The Arabist Predicament

Reviewed by Marla Braverman

Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America
by Martin Kramer
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 137 pages.

(page 1 of 1 - view all)

Just over a year after the events of September 11, 2001, nearly two thousand members of the Middle Eastern Studies Association (mesa) gathered in Washington for their annual conference. One of the most influential academic bodies in America, MESA counts among its members the most prominent scholars of Middle Eastern studies in the nation. Its first post-September 11 president, Stanford University’s Joel Beinin, acknowledged in his keynote address that the past year had been, by all accounts, a difficult one for Middle Eastern studies: The field had been assailed for its failure to predict, and then to explain, the sudden rise of anti-American Islamic terrorism. According to Beinin, however, the blame lay not with the experts or their theories, but instead with the American public—particularly the politicians and pundits responsible for the new field of “terrorology,” which disseminates “highly simplified, if not ridiculous, explanations” of Arab history. Even worse, he argued, Americans had come to think of their country as “somehow uniquely protected from the consequences of its actions in the world.”
The sharpest criticism, however, was reserved for the “neo-conservative propagandists” who had recently launched “a McCarthyite-style smear campaign against mesa.” These words were a thinly veiled reference to Martin Kramer’s new book, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. In this slim volume, Kramer offers a scathing indictment of a discipline that, despite being one of America’s most heavily funded academic fields, has consistently failed to offer useful interpretations of the world’s most unstable region.
No stranger to the field, Kramer is a professor of Middle Eastern studies, who directed the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University from 1995 to 2001, and is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is also the editor of the Middle East Quarterly, a journal dedicated to providing an alternative to the fairly monolithic scholarship offered by America’s leading universities. An academic outsider with extensive knowledge of the field, Kramer is well positioned to offer a learned critique. The story he tells is a fascinating one, about how an entire discipline, corrupted by its political allegiances, effectively blinded itself to the darker realities of its subject.
For Kramer, the real story behind the field of Middle Eastern studies is its consistent failure over the past three decades to account for the most significant events in the region. Instead, scholars painted a romantic picture of a region perennially on the verge of reform and prosperity. As a result, they have failed to explain the many catastrophic developments which have plagued the Middle East, such as the Egyptian-Syrian invasion of Israel in 1973; the Lebanese civil war that broke out in 1975; the Iranian revolution in 1978; the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s; Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990; the explosion of Palestinian violence since 2000; and the rise of Osama Bin Laden and the tragic events of 2001. “Time and again,” Kramer writes, “academics have been taken by surprise by their subjects; time and again, their paradigms have been swept away by events.”
Kramer traces the roots of the problem to the intrusion of politics into scholarly research in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War. Until then, most scholars had promoted an optimistic theory of “development” for the Middle East, which saw political, social, and economic reform just around the corner. As Roger Owen, head of Middle Eastern studies at Harvard, explained in 1990: “It was difficult not to become excited by the Nasser project, to see Egyptֹ… through his eyes, to write about it using the same highly charged vocabulary of planning and education and social justice for all.” Middle East scholars were thus baffled by the Arab refusal, in the months following Israel’s dramatic victory, to admit defeat, sign a peace treaty, and begin the process of self-appraisal essential for progress. Instead of grappling with the issues raised by the Arabs’ behavior, many scholars simply found it easier to place blame for the impasse on Israel.
Kramer points to George Hourani’s 1968 mesa presidential address as the sounding bell for this new, anti-Israel era in Middle Eastern studies: In his address, entitled “Palestine as a Problem of Ethics,” Hourani asserted that “the Arabs’ claim to a state [in Palestine] is… based on indisputable facts,” while “the claims of the Jews to live in and have a state in a part of Palestine… present a serious ethical problem.” Hourani dismissed Jewish historical and religious claims to the land of Israel, and pronounced the early Zionist settlement wholly immoral. Not even the flight of Jews from Nazi tyranny made the Zionist immigration legitimate, since “it cannot be assumed that if Palestine had not been available all other gates out of central Europe would have been closed to these individuals.” The Jews would have done better, Hourani concludes, had they realized the suffering that the Zionist enterprise would inevitably bring in its wake, and relinquished their desire for statehood.
