The 17 Middle East centers across the United States have been accused of failing to predict the rise of radical Islam and the subsequent Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. soil.
In addition, one such accuser, Stanley Kurtz, testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, saying, "Programs in Middle Eastern Studies tend to purvey extreme and one-sided criticisms of American foreign policy."
As a result of these allegations, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the International Studies in Higher Education Act, which has since been introduced to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
If this legislation passes, it will establish an oversight committee comprised of seven representatives from U.S. security agencies.
The committee would possess the sovereignty to exercise political and investigative control in studying, monitoring, apprising and evaluating the nation's 17 Middle East centers and their various activities to ensure that they reflect diverse perspectives and represent the full range of views on issues of international concern.
The proposal has been met with "a significant level of opposition, concern, reservation and worry," according to Ibrahim Karawan, director of the U's Middle East Center.
He adds that it is problematic to blame the Middle East centers for the failure to predict Sept. 11 because the operations of these centers are quite different from those of the intelligence and security agencies, which have the resources and jurisdiction to do so. In fact, the Middle East Studies curriculum is comprehensive, dealing with more than just strategy and politics. The center also houses classes in literature, anthropology, art and economics.
"These fields are totally unrelated and could not be retooled to be policy-oriented and identify sources of military strategic threat," Karawan said. "Prediction is not the name of the game and becoming a policy analyst is not the only way to serve the United States."
Karawan provided a historical example to support his view, saying that Israel did not point the finger at Middle East centers in Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion or Hebrew Universities for failing to predict the 1973 Yom Kippur/Ramadan/October War.
He does, however, agree that Middle East Studies programs need constant reform, pluralism and accountability.
"There has been no time in which the U.S. has needed more competent people in Middle East Studies than now," he said. Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East History at Stanford University and former president of the Middle East Studies Association adds, "No other institutions are now able to do this job on the required scale."
While Karawan sees a purpose in reform, he does not agree with doing so through the implementation of bureaucrats, security agencies and political appointees. He stressed that there is a major difference between conducting an audit and looking for a scapegoat.
"Accountability does not mean subservience to political appointees and security agencies, but to the self and the profession at large," Karawan said. He continued, saying, "It is the responsibility of security agencies not to intervene in courses, but to collect information. They should have priorities and do what they were created to do before monitoring the Middle East centers."
There is also an inherent problem in assigning politically affiliated individuals to the oversight committee.
"A changing administration in Washington, D.C., should not change what is written in books and taught in the classrooms," Karawan said.