One of the more ridiculous incidents in the 21st century history of the “treason of the intellectuals” – in America we might better say, “of the academics” – occurred on July 16 when Stanford professor Joel Beinin, the current president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) delivered himself of a panicked e-mail warning that MESA members’ programs are under “public attack.” Beinin, whose pose is that of a socialist intellectual, and whose academic work is frequently neo-Leninist, seems to have forgotten the first rule of the Bolshevik: keep a cool head in battle. But that is a habit, appropriate to more than one political program, that is in short supply among the post-60s professoriate. Ever vigilant – rather like a masochist awaiting the sting of the whip – against the specter of some new demand for conformity to American values, they daily see new imitators of Joe McCarthy on the horizon. Disorderly fear is their favorite mode; they thrive on new threats. But let us not doubt his patriotism: Beinin probably imagined himself in the role of Paul Revere, when he cautioned MESA members that “mean spirited, ad hominem, and spurious” criticism, which he dramatized as an “assault,” menaced them, well, in the way some people seem to think the United States is menaced by Islamic extremism. The U.S., according to Beinin, is currently inflicted by a “xenophobic atmosphere,” in which Middle East scholars can expect pressure to “slavish(ly) parrot… whatever pronouncements come from Washington policy makers.” The source of Beinin’s anxiety attack was a report that Congress had been called on to shift federal funds from MESA-backed academic centers to “more reliably ‘patriotic’ sources of Middle East expertise.” Beinin therefore called on his troops to defend their campus budgets by such acts as writing op-eds for the recusant leftist Pacific News Service. Here, unfortunately, is another failure of Bolshevik will by comrade Beinin; like nearly all his cohort, he has no sense of audacity, and writing an op-ed has become the maximum of commitment.
Of course, most of this matter has the air of hallucination. The war on terror is being fought by arms, not by the writing of op-eds or dissertations, and a critical reorientation of Middle East studies in the U.S., although necessary, is hardly at the top of the Bush administration’s military-political agenda. But Beinin is less exercised, in his e-mail, by the substance of his claims, than by a fearful trio of “enemies” he names as Bushite inquisitors seeking to purge the fearless academics – oh yes, Beinin does mention that MESA members’ “understandings of the Middle East are often at variance with popularly held views.” Courageous dissenters they are, to a man, woman, or indeterminate gender – bravely equipped with unbreakable tenure at the leading universities of the richest country in the world.
Who are the three hard guys on their way to terrorize the frightened little town of MESA? The first is the number one target of verbal abuse by Islamic extremists in America, Daniel Pipes of the Philadelphia-based, and academically independent, Middle East Forum. Although he defends Islam as a religion, including Qur’an and Shariah, from claims that they are inherently flawed, or represent obstacles to the modernization and democratization of Muslim societies, he has been labeled an “Islam-basher” because of his detailed denunciation of Islamic extremism. One does not have to agree with everything that Pipes says or writes to recognize that he has been unfairly transformed into a public ogre by the partisans of suicide terrorism; one would not be surprised to hear that certain Arab American mothers warn their children that if they don’t go to sleep, Pipes will get them. Certainly, this is how Beinin uses his name: as the epitome of evil, more or less the way the Stalinists, a couple of generations ago, referred to Trotsky.
Pipes’s associates in the trio of troublemakers heading for the beleaguered scholars’ redoubt are Martin Kramer, a Pipes associate as editor of the Middle East Quarterly, and Stanley Kurtz, a Hoover Institution fellow. Kramer was exceptionally obnoxious, according to Beinin, for publishing a rather mild critique, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, issued by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Kurtz is a pleasant but acerbic presence in various national policy debates.
Beinin views Kramer’s book as something just short of a mass arrest warrant for leftist Middle East scholars, signed by Attorney General Ashcroft. In reality, Pipes and Kramer are serious thinkers about Middle East issues, whose views are seldom predictable and almost never in line with a particular orthodoxy. They use well-honed intellectual habits to derive analyses from a mass of confusing data, rather than, as MESA members do, attempting to enclose the multiple contradictions of the Middle East and the Islamic world in an obsolete and rigid ideological framework. However, Pipes and Kramer are also supporters of Israel, which makes them ominous to the MESA leftists.
Kramer’s book makes a point that could be applied to the entire academic social science field in the West today: the ideologization of Middle East studies led to so-called “scholars” apologizing for or ignoring the rise of Islamic extremism. Look, for example, at Beinin’s published works, which feature titles that sound as if they were deliberately crafted to echo pamphlets issued in Moscow 60 years ago: Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class (Princeton, 1987); Was the Red Flag Flying There? Marxist Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Egypt and Israel (California, 1990), and Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East, Cambridge, 2001 (!) Anybody with the slightest knowledge of the Arabic and Islamic world should immediately recognize the feverish, 60s-leftover narcissism represented by the production of such volumes. Communism has never taken hold in a single Arab country, even as a movement, except for the brief Soviet regime in South Yemen, and it really has no history in the Arab world. Nobody, but nobody, anywhere in the world today cares whether the red flag of true socialism ever flew on either side of the Egyptian-Israeli conflict; the Arab-Israeli relationship provided the most stark and devastating rebuttal to socialist fantasies about the international unity of the workers anyone could ever imagine. The “worker/peasant” paradigm is utterly discredited as a methodological tool for understanding Arab society.