Like everyone else, Middle East scholars had their own political preferences. After 1967, however, they felt free to use the academic rostrum to advance them. Hourani’s speech, Kramer contends, thus opened the door to a kind of political partisanship that has remained endemic to Middle Eastern studies to this day.
It did not take long for the Arab-Israeli conflict to become the hottest subject in Middle Eastern studies, as well as the favorite topic of most academic publications concerned with that part of the world. Kramer cites a survey of major articles and books on the history of the Middle East published between 1962 and 1985, showing that more than a third dealt with some aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict—a disproportionate amount of attention paid to a single issue in a region riddled with wars, religious upheaval, and political and social instability. This attention, Kramer concludes, “came at the expense of other countries and subjects, many of which suffered from relative neglect. But in the atmosphere of the 1970s, it became acceptable to teach one’s political commitments, and courses on the Arab-Israeli conflict could always be justified by comparatively large enrollments.” As Israel began to play a growing role in the rhetoric of Arab politics, so too did academic preoccupation with the Jewish state increase.
Anti-Israel sentiment became the springboard for a dramatic expansion of scholars’ political activism in 1978, when Edward Said, a professor of English literature at Columbia University, published Orientalism, a sweeping critique of the ways in which Western civilization related to the Arab world. Portraying himself as a dispossessed Palestinian refugee (a claim that has since been called into question), Said devoted more and more of his scholarly output in the early 1970s to justifying the claim that Palestinian groups would be a force for progress in the Middle East. Said was a frequent visitor to Lebanon, where, as Kramer explains, the retrenchment of the Palestinian resistance put it “cheek to jowl” with the longstanding American presence in that country. With Orientalism, then, Said situated the Palestinians in a much wider context: They were now just the latest victims of a systematic prejudice against Arabs and Islam in general, employed by the West to justify its domination of the East. As Said explained, “Every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”
Orientalism signaled a major shift in the political orientation of Middle Eastern scholarship. Now the enemy was not just Israel, but much of Western civilization, in particular its political, scholarly, and literary elites. Frustrated by the region’s failure to conform to Western models of political, social, and economic development, many Middle East scholars were all too happy to accept Said’s new paradigm. “Middle Eastern studies,” Kramer writes, “came under a take-no-prisoners assault, which rejected the idea of objective standards, disguised the vice of politicization as a virtue of commitment, and replaced proficiency with ideology.” Oriental­ism made it acceptable for scholars “to spell out their own political commitments as a preface to anything they wrote or did,” and enshrined“an acceptable hierarchy of political commitments, with Palestine at the top, followed by the Arab nation and the Islamic world.” But above all, Kra­mer believes that Said effectively delegitimized Western scholarship on the East, arguing that all of its practitioners were, consciously or not, tainted by prejudice and the desire to keep the Arab peoples in a state of submission.
The rise of the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran and the outbreak of religious civil war in Lebanon turned scholars’ attention increasingly toward Islam itself in the late 1970s. Yet instead of addressing what appeared to many Westerners to be a gathering storm, scholars attempted to reinterpret the region in terms more palatable to Western tastes. John Esposito of Georgetown University, for example, attempted to defend Islam by showing that its fundamentalist trends were really just Western political movements in disguise. Thus in his 1984 Islam and Politics, Esposito described the rise of Islamic political movements in Iran and Pakistan as follows:
The application of Islamic history and values to modern concerns and deeds has produced fresh interpretations or extensions of Islamic concepts. Consultation and consensus are used to Islamically legitimate modern parliamentary forms of ׂIslamic׃ government. In the name of Islam, constitutionalism, democracy, parliamentary forms of government have been adopted and rendered Islamic.
