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Seeking True Diversity in Middle East Studies By: Franck Salameh
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Middle East Studies Association has finally met its match. In a move long overdue, the doyen of Middle East Studies—Bernard Lewis—and its laureate poet—Fouad Ajami—have just joined forces to launch the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa.

One hopes that this new professional association will rejuvenate and mop clean a field that has long since shirked its obligation to academic objectivity to transform Middle Eastern studies into platforms for agitprop and partisanship. The complex and richly textured Middle East deserves far more than the bromides and reductionist commentary that have of late become the hallmark of some of our day’s most influential scholars in the field. ASMEA promises to provide such critically needed diversity of perspective.

Yet, in its November 8th blurb announcing the establishment of the new association, the New York Sun mischaracterized the problem, as did a November 19th Time magazine blog entry. ASMEA’s aim, the Sun claimed, was to “challenge the Middle East Studies Association, which is dominated by academics who have been critical of Israel and of America’s role in the Middle East.” Time predicted a “Mideast civil-war” in which ASMEA would rise “to the rescue of impressionable American minds that might be influenced by MESA.”

While it is true that ASMEA might well offer an alternative to the monochromatic interpretations of the Middle East as upheld by MESA devotees, the issues at stake are more nuanced and complex than can be explained through platitudes and hackneyed “Arab vs. Israeli” stereotypes. Before understanding what ASMEA can do, it’s important to know what the apparatchiks who run MESA have done.

The radical wardens at MESA exert a subtle, but stifling, grip over what kind of Middle East can be taught, thought, and written about in the American academy. But the grievances that many academics have against the major professional association representing them and their field stem not from the alleged predilections of MESA’s luminaries for a Palestinian narrative to the detriment of a rival Israeli one, or from an overbearing American worldview.

They object instead to the lack of imagination and absence of perspective and openness in the study of the culturally, linguistically, religiously, and ethnically complex and variegated Middle East. The result is a scholarly neglect and contempt for Middle Eastern minority narratives, and a corresponding denunciation of professors opposed to the reductionist Arabist paradigm of Middle Eastern history championed by MESA’s leaders.

Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, for instance, are dismissed petulantly as “Orientalists and opportunists” by their MESA opponents in Time’s blog entry. Such ahistorical, even anti-intellectual, preening presumes Orientalism to be the scourge that Edward Said’s debunked Orientalism claimed, rather than the noble academic discipline that it truly is. It assumes that ad hominem scatology dissolves the fact that both Lewis and Ajami are two of our day’s most eloquent, profound, and thoughtful interpreters of the Middle East.

Surely there’s no shortage of scrupulous scholars and academics who disapprove of the MESA party-line. But the influence and clout of the mandarins who control MESA are such that few dissenting area specialists can afford to voice their discontent in the face of the pressure and intimidation that such upholders of a single, monistic Middle East history paradigm are able—and willing—to wield. Grants, appointments, promotions, publication, and one’s general workplace atmosphere are all affected by whether or not one is willing to submit to exponents of select historical perceptions and attitudes regarding the Middle East and its allegedly monolithic peoples and cultures.

The Middle East is one of the world’s most fractious and violent regions. The Arab-Israeli conflict has been a factor, as has Western “meddling,” along with socio-economic factors—the cause celebre of MESA’s leaders. But that’s only half of the story.

The pathologies of the Middle East are largely homegrown, and Middle Easterners, as Ajami has noted, are quite proficient at cracking their whips at their own without the benefit of American assistance and Western interference. Still, MESA, the scholars it props up, and the specialists they churn out would tell us otherwise. Their narrative dictates that the our only concern should be the Arab-Israeli conflict: all else is ancillary.

Yet the Middle East is rife with endemic problems that not only predate the Arab-Israeli conflict, but will outlast it if specialists in the region continue to ignore them. The academy has an ethical and intellectual obligation to study the region in all its complexity, including its warts and blemishes, rather than forgo accuracy for pursuit of a single issue that is the obsession of too many scholars.

The Middle East is a hotbed of rivalries above and beyond that of Arabs and Israelis. To name only the most important: Iranian vs. Arab; Sunni vs. Shiite; Turkish vs. Kurdish; Arab vs. Kurdish; Islamist zealots vs. modernist secularists; nationalists vs. Islamist; dictators vs. democrats; pan-Arabists vs. sundry localisms.

Yet MESA’s leadership would have students of the Middle East ignore complex historical data and adhere to approved lines of group-think. The treatment of historical information, be it flouted, suppressed, fabricated, or dismissed in classrooms and faculty lounges, depends entirely on the whims and ideological predilections of the academy’s keepers and the dictates of their favorite narratives. They have ruled that the region can be interpreted meaningfully and equitably without reference to histories other than those of Muslims and Arabs.

Under this regime, what need is there of diverse perspectives or historical accuracy when one has an imposed orthodoxy? Heaven forbid one should dare advocate for Middle Eastern Jews, Christians, and non-Arabs and give airtime to their story and their epics of suffering, dispossession, triumph, and renewal! According to the official line laid down by MESA’s leades, after all, they are not indigenous to the Middle East, but relics of the odious eleventh century Western colonialist enterprise.

Such are the fallacies intellectualized and taught in the American academy. Recently, a student I know of Palestinian Christian extraction argued that her Bethlehem family—the ubiquitous Khourys, a priestly patronym and a cognate of the Hebrew Cohens—were descendants not of some venerable Semitic autochthones, but of alien Crusader intruders! It’s as if the Middle East had no Christians before ca. 1000 AD, and no history before the advent of Islam and the seventh century Arab conquest.

Surreal and ironic, perhaps, but the Arabist orthodoxy in the American academy teaches not only brash self-aggrandizement when one is of “proven” blue-blooded Arab pedigree, but also pathetic self-hatred when one’s creed is not in obvious symbiosis with that of the accepted Arab norm.

The less one knows about the Middle East and its pathologies, the less one is apt to dig deeper, flush out facts, and see the region in all its contrariness and complexity. This is the major sin of MESA’s keepers: their unwillingness to break out of a Middle East paradigm dictated by the Palestinian-Israeli obsession. And it’s where ASMEA most needs to break ranks and present the diverse and richly textured Middle East, in all its complexities, gore, and glory.

Franck Salameh is Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Coordinator of the Arabic Studies and Hebrew Program at Boston College. He writes occasionally for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

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