On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) hosted a two-day symposium March 31 and April 1 in Washington, DC on the state of Arab studies programs. Panelists discussed a range of topics, from "Arab Studies in the Cross-Hairs" through "Arab Studies: Arab Perspectives" to "The Legacy of Edward Said."
The symposium was dedicated to the late Hisham Sharabi, Georgetown professor emeritus and renowned Arab intellectual, and included a concluding open discussion between panelists and other participants.
The conference closed with a performance by CCAS students of Egyptian playwright Tawfiq Al-Hakim's social comedy, "The Donkey Market." Remarkably and laudably, the play was performed in the original Arabic. It is a tribute to the rigors of the language training in Georgetown's Master of Arab Studies program that the students, for many of whom Arabic is not a first language, were able to perform their roles fluently. The play was a great success.
Many of the panelists addressed the role of Arab studies in the current political clime—specifically, whether or not academics could or did or should have an impact on U.S. policy toward the Middle East. There seemed to be a general consensus that Middle East experts should advise the government, but much dissension on related questions.
Some participants thought Middle East scholars could influence foreign policy. Georgetown's Daniel Byman, for example, argued that terrorism as a field had not been studied much, partly due to scholars' inability to access classified data, but advocated the use of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) as a model for area studies academics. Conversely, Leonard Binder of UCLA commented that it was paradoxical that as the Middle East became more important to the U.S., policymakers paid less attention to qualified scholars.
After discussing the problems of what he called a "ghettoized" field of study, Peter Gran of Temple University said lobbyists had a significant impact on research topics. Citing Arab studies nemesis Daniel Pipes' remarks that true patriotism consisted of upholding market sovereignty rather than the needs of the American people, Gran argued that there was a growing trans-national meshing of elite goals, along with the simultaneous development of a social movement substituting "rapture" for economic health—a combination, he noted, which boded ill for a solution to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Lisa Anderson, Middle East Studies Association (MESA) president and a dean at beleaguered Columbia University (where professors Rashid Khalidi, Joseph Massad and others are under attack for speaking out about Palestine), chose not to address directly the situation there. Instead she discussed the diminishing effect on policy of scholars in general and Middle East scholars in particular. Intimating that, rather than academics influencing policy, policy was influencing the academy, Anderson attributed these trends both to the rise of "think tanks" and the tendency of scholars to write for themselves and each other, using jargon only their colleagues comprehend.
Ambassador Edward Walker of the Middle East Institute (MEI) agreed with Anderson, saying that U.S. administrations expressed interest in embracing academia but were more successful at reaching out to foreign academics. He added, however, that government officials attend academic conferences to defend policy, not to learn, and that it was unrealistic to expect officials to read lengthy texts. The door to policy advisement, he continued, was open mostly to people who already have served—and even then, mostly to those in agreement with the current administration. The widespread perception of academia as liberal, Walker said, became more of a problem under Republican administrations.
University of Arizona professor Charles Smith pointed out that Dennis Ross, President Bill Clinton's top Middle East negotiator, had told a French audience that both Israel and Palestine should be held accountable for the failure of the peace talks between their former heads of government, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat. Ross told an American audience, however, that the Palestinians were to blame. Ross' U.S. version was dangerous, Smith said, because it would be believed for years to come, despite more accurate versions available from Clayton Swisher and Robert Malley, both of whom were present at the Camp David talks. Smith also faulted Princeton professor Bernard Lewis for saying that imperialism was "a consequence, not a cause" of weakness in Middle Eastern states, despite the fact there were no Middle Eastern nation states prior to European imperialism. Lewis was consulting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld before 9/11, Smith noted, making the point—as had Walker—that it was academics who agreed with administration policy whose advice was sought.
Addressing the issue of the practical application of Arab studies to policy, As'ad Abukhalil of California State University at Stanislau argued that Middle East scholars had been warning of a growing antipathy toward the U.S., but that policymakers only wanted the politicization of Arab studies toward their own ends, while deploring political sympathies toward Palestinians among Middle East scholars. Abukhalil further argued that the overall intent of Pipes' group Campus Watch was to keep the academy out of the debate by delegitimizing scholars.
Leila Hudson of the University of Arizona addressed the issue of the application of Arab studies to policy as it was practiced by those in agreement with current policy. Neo-con ideas like those espoused by symposium participant Martin Kramer, she explained, traced back to the University of Chicago's Albert Wohlstetter and led to such phenomena as what Hudson described as a "think tank masquerading as an educational institution": Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, for example, the 1996 paper "A Clean Break," and the Project for the New American Century. According to Hudson, there now exists a hierarchy of think tanks: some attack Middle East studies pre-emptively; some, like the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), distract the public from scholars' opinions' and some, like the Project for a New American Century, advocate wars. Unfortunately, Hudson said, these groups drown out the expert voices of scholars in fields like anthropology and history. However, Hudson also noted, policy based on the tactics of such groups was failing because policymakers have declined to consult experts and hence lackdetailed knowledge.
The symposium concluded with an open discussion in which the role of the scholar-activist, à la Edward Said and Hisham Sharabi was debated. Questions of tenure and public censure were addressed, as was the question of what graduating students did with the knowledge gained in their Middle East and Arabic-language studies. Several professors expressed the hope that students not use their training to torture prisoners, as was the case at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
Michael Hudson of Georgetown University reminded the audience that a teaching contract did not call for support for Rumsfeld or Sharon, only for teaching about the Middle East. Despite the active participation by Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), his most significant comment lay partly in what he did not say. Kramer argued that the academy should not stigmatize the few who take Middle East training and decide to work for government or advocate its current policies. However, he neglected to address the issue of the stigmatizing of those Middle East experts who speak out against governmental policy—something he has done in his own book. The debate undoubtedly will continue.