Ali Banuazizi, Boston College

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, May 2005, Vol. 27 No. 2)

In These Times

A deep paradox besets the field of Middle Eastern studies and the pre-eminent association that represents it in North America these days. On the one hand, there is a wide recognition of the critical need for expert knowledge and deeper understanding of the Middle East and the Muslim world as the United States faces its most vexing, intractable, and high-stake challenges in this vast region, especially at a time when America’s relations with the people of the region are fraught with misperceptions, distrust, and hostility. Whether it is in the arena of human rights, democratization, political reform, religious extremism, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation; in coping with the consequences of an ill-conceived war; or helping the Palestinians and Israelis achieve a durable peace, the Middle East continues to be at center-stage of the U.S. foreign policy concerns. At the level of the public, too, one sees a surge of interest in the Middle East, particularly since the tragic events of September 11th, reflected in the much wider readership of books about the region, in the extensive mass-media coverage, and in the remarkable popularity of courses on Middle Eastern languages, cultures, and politics on our college campuses.

On the other hand, precisely at such a time of national need and public interest, the field of Middle Eastern studies and many of its practitioners are facing a barrage of criticisms, accusations of ideological bias and distortion of the truth, mediocrity, and irrelevance to the nation’s foreign policy goals. There have been even accusations that scholars in the field failed to foretell threats to the nation’s security by religious extremists—confusing the function of scholarship with that of intelligence gathering and analysis. Skeptical about the academy’s own ability to conduct its business of teaching and research with the requisite objectivity and independence, there have been several legislative initiatives at the state and federal levels to establish monitoring mechanisms to ensure “balance and fairness” at publicly funded programs of Middle Eastern studies and presumably similar programs focused on other world regions. Others in this crusade, less patient, and more zealous in their cause, have seen fit to encourage academic vigilantism on campuses to watch, report, and if necessary to intimidate scholars who present “biased,” “anti-American,” “pro-Islamic,” or “pro-Palestinian” views in their class lectures, in public statements outside their institutions, or in their writings. Often, these charges, as well as any criticism of current Israeli policies, are described as being anti-Israel and therefore, until proven otherwise, ipso facto “anti-Semitic.” Not surprisingly, such smear tactics and confrontations have begun to threaten the rights of free speech and inquiry and, if not contained, could potentially undermine the integrity of our academic institutions.

Insofar as the substantive criticisms came from those who see serious flaws and biases in the dominant paradigms or the prevailing political sentiments in our field, they can do no harm and may indeed stimulate critical debates, which in the long run could be highly beneficial. Many of our members will remember that, a generation ago, our association was criticized for being too supportive of the status quo in the Middle East, unresponsive to gender issues, and oblivious to the economic inequalities and the political oppression that characterized many Middle Eastern societies. A decade later, MESA, like other area-studies associations, was faulted for marginalizing the study of the Middle East and thus making it less susceptible to the intellectual and methodological rigors of discipline-based inquiry. Both of these critiques seem to have given way in recent years to other concerns. The key difference between our field’s former critics and those who proudly declare themselves to be MESA’s nemesis today is the latter’s willingness to stoop to the level of ad hominem attacks, defamation, and intimidation.

Aside from the problem of tactics, what many of MESA’s current detractors have managed to do, unwittingly or deliberately, is to locate the association’s mission and scholarly concerns within the very narrow confines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, contemporary Middle Eastern politics, and, more recently, the U.S.-led war on Islamic extremism and terrorism. While all these concerns are certainly important in their own right, they do not represent the professional or scholarly interests of many—perhaps even the majority—of our members. Indeed, any attempt to place our association in one or another ideological straitjacket is clearly a misrepresentation of the facts. Simply put, MESA has never spoken with a single voice on the Arab-Israeli conflict, on the war on terrorism, on the invasion of Iraq, or any other major American foreign policy issue. And hopefully it never will.

What MESA does, with enviable distinction and effectiveness, is to promote scholarship on the Middle East and Islam through its publication of a flagship journal and bulletin, by holding annual meetings that are attended by thousands of young and well-established scholars and students, and by recognizing genuine scholarly achievement through its various award programs. It performs a watchdog function on ethical issues. And, finally, it has steadfastly stood for and defended freedom of expression and inquiry for scholars and public intellectuals in the region and, of recent, in the United States.

As a well-established association that will be celebrating its 40th anniversary next year, we have the esprit de corps, the intellectual resources, and the organizational capacity to absorb and take to heart constructive criticisms of our ways and our scholarship, and, when needed, to rebut ill-intended accusations. Our real strength as a mature professional association, I believe, is demonstrated by our ability to welcome and accommodate colleagues with diverse perspectives on the critical issues that we face. These are goals that MESA and those of us privileged to serve it as directors and staff members will continue to pursue—not because we have been prompted to do so by our detractors, but out of our own sense of professionalism and commitment to an open and vibrant association for all those in the field of Middle Eastern studies.

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