For those observers concerned by the region’s failure to produce its Madisons and its Jeffersons, Esposito counseled patience. “All should bear in mind,” he wrote in 1994, “that democratization in the Muslim world proceeds by experimentation and necessarily involves both success and failure. The transformation of Western feudal monarchies to democratic nation states took timeֹ… Today we are witnessing a historic transformation of the Muslim world.” In the meantime, Westerners should be more open-minded, beginning with the terminology they use to describe the new movement.“The term fundamentalism is laden with Christian presuppositions and Western stereotypes…,” he wrote in 1996. “More useful terms are Islamic revivalism and Islamic activism, which are less value-laden and have roots within a tradition of political reform and social activism.”
Esposito’s reinterpretation of Islamic politics, which echoed the scholarly optimism of the 1950s and early 1960s, quickly became the standard line within academia. Thus the University of Chicago’s Rashid Khalidi, in a 1985 essay entitled “The Shape of Inter-Arab Politics in 1995,” insisted that the late 1980s and early 1990s would undoubtedly bring“changes of rulers, and probably changes of regime”; and John Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University, explained to a congressional committee in 1992 that the Sudan—a country with no political parties, ruled by a military regime—was engaged in an“effort to create a consensual rather than a conflict format for popular political participation.”
As for Arab violence, American academics were quick to point out that focusing on it would only reinforce stereotypes. Like any modern, democratic country, the Arab states had, according to Esposito, already reached the conclusion that violence was counterproductive, and would no doubt recede in the years ahead. Thus in the 1990s, most scholars of the Middle East refused to admit the existence of—let alone devote their attention to—those Islamic fundamentalist groups that posed the greatest threat to the United States. It is not surprising, then, that at the 2002 mesa conference, held last November, only four out of over 500 papers addressed the emergence of violent Islamic fundamentalism, while the majority focused on Palestinian culture and gender issues.
Most telling, however, is the reluctance of most MESA scholars to change their tune, regardless of developments in the region. Thus after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, Columbia University history professor Richard Bulliet organized a conference under the auspices of the Columbia University Middle East Institute—not to explain the appearance of terrorism in New York, but instead to confront a “new anti-Semitism” against Muslims, fueled by “the propensities of the non-elite news media to over-publicize, hype, and sell hostility to Islam.” When this is juxtaposed with Joel Beinin’s response to the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, in which he denounced the“self-appointed guardians of patriotic rectitude” who perpetrate“hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs,” one is struck by the field’s propensity to repeat its own errors.
Despite the tendency of Middle East studies programs to encourage a particular kind of thinking, there are a handful of academics who have long given voice to a different perspective. Notable among these is Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis, who, in a 1982 New York Times article,“The Question of Oriental­ism,” delivered one of the first critiques of Said’s work as a deeply flawed account of Western scholarship. After years in the professional wilderness, Lewis’ views were finally given the prominence they deserved with his 2002 bestseller, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, which documented the decline of Islamic culture and its failure to overcome the challenges posed by the West. Also of significance are the writings of Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University, whose The Arab Predicament (1981) and The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey (1999) argued that Arab civilization has consistently been undermined by its elites’ affinity for radical and violent political movements. A number of other writers and scholars—notably Emmanuel Sivan, David Pryce-Jones, David Fromkin, and Efraim Karsh—also offered the American public a view of the Arab and Muslim worlds that did not toe the academic line.
In the last few years, however, the growing demand for alternative explanations of events in the Middle East has encouraged a much broader wave of scholarship. Many of its scholars are residents at think tanks and independent research institutes, which arguably offer greater freedom than do universities to individuals whose perspective on the Middle East does not fit the mold of mainstream academic research. These scholars include Daniel Pipes, whose Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum publishes the Middle East Quarterly,and who recently published a widely acclaimed book, Militant Islam Reaches America (2002); and Stephen Schwartz, a senior policy analyst at Washington’s Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, whose The Two Faces of Islam (2002) documents the financial links between Arab monarchs and terror organizations. And Kramer himself is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the D.C. think tank that published Ivory Towers on Sand. As Kramer points out, the decision to publish such a critique of academic Middle Eastern studies was one that “could not have been taken by anyone teaching at an American university today.”
