History News Network 1 20 03 Culture

History News Network

1-20-03: Culture Watch

Why Are Arch Conservatives Ganging Up on the Middle East Studies Association?

By Juan Cole

I had never even heard of Stanley Kurtz before he began attacking the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). He is woefully misinformed about my professional association. As far as I can tell, he speaks no Arabic or Persian and has never studied the Middle East. He does not show up in any author indexes I looked at online. Now he has set himself up to judge the scholarly work of persons like myself, though he has read almost none of it. He is a columnist for the National Review, and he was a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and is now is a fellow at the Hudson Institute, which has links to the Israeli Right as well as to Jewish neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz. Since his only trade appears to be in garish opinion, it is rather sad that some of what he says is so obviously incorrect that it makes him look like a clown.

Contrary to what Kurtz attempts to imply, the Middle East Studies Association is not a research institute. It is not a political action committee. Its members differ wildly among themselves about political issues. Arab-Americans, e.g., tend to vote Republican, and they are a small but significant proportion of members. Such matters do not arise in the panels, however, because it is just a professional association. Anyone can join it who can demonstrate possession of two of three criteria: a degree in, publications in, and service to the academic study of the Middle East. It was founded in 1966.

MESA’s hundred or so founding members were highly diverse, including European immigrant scholars, WASP offspring of diplomats or missionaries who had encountered the Middle East as children, former State Department personnel who had gone into academics, Zionists who had learned their Arabic in Israel, Arab-Americans, and others whose lives had lead them into university teaching about the Middle East.

MESA has grown to have about 2600 members from colleges and universities in the United States, but by my count only about a thousand of them are tenured or tenure-track professors. The rest are adjuncts, graduate students, and associate members (e.g. architects and computer systems analysts who have at least an MA in Middle East studies). Still, there is no doubt that the field–though small–has grown enormously since 1966. MESA does not receive U.S. government money, and has a small income, mainly from private dues and its annual conference (in good years).

Now we come to Stanley Kurtz. After MESA’s mid-November annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Kurtz commented in the National Review Online, that “they meet in DC regularly, to remind the federal government just how much MESA scholars contribute to our national security in exchange for all the money they get from the federal government.” MESA does not meet in Washington, D.C., because of the U.S. government, and certainly not because the organization conceives itself as having anything to do with “national security.” It is just an association of college teachers, for heaven’s sake. I’m not aware that anyone from the government even bothers to come to most of the meetings. Washington is centrally located on the East Coast, and MESA conferences tend to be big when held there, generating a little extra pocket change for a cash-strapped organization every third year.

Moreover, MESA does not get any money at all from the Federal government. Some of its member institutions do get small sums, but they are not mediated by MESA. The 15 federally funded National Resource Centers concerned with the Middle East at major universities get an average of $200,000 a year each from the government through Title VI, much of which goes to funding graduate students to study Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew. Since a typical fellowship costs $20,000, and since the Centers do other things, they can only really support a handful of students each with this money. This is a paltry sum of money, and the scandal is that it is so little, given the need of a democratic society to keep informed of foreign policy challenges. Kurtz wants to make it seem that MESA and its members are raking mountains of funds from the taxpayer. The NRC’s have for decades turned out many of the few Arabic, Persian and Turkish linguists of high caliber that we have in this country, and the main complaint I have at this moment is that the government did not spend more on turning out greater numbers of them.

Kurtz then goes on to say, “Trouble is, there are no panels scheduled on suicide bombing or Wahhabism, no mention of al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. Even the few mentions of ‘terrorism’ are put in quotes.” Kurtz now attempts to make it seem as though the annual convention of the Middle East Studies Association had no panels of any relevance to current events, and that this is a sin of some sort. But this complaint has two flaws. First, it is rather like flogging the Modern Language Association for having no panels on the resignation of Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil. MESA is not a contemporary affairs research institute. A good third of its members are historians, who will likely not present papers on the present. Others work on literature, economics, and religion. Second, there were several important panels on contemporary affairs, including Islamic radicalism. I organized a well-attended panel on Afghanistan and the War on Terror in which Bin Laden and the Taliban were prominently mentioned and where there were no quotation marks in evidence. An evening session on the Israel-Palestinian peace process was [scheduled to be] addressed by the Bush Administration undersecretary of state for Near East, William Burns.

