Courtesy Reuters

Who Lost Middle Eastern Studies?

Download Article

Martin Kramer, editor of the Middle East Quarterly and former director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, has rattled teacups at faculty clubs throughout the United States with a hard-hitting and personalized critique of the country's practitioners of Middle Eastern studies.

Were it not for the attacks of September 11, the controversies occasioned by his short book would be confined to the academic world, where it has been noted that the fights are so bitter because the stakes are so small. But the fact that the attackers were Arab Muslim extremists gives Kramer's polemic a broader relevance and urgency. Americans want to know why they were struck, whether the blows could have been averted, and what should be done now -- not to mention to whom they should turn for guidance on these and related questions.

Kramer's analysis of this last topic is serious and substantive. Some in the field may be tempted to dismiss it out of hand because of a bias against his neoconservative politics and his ties to Israel, but to do so would be both unproductive and offensive. Books need to be judged by what is on the page, not by the characteristics of, or motives imputed to, the author. If Kramer deserves fair treatment, however, so do those he criticizes. Everyone in the Middle Eastern field can point to an opponent and say of an ad hominem attack, "He started it." Better to be known as the person who stopped it, an opportunity that Kramer fails to seize.

Far too often his valid points are overshadowed by academic score-settling and major inconsistencies. He accurately criticizes those who study Middle Eastern politics for their marginalization within the social sciences, then unfairly chastises them for adopting disciplinary paradigms remote from their regional subject matter. He finds those who refuse to speak to the immediate concerns of U.S. foreign policy dangerously disengaged but questions the motives of policy-relevant researchers with whom he disagrees. He scorns the current structure of academic Middle Eastern studies -- multidisciplinary institutes outside regular academic departments -- yet suggests no alternative. And his sweeping charges often ignore work in the field dealing with precisely the issues he contends are misunderstood or ignored. In short, the patient is not well, but Dr. Kramer's diagnosis is skewed and overly pessimistic, and some of his prescriptions would do more harm than good.

GUILTY AS CHARGED?

Kramer's subject is narrower than his subtitle implies. There is nothing in the book about those who teach language and literature or those who write the history of the region. Nor is there treatment of Middle Eastern anthropology, a vibrant field with a leading theoretical role in its discipline. The book deals solely with those who study contemporary Middle Eastern politics, and especially with three failures that, Kramer contends, demonstrate the bankruptcy of this part of the field.

The first problem is what he sees as the baleful influence of Edward Said, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University. Said is perhaps best known as America's most passionate and articulate advocate of Palestinian rights, but his academic importance in Middle Eastern studies stems largely from his 1978 book Orientalism, a controversial indictment of what he saw as the West's, and Western academe's, stereotyped view of the Middle East. Said named names, including many of leading scholars, and the debate that followed dominated the field for some time. Kramer succinctly analyzes its fallout and accurately catalogs the weaknesses in Said's arguments.

What is puzzling is how much influence over the analysis of current Middle Eastern politics Kramer thinks Said still has. Orientalism was published more than two decades ago, eons in what Kramer correctly sees as a fad-conscious academic environment. In fact, of all the areas of Middle Eastern studies, political science is the one where Said has probably had the least impact. By the time his book appeared, most political scientists had already begun replacing (for good or for ill) earlier region-specific paradigms with those of their larger discipline. Most students

of Middle Eastern politics long ago put the Orientalism debate behind them.

Kramer revives yesterday's battles, however, as a backdrop to his second major critique: what he sees as the field's failure to appreciate the threatening nature of the Islamist political revival. He paints a picture of American scholars so fearful of being labeled "Orientalists" that they bend over backward to find positive things to say about political Islam and ignore the threat the movement poses to U.S. interests.

There is some truth in this charge, but the full story is more complicated than Kramer depicts. Most scholars in this area do seek better relations between the United States and the Muslim world, but they advocate accommodation of the Islamist political revival not because they fear being branded "Orientalists" but because they honestly view such a policy as essential to the promotion of U.S. interests in the region. And what Kramer sees as political bias in the selection of research topics has a more practical explanation: violent fringe groups such as al Qaeda do not welcome academic investigators, whereas many mainstream Islamist political and social movements do.

In fact, only selective and tendentious reasoning could yield Kramer's overheated conclusion that America's Middle East scholars "contributed to the public complacency about terrorism that ultimately left the U.S. vulnerable to 'surprise' attack by Islamists" on September 11. Kramer writes, for example, that the "lone and telling exception" to academic silence on the Osama bin Laden threat was a 1998 article in these pages by his Princeton mentor, Bernard Lewis. But in his widely read 1999 book Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, Mamoun Fandy dwelt extensively on the development of bin Laden's political thought and career. Besides, it is not ignorance of bin Laden that explains the tragedy of September 11; vast American intelligence efforts have been directed at him for years. The main problems lie elsewhere, in a range of domestic vulnerabilities and in a failure of imagination on the part of all concerned regarding the specific forms such an attack might take.

Kramer criticizes the field for ignoring U.S. national interests, but he never acknowledges that much of the research on Islamist politics addresses a central U.S. policy concern: how to understand and deal with the most important political and intellectual trend in the contemporary Middle East. He may disagree with the conclusions of many who study the topic, but he can hardly accuse them of neglecting it. Similarly, Kramer is right to say that Islamist violence should not be ignored or downplayed, but he should have recognized that it would be equally wrong to slight the nonviolent political and social-welfare movements that claim to act in the name of Islam.

CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

Kramer's third target is recent research on Middle Eastern "civil society," or group activities that take place outside the boundaries of the state. He correctly identifies such work as stemming from the desire of regionalists in political science to link their area specialty to the study of democratization more generally, as well as their desire to find the roots of a potential Arab democratization movement. He rightly takes these scholars to task for downplaying the continuing power of the authoritarian states in the region, and he notes how their assumptions have led to erroneous policy predictions. Those of us who study Arab politics in particular have sent a decade's worth of graduate students off to look for nascent democratization that is just not there. Of course, with the Clinton administration contending that the spread of democracy was a major U.S. foreign policy goal,

it is hard to argue that scholars looking for potential democratizing forces in Middle Eastern civil society were ignoring American national interests. But the debate that is just now beginning on the sources of the continuing strength of regional authoritarianism should be more productive.

Yet while making these legitimate criticisms, Kramer does not play fair. In arguing that the civil society research program dominates the field, he ignores those who emphasize the continuing centrality of the Middle Eastern state in determining regional politics. He overlooks the substantial body of research on the effects of oil wealth on Middle Eastern states and societies. And even within his critique he skips over inconvenient facts -- by criticizing political scientist Glenn Robinson, to take just one example, for early work highlighting the possibility of Palestinian democracy while remaining silent about Robinson's later work on the growing authoritarianism of the Palestinian Authority and his correct prediction of the current intifada.

Civil society may have been an overhyped fad, but it was hardly embraced by Kramer's targets alone. By limiting his focus to Middle Eastern studies, Kramer fails to acknowledge that luminaries throughout political science were taking the same tack simultaneously, and without the bias he sees lurking in the shadows. Harvard University's Robert Putnam was invited to the Clinton White House and featured in People magazine because of his work lamenting Americans' new habit of "bowling alone." Should he be blamed for not anticipating Timothy McVeigh?

Even as Kramer's book belabors its central points, it manages to neglect other issues that present greater obstacles to clear analysis of Middle Eastern politics. He only briefly discusses, for example, the field's obsession with the Arab-Israeli conflict. To some extent, the disproportionate attention that this issue attracts is inevitable, given its central role in U.S. foreign policy and its emotional salience for so many students of the region. But in practice it sucks up so much time and energy that other issues and other countries do not receive the attention they deserve. The focus on Arab-Israeli tensions, moreover, creates an unfortunate tendency for observers of that region to view every policy question through that prism. The fact that professional discussions of bin Laden and the post-September 11 crisis turn so quickly into discussions of the current intifada is just the latest example of this distorting trend.

Another troubling issue Kramer slights -- evident more in academic punditry, to be sure, than in actual research -- is the tendency to see everything that happens in the Middle East, every action by a government or a group, as caused by some American sin of commission or omission. U.S. influence in the region is indeed great, but to see local actors as merely reacting to American stimuli, or being "forced" into doing something by some mistaken American policy, is both condescending and wrong. It is condescending because it denies moral and political agency to Middle Eastern actors. And it is wrong because these actors, whether in government or in opposition, have their own agendas that are driven as much, if not more, by strongly held beliefs, domestic political ambitions, and regional rivalries.

SPEAK FRIEND AND ENTER

Surprisingly, after his cannonade of criticism, Kramer's book offers only small-bore recommendations, "modest" by his own admission. He calls for more academic outreach to the nonacademic community and for more outside input into reviews of Middle Eastern studies centers. He advocates a culture of tolerance for diverse ideas and approaches (a proposal that may sound like boilerplate but is actually a necessary reminder

for a field where defenders of the old "Orientalists" or scholars sympathetic to official Israeli positions are frequently made to feel unwelcome).

More pointed and more objectionable, however, was the drastic agenda Kramer put forward in a November 2001 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. There he argued that those who study the Middle East are "part of the problem, not its remedy," and explicitly told members of Congress that "there is no justification for an additional penny of support for this empire of error -- and no better time to reexamine the federal subsidies it already enjoys."

Such a call to cut off university-based Middle Eastern studies programs -- for that is what Kramer's op-ed amounted to -- is wrong-headed and pernicious. Even if one accepts his critique of the field, eliminating federal support for Middle Eastern studies is exactly the wrong thing to do. The tenured professors he scorns would keep on writing and giving interviews, because their jobs do not depend on such largesse. The real victims would be the outreach coordinators who link the Middle Eastern studies centers with local primary and secondary schools, their surrounding communities, and the world at large -- the very kind of programs that Kramer's book recommends.

Cutting federal funding of Middle Eastern studies would also deprive students of the money they need for proper basic training. Fully one-third of such funding, according to Kramer's own figures, goes to support Foreign Language Area Studies grants, which students use to study Middle Eastern languages both in the United States and abroad. The money is also used to subsidize courses in Middle Eastern languages that, because of their limited enrollments, could not otherwise be offered.

Now more than ever the United States has a compelling national interest in encouraging its citizens to study the difficult languages of the Muslim world, and that costs money. Kramer cannot seriously think that defunding Middle Eastern studies will help produce the Pashto and Dari speakers the government found itself in need of after September 11. In fact, given the lack of official linguistic capacity evident during the post-attack crisis, the federal government's current Middle Eastern studies funding priorities should be languages first, second, and third.

Despite what Kramer argues, an acceptable infrastructure for learning about the region's history, culture, and politics is already in place. He might not like the views of those who staff it, but the training students generally receive is hardly propaganda and more than adequate to help them think for themselves. Only increased federal support can sustain and expand the language instruction necessary to turn those students into the careful and knowledgeable observers that everyone wants them to be.

Browse Related Articles on {{search_model.selectedTerm.name}}

{{indexVM.results.hits.total | number}} Articles Found

  • {{bucket.key_as_string}}