There are many, too many precedents for self-delusion and corruption in the American academy, leading to a broader national obliviousness about the dangers lurking in international politics. The entire field of Soviet, East European, and South Slavic studies in the West was morally destroyed by the collapse of the Soviet empire and Yugoslavia, both of which previously generated thousands of useless academic theses. I will never forget the 1992 Phoenix convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS), at which I was a discussant on the topic of Croatian Jewry. Indeed, the “post-Yugoslav” panels at AAASS in Phoenix were notable as among the few offering fresh approaches to scholarly issues. In most of the rest, academics who had based their careers on the presumption that the USSR would last forever, wept, beat their breasts, and rent their garments in anguish. “History has failed us,” one distinguished academic moaned. The Soviet Union had disappeared and their expertise had sunk with it. Worst of all, most of them had finished their papers for the convention late in 1990, and were unprepared for the final coup and collapse in 1991.
Academic Soviet experts could not see the downfall of the Soviet Union approaching, even though they had been told for decades how brittle the system was; their counterparts in the Yugoslav field could not see the failure of “self-managed socialism” and the coming of an interethnic bloodbath (even though the most isolated woodcutter in the Bosnian hinterland knew what was up). Almost nobody in the American academy considered Albania or Kosovo worthy of serious study, and there remain virtually no programs covering this area in American universities today, even though U.S. troops are committed to the region.
The ideological sclerosis of the American social science field is nearly absolute. How many anthropologists mentioned, during the Nicaraguan contra war, the issue of indigenous survival by the Miskitu and other communities repressed by the Sandinistas? How many have examined the fraudulent propaganda about indigenous rights purveyed by the Mexican pseudo-Zapatistas and such demagogues as the Nobel Academy’s favored “Indian,” Rigoberta Menchu? Who writes honestly from the American academy on the Vietnam war, the so-called McCarthy era, anti-Communist labor unionism in America? The list of obscured, ignored, and deliberately confused topics is so long as to be dismaying to consider.
Of course, there is an urgency about the situation in MESA that was absent in these earlier cases. With all their depredations against democracy, the West, and America, neither the Russian Communists, nor the Serbian ultras, nor the Sandinistas, nor the domestic leftists of the past, committed an act like the September 11th attacks. In failing to discern, and educate the American leadership and public, about the real threat of Islamic extremism, the Middle East studies mafia – to call it as it is – disarmed the country in the face of great danger.
I have special knowledge of this because my new book, The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’ud from Tradition to Terror, documents perhaps the most outrageous academic, media, and political coverup of modern times: the willful campaign to suppress worldwide awareness of the violent extremism harbored by the Wahhabi death cult, the official Islamic sect in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is not a subject that drew much attention from MESA, at least before September 11. Here’s a little test you can do yourself: pick up almost any volume by MESA members on Islam and the Arab world and see how much attention is given to Wahhabism or to the promotion of extremism by Saudi Arabia. The topic is either absent or the cult is treated with the greatest respect.
John L. Esposito, head of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, is a former president of MESA. He recently published a book titled Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (Oxford). Esposito has been somewhat embarrassed by his previous enthusiastic advocacy for the view that Islamic extremism represented an understandable response to the errors of American policy, which fostered social injustice and other grievances in the Muslim world. But Esposito was even more embarrassed by the unfortunate fact – pointed out by Stanley Kurtz – that when Bin Laden’s agents slammed jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 11, the Fletcher Forum magazine remained on the newsstands with an article by him, titled “The Future of Islam,” decrying the obsession with Bin Laden on the part of American political leaders. With the publication of Unholy War, he somewhat clumsily attempted to rectify his mistakes while holding to his original theses.
Other affiliates of Esposito’s Center offered grotesque distortions of the situation of American Islam to the wider media after September 11. Dr. Zahid Bukhari, a fellow of the Center, declared, “Muslims in this country are blending with each other. There is more convergence and more acceptance of each other’s opinion.” This nonsense was emitted at a time when Shi’a Islam and Sufism, or Islamic spirituality, were completely excluded from most mosques as well as the dominant Islamic advocacy groups. Professor Yvonne Y. Haddad, a specialist in Islamic history at the Center, put forward the claim that Wahhabism in America was “very insignificant,” adding, “The Saudi influence weakened considerably in the 1990’s, as many believers stopped being Muslims living in America and became American Muslims.” This was either fantasy or deliberate deceit.
In MESA, powerful but varied interests, from the left and right, but equally inimical to America, come together. Beinin dreams about the red flag on the Nile while Esposito fronts for the Saudi monarchy. In this sense, the area is even more rotten than Soviet or Latin American studies were in their time. Frankly, Sheriff Beinin needs to turn in his star and let Pipes, Kramer, and Kurtz clean the town up for good.