Laurie Brand, University of Southern California

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February, 2004, Vol. 26 No. 1)

I was on sabbatical in Beirut when I learned that I had been elected to serve as MESA’s president for 2004. In an atmosphere still clearly marked by the implications for our field of September 11, 2001 and with the clouds of the coming war in Iraq clearly gathering, I was aware of the tremendous responsibility that serving MESA at this juncture represented.

As an organization, we currently confront a number of key issues. Academic freedom, and the threat to it posed by the “international higher education advisory board” as proposed by HR 3077 and discussed by Amy Newhall in the last newsletter is one. On that front, I am encouraged by the growing number of universities that have begun to mobilize against this provision. For those of you in the academy who have not contacted the relevant office in your college or university, I strongly urge you to make your voices heard clearly, effectively and soon on this issue. You might also directly convey your opinion to your own senators and to members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (health.senate.gov/committee_members.html).

Another issue relates to the situation in Iraq. Many of our members have, in their individual capacities, been active participants in the public discussion of the war and the current occupation. In terms of MESA’s activities, last April, the board drafted a statement expressing concern regarding the terrible damage and losses suffered by Iraqi libraries and archives. On another front, CAFMENA members are currently involved in a discussion regarding a possible expansion or development of its role in examining and defending academic freedom in the context of the rebuilding of the Iraqi university system. The means by which we can best support our Iraqi colleagues as they struggle to adjust to the new realities is an important topic that deserves further, considered exploration by the MESA board and by our members.

Both MESA’s response to threats to academic freedom and to the unfolding situation in Iraq are driven by our sense of mission. There is no more serious or basic issue than examining and perhaps rethinking who we are and what we do. It is therefore quite appropriate that an initiative that has been in process for sometime–a reconsideration of the mission statement–is coming to fruition during this period of major challenges. On behalf of the secretariat and the board, I would like to thank the large number of you who took the time to respond to the proposed new statement, which was first presented at the meeting in Anchorage. While we cannot gauge the feelings of those from whom we have not heard, we have assumed that those who have responded have done so out of strong conviction, one way or another. Most of the responses have been supportive of the draft, with many suggesting minor language changes or additions. Others have expressed concern with one or more issue that they felt the new statement clouded, ignored or misrepresented. We have now in effect tabulated the suggestions and concerns, reworked the mission statement, and included it in this newsletter (February 2004) on page 4.

As president of this community of students, scholars, and practitioners, I am concerned that our mission statement reflect both the range of MESA’s activities as well as the broad base of our membership. That said, a mission statement is intended to be a short, concise expression of identity and purpose; it should “translate the organization’s purpose into action.”

The secretariat has prepared a descriptive paragraph to precede the mission statement that will respond to a number of the concerns raised by the membership that could not be accommodated in the statement itself. We ask you all to look at the new, slightly altered language carefully, and then cast your vote along with your choices for the 2004 Nominating Committee.

Here, I would like to address briefly several issues raised by the responses you have forwarded. The first concerns the backdrop to the reconsideration of the original statement. It was not, as some messages have suggested, triggered by the events of 9/11 or their aftermath in the US. The origins of this move may be found in thinking which began at the secretariat in response to two factors. The first was a set of statistics indicating that membership numbers had begun to decline. The second was the approach of the 40th anniversary of MESA’s founding. The initial mission statement was drafted in 1966 and has not been altered since, despite the fact that in the interim, much has changed, in the academy itself, in its relationship to other educational and governmental institutions, in the various parts of the region we all study, as well as in the activities undertaken by our association. There was a feeling therefore that developments in MESA and among its members had moved beyond the existing statement which, as a number of you have commented, was somewhat inward-looking. While not sacrificing the basic and primary commitment to scholarship, greater emphasis needed to be placed on the diverse professional backgrounds of MESA’s membership, and on the expansion of functions and services provided by the organization and its members. We believe that the new statement better captures the inclusion that has in fact been a hallmark of what has long seemed to me an amazing community of dedicated and talented colleagues.

The second issue is that of the concern raised by those who responded to the removal of the phrase “private, non-profit, and non-political organization.” In the version initially presented to you, this was excised for reasons of economy of language, although we intended to include it in the descriptive paragraph about MESA. Given your thoughtful responses, it seems not only appropriate but quite important that language about MESA’s non-political purpose be reintroduced in the mission statement. For those of you who expressed concern, let me assure you that while each of us certainly has our own political preferences which we should feel free to express in the various institutions and activities in which we engage, there is no desire on the part of the board to turn MESA into a political organization. MESA will continue to advocate for academic freedom both here and abroad through CAFMENA. In addition, in the future as in the past, issues of major political/social/economic/cultural import will arise about which we may organize panels and roundtables at the annual meeting. This is quite proper and a natural extension of our desire to contribute to scholarly debate. Some of our members will also engage in public exchanges or in discussions in other fora on issues of the day: again, it is perfectly befitting of students, scholars and practitioners in an open society to contribute their expertise when they find it appropriate. But none of this implies that as an organization we will seek to endorse political positions or play a political role. This, quite simply, is not part of MESA’s mission.

Finally, the issue of geographic scope. Numerous comments came in response to the change in the new language from “the study of the Middle East, North Africa and the Islamic World,” to “the Middle East and its peoples.” Again, I would stress that the primary, indeed the sole, motive here concerns producing a concise statement. As someone who works on North Africa, let me assure the members who wrote expressing concern that the removal of an explicit reference to that part of the region was not meant to imply a narrowing of geographic focus. I was actually surprised that no one expressed dismay at the lack of mention of “the Gulf.” And as for those who wanted explicit reference to the Islamic world, I must say it is a term I have never liked–although as president I do not hold veto power–but it also strikes me as partially redundant. Are the Middle East and North Africa not part of this same “Islamic world”? And if one mentions by name one subregion, why not all of them? If one insists upon naming North Africa, then others have just as reasonable a case for insisting upon Central Asia, the Balkans, al-Andalus and so on. My point is simply that the term “Middle East” serves as a convenient, if imperfect, short hand for the area(s) we study, the boundaries of which we all understand to be far-ranging and flexible.

I want to thank all of you who have participated in this process. It is a testament, I believe, to how important this organization is to us that people have taken the reconsideration of the mission statement so seriously. This is not just an “academic” exercise, but rather one of rethinking and reframing identity and purpose. It is a pleasure for me to have this opportunity to serve as president and contribute to MESA’s continuing growth and development.

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