Juan Cole, University of Michigan

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February 2006, Vol. 28 No. 1)

The Importance of Being Heard

An ongoing set of global crises has beset the area of the world in which we specialize, interlinking it powerfully with the United States and Canada. The small cohort of Middle East specialists in North America finds itself working in an increasingly politicized environment, in which we must compete, as intellectuals conveying our insights on the Middle East to the public, with politicians, talk show hosts, televangelists, Washington lobbyists and paid-for talking heads.

The information environment has been polluted by the intersection of political power and big media. While money, power and journalism have all along been intertwined in modern history, we only recently have witnessed the rise of a cable television news network that is explicitly a mouthpiece for an American political party, the editors of which dictate a political line in morning memoranda to their journalists. The Big Lie has become a common technique of persuasion on the part of top politicians. Among the prime things about which the Big Lies are now told is the Middle East, its history, culture and peoples. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld commented on the charge that then President Clinton had lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, saying, “Lying about sex? Everyone lies about sex! Without lies there would not be any sex!” It might equally well be said that without lies, there would not be any wars.

This political turbulence, and the often distressing news from the region, should not distract us from our central mission, which is conducting primary research and subjecting it to a reasoned analysis that will push forward the academic understanding of this part of the world. All of us are in this field because that sort of research and attaining that sort of understanding, deeply gratify us. The joys of such subjects as early modern historiography, Sufi metaphysics, contemporary Arabic literature, Persian miniatures, or Cold War diplomacy, drive most of our members most of the time. Most of us were already incredibly busy with our research, writing, and, well, lives, before the crisis hit, and have little time to spare serious thought for the day’s headlines.

Yet without wishing to add to anyone’s burdens, I fear I must draw our attention to a growing responsibility that calls out to MESA members, of writing about contemporary affairs for the public. Most MESA academics speak to audiences in their towns and cities about the Middle East. Many have devoted a great deal of time to outreach, both on campus and among high school and other teachers, religious congregations, and associations of the retired. Such talks are an extremely important contribution to civil society, and in the aggregate have a significant impact. The American public has an enormous thirst for knowledge about the region we study, and our members have been self-sacrificing about giving of their weekends and leisure time to meet that need.

Nevertheless, it is important to write it down, and to publish it as an opinion piece or op-ed. It is important to publish such items on an ongoing basis. A search of Lexis Nexis will reveal that relatively few MESA members regularly weigh in with opinion on current affairs in the nation’s newspapers and magazines. Not all of our members will feel comfortable doing so. Specialists in the Ottoman Empire may question whether their background entitles them to address contemporary events. Literature specialists or those in art history may entertain similar sentiments. I am not arguing that the obligation is an individual one. It is a collective duty, to be discharged by the membership as a whole.

For those tempted to pursue this path, it is worth pointing out that if they do not write generally for the public about the region, others will, who are far less qualified. Major newspapers routinely publish ruminations on Iraq or Afghanistan by persons who know no Middle Eastern languages and have only a shaky grasp of the history of the region. At a time when the president of the United States has a view on Muslim theories of the caliphate in history, an Ottomanist is far ahead of the game.

I do not mean to minimize the difficulties of breaking in to this sort of writing. Newspaper and magazine opinion pieces are often as hard to publish as fiction. Pieces submitted “blind” or “over the transom” go into what is called the “slush pile,” often to be read by junior editorial assistants. Only if the piece catches their eyes will the pass it up to an editor who might decide to publish it. One heartbreak of attempting this sort of publication is the discovery that our academic credentials mean nothing in the journalistic world. Indeed, enough editors and journalists seem to have been scarred by exposure as undergraduates to particularly abstruse lectures by some of their professors that there is often an assumption that academics are incapable of writing clearly and concisely.

Writing opinion pieces, moreover, is a learned skill rather than being intuitive. It is hard to remember that one may only make one key point in an essay. It is difficult to get complex concepts across in only 700 words (the optimum length for a newspaper op-ed). It is no easy task to make complicated social or religious ideas and customs clear to often insular American audiences. It is hard to remember that specialized academic technical terms should be avoided or clearly explained. Writing clearly and concisely is much harder than writing complexly about one’s specialization at some length.

The only way to overcome these obstacles, however, is to commit to regularly producing opinion pieces, and regularly submitting them. The internet has opened many venues for such writing. For historians within MESA, the History News Network is a welcoming place to publish historically-grounded opinion pieces, and it is widely read. There are many internet public affairs journals eager for contributions, from Alternet to Truthout. Some authors maintain weblogs powered by software such as blogger.com or typepad.com, where they can regularly post op-eds. These are at least good practice and assured of publication, even if getting a substantial audience is not easy. Your local newspaper, and the nearest metropolitan newspaper, are also good markets to try. National newspapers such as the Christian Science Monitor and USA Today are often looking for experts. It may not be possible to start out in the Washington Post or the New York Times, but it is certainly possible to lay the ground for a debut in such a prominent editorial page.

It may be daunting to think of making time for this endeavor. But 700 words can be written in a relatively short period of time, and committing to one such essay a week or every other week is not overly onerous. The American public is being assiduously misinformed about the Middle East, about Islam, and about Muslim culture. Some media personalities are deliberately smearing Middle Easterners. Others are misinformed and nursing a grudge from September 11. The advances we make in our understanding of the region are not having their full impact if they are locked up in academic journals or reported only in forbidding academic prose. A key principle of political liberalism (in the classic sense) is that information maximization is always a good thing. But this maxim implies that the information itself is real information, and solidly grounded, not prevarication and propaganda. If we do not seek a public voice, and we hear only the latter in our media, we cannot complain.

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