A key element of this new type of Middle East scholarship has been the pronounced presence of Israelis, who have found a similar niche within independent Israeli research institutes. Among these is Yigal Carmon, head of the Middle East Research Media Institute (memri) based in Jerusalem and Washington, which has a substantial impact on the public debate in America by offering real-time translations of statements by public figures, intellectuals, and journalists in the Arab world. Also noteworthy are two Israeli scholars—both associated with Jerusalem-based research institutes—whose works have made their way onto the New York Times bestseller list in the past year. In May 2002, Oxford University Press published Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Michael Oren of the Shalem Center (which publishes AZURE), a book that is reported to have influenced the White House’s belief in the need for pre-emption in the war against terror. And this spring, Dore Gold, head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, published Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (2003), in which he argues that the Saudi kingdom is active“at every level of the terror chain,” posing a direct challenge to the conventional wisdom of the Saudi government as a reliable American ally.
It is still too early to tell what impact these American and Israeli institutes will have on the West’s policies in the Middle East. But the new breed of Middle East scholar bears a striking resemblance to what Kramer calls the “intimate strangers” who alone have helped to restore a discipline hobbled by its dogmas. Although Kramer does not give this development the attention it deserves, the recent erosion of mesa’s monopoly on Middle East scholarship may eventually prove to be the most important part of the story.
Not surprisingly, the Middle Eastern studies establishment has reacted viscerally to this new threat to its intellectual hegemony. Rashid Khalidi, responding to the popularity of Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch, a website that documents the academic excesses of mesa scholars, described a “large, well-funded, national effort managed by academic outcasts from the Middle East field, who seem to be driven both by their extreme pro-Israeli views, and by their resentment at the fact that they have never managed to obtain the respect of their peers.” Joel Beinin, in an open letter tomesa after the publication of Ivory Towers, urged scholars, in light of the “xenophobic current atmosphere of the United States,” to defend their field against the slew of “mean-spirited, ad hominem, and spurious” accusations leveled against it. Similarly, current mesa president Lisa Anderson, while conceding that Kramer’s assessment was, in many respects, a “useful intervention,” nonetheless asserted that this sort of analysis was generated by “persons who are interested in the wider marketplace of ideas and are very engaged in public debate… yet have no systematic device for accountability to keep them intellectually honest.”
Anderson is right to put her finger on the question of accountability. Yet on this point, it is she and her mesa colleagues who are found wanting. While mainstream scholars at American universities refuse to look the most serious problems of the Middle East squarely in the eye, it is the independent scholars who have picked up the slack. And, while endowments and federal funding allow university departments to carry on indefinitely regardless of their theories’ lack of explana­tory power, it is the independent institutes whose ability to sustain themselves depends on their success in making sense of the region—and who pay a real price when they do not. Moreover, there is little truth to the academics’ claim that think tanks’ interaction with the policy world compromises their intellectual integrity. On the contrary, independent scholars tend only to gain from their exposure to policy-makers, whose need to account for the consequences of a failed paradigm makes them far more sensitive to theories disconnected from reality.
What makes Ivory Towers compelling, then, is not just the story it tells, but also the story of which it is a part. The emergence of an alternate source of scholarship has turned a discipline that was once a closed circle into an arena of open debate—an openness that serves the West well as it defends itself against an enemy it is only now beginning to understand.

Marla Braverman is a member of Azure’s editorial staff.

(page 1 of 1 - view all)

From the

Job’s Path to EnlightenmentA new interpretation of the Bible's most enigmatic book.
Lawrence of JudeaThe champion of the Arab cause and his little-known romance with Zionism.
Civilians FirstOnly in Israel does concern for the safety of soldiers override the state’s obligation to defend its civilians.
Palestinian ApocalypseParadise Now by Hany Abu-Assad
Jews and the Challenge of SovereigntyIs "Jewish state" a contradiction in terms?

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2022