FOR THE past two years, the field of Middle East studies has been under intense attack in the United States through a public relations campaign most outspokenly driven by three prominent neoconservative, staunchly pro-Israel American researchers, journalists and commentators: Daniel Pipes, Stanley Kurtz and Martin Kramer.
The American Jewish Congress has also jumped on this bandwagon, asserting that "federal tax dollars are funding Middle East seminars exclusively promoting one-sided anti-American and anti-Israel view", and aggressively petitioning the secretary of education to amend "this distortion".
Kurtz, Pipes and Kramer claim that the field of Middle East studies in the US is "a tendentious, ideologically driven lefty academic enterprise", (Weekly Standard, 2002) and, in Kurtz's words, an "intellectual failure".
It is contaminated by fancy rationales for America and Israel bashing, according to Kramer, and by scholars "whitewashing Jihad", according to Pipes, who also says wildly that Middle East studies provide a "refuge to what might be called intellectual terrorists — scholars known for their extremism, intolerance, and dishonesty" and for their connections to Islamist terrorism.
Kurtz has testified before Congress to the effect that Middle East studies are riddled with academics "hostile to American interests in the world" and that it was time for the government to monitor the funds it grants to Middle East area studies under Title VI.
New advisory board
In his testimony on June 19, 2003, at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Select Education, called "International programmes in higher education and questions about bias", Kurtz, who is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and contributing editor of the National Review Online, pushed for Congress to authorise the creation of an advisory board to gather information on federally funded area studies programmes. He carried the day.
The bill, called the International Studies in Higher Education Act (H.R. 3077), was passed unanimously by the subcommittee on Sept. 17, 2003. Part of this bill authorises the creation of an advisory board empowered to ensure that funded activities "reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affair" and to "study, monitor, apprise, and evaluate" activities supported under Title VI in relation to homeland security, foreign language and international education and international affairs.
Section 8 of the bill requires reporting to Congress on foreign language communities of US residents or citizens, particularly those deemed critical to US national security.
Although the bill forbids the advisory board "to mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education's specific instructional content, curriculum, or programme of instruction", many academics in the US are alarmed by this bill for several reasons, chief among them being that the powers the advisory board is being granted, to "increase accountability by providing advice, counsel, and recommendations to Congress on international education issues for higher education", is much too broad.
Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab Studies (recently anonymously endowed) and director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia, says that what is in fact anti-American "is to demand a certain point of view. We are serving our country by trying to help explain as best we can the language, history, culture, religion and so forth of these regions and how their history has interacted with our country's history".
He adds: "I would argue that the job of academics is to teach the facts and realities as they understand them. Not to follow blindly whatever foreign policy that the United States may be following in a given region at a given moment."
Khalidi is joined in his assessment of the substance of the allegations against Middle East studies by many academics who question the wisdom of having an advisory board made up of political appointees and by Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education (ACE), who presented opposing testimony at the hearing, saying that "criticisms of the Middle-East Centres are based on a small number of anecdotes, and the retelling of these anecdotes often leaves out important information".
Gilbert W. Merkx, vice provost for international affairs and development, and director of the Centre for International Studies at Duke University, who testified last June, fears that: "The advisory board could easily be hijacked by those who have a political axe to grind and become a vehicle for an inquisition."
Some students as well find cause for alarm. Paige Austin, a student at Davenport College writing for the Yale Herald (November 2003) worries: "It is not difficult to figure out with which side the truth lies. If it seems that every expert in the field disagrees with US policy in the Middle East; maybe our government needs to listen to those experts, not cut off their funding in the hopes of weaning new ones who are more pliable. One look at today's headlines is enough to know what the latter strategy has accomplished — and it's nothing to be proud of."
The bill has passed the House floor and now must pass the Senate before it can be enacted into law.
Middle East studies `vital'
Since Sept. 11, there has been a sharp rise of genuine interest in Middle Eastern studies in the US, as well as a rise in xenophobic fears. The US government sees this field of study as vital to its security and is eager to fund such academic programmes.
The State Department currently has only 54 Arabic speakers with a reasonable level of fluency, very few of whom willing or able to participate in media discussions on Arab television and radio as reported on Oct. 2003 to the House Appropriations Committee and to the Bush administration by the US Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim world. The report goes on to say: "The United States today lacks the capabilities in public diplomacy to meet the national security threat emanating from political instability, economic deprivation and extremism, especially in the Arab and Muslim world."
It calls for 300 fluent Arabic speakers within two years and another 300 by 2008. In spite of recent increases, the number of students studying Arabic in American universities is less than one per cent (10,596) of all those enrolled in foreign language course.
Title VI of the Higher Education Act began in 1958 in acknowledgement that education, especially in foreign language training, is tied to the defence of the US. Title VI allowed Congress to appropriate funds to support centres and area studies associated with public research institutions and later expanded to encompass support for outreach activities and for business. Funding runs on a three-year competitive cycle.
The writer lives and works in the United States. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times.