend gained popularity in the departments and institutes devoted to Middle East studies, especially after 1967. In a certain respect, it was just the opposite of the previous approach. This trend severely criticized the West and hailed Third World liberation movements. Such departments, now flooded with immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries who often found a common language with members of the Vietnam generation, became the hothouses of ideologically motivated activists who denounced American imperialism and upheld the radicalism of such movements as the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Palestinian resistance organizations.
Paradoxically, this process of radicalization was taking place while the U.S. government and public foundations were increasing their subsidies to these institutes. The governing bodies of universities were aware of the politicized character of these departments and their scientific mediocrity, but they were interested in their growth nonetheless, because of their ability to generate funding from a variety of sources (including the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries), vast enrollment of students and public and international exposure. Middle Eastern studies departments thus expanded rapidly. By the end of the century, 125 American universities were offering programs and degrees in this field, and the Middle Eastern Studies Association of North America (MESA), to which the academic staff of these study centers belonged, boasted a membership of over 2,600.
Hovering over all of this, says Kramer, was the spirit of Edward Said. By delegitimizing Orientalism and any kind of Western perception of the East in general, Said opened academia to post-Orientalism - not only in the conceptual sense but in terms of appointments and the creation of teaching positions. Ironically, the efforts of the post-Orientalists to deny the relevancy of an Islamic framework (Said sometimes preferred to write the word "Islam" in double quotes), nourished the tendency to view the West through the same problematic prism Said attributed to the Orientalists' view of the East.
The thrust of Kramer's argument is that due to this climate, the MESA community fed the American public distorted information and inaccurate forecasts with respect to critical developments in the Middle East. He offers a plethora of quotes from leading figures in this community (quite a few of whom were MESA presidents) which may be characterized by the following points: The radical Islamic movements (many of whom are now on America's list of terror organizations) are essentially reform movements trying to increase political participation, democratization and the creation of a civil society; the days of the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, which all enjoy the support of the United States, are numbered; the Komeini revolution is a model of social and political justice; Saddam Hussein's army will fight valiantly against the international coalition, which will eventually disintegrate under the pressure of the Arab masses; the Palestinians will create a successful democracy that will serve as a model for other Arab countries; and, of course, the warnings against Islamic terror are only fabrications of government bureaucrats seeking a substitute for the Soviet enemy.
Now that reality has shown the post-Orientalists the error of their ways and exposed their irrelevance, Kramer concludes, conditions may be ripe for basic reforms in America's Middle East studies centers, restoring realism, profoundness, tolerance and credibility.
As expected, Kramer's book drew a great wave of response. Articles appeared in a wide range of publications, from America's two leading dailies to scholarly magazines and Internet sites. Most of the writers accepted Kramer's criticism and dissociated themselves from the views of Said and his supporters. A few even pointed an accusing finger in other directions - at government and media circles, for example, which have found it politically convenient to suppress the debate over Islamism.
But there were, of course, articles that condemned the book. Anti-Orientalists criticized by Kramer were invited by some of the media to retaliate. They argued that Kramer was presenting Islam as a monolithic entity heading toward a "clash of civilizations" and inflaming Islamophobia. For the most part, however, their criticisms did not deal with the issues themselves but rather attempted to undermine the credibility of the book as a whole. Kramer and his publisher, they said, were openly pro-Israeli. They had a hidden agenda, and it was not the good of America they had in mind.
This was the prevailing spirit at the annual MESA conference recently held in San Francisco. According to a report in The New Republic: "There was one universally acknowledged villain at the conference - it just wasn't Osama bin Laden. No, the man everyone loved to hate was ... Martin Kramer."
Serious criticism of this book might have raised some other issues. For example, alongside all its negative criticisms of the Said school, couldn't the author have pointed out some of its positive contributions (such as its rejection of essentialism)? Shouldn't it have been mentioned that some of these Middle East centers are also staffed by serious scholars who have enriched the field with their profound research? Where does it say that the research community is supposed to provide predictions for the government and the media, and that researchers are duty-bound to do so because their institutes enjoy public funding?
Israeli readers are bound to ask themselves whether experts on the Middle East and Islam in this country suffer from the same flaws as those Kramer finds in the American community. What may be said is that while the Israeli research community is indeed criticized from time to time, by its own members and by outsiders, for the most part, it is not guilty of the sins enumerated by Kramer: The academic centers in Israel are solidly anchored in scholarly disciplines; the study of Islamic culture and history is the central axis of their curricula; and whatever debate may exist with respect to the theories of Edward Said, no sweeping embrace of militant anti-Orientalism has taken place in Israel. Perhaps it is not surprising that Israelis, who live under the shadow of Islamic terror, have neither idealized these movements nor ignored them, but the fact is that when the Twin Towers collapsed, there were already dozens of in-depth studies of Islamism and its dangers sitting on the Israeli bookshelf.