Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, reviews and critiques Middle East studies in North America, with an aim to improving them. The project mainly addresses five problems: analytical failures, the mixing of politics with scholarship, intolerance of alternative views, apologetics, and the abuse of power over students. Campus Watch fully respects the freedom of speech of those it debates while insisting on its own freedom to comment on their words and deeds.
Why Middle East Studies Matters
Middle East studies have a special importance due to its many subjects at the heart of the public debate, such as the war on terror, militant Islam, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and others. Specialists have an extensive but subtle influence on the way North Americans see this range of topics. They:
- Write books and articles that influence the way the region is seen.
- Set the tone for how the Middle East is regarded on campuses across North America.
- Teach graduate and undergraduate students.
- Contribute to the public debate via lectures, panels, teach-ins, newspaper articles, quotations in media outlets, and appearances on radio and television.
- Influence government by helping candidates formulate positions, advising intelligence agencies, or providing help to congressional staffers writing briefs.
- Conduct outreach activities in local communities.
- Serve as expert witnesses in court cases.
- Act as informal U.S. representatives when lecturing abroad, especially on State Department-sponsored tours.
The Problems in Middle East Studies
Analytical errors: University-based Middle East specialists have been consistently wrong in their analyses, as Martin Kramer showed in his Ivory Towers on Sand1. Some examples:
- Portraying militant Islam as a benign movement and suggesting that anyone who thought otherwise is either ignorant or prejudiced. John Esposito of Georgetown University stated that Islamist movements "are not necessarily anti-Western, anti-American, or anti-democratic" and called on that Americans "to transcend their narrow, ethnocentric conceptualization of democracy" to include militant Islamic forms of governance.2
- Dismissing Al-Qaeda as insignificant. "Focusing on Osama bin Laden," wrote Esposito in 1998, "risk[s] catapulting one of the many sources of terrorism to center stage, distorting ... the significance of a single individual."3
- Dismissing autocratic Arab regimes as weak, precarious, or temporary. Rashid Khaildi, Columbia University's Edward Said Chair of Middle East Studies, "unequivocally" but wrongly predicted in 1985 that this current reign of despots in the Middle East "will not, indeed cannot, continue for another decade."4
- Predicting the Palestinians would establish a democracy, ushering in a transformation of the Middle East. Georgetown's Hisham Sharabi declared in 1983, "The Palestinians, despite their dispossession and dispersion, exercise today probably one of the few functioning democracies in the Third World."5 Ibrahim Abu-Lughod of Northwestern University predicted in 1988: "Under a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which surely will be democratic and secular, Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews will be bonded in a political order not yet experienced in the Middle East."6
Extremism: Many U.S. scholars of the Middle East lack any appreciation of their country's national interests and often use their positions of authority to disparage these interests. Typical statements include:
- Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University: "People near and dear to me, whether they live in downtown Manhattan, in Kandahar, in Ramallah, in Jerusalem, or in Baghdad, are at the mercy of US foreign policies."7
- Following Saddam's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Khalidi argued not for its liberation but called on his colleagues to combat what he called a pro-war "idiots' consensus."8
Intolerance: The Middle East studies professorate is almost monolithically leftist due to a systematic exclusion of those with conservative or even moderately liberal views. The result is that Middle East studies lack intellectual diversity.
There are also attempts to bar alternative speakers on the Middle East from campus events - for example, in January 2003, when the Centre for International and Security Studies at York University disinvited Daniel Pipes and the York University Faculty Association tried to block his public talk on the campus.
Apologetics: Middle East studies tend to evade, ignore, or apologize for topics that do not fit their politicized agenda:
- Internal repression in Libya, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority.
- Palestinian Authority support for suicide bombing against Israeli civilians.
- The long-term goals of Islamist movements.
- The suffering caused by insurgencies in Algeria and Turkey.
- The Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
- The anti-American, anti-Christian, and anti-Semitic incitement that pervades state-run media through most of the region.
As an example of this evasion, out of the Middle East Studies Association's four-day conference in November 2002 where more than 550 papers were presented, exactly one dealt with Al-Qaeda and one with "fundamentalism." "Militant Islam" was not the subject of a single paper.
Many scholars are hostile to any discussion of these issues, lest it cast the region in an unfavorable light. Even after 9/11, Khalidi advises Washington to drop its "hysteria about suicide bombers."9 Joel Beinin, as MESA's president, disparaged the study of terrorism, mocking it as "terrorology," and lauded his colleagues' "great wisdom" in avoiding it.10 Juan Cole of the University of Michigan said "Asking MESA to hold panels on contemporary terrorism, is rather like asking literary scholars to comment on the resignation of Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil."11
Abuse of power over students: Middle East scholars impose their views on students and sometimes expect students to embrace their own politics, punishing those who do not with lower grades or weaker recommendations.
