Joel Beinin, Stanford University

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, May, 2002)

Our scholarly community has been subjected to multiple pressures since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Some of us have been investigated by agencies of the federal government. Others have been subjected to profiling and special treatment while traveling on normal business. Some of us have feared for the physical safety of our families because of the attacks on “Middle Eastern-looking” people by xenophobic “patriots” in several communities throughout the country. Several university administrations have failed to defend normal standards of academic freedom and free speech and either criticized or taken actions against those who have attempted to engage in a critical debate over the meaning and appropriate response to the events.

Another set of pressures has resulted from the extraordinary demand for the expertise of MESA members–both in the academy and among the general public. Our membership has responded generously, by addressing a wide array of forums–speaking and writing in the mass media, lecturing on university campuses, to K-12 public school teachers, and to the general public. The outreach programs of the Title VI Middle East centers have been heavily utilized.

Many MESA members have long complained, correctly in my opinion, that much of the American public is woefully ignorant about the most basic aspects of Islam and the Middle East. Everyone now agrees that such ignorance is a luxury our society can no longer afford. It is awkward and shameful that sharply increased enrollments in courses with Islamic or Middle Eastern content, new faculty appointments, and broader attention to the areas of concern to MESA members have been prompted by disaster - as though Muslim and Middle Eastern societies and cultures were not otherwise worthy of attention and study. Nonetheless, after 9/11/01, it should be much easier to justify the need for Middle East area studies and in-depth knowledge of Islam, Middle Eastern and Central Asian languages and cultures, and related topics.

This imposes an enormous responsibility on us as individuals and as a scholarly association. MESA represents the largest repository of expertise on the topics relevant to understanding the historical, political, cultural, and religious background to the events of 9/11/01 and the complex of issues in which they are embedded. Of course, we do not share a single understanding of these matters, nor should we. But we should all stretch ourselves to take up the challenges of this exceptional time and play an active role as public intellectuals, offering our expertise and different understandings and contributing to an informed public debate about the issues. One way to do so is to respond to the invitation of the Pacific News Service to submit brief news, analysis, and opinion articles. Information about how to do so click here.

A third set of pressures since 9/11/01 has been the frenzied attack on MESA as a whole and several of our most eminent members in particular. Mean-spirited and ad hominem assertions of nefarious motives and absurd conspiracies have been advanced based on little or no evidence. Politically motivated and highly distorted accounts of what it is that MESA and its members do and why they do it have been used to justify an explicit call on Congress to cut funding for Title VI Middle East centers.

Fortunately, Congress has not only declined to follow this advice, it has actually increased the budget for international education and foreign language studies by record amounts. In FY 2002 Title VI and Fulbright-Hays 102(b)(6) programs will receive $20.5 million in new funding, an increase of 26%. This includes $5.4 million to double the number of Foreign Language Area Studies fellowships (from roughly 215 to 430) to students pursuing advanced training in Arabic, Azeri, Persian/Dari, Pashto, Tajik, Uzbek, Urdu and other languages spoken in Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and Russia/Eastern Europe. A supplemental $3.4 million is allocated to existing National Resource Centers specializing in Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and Russia/Eastern Europe, and to establish four new centers in these areas. In addition, $1 million is budgeted to establish three new language resource centers, specializing in Central Asia, the Middle East, or South Asia. This is excellent news for MESA and for the future of area studies more generally; and there is good reason to hope that this trend will continue.

This infusion of new funds suggests that announcements of the demise of area studies were a bit exaggerated. Several MESA past-presidents have correctly noted that Middle East and other area studies did, and continue to, have a tendency towards narrow description, ghettoization, and even obscurantism. Middle East studies in particular and area studies in general continue to be at risk at some institutions, especially public universities with severe funding constraints. But both the Congressional infusion of new funds and the public demand for reliable information about the context of 9/11/01 demonstrate that there is simply no substitute for detailed and contextualized knowledges of specific regions – including their languages, histories, and cultures. No solid comparative or conceptual understandings of the world–past or present–can be built without this foundation.

The current conjuncture suggests new and exciting research agendas which are both intellectually substantial and of considerable public interest. One of these is the comparative study of regions within the Islamic cultural zone. Such studies would reinforce a point that many MESA members have been making before and after 9/11/01—that the Islamic tradition embraces a great variety of practices and intellectual currents. They would bring attention to regions outside the Middle East where the great majority of the world’s Muslims live today while maintaining the significance of the Middle East as the historic (and in some respects contemporary) heartland of Islam. This is certainly not the only topic with both public relevance and attractiveness to funders. A group of faculty at my own university has recently received a Mellon Foundation grant for a seminar on “Settlement, Race, and Sovereignty in North America, South Africa, and Israel/Palestine.” Other teaching and research agendas that are both innovative and relevant to contemporary concerns can easily be imagined. I encourage MESA members to respond to the unusual circumstances post 9/11/01 with as much energy and creativity as can be mustered.

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