We thank those of our critics on other campuses who spoke on the record ("NES dept. faces warring factions," Dec. 8, 2004). Chief among them is our former colleague Khaled Fahmy. We are puzzled by his resentment, and sorry that he felt unable to share his knowledge at Princeton. He was invited to speak about his work, and did so, at numerous departmental functions. His colleagues thought well of his book. Students at Princeton are not a captive audience. They enroll in the courses of professors who establish reputations as fine teachers, and stay away from the courses of professors who are less successful in this. These market forces are beyond the department's control.
He also says of our department that it "does not stand for serious comparative work." Indeed the department as such does not take any stand for or against the comparative method. But when we turn to individual faculty members, you could easily have found evidence that your source is out to lunch. Julie Taylor's subfield of political science is comparative politics; her dissertation systematically compares the political choices of clerics in Egypt and Iran, and her seminar trains students in comparative methodologies. Michael Cook has taught a course comparing Hindu nationalism, Latin-American liberation theology and Islamic fundamentalism, and will teach it again next year. Mark Cohen's "Under Crescent and Cross," a comparison of Jewish life in the medieval Christian and Islamic worlds, has been out for a decade — time enough for news of it to reach New York.
You quote Ussama Makdisi on Orientalist-style scholars. "Orientalist" has become a dirty word: the people Makdisi takes to task are described as hostile to Muslims and mired in the belief that there is such a thing as a unitary and unalterable Muslim civilization. In other words, they are essentialists. It is not clear whether Ussama Makdisi (who previously credited a senior member of the department with "opening windows onto a past . . . world") was describing the NES department at Princeton in this way, but you certainly makes it appear so. Is it likely that the works of Hossein Modarressi on early Shi'ism, Sukru Hanioglu on the Young Turks, or Negin Nabavi on Iranian intellectuals are hostile to the Muslim world? For that matter, is Michael Doran's book on Egyptian foreign policy, a sustained attempt to reconstruct the strategic thinking of Egyptian statesmen at mid-century, hostile to anything except some received ideas? What we get from your reporter is a weird and essentialist description of our department. The work done by individuals, and how it is done, has sunk without a trace.
An anonymous critic says, "If you mention Edward Said near Jones Hall, steam would come out of the building." Said's Orientalism is on the syllabus of the department's introductory course for first-year graduate students. We assure you that the current reconstruction of Jones Hall is not a consequence of this reading assignment.
The Dean of the Faculty is best placed to correct your misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the purposes behind the current external review of the department. All departments go through such reviews from time to time (once in roughly five to 10 years). Several other departments will receive visiting review committees this year.
In a more positive vein, we would like to thank Rashid Khalidi for injecting a note of sanity into the chorus of criticism of the department. We strongly endorse his rejection of the naive "great man" view of the current state of our field, according to which scholars are to be stereotyped as either "Lewisian" or "Saidian." Indeed, anyone who takes the trouble to read the works of Bernard Lewis with an open mind will find in them such diverse approaches to history that it might be essentialist to classify even Lewis himself as a "Lewisian."
You were right to interview Professor Carl Brown, to whose dedication the Near East Program is greatly indebted. He might have benefited from also discussing with the current director the developments since Professor Brown's retirement almost a decade ago.
Finally, a few words about what our department does stand for. First, it stands for high scholarly standards. This is why our PhDs teach all over the world, from the East Coast to the West Coast, from Rabat to Birzeit, from Tel Aviv to Istanbul. Second, our department is a big tent in which many different approaches coexist; but there is no place in it for the kind of intolerance that has prevented Tarik Ramadan from taking up his position at Notre Dame, and seeks to evict Michael Doran from his position at Princeton. Third, our department is an environment in which an approach gets respect when it delivers genuine understanding of Middle Eastern realities. If our critics think that their standards are higher, that their tents are bigger, or that their understanding is deeper, we invite them to show it.
Andras Hamori is NES dept. chair. M. Sukru Hanioglu is director of the program in NES.