Lee Kaplan attended.
Juan Cole is the new President.
Each year – this year in San Francisco, from November 20-23 – the Middle East Studies Association's conference shows the world what topics and themes really do hold sway in this field of the academy. In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. defeat of two Middle Eastern autocracies, and the continued War on Terror, one might expect to see papers on militant Islam and terrorism playing a large role in a gathering of Middle East experts. But with the same willful blindness shown in the past, in each of the post-9/11 events MESA scholars have treated these as almost taboo subjects. The San Francisco conference, with some notable exceptions, suggests that most of MESA's taboos remain firmly in place.
The 2004 conference program reveals that "terrorist" and "terrorism" remain words scarcely used by the MESA participants. Indeed, "terrorism" doesn't appear in the titles of five papers in a special session on "Islam and Political Violence." When ‘terror' is mentioned it is usually contained in "The War on Terror" and most often as a topic of derision.
Whether named as a subject or region, nine times out of ten the sovereign 56-year-old democracy of Israel is referred to as "Palestine-Israel." The conference boasts exactly one paper on suicide bombing; the same number as those speaking on "Palestinian-Israeli Resistance Poetry."
On the war in Iraq, MESA's lineup remains eclectic at best. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan described Moktada al-Sadr's violent insurgency as a "movement of the poor," and a panel discussed "Communities Under Siege" actually comparing Iraq, Palestine, and Sudan. Saddam Hussein's downfall and capture was rendered wholly unimportant; in fact, Saddam Hussein's name does not appear in the 25-page program.
Amidst all of this unfortunately typical fare, some bright spots can be found.
A roundtable discussion on post-Saddam Kurdish nationalism boasts scholars from England, Canada, Utah, Kentucky and the Ahmed Foundation for Kurdish Studies. It is one of the few discussions willing to acknowledge, at least indirectly, that the American removal of the Ba'ath regime was a good.
Several scholars from the Naval Postgraduate School form a panel – actually, the only panel – conducted from an American security perspective on the Middle East after operations ‘Enduring Freedom' and ‘Iraqi Freedom.' The Naval Postgraduate School also offers several scholars to another panel on Islamism and its discontents. Perhaps those professors who must each day explain a war to those who would fight it see a particular urgency in defining the enemy. MESA's policy the rest of the year is to refuse to accept advertising in its journals from "defense and intelligence related agencies from any government." Against this backdrop, the very appearance of participants from the Naval Postgraduate School at the MESA meeting seems an enlightened act.
But as with all MESA conferences, one learns the most about the organization not by what these politicized scholars choose to laud or disparage, but by what they leave out altogether. Despite the undeniable historical significance of the last three years, and the fact that approximately fifty million Muslims have been freed from unquestionably horrific tyranny, the term "liberation" does not appear in the program. Not even belittled within quotation marks.
As far as MESA is concerned, the oppression of Arabs and Muslims remains paramount, but the end of 25 years of oppression doesn't even rate a "thematic conversation." America's Middle East historians remain perfectly willing to let history pass them by.
The program of the 2004 Annual MESA Conference can be viewed online at: http://fp.arizona.edu/mesassoc/MESA04/2004programadjusted.htm