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Lisa Anderson: Apologist for Academic Radicalism By: Hugh Fitzgerald
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, May 03, 2005


A faculty member at Columbia since 1986, Lisa Anderson is described in her biography as “one of this country’s most eminent scholars of the Middle East and North Africa.” But Anderson is the author of one book, The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 1830-1980, and only an editor, co-editor, or contributor of articles to other books. Most recently, she was one of the four co-editors of The Origins of Arab Nationalism, with Rashid Khalidi, Muhammad Muslim, and Reeva S. Simon.

Administration is apparently her forte and primary interest: setting up conferences, fund-raising, putting out fires, and the other hectic vacancies of modern university life, seems to agree with her. She currently serves as the dean of the School of International and Public Affairs; she has been president of the Middle East Studies Association. In addition, she is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Carnegie Council on Ethics, the Social Science Research Council, and is co-chair of Human Rights/Middle East.

Her most recent achievement was in raising money, almost entirely from Arab sources for an “Edward Said Chair in Middle Eastern Studies.” Though Edward Said was neither a scholar or teacher of either Islam, or of the Middle East, but a celebrated polemicist, Anderson found nothing peculiar in naming this chair after him—rather as if one had decided to create the “Noam Chomsky Chair in American Political Theory.” Indeed, she managed to raise $4 million, and was instrumental in keeping the sources of that funding secret for as long as possible. Much effort had to be expended to persuade Columbia to reveal those sources, though New York State Law requires such information to be reported when it involves foreign funds.

And finding the perfect occupant for the chair, she held it for him until such time as he, Rashid Khalidi, could extricate himself from the University of Chicago, and arrive to sit on it himself. She gushed that she “can’t "honestly think of a better person to recruit to Columbia.” In the whole wide world of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, to bring to the university that once boasted Joseph Schacht, and Arthur Jeffery, and Richard Gottheil, she could not “honestly think of a better person.”

A keen student of politics, in her recent Presidential Address to MESA did concede, in politic fashion, that “we [the members of MESA] need to be able to acknowledge the failings of our work without embarrassment.” But, she added, “we must also assertively deploy our unparalleled expertise to provide unique insight and understanding of the Middle East.”

In her insistence that the “unparalleled expertise” of the members of MESA, which could “provide unique insight and understanding,” should be unhesitatingly accepted by American policymakers, she quoted the Italo-American journalist Alexander Stille, on how, during World War II, the American government hired “numerous professors, scholars and intellectuals of varying backgrounds including Herbert Marcuse, Erik Erikson, the art historian Richard Krautheimer.”

But Anderson failed to note that these people were refugees from the Nazis who understood the Nazi mentality and had no loyalty to the ruling ideology of Germany; their sole loyalty was to Western democracy. There are people similar, in being refugees from the world of jihad and radical Islam—that is, the defectors from Islam, such people as Ibn Warraq and Ali Sina. But Anderson has no time for them.

Instead, she seems to think that the members of MESA need to be listened to, their views simply accepted, they and their views both free from critical scrutiny. She urges this, despite the fact that many of them  have repeatedly demonstrated a keen desire to defend radical Islam, to deflect all critical scrutiny of Islam, and to attack not merely the Bush Administration, but the United States, indeed the entire West. Through the “colonial” or “postcolonial” project (that little word “postcolonial” can extend the “project” indefinitely into the future, for it has no apparent date of expiration) that they invoke in so much of what they write or speak, they are more akin to apologists for, or agents of, radical Islam, rather than anything like what scholars in the Western tradition at least attempt to emulate, or claim to admire.

Anderson is not only a thoroughly political animal, but keenly aware of status. One senses in her words, and in her recent behavior (including a reaching-out to Martin Kramer, that most acute of the critical analysts of Middle Eastern academic studies), that she is more than dimly aware that the ground is shifting. Though the tone is firm there is an undertone of alarm:

To sustain the remarkable—and remarkably important—position we [the members of MESA] hold in society, as both scholars and citizens, we have two obligations. We must do what we do—proudly, confidently, and energetically. We must be constantly, restlessly open to new ideas, searching for new evidence, critical of received wisdom, old orthodoxies, and ancient bigotries, always creating and criticizing ourselves, each other, and our world.

We cannot be idle when polltakers are roughed up or jailed because their findings are politically unpalatable, when students are told to report on faculty whose partisan commitments may be politically unpopular, when research is discredited not on its merits but by the sources of its funding, whether in Iran or Saudi Arabia or Egypt or the United States.

As the Commencement Speech banalities flow (“old orthodoxies” versus “new ideas;” the challenge of remaining “critical of received wisdom” and deploring “ancient bigotries;” the need to be “always creating and criticizing ourselves”), one realizes what is going on, in the subliminal subtext. Others may not criticize MESA; that is unacceptable, intolerable, and illegitimate. We will keep it all in house, thank you very much. And she takes pains to deplore the critique of that “conservative polemicist” Daniel Pipes, the Harvard-trained medieval historian whom she tries to wish away.

Her MESA Presidential Address begins, tellingly, with a denunciation of “bigoted rhetoric.” Symmetrical denunciation is a rhetorical strategy she favors.  She deplores (and how easy it is to do so) the sight of Mahathir Mohamad receiving a standing ovation, from the rulers of 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Countries, after he said “the Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy: they get others to fight and die for them.”