Kurtz continues, “These scholars, who are getting subsidized by the federal government for contributing to our national security, are busy planning panels on Middle Eastern ‘sex and gender’ in the early twentieth century.” Most MESA scholars receive no subsidies from the government for contributing to our national security. And if Kurtz does not think sexuality and gender are wrought up with the region’s current crises, he has not been paying much attention! In actual fact, there has been a lack of academic writing about sexuality in the Middle East, even though it clearly underlies many of the culture wars in the area. The panel he trashed was innovative and illuminating, but of course he did not bother to attend it, so how could he have known? Being informed is apparently not part of his job.

He ends this whine by saying, “where is the attention to the crisis of the moment? Is this what we’re paying for? After all the embarrassing revelations about their refusal to deal with the reality of terrorism and Muslim fundamentalism, these scholars have learned nothing.” But Kurtz has not paid for the MESA conference. Its members paid for it. Most panelists had never received a dime from the U.S. government. Many who did, received it because the Department of Education wanted historians of the region to be trained, and they are now doing history as requested. In actual fact, moreover, there have been papers on Muslim fundamentalism at MESA conferences ad nauseum since the late 1970s. There were such panels in Washington, and they were very interesting. Most Middle Easterners are not and never have been fundamentalists, however, and only a tiny number have ever been terrorists, so if you are interested in actually studying the region, having an overemphasis on these phenomena would not be very helpful. It would be like insisting that Italian historians work only on the Cosa Nostra.

Kurtz has been at this for some time. He has argued that the Middle East Studies field is ideologically dominated by the work of Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said and that dissenters are denied academic positions in it. This argument is plain silly. Hires are made by history, anthropology, political science and other departments on a grass roots basis at universities throughout the country, and no such conspiracy could possibly be orchestrated. Said’s work, which remains controversial, almost never appears in the footnotes of the organization’s flagship journal, the International Journal of Middle East Studies. MESA includes in its member organizations the Israel Studies Society, and some of its members are transplanted Israelis teaching at U.S. universities. Several presidents of MESA, including persons Kurtz and other conservatives have viciously attacked, have been Jewish Americans.

Last spring Kurtz implicitly attacked the political scientists at the Middle East Centers at American universities for being postmodernist, leftist, anti-American terrorist-coddlers. The 14 or so tenured professors of Middle East political science at the federally funded National Resource Centers, however, include Leonard Binder of UCLA (who fought on Israel’s side in the 1948 war); Joel Migdal and Ellis Goldberg at the University of Washington, Seattle (exponents of the New Institutionalism and Rational Choice, respectively); Mark Tessler of the University of Michigan (with a Ph.D. From Hebrew University, who analyzes survey data quantitatively), Lisa Anderson and Gary Sick of Columbia (comparative politics and policy studies, respectively; Sick is a former naval officer and served on the National Security Council), and so on. Of the fourteen, only one (Timothy Mitchell at New York University) could be considered a postmodernist, and his work on the Middle East from that framework has been illuminating. None of the fourteen has ever to my knowledge supported any sort of terrorism.

Kurtz has no idea what he is talking about. The interesting question is why he should care. It may well be that this is a bank robbery. He wants Congress to give the little money that now supports the academic and linguistic study of the Middle East instead to partisan think tanks like his own Hudson Institute. Why should we fund a distinguished scholar like Leonard Binder and his students when we have Stanley Kurtz to tell us all about the Muslim world based on his vast fund of knowledge and his intricate knowledge of Arabic, Persian and Turkish? Or perhaps in his world, the study of manuscripts or the gathering of survey data is unnecessary. All that is important is to have a strongly held opinion, expressed with some panache.

Meanwhile, when Stanley Kurtz wants insights into contemporary Egypt, where does he turn? Why to the work of Diane Singerman, a political scientist at American University and a member of the Executive Board of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. (See his “With Eyes Wide Open: Who They Are; What We’re Getting Into,” National Review, February 20, 2002.)

If you’d like to see Congress increase Title VI funding for the professional study of Middle Eastern languages and cultures, contact the long-serving and prominent member of the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations, Rep. David Obey (D-Wisconsin) at 2314 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515, phone: (202) 225-3365. Other committee members can be found at: http://www.house.gov/appropriations/members.htm, and you should especially write them if you are from their district.