George W. Bush is facing a new Middle Eastern quagmire but it is neither in Falluja nor Ramallah. This war is at home, in the US, and its battlefields are top university campuses, from Princeton to Berkeley; its foot soldiers in Middle East studies faculties across America are bogged down in political infighting, waging internet offensives that from a scholarly perspective seem shallow and petty. This battle, over the "right" and "wrong" approaches to teaching the region's politics, history and culture, has already caused considerable damage to academia and is now jeopardising US ability to decipher a complex area in which America is deeply engaged. Academics should avoid, as we used to learn, being "embedded" with one side or another. Professors ought to preserve a certain impartiality, especially when common wisdom seems beset by partisan politics and propaganda. Unfortunately, in the US academic jungle of Middle East studies, this concept is being undermined by arguments over partisanship, be it pro-Arab or pro-Israeli.
For a Middle East studies professor from Europe visiting his US colleagues, as I did recently, it is a sad journey to what was, only a decade ago, a centre of expertise on areas ranging from Morocco to south-west Asia. European scholars once dreamt of gaining positions at Harvard or even at US Midwest campuses where libraries were plentiful and dollars abundant. Not so, now. From the early 1980s, two distinct approaches to Middle East studies emerged, with Edward Said, the late Palestinian-American academic, on one side waging the battle over his controversial "Orientalism" thesis, and Bernard Lewis, the Princeton Arabist and figurehead of the opposite camp, on the other. Each was deeply grounded in scholarship. Said focused on comparative literature in English and French narratives, while Mr Lewis's ideas were rooted mainly in Arabic and Turkish historical sources. From the vociferous nature of their challenges, the field of Middle East studies was rejuvenated. However, their immitators in early 21st-century America have not lived up to the expectations of earlier masters, and the masters themselves have become increasingly political, making forays into domains further from the supply lines of their original expertise comparative literature on the one hand, history on the other. As a doctoral student in the early 1980s, I was stunned by the dynamism of debate on American campuses; but as a France-based faculty member on a recent tour across the US, I felt despair at the battles I saw raging in academia. Two decades ago, the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (Mesa) was the central forum for intellectual debates in the field, worldwide. There you would go to test your findings, talk to colleagues you had read but never met, spend nights discussing Maududi's influence on Sayyid Qotb and, ultimately, learn much, all together. The association is now a shadow of what it was. Debate takes place instead inside think-tanks, which all have agendas, be they political, cultural or religious. They are usually stimulating places, but not for scholarship and pursuit of knowledge.
The sorry state of US Middle East studies is best exemplified by the ridiculous affair of Tariq Ramadan. European academics are very familiar with this charismatic Swiss-born preacher and Islamist thinker, the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brothers and a political leader among born-again Muslim youth of Old Europe; many (including myself) have debated with him, some have been charmed, others critical. But Mr Ramadan is not considered a scholar; his limited teaching hours at a Swiss college as an adjunct do not make for peer recognition.
Mr Ramadan's appointment earlier this year by the University of Notre Dame in Indiana to a key post caused bewilderment in European academic circles, almost as if an American tel-evangelist had been offered a post at the London School of Economics or the Sorbonne. The subsequent denial by the US Homeland Security Department of a US visa for Mr Ramadan made the issue 100 per cent political. Although not a member of Mr Ramadan's fan club, I never viewed him as endorsing terrorism or violence. The whole affair, however, shows that partisanship may supersede scholarship when it comes to faculty appointments in Middle East studies, and that very flaw in the academic world prompted the Homeland Security Department to act as supreme provost of US Middle East studies.