But she allows herself to believe that this formal speech by a head of state to 57 applauding heads of state is offset, in its significance, by a remark made to the members of his church by the much-decorated American soldier General William G. Boykin,  who described Muslims as worshipping not a “real God” but an “idol,” and further saying that Islamists wanted to destroy the United States “because we are a Christian nation.” Had this remark been made to the members of NATO (minus Turkey), and received applause, even that would not have been a precise parallel, for Boykin is not the head of a country, and his remark is not nearly as malevolent as was that of Mahathir Mohamad, and even the NATO members are not self-defined as “Christian” powers.

This imbalance, posing as balance, is found in her intellectual collaborations. She has, for example, been a contributor to the books of John Esposito, and his defense of Islamists in the past has been echoed by her own, in which she suggested that, “if Islamists” were given a voice, and power, their violence, and their putative threats, would die down. But this did not happen in the Islamic Republic of Iran; nor in Saudi Arabia. This being-brought-into-the-government theory of self-pacification has not applied in Sudan. Where exactly has a fervently Islamist regime been put into power that became softened and less fanatical as a result? Where? If anything, the reverse holds – whereby Islamists are on better behavior the further they are from power.

But while a busy “contributor” to this or that book of essays edited by her friends, she has not overlooked her other responsibilities. One grateful graduate student, who wrote about “colonialism” and the “construction of Jordanian identity,” the now notorious Joseph Massad, has thanked her, in that well-known graduate-student-hoping-to-turn-dissertation-into-book-and-career-style, for all her efforts. His slow but sure rise to tenure was interrupted not by his virulent anti-Israel and anti-American screeds published in the pages of Al-Ahram and elsewhere, but by accusations that he harassed and intimidated Jewish and Israeli students. She, in turn, must have thought well of Joseph Massad, for with Lisa Anderson as a reference and supporter, he never had to leave the area, unlike so many recently-doctored students, but obtained a teaching post right where he was, an internal hire, at Columbia’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC).

During Anderson’s tenure as Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs exciting things have happened. The place bubbles over with Bulletin-Board-announced Things to Attend. The illusion of education requires all sorts of this busyness which may mean something—or nothing. In September 2002 the School of International and Public Affairs co-sponsored an African Studies Institute seminar called “South African Conversation on Israel and Palestine,” where the chair of the sponsored seminar, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, made clear that the analogy of Israel’s activities with apartheid in South Africa was clearly understood. He was joined in this scholarly enterprise, and denunciation of Israel’s tactics in suppressing terrorist attacks by Jeff Halper, head of the Israel Committee Against Housing Destruction, Barnard anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, and Andre du Toit, a visitor from the University of Cape Town.

All sorts of events pertaining to Israel—rallies, petitions, Palestinian film festivals, a special showing of “Jenin, Jenin” about a non-existent massacre—have also accompanied the school years, year after year, during the period when the single most powerful and relevant administrator was Lisa Anderson.

But stung by accusations of harassment and intimidation, for months Columbia bobbed and weaved. On December 8, 2004 a Special Committee was appointed, of Columbia faculty and administrators, but of no one from outside the university, and entrusted with the deliberately circumscribed task of investigating, not MEALAC, but only the charges of harassment and intimidation against several professors, including Joseph Massad. No doubt Dean Anderson was flabbergasted to find herself appointed to that committee, given her close and friendly relationship as the overseer of Massad’s thesis, and as one of his references.

And on March 28, 2005 that Committee, as the whole world knows, disregarded almost all of the coherent and articulate and entirely believable testimony of students, found exactly one of the many accusations credible, and slapped, daintily, and most unwillingly, two little wrists held out at the conclusion of the farce.

But one piquant detail only became known publicly in mid April 2005. On November 5, 2004, the very Lisa Anderson who was appointed to investigate charges of intimidation and harassment made by students against Joseph Massad and two others, had signed a letter, along with 23 other members of MESA (the Middle East Studies Association). That letter decried press reports about anti-Israel professors as “the latest salvo against academic freedom at Columbia” and suggested that similar reports about students who had praised Massad were more credible than other reports focusing on the allegations of his bullying. The letter asked Mr. Bollinger to be cautious in investigating such charges. And the letter Lisa Anderson signed, a month before the man to whom it was sent appointed her as an influential member of an investigating committee, contained this as well:

We understand that you have asked a Provost of the university to look in to the matter. This is certainly an appropriate step if there are any genuine grounds for concern regarding these allegations. Such a response, however, because it has been made public, may also indicate that the university is open to politicized pressure from the outside to silence debate and dissent on Columbia University’s campus.

The invocation of “academic freedom” as an apotropaic talisman that will ward off, in all circumstances, charges of bullying, harassment, and intimidation – which have nothing to do with “academic” freedom. The notion that those doing the intimidating are, when charged with such, able to turn the tables on people who have endured such behavior for years, who are in a position of weakness (what students, graduate or undergraduate, dare to challenge professors – and how many of them endure all kinds of slights, so that only the most intolerable of situations, anywhere, are ever made public?) – nonsense.

All this time Anderson knew what she had written, and knew perfectly well that Bollinger had received that letter, and yet had gone ahead and a month later appointed her to the Committee. So she had a clear sign that he had read, and agreed, with that letter, and was going through the motions with as clear a signaling of nudge-nudge-wink-wink as can possibly be imagined. That was what Lisa Anderson must have been thinking.

But what was Bollinger thinking?

 

Hugh Fitzgerald wrote this piece for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, which is designed to critique and improve Middle East Studies at North American colleges and universities.

 


Hugh Fitzgerald is a lecturer on the manipulation of language for political ends.


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