Writers, artists, and other public intellectuals with controversial points of view are often accused of "preaching to the choir," when critics want to dismiss their arguments as partisan. Rashid Khalidi, the director of the Middle East Institute at SIPA, has often been accused of this tendency.
But Khalidi, who spoke Monday night about what he calls the "ahistoricism" and ignorance behind U.S. policy in Iraq, responded to charges that he is biased by flipping the accusation around.
Strongly biased ideologues and "muscular nationalists" often shape America's Middle East policy, and their views go unchallenged by the media, argued Khalidi, who said he wants to "raise the level of debate" on the region.
In his talk, entitled "Resurrecting Empire: American Policy in the Middle East," the first in a series of lectures organized by the Earth Institute, Khalidi argued that America's presence in Iraq was doomed to disaster because it was based on a stubborn dismissal of Middle Eastern history.
"Anyone with eyes to see could have seen that this situation was not going to work out," Khalidi said, as heads nodded around the room.
Khalidi said that because of the United States' unique position as an "enormous continental island," Americans have little understanding of how historical events have shaped attitudes in other countries, particularly in the Middle East. A better understanding of the region's history, he said, could have forestalled the deaths of both Americans and Iraqis.
Iraqis--and people all over the Middle East--still have vivid memories of being colonized by Western powers. Those memories, Khalidi argued, make it particularly hard for Iraqis to stomach the current Western occupying forces.
But Khalidi argued that officials in the Bush administration, whom he described as "a group of Pollyannas," are deliberately ignoring Middle Eastern history in order to proceed with their agenda.
"Policy is made by the top people in the administration," Khalidi said, "and they are ignoring history to proceed with what I call a faith-based, fact-free policy."
Khalidi has often been criticized for his iconoclastic views; the New York Sun has called him a "professor of hate," and Campus Watch, the watchdog group that monitors Middle Eastern departments in universities across the country, has targeted him as an "extremist" for his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Khalidi's students, however, praise him for his open-minded, unbiased attitude, and for a teaching style which encourages debate and investigation.
"He taught me that you can't take anything at its face value," said Shaina Grieff, CC '04, who took Khalidi's seminar on Orientalism and Historiography last semester. "Everyone has a bias, and everyone has an agenda."
"One of the most important things he teaches is the importance of being grounded in the facts," said Seth Anzika, CC '04, who was in the same seminar. Anzika admitted that some students were initially wary of Khalidi's controversial reputation but, he said, "anyone who talks to him, or reads him, figures out that he's not trying to argue any one point. He's just trying to get at the facts."