Without serious debate, the House of Representatives has passed an importantproposal regarding foreign area studies on to the Senate. The proposed changes toTitle VI of the Higher Education Act contained in HR3077 are intended to rectify what some claim are major defects in the way in whichuniversities currently implement the Department of Education (DOE) NationalResource Center Programs -- but there is little reference in the proposed bill tothe substance of the criticism.
The anodyne circumlocutions of HR 3077 lightly veil a serious struggle for control of Middle East and Islamic studies in the US. The new version calls for the appointment of an oversight committee, of seven members, two of whom must be drawn from agencies concerned with national security. The oversight committee is to collect information and issue reports regarding the extent to which NationalResource Centers actually carry out the will of the Congress, and especially the extent to which they faithfully present all points of view when providing informationregarding controversial issues.
The protagonists in this struggle appear to be a loose collection of neocon supporters of the Bush administration's Middle East policy on the one hand, and the academic gatekeepers ( al-hawâjib in Arabic) of both the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) and the various Middle East "National Resource Centers" (NRCs) at someseventeen universities. The neocons insist that the funds distributed by theDepartment of Education for the purpose of improving and disseminating knowledge of the Middle East, are actually being used to undercut support for current policy. The academic gatekeepers reply that the remedies proposed by the neocons will stifle academic freedom and gravely limit the kinds of scholarly knowledge that will be available to policy makers in the future. The neocons reply that Middle East studies have long since been captured and reshaped to suit the imaginative speculations of the currently dominant lit-crit/multi-culti/post- structural/post-colonial paradigm. And the hawâjib respond by pointing outthat there is actually a good deal of diversity of views among the members of MESA, even if all views are not represented at every NRC..
The real problem is that both sides are correct in their criticism of their opponents, but neither has a constructive proposal.
The neocons want to treat the universities like defense contractors or beltway think tanks. They would have government agencies sign contracts with universities and NRCs to produce studies supporting the policies of elected governments. The neocons call for balance and diversity in the academic presentation of issues because they know they are not well represented on the campuses; but they would like to add some monitory supervision by the CIA and the Pentagon to counterbalance the permissiveness of the Department of Education. Their proposals would lead to more uniformity, less discretion, decreased innovation and experimentation, more reporting, more bookkeeping, and a mechanicalbalancing of views without selection for intellectual excellence and creativity. With the scholarly playing field thus leveled, the neocon proposal to sweep away both cultural and material obstacles to US goals by the application of overwhelmingmilitary force would be balanced against the hawajib proposal that our regionalpolicy be based upon post-colonial remorse and on deference to the cultural authenticities of regional peoples.
For their part, the hawâjib have, indeed, learned well the lesson that Michel Foucault taught Edward Said. Knowledge is power, and he who decides who has the right to speak is the most powerful of all. Foucault and, before him,Gramsci, taught us that hegemonic speech occurs even in democratic societies that guarantee civil rights. Middle East specialists have been taught, to their embarrassment, that their stock in trade, the languages of orientalism, modernization, and development, were forms of hegemonic speech which perpetuate the very conditions they were supposed to alleviate. Academic speech, offered in the service of state power, was purported to be so potent that it could stop the historical process dead in its tracks, extending colonial relationships long after the demise of classical imperialism, and even inventing a modern form of Islamic extremism in the Muslim world. Middle East specialists have been accused of transforming the Muslim consciousness of self by lending academic authority to their willful characterizations of the enduring and coherent essence of Islam. By essentializing Islam they have frozen Islam and prevented Muslims from adapting Islam to historical conditions in the way that Islam has always adapted in the past. Evidently, the hegemonic speech of Gustave von Grunebaum has bridged the cultural gap between Max Weber and Usama bin Ladin, convincing the latter that Islam really is a "warrior religion" and that the Islamic ethic is a warrior ethic.
Surprisingly, both the neocons and the hawâjib agree that the discourses of the Social Sciences are essentially ideological. Those discourses, whether in the form of empirical findings or speculative interpretations, whether teleological or pragmatic, are part of the "struggle over historical and social meaning" which is an integral part of the perpetual human struggle for territory and power. [E.W. Said,TLS, 2/3/95, p.3] Both sides in this contest see Middle East Studies as political instrumentalities -- not to say weapons -- rather than the source of validated knowledge, applicable to a variety of purposes. Both agree that knowledge is power in the sense that who ever is able to gain the authority to determine what knowledge is, is able to validate their own interpretation of historical and social meaning and invalidate the alternatives.
Both sides also agree that the core issues are normative rather than informational, adaptive or strategic. Their onvergence is revealed in their understanding of democracy and their support for the democratization of the Middle East. Both sides appear to believe that democracy creates virtue; that it is a political amnesiac, capable of erasing ethnic, linguistic, sectarian, cultural and historical memories. So there is no need to dwell upon the structure of the Shi'ite religious establishment, the tribal loyalties of the Sunni peasants, or the unique bonding of ethnicity and geography throughout Iraq. They do not believe that democracy must be constructed with the aid of a strategic calculus which takes account of these differences as well as by a negotiating process which is nothing less than the constituent process which is now randomly unfolding in Iraq.
Given the basic epistemological agreement between the two protagonists in this controversy, it appears that the "neutral" solution proposed in HR 3077 may well produce the worst possible outcome, in which each side battles to have their own imaginary view of the Middle East and Islam prevail, and in which the Legislature's goal of having both points of view presented will be easily attained. As a consequence, the neocons and the hawajib will have succeeded in excluding all other competitors from influencing the development of Middle East Studies as we attempt to extricate ourselves from the mess that the ideologues and the moralizers have gotten us into.
