Freedom of speech and conscience on American universities and colleges, particularly in relation to Middle East studies, has been taking some hard hits, of late.
First, there was the post-9/11 lawsuit over the use of the book, Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, in a freshman class at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The book explored the thinking as well as the poetry found in the early suras of the Qur'an. The lawsuit was filed by Christian Evangelicals to prevent the use of the book by the school's incoming freshman class on the grounds that it was indoctrinating students about Islam.
More recently, there has been furor over a controversial essay written by Prof. Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado at Boulder in which he spoke disparagingly of some of those killed in the attack on the World Trade Center, comparing them to Nazis. The comments, which spokesmen for Churchill say have been taken out of context, went unnoticed until they were picked up by a conservative Webblog and then became primetime news when Bill O'Reilly at Fox News attacked Churchill on the air.
At the moment, however, the most contentious squabbling over the rights of academics to speak out on controversial issues is taking place on the campus of Columbia University in New York City. The issue involves Jewish students and recent graduates who claim they have been insulted and intimidated by professors who espouse the Palestinian cause and are opposed to Israeli policies. The focus of this criticism has been directed at teachers in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture Department, which is one of the most highly regarded Middle East Studies departments in the country. It functions under the acronym MEALAC.
In the fall of 2003, a number of Columbia students appeared in a short film titled "Columbia Unbecoming," in which they charged several MEALAC professors with intimidation and harassment. The film was initiated by LionPAC, a student group committed to defending Israeli policies, working in conjunction with The David Project, a Boston-based Israel advocacy group. The documentary consists of footage of students detailing how they were discriminated against when they spoke up on behalf of Israel either in class or outside the classroom. There was no footage of the accused professors responding to the charges.
The film was screened on campus that fall and has been shown several times since, always to packed halls. Each viewing was followed by a discussion period marked by heated responses from students both defending and attacking the film. The criticism of MEALAC professors continued on campus through the spring and fall of 2004 and is still a source of vehement argument. Various organizations on campus have issued public statements either defending the film or defending the rights of the professors to speak openly in class.
Newspapers Chime In
In recent months, the MEALAC controversy has received extensive coverage in publications like The New York Times, the Daily News, and The New York Sun. The professors named in the film report they have received phone threats and large volumes of hate mail. The Columbia administration has been drawn into the controversy and has had to admonish one professor for his intemperate letter to a MEALAC professor. There also has been considerable concern about the impact of this controversy on future grants and funding to the university. Some teachers have expressed concern that parents, particularly Jewish families, may characterize the controversy as anti-Semitism at Columbia and decide to send their college-age students to other schools.
Responding to this contretemps, the university administration announced the formation of a five-member academic committee to investigate the students' charges. No sooner had the committee formed than it came under attack. Student groups charged that some committee members had personal ties with the MEALAC professors under investigation and that there were conflicts of interest that would hinder the committee from coming up with a fair appraisal of the professors' classroom behavior.
Faculty groups then spoke up, criticizing the administration for setting up the committee, saying there were normal grievance procedures for dealing with these charges and the establishment of the committee gave undue credence to the charges. The university, they said, was not properly defending the rights of academics to teach freely in class.
Initially, several of the Columbia students who charged the MEALAC professors with intimidation said they would not testify before the committee, fearing there would be some kind of unspoken retribution for speaking up. Later, after being assured by the administration that there would be no repercussions, they agreed to testify. The committee is expected to produce a report on its findings some time in the spring.
Ambassador Walks Out
The MEALAC controversy took a bizarre turn in early 2005, when the Israeli ambassador to the United States announced that he would not attend an international conference scheduled to take place at Columbia. The conference had as its theme the Middle East peace process and was supposed to be attended by government officials from Israel, Palestine, and America. According to a press report, the ambassador had consulted with Jewish community leaders, reflected on the MEALAC controversy and the concerns of Jewish students on campus, and withdrew from the conference. It should be noted that several other participants also announced they would not be able to attend the meeting, mostly because of prior travel commitments. Columbia eventually decided the conference would be rescheduled for the fall of 2005.
The controversy over MEALAC continued unabated. Issue after issue of the Spectator, Columbia's student newspaper, carried either new stories or angry letters from students and faculty. Right-wing commentators continued criticizing the university's administration for failing to address the grievances of the students. Alan Dershowitz, the controversial trial lawyer and Harvard University law professor, spoke at the university at the behest of Columbia Students for Israel and other advocacy groups. He defended students' rights, warned against anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism on campus, and described Columbia as "the most unbalanced university I have come across when it comes to issues related to the Middle East." Inherent in much of this criticism is a sense among many right-wing commentators that American academics, particularly those found in Middle East Studies departments, are highly critical of Israel and tend to support Palestinian goals in the Middle East. (Ironically, the late Prof. Edward Said, the famous Palestinian-American author and intellectual, was a member of Columbia's English faculty.)
Shortly after the Dershowitz talk, another academic, Dr. Hatem Bazian, professor of Islamic law at the University of California, Berkeley, addressed the university's Muslim Student Association as part of Islamic Awareness Week and presented a different point of view.
The title of Dr. Bazian's talk was "Empire's Embedded Intellectuals." It focused on the individuals and groups within American universities that define themselves as patriotic defenders of America who are dedicated to the promotion of America's pro-Israel foreign policy. He referred specifically to educators like Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, and Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins.
He spoke of the efforts of neo-conservatives in Washington to control the research of university Middle East Studies departments by placing new restrictions on government Title VI federal grants and other programs. "We can see a new charge given to all professors of Middle East Studies and other related fields to become embedded intellectuals serving dutifully the aspirations of empire," asserted Dr. Barzian.
"What we have here is a call for maintaining Middle Eastern studies through the Israeli lens," he stated and pointed to Daniel Pipes' Campus Watch Web site which targets professors who criticize Israel and U.S. foreign policy. Noting that universities are dependent to a significant degree on grants and federal funding, he warned that this can have a dangerous impact on Middle East scholarly research.
Robert Gaines spent several years in the Publications Office of Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Sultanate of Oman. He is currently working on a book about Muslim education around the world.