A student in a class on Contemporary Civilization taught by Columbia University's Joseph Massad wonders why he must listen to "an apoplectic rant about US foreign policy" when the subject matter at hand has nothing to do with current events.12 In a Berkeley course on "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance" (that initially informed conservatives that they "should seek other sections"), a student who took the course found "anti-Semitism tolerated" by the instructor.13
At the University of Chicago, a doctoral student in the Middle East Studies program was discouraged by faculty from studying militant Islamic ideologies, told that this topic was created by a "sensationalist media" and forwards "Zionist" interests.14
What Campus Watch Does
- Gathers information on Middle East studies from public and private sources and makes this information available on its website, www.Campus-Watch.org.
- Produces analyses of institutions, individual scholars, topics, events, and trends.
- Makes its views known through the media - newspaper opeds, radio interviews, television interviews.
- Invites student complaints of abuse, investigates their claims, and (when warranted) makes these known.
Campus Watch will continue its work until the problems it addresses are resolved.
Campus Watch Goals
Campus Watch seeks to have an influence over the future course of Middle East studies through two main avenues:
- Engage in an informed, serious, and constructive critique that will spur professors to make improvements. We look forward to the day when scholars of the Middle East provide studies on relevant topics, an honest appraisal of sensitive issues, a mainstream education of the young, a healthy debate in the classroom, and sensible policy guidance in a time of war.
- Alert university stakeholders (administrators, alumni, trustees, regents, parents of students, state/provincial and federal legislators) to the problems in Middle East studies and encourage them to address existing problems. We challenge these stakeholders to take back their universities, and not passively to accept the mistakes, extremism, intolerance, apologetics, and abuse when these occur.
Our Ideal of the University
The universities of North American are treasured institutions that build on the work of many generations. They are a trust that in no sense - not legally, not financially, and not morally - belongs to the academics who happen to administer and serve them at present. Stakeholders have not merely a right but an obligation to safeguard these vital institutions from being harmed. We call on the society at large to take an active interest in developments at the university in general, and in Middle East studies in particular.
John Dewey of Columbia University and Arthur Lovejoy of Johns Hopkins University came together with other educators in 1915 to found the American Association of University Professors, an organization designed to preserve the integrity of the academy from a donor-driven agenda.
Their 1915 Declaration of Principles set standards that we believe remain valid today:
the freedom of the academic teacher entail[s] certain correlative obligations The university teacher should, if he is fit for his position, be a person of a fair and judicial mind; he should, in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators and he should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves.15
Campus Watch calls upon Middle East studies specialists to recognize their "correlative obligations."
Replies to Our Critics
Unfortunately, Middle Eastern studies specialists responded to the launching of Campus Watch with a campaign of vilification and distortion. Lest there be any confusion, we wish to make explicit several points in response:
- Campus Watch supports the unencumbered freedom of speech of all scholars, regardless of their views.
- Campus Watch takes no position on individual academic appointments.
- Academic freedom does not mean freedom from criticism; to the contrary, no one enjoys privileges in the free marketplace of ideas.
- The charge of "McCarthyism" has come up so often that we address this in a separate study which demonstrates why the charge is ignorant, intolerant, and ultimately self-serving.
- We challenge scholars of Middle Eastern studies to abandon the crude resort to insults and engage Campus Watch on the substance of our analysis.
1 Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001.
2 John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat, Myth or Reality? New York, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp.212.
4 Rashid Khalidi, "The shape of Inter-Arab Politics in 1995," The Next Arab Decade, pp. 57-58, 61.
5 Hisham, Sharabi, "The development of PLO Peace Policy." in The Shaping of an Arab Statesman: Abd al Hamid Sharaf and the Modern Arab World, ed., Patrick Seale (London: Quartet, 1983), p. 162.
6 The New York Times, April 25, 1988
8 Norton, Augustus Richard, "Breaking the Gulf Stalemate Strategy," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 18, 1990.
9 Rashid Khaildi, "Challenges and Opportunities," American Committee for Jerusalem, June 2002.
10 Joel Beinin, presidential address, MESA annual conference, Washington DC., November 24, 2002.
12 Student comments about Joseph Massad, Columbia University, Spring, 2002. http://www.columbia.edu/~msd39/
13 Roger Kimball, The Intifada Curriculum, Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2002.
14 Personal interview with student accepted in Spring 2001.
15 Reprinting published in Academic Freedom and Tenure: A Handbook of the American Association of University Professors, Edited by Louis Joughin, Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967. Appendix A., pp.155 - 176.