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The Sad Case of Fred Donner and Near East Studies By: Irfan Khawaja
History News Network | Friday, November 18, 2005

It can be amazing sometimes to discover the frequency with which appeals to academic expertise end up concealing utter nonsense. For a remarkable example of this, consider a letter from Fred M. Donner, professor of Near East Studies at the University of Chicago, in the Nov. 16 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly, the alumni magazine of Princeton University. (To get to the Donner letter, click the preceding link, go to "current issue," and then go to "letters to the editor." The magazine typically goes by its abbreviation, PAW.)

For a few months now, a controversy has raged at Princeton over the possibility that Princeton might hire Columbia University's Rashid Khalidi to serve as its (Princeton's) Niehaus Chair of Near East Studies. Generally speaking, opinion on the matter falls into three relatively neat camps: (1) those opposed because of Khalidi's views on the Israel-Palestine issue, (2) those in favor for the same general reasons, and (3) the indifferent. For months, the controversy has consisted of partisans of camp (1) attacking partisans of camp (2) and vice versa. (Personally, I fall into camp (3).)

One opens the Nov. 15 issue of PAW with the pro-Khalidi camp responding to the anti-Khalidi's camp's claim that Khalidi is "a pseudo-academic," and "a person with a political agenda rather than a scholar…" The chief representative of the pro-Khalidi faction turns out to be Prof. Donner, a Princeton alum. The defense he offers of Khalidi is notable only for its astonishing illogic—illogic that does little to help Khalidi and less to enhance Donner's credibility as a witness in Khalidi's defense.

"I had the good fortune to be a colleague of Khalidi's for almost 20 years," Donner tells us. "I can assure [the reader] that Khalidi is truly a scholar of the first caliber, not a ‘pseudo'-anything."

Fair enough: being someone's colleague for 20 years can in principle give you a chance to get to know him well enough to comment on his capacities as a scholar. The trouble is, having been Khalidi's colleague for twenty years, Donner doesn't profess to know very much about Khalidi's scholarship: "I do not follow the Israel-Palestine debates, or Khalidi's writing, closely enough to know whether he has in fact declared his endorsement of a ‘one-state' solution" to the Israel-Palestine debate.

Too bad that Khalidi's scholarship is on…the Israel-Palestine debate. So evidently, we've learned that Rashid Khalidi is a first-caliber scholar—--from a person who's just confessed ignorance as to his scholarship. Good going.

From this brazen contradiction Donner manages to compound the effrontery by poisoning the well: "If Princeton refuses, or has already refused, even to consider inviting him to join its faculty, it will be because Princeton, not Khalidi, has a political agenda."

A real inferential tour de force, isn't it? A man who doesn't know the internal workings of a job search well enough to know what decision has been made, or even whether it's been made—and doesn't know the candidate's scholarship well enough to know even the most elementary facts about it—has no qualms about telling us that if the candidate isn't hired, it must be obvious to all that he was the victim of a conspiracy. Rarely has self-confessed ignorance been more skillfully transmuted into certainty. Throw an academic title around, apparently, and anything goes.

Considering Donner's performance, it gets a little nauseating when academics like him harp on the uniqueness of academic expertise and the integrity of the academic peer-review process. For an example of that, also by Donner, consider this petulant little review, originally published in the MESA Bulletin, of Ibn Warraq's book The Quest for the Historical Muhammad. (Disclosure: Ibn Warraq is a friend of mine, and from January 2005 and June 2005, I was Executive Director of ISIS, the organization he co-founded.) Here we learn that unlike Rashid Khalidi, Ibn Warraq has an agenda that vitiates his claims to having produced a work of Donner-caliber scholarship:

Most problematic of all, however, is the compiler's agenda, which is not scholarship, but anti-Islam polemic. The author of an earlier book entitled Why I Am Not a Muslim (1995), "Ibn Warraq" and his co-conspirator "Ibn al-Rawandi" detest anything that, to them, smacks of apologetic; for this reason they criticize harshly several noted authors for their ‘bad faith' or ‘moral ambiguity.'

