MESA - Middle East Studies Association

Letter from the President

September 15, 2014

Dear Colleagues,

Most of us who study the Middle East—even those whose work centers on subjects other than the modern period—cannot help but react with distress, dismay, and even despair at the news of the last few months. Political violence has reared its head in ugly and destructive forms. Some of us whose academic work focuses on subjects germane to the specific conflicts involved choose to (and perhaps even feel a duty to) contribute to broader understandings and public debates about such issues.

I write to you now to share some information about how MESA approaches controversial topics; I will give some historical background and some recent information on how the organization’s leadership approaches them. And I will use the opportunity at the end of this letter to share a very limited number of personal thoughts that I hope might be helpful in reminding us about how we might all, as MESA members, conduct our discussions.

MESA has articulated sound general principles for dealing with such debates. I suspect we may differ among ourselves about how to apply those principles, and some might feel that however sound they are individually, the principles pull in different directions. They are, however, clear in their general outline as included in our mission statement:

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is a non-political association that fosters the study of the Middle East, promotes high standards of scholarship and teaching, and encourages public understanding of the region and its peoples through programs, publications and services that enhance education, further intellectual exchange, recognize professional distinction, and defend academic freedom.

Let me focus on two principles from this statement.

First, MESA itself is not a political organization and does not take stances on political issues. That is clear not merely in our mission statement as ratified by the membership but also in our history. I recently reviewed how the organization had handled controversial issues—including those of war and violence every bit as extensive as this past summer’s—and found the leadership consistently emphasizing that non-political characteristic.

Second, MESA defends academic freedom; there the organization does take stances. Indeed, this is one area where MESA’s mission has expanded over the years, with our Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) formed in 1990, in the aftermath of a disagreement among members about how to react to events at a Jordanian university in 1988. CAF has become increasingly active, and the MESA membership modified our mission statement in 2003 to incorporate the defense of academic freedom as explicitly as possible.

The way to serve these two principles simultaneously has proven to be difficult at times. And it may prove to be difficult this year in the wake of the violence in and around Gaza as well as the expression of support given by MESA members to the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

How has MESA reacted in the past to boycott calls? A 1984 “sense of the meeting” resolution passed at the annual business meeting gave some guidance when it deplored and condemned “the creation, storage or dissemination of blacklists, ‘enemy lists,’ or surveys which call for boycotting individuals, academic classes, harassment or ostracism which might create an atmosphere of intimidation or prevent scholars from carrying out their teaching, research, or administrative duties.”

In 2005, a more prolonged controversy ensued regarding a CAF letter that criticized a British teachers union for adopting a form of boycott. Eventually the union itself retracted its boycott call. That letter was sufficiently controversial among the CAF members to provoke some resignations as well as extremely sharp debate at the annual meeting.

Since that time, advocates of boycotts have taken pains to distinguish between boycotts of individuals as opposed to boycotts of institutions. CAF has wrestled with the issue on more than one occasion since there are many different views on what the defense of academic freedom requires in this case. CAF finally turned to the Board of Directors for guidance this year. In our spring meeting, the Board advised CAF that the issue was sufficiently controversial within our own ranks that it was probably best not to attempt to speak with a collective voice on the call to boycott institutions, but that CAF should continue to defend quite forcefully the right to support and to oppose such calls.

MESA as an institution therefore restricts itself to defending the rights of those participating in the debate. Individual members, of course, should not feel obliged to be restricted in their expression of their personal views. That brings me to two areas where, in contrast to the divisive ones mentioned so far, there is much stronger support and consensus among MESA leaders and members.

First, academics should have the full freedom to express their views. CAF has been extremely vigorous in this regard, defending those individuals and institutions that have been targeted as a result of their expressed opinions. As an ex officio member of CAF I am kept abreast of the committee’s internal deliberations, and while those deliberations are confidential, I can report that they are serious, attentive to detail, and thoughtful. In this respect, let me call to your attention that since February 2014, CAF letters have used a consistent formula: “whatever one’s opinion of the campaign to boycott Israeli academic institutions or of the resolutions regarding that issue adopted by these academic organizations in this country, the principles of academic freedom protect the right of faculty to advocate for, as well as against, such boycotts.”

Second, MESA itself serves as a venue for discussion of controversial issues, as our mission statement suggests we should. We hosted a debate on the boycott issue in 2006. And individual papers on sensitive topics—including the boycott movement—have appeared on subsequent programs. Indeed, we serve as a forum on other controversial and topical issues as well. This year, we will have separate sessions on Iraq, Gaza, and the intersection between policy making and the academy.

My own academic work has brought me into direct contact with a variety of the sites of recent conflict. Fifteen years ago, I taught as a Fulbright scholar at an Israeli university for a year. At that time, I began a project on Palestinian institution building (combining my teaching and research in that way would likely be much more difficult today). Since then, a considerable amount of my research has been on Palestinian politics generally, involving regular travel (including a week spent a week in Gaza two years ago). I continue to write for both academic and broader public audiences on Palestinian politics. The feelings of distress, dismay, and even despair that I referred to at the beginning of my letter are ones that I keenly feel on a personal level.

If these feelings are strong, I find that they do not always lend themselves to coherent conclusions. I suspect I am not alone in that regard. I therefore end with a personal plea for comity and courtesy in our discussions amongst ourselves.

That means that we must come to discussion with our colleagues not only to speak but to listen. Indeed, we should state that obligation in more profound form: we must come not only to express ourselves but also to learn from one another. I know and respect a large number of individuals whose opinions on the issues connected with the Gaza fighting vary considerably. I hope that any debate we have within our own ranks can be held in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

While most of my colleagues speak with insight and compassion, I cannot deny that the arguments on this issue can sometimes be made in ways I find morally troubling and at other times alienating and shrill. Yet as far as MESA is concerned, I think none of those arguments should be excluded; certainly their speakers should be treated with courtesy and afforded the full opportunity to persuade the rest of us. My faith in this principle is based on who we are as individual scholars; it is what we do as a community of scholars.

We should not only talk amongst ourselves. There is a very engaged public whose rules of discussion can be rough on this issue but that still allow us a role. For those of us who choose to enter the broader public discussion (as I have done), I hope we can do so not simply to give voice to passion but to harness that passion to our individual wisdom, insight, and, yes, ultimately our judgment.

Sincerely,

Nathan J. Brown
MESA President
Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University



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