Lisa Anderson, Columbia University

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February, 2003)

On December 24, 2002, my hometown newspaper, The New York Times, observed in an editorial on the Middle East that they could not recall “a more dispiriting time.”

Indeed. As the year of the first anniversary of September 11th drew to a close, there was much to be dispirited about in the Middle East and, for students of the Middle East, in the United States as well. Despite considerable discussion of “road maps” out of the bloody Israeli-Palestinian impasse, the Bush Administration had revealed its intention to rewrite the map of the entire area, beginning with a long-anticipated attack on Iraq. The assault on the region itself was accompanied by an offensive against the associated US area studies community, represented in the university-based Title VI National Resource Centers on the Middle East and by the Middle East Studies Association.

Both within the region and within the area studies scholarship, there was in fact much to criticize. In the region itself, decades of despotism, once fed by Cold War imperatives, had been continued as if by inertia while most of the rest of the world embraced, or at least reluctantly acceded to, recognition of human rights and associated political and economic institutions. After brief flirtations with liberalized politics and economies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of the regimes of the region cynically, and more or less openly, traded acquiescence in internationally-sanctioned agreements for promises of international support and a free hand at home. The 1990s were not a time of much development in the Middle East; indeed, apart from AIDS-ravaged sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East recorded the lowest growth rate in the world--and the total tally for growth in the twenty-five years ending in 2000 appears to have been negative. The impact of these developments on cultural life in the region was corrosive, as decades of overbearing censorship and underfunded universities and research institutions depleted and fragmented the region’s intellectual landscape.

 This was an ugly picture and, to be candid, few American scholars of the Middle East did much to advertise it. Thousands of individually rational decisions, as my political science colleagues might observe, contributed to a collective abdication of responsibility. In the social sciences, graduate students who wanted jobs and junior faculty who wanted tenure mimicked their colleagues in other areas and looked for flickers of electoral politics and glimmers of economic privatization--the currency of post-Cold War social science--and neglected the stubborn durability of the authoritarian regimes and a corresponding growth of popular alienation and despair. More senior scholars, pained by the demoralization in the region and its neglect in their disciplines, suspended active research agendas in favor of administrative assignments in their universities. (I know whereof I speak.) In the humanities, many scholars who sustained engagement with colleagues in their disciplines and in the region were reluctant to jeopardize access to visas and research authorizations; in their excessive caution, they failed to speak out about the often appalling circumstances of their friends and colleagues there. And finally, of course, we all wanted to protect and preserve what little space those very colleagues in the region enjoyed to conduct research and publish their scholarship, and we avoided saying things that might endanger them. Over my more than decade-long association with Human Rights Watch, I have been astonished by the number of my colleagues who expressed private admiration for the organization’s work but refused to lend their name to it, worried that by associating themselves with an organization that might be critical of local governments, they would compromise their research access, or those of their friends and colleagues.  

These were all understandable impulses but, ultimately, they allowed others--from our disciplinary colleagues to newly powerful non-academic think tanks and advocacy organizations--to shape our research agendas and exploit our work for purposes we would not recognize, much less endorse. In helping to resist these temptations, it should be noted, MESA as an institution served its members rather well. It provided a forum in the Annual Meeting at which scholars could discuss issues of import in the region, as opposed to in the disciplines in which most of its members operated. In establishing the Committee on Academic Freedom, MESA both served to publicize some of the abuses of the region’s governments and to express solidarity with our colleagues in the region. What MESA did not do, however, was set research agendas or advocate public policies.

 While few of us would dispute our right to choose individually what we work on and how we deploy our expertise, in the current climate, it is not clear that MESA will adequately serve its members or its academic project if it retains a modest definition of its mission. If we are, as the bylaws say, to “promote high standards of scholarship and instruction, ...facilitate communication among scholars through meetings and publications,... and promote cooperation among persons and organizations concerned with the scholarly study of the Middle East,” we may have to become more assertive as an organization. Let me suggest why.

Among the critiques of the Middle East studies community was that, as the notorious Campus Watch website put it, “Middle East studies in the United States has become the preserve of Middle Eastern Arabs, who have brought their views with them.” Claiming that half of MESA’s membership is “of Middle Eastern origin,” the website argues that “though American citizens, many of these scholars actively disassociate themselves from the United States...” This assertion is stunning in the audacity of its bigotry. It is difficult to imagine that any other group could be so characterized: could one say that American citizens of, say, Chinese, or Argentine, or Greek or Ukranian origin who pursue scholarly research about, or even continue care about politics in, the country of their birth are “disassociating themselves from the United States?” Hardly.

The reason this sort of intolerance is even possible is the current political climate in the United States. The “war on terror” launched in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th has provided a permissive environment for other remarkable displays of narrow-mindedness and intolerance as well as an erosion of rights. Christian religious figures with major followings have appeared on network TV programs to announce that the Prophet Muhammad was a terrorist and to argue that Islam is an intrinsically violent religion. The Immigration and Naturalization Service requires foreign nationals from a wide variety of Arab and Muslim countries (or even nationals from other countries, like Canada, who may have been born in such Arab or Muslim countries) to report for special fingerprinting, photographing and interrogations. Just this semester, my school at Columbia University failed to enroll a newly admitted student because she, a British national born in Libya, was unable to obtain a visa in time to start the semester.

Whether or not it is true that half of MESA’s members are “of Middle Eastern origin,” we have a special responsibility to ensure that our members, our students and our colleagues are not treated like enemy aliens, their religions maligned and motives impugned.

As important as this attack on individuals on the basis of their religion, national origin, or other personal attributes, however, is the threat to our collective scholarly integrity posed by the critiques of our works from policy advocates who wish to dictate the range of respectable political conclusions. The focus on the personal characteristics of the members of MESA, loathsome as it is, heralds an even more dangerous effort to undermine the standing of the scholarly community as a whole.

We need to be able to acknowledge the failings of our work without embarrassment–remember that no bench scientist is afraid to report negative experimental results–but we must also assertively deploy our unparalleled expertise to provide insight and understanding of the Middle East. As scholars, we must actively uphold rights to freedom of information, association, expression, in the United States and around the world, for our members and our colleagues. Scientific and scholarly exchange should not be impeded and dissemination of ideas must be respected, or all of us, regardless of our “national origin” will be impoverished as scholars and citizens. To do this, we must not only advocate for these rights but we must also exercise them, contributing to the development and dissemination of such ideas and welcoming the debate they engender.

For some of us this may mean testifying before Congress or writing op-ed pieces in the newspapers or appearing on television as “talking heads.” For others, it will be organizing campus debates, community seminars and public demonstrations. Whatever we do, we must recognize that this is not a time to be intimidated or complacent. If we abdicate our responsibilities as citizens, we undermine our standing as scholars and teachers.

If MESA is to accomplish its purposes in this difficult time, we must devise ways to support and defend our members both individually and as a scholarly community, and we must encourage and celebrate participation in vigorous public debates about the policies of governments throughout the region as well as here at home. The only thing more dispiriting than the politics of recent months has been the eerie silence in the very intellectual and policy circles which should be actively and intimately engaged in debates over our future, professional and political, in the United States and in the Middle East.

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