This controversy transcends the usual scholarly tempest in academic teapots, because this is an election year, and the United States is engaged in a global conflict growing out of the transformation taking place in the Middle East and Islam. More particularly, the US is engaged in an effort to democratize post- Saddam Iraq -- an effort which presupposes that Iraq can be democratized, that we know how to do it, and that the task can be completed in a reasonable time at a reasonable cost. These crucial presuppositions have been adumbrated without scientific proof, without historical foundation, and without a coherent plan.
The decision to depose Saddam was a priori and unconditional, but that does not excuse the apparent lack of any serious preparation for the constructive phase of what was to be a change of regime rather than a simple take-down. The Clinton administration had advanced the idea, but its focus was on removing Saddam rather than establishing a democratic and capitalist state in the heart of a region dominated by centralized, dynastic, patrimonial, authoritarian, rentier, and military (or hierocratic) dictatorships.
The occupation of Iraq and its political fallout cannot be ignored in the "presidential" year 2004. To the extent that success eludes American efforts in Iraq, we may expect a bitter contest to lay blame on either the sobered Pentagon neocons and their unilateralist supporters, or on the remorseful Democratic opponents of the war who propose multilateralism rather than a policy. The impending elections have set the arbitrary pace of democratization and the restoration of sovereignty without bringing security or winning the gratitude of the Iraqi people. Neither Republicans nor Democrats can think of an easy way out. In the face of the political uncertainties surrounding our current Iraqi adventure, Congress is likely to continue to avoid confronting the issues involved in the academic spat over HR 3077. Presidential politics are likely to overwhelm the academic squabble, and the truly significant intellectual and institutional issues will be lost in the scuffle. Those issues are manifested in the long term failure to encourage the production of validated social and cultural knowledge of the Middle East and Islam, and the failure to exploit the limited expertise available, in the development of a regional policy -- and both parties to the present dispute over HR 3077 are exacerbating those failures by diverting our attention to ideological issues.
During our prolonged involvement with Iraq, from the mid-eighties to the fall of Baghdad in 2003, we relied to a onsiderable extent upon Iraqi intermediaries, expatriates, and Saddam's officials; and failed to develop and call upon a corps of our own experts and scholars. American expertise on the Middle East remains thin and spotty, especially in language proficiency and in the Social Science fields of Politics, Sociology, Economics and Anthropology. The lack of cultural expertise and of the methodological and technical skills to apply that expertise has been further aggravated by The mutual alienation of Social Science departments and area specialists. This alienation is not unrelated to the decline in funding for Middle East studies which lasted right up to 9/11/01; but it is also due to the effective critique of both classical orientalism and modern development studies which was mounted from within "the guild" of Middle East specialists themselves. Despite the fact that the assault on orientalism targeted holistic generalization, it did not encourage the sort of country level specialization which is now so badly needed.
The Social Sciences have been neglected in the training of area specialists. DOE policies for the implementation of Title Six of the Higher Education Act have emphasized graduate education in language and culture, undergraduate language training, undergraduate teaching, expanding library resources, interdisciplinary research, multi-disciplinary programs and community and K-12 outreach -- but not advanced research in the Social Sciences, opportunities for post-doctoral research and/or specialization in the Social Sciences, nor support for professorial appointments of area specialists in Social Science Departments. The result has been that the number of area specialists in Social Science Departments has declined, and their area specific skills have been degraded and devalued.
The time has come to reconsider this institutional history and to ask whether either the academy or our society or even Muslim societies have been well served by the result. If, as I believe, there is much to question in this unfolding, the possibility of alternatives should be explored; but not the meaningless proposals now being squeezed into the interstices of HR 3077. Perhaps the starting point for this reconsideration is to ask why it is that a single set of criteria are proposed and insisted upon in the allocation of Title Six grants. Why should one size fit all? Why not encourage different centers to focus on alternative intellectual goals? Why not select two or three centers that will commit themselves to the development of advanced research, proficiency in specific sub-regions, and integration with empirically oriented Social Science departments? Given the opportunity, I am confident that some will rise to the occasion.
Steven Heydemann's responds:
This is an important contribution to current discussions of HR 3077 and the state of ME Studies.
A couple of observations in response.
First, neocon critics are concerned about the position of theory in ME Studies in general, not only about what they consider to be the prominence of postmodernism and postcolonialism. They are just as critical of social science as they are of cultural theory. Professor Binder's call for a field that is more fully engaged with the social sciences is no less antithetical to their worldview than the idea of a field that takes seriously any kind of theory-based approach to understanding the region -- whatever the framework might be.
Second, Professor Binder rightly concludes that HR 3077 would leave us with the worst possible outcome in part (but only, I think, in part) because it would cement an oppositional relationship between two polar positions, neither of which offers a productive strategy for the development of the field. This is an important point, and it's been largely lost in the current debate.
But it leaves us with the eternal question: what is to be done? If the cost of defeating HR 3077 (or revising it so that oversight doesn't bring the kind of political censorship we can expect from the current version) means that the Gatekeepers, in Professor Binder's terms, take this round (an outcome that is in doubt in any case), that strikes me as preferable to the alternative. It is not the optimal outcome, by any means. But I am persuaded that it would leave us more room to move toward the kind of debate about the field that Professor Binder develops in his article than we would have under a regime regulated by HR 3077.