Yet this book is itself a monument to duplicity. The compiler never has the honesty or courage to divulge his identity, even though a list of contributors (pp. 551-54) gives a biographical sketch of all the other contributors who, unlike "Ibn Warraq" and "Ibn al-Rawandi", are already well-known.

Far more serious is the fact that this book is religious polemic attempting to masquerade as scholarship. It is a collection of basically sound articles, framed by a seriously flawed introduction, and put in the service of anti-Islamic polemic dedicated to the proposition that Islam is a sham and that honest scholarship on Islam requires gratuitous rudeness to Muslim sensibilities.

I am not an expert on the historiography of early Islam, so I make no judgment about the strictly historiographical issues involved here. I do know a thing or two about the mechanics of scholarship and argumentation, however, and that's all I need to make three comments.

1. Donner assumes here that scholarship and polemic are somehow incompatible. If so, it follows that his own obviously polemical review is not scholarship, either—a predicament that raises the obvious question, "If polemics nullify someone's claims to scholarship, why don't they nullify the claims of Donner's review?"

It would be an interesting task, incidentally, to apply Donner's scholarship-polemic dichotomy to Rashid Khalidi's work. Is Khalidi's book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East a scholarly one or a polemical one? Your call, Professor Donner—assuming you're familiar with the book.

2. Donner accuses Ibn Warraq of "duplicity"—presumably a scholarly as opposed to polemical claim—in asserting that Ibn Warraq's refusal to divulge his identity is a matter of cowardice. Evidently, Donner is either too stupid or too disingenuous to state the reason for Ibn Warraq's use of a pseudonym: Ibn Warraq's views put him in physical danger, and no one has the moral or scholarly obligation to divulge his identity if doing so would increase the risk of such danger.

Does Donner have an argument showing us either that (a) he knows that Ibn Warraq is not in physical danger or (b) that despite being in danger, Ibn Warraq is a coward for not divulging his identity? If so, I would be very interested in his having the "courage" to put the argument in print. As for (a), recall that it is Donner himself who stresses at every turn that he knows nothing about the author's identity. How then would he know whether or not Ibn Warraq is in physical danger? He wouldn't. But a discrepancy of that sort would only matter if the author were interested in complying with the laws of logic--or had the integrity to care about the ethics of discourse.

3. Donner complains that the Ibn Warraq book is not real scholarship, and yet admits that the book contains "basically sound" papers. The trouble, then, must rest with Ibn Warraq's Introduction. And what exactly is the trouble there? No answer is forthcoming, apart from the fact that the tone of the writing is "rude"—a remarkable claim, coming from a reviewer who has just (falsely) accused the book's author of "duplicity," and more or less cavalierly invited him to commit suicide. The non-specialist reader will at this point find himself wondering how the rudeness of a claim affects its claims to truth—a topic that the scholarly Prof. Donner manages neither to raise nor to answer.

Reflecting on all this, one begins to wonder a bit about things like intellectual standards and integrity—as in, "Does Donner have any?" And what are the standards of a profession that allows such a vacuous, malice-saturated and ill-written review to see the light of day? The next few sentences tell the tale: scholarship on Islam, we are told, does not count as scholarly unless it massages the tender and easily-offended sensibilities of Muslims. The answer to the question about integrity would therefore appear to be "no."

This is the caliber of what claims the mantle of expertise in the Near East Studies establishment. Bear it in mind the next time you hear some famous scholar of Near East Studies pontificating about this or that "specialized" topic while slinging his (or her) academic credentials at you, and expecting the credential-slinging to perform the task of intellectual intimidation. Try not to be intimidated for a change. Just apply the usual standards of rigor that apply to any inquiry and ask yourself whether these "informed commentators" and "experts" really measure up. You may be surprised to see what you find. And what you don't.

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