Virginia Aksan, McMaster University
(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February 2009, Vol. 31 No. 1)
The quite unexpected (dare I say miraculous) election of Obama could represent a profound turning point for the United States, not just on the matter of race, but also on the matter of American exceptionalism, i.e., the refusal to recognize that our extraordinary prosperity results from an unparalleled militarization of destructive power across the globe. Middle East Centers are already sponsoring seminars on the new international climate under a visionary (and recessionary) president. It behooves the rest us to take the time to reconsider the map of Middle East scholarship; to take stock as well of what we owe to students, colleagues and the community as the world reshapes itself, with what I optimistically hope will be America’s participatory rather than hegemonic impulse
Since 2001, MESA presidents have urged the membership to become more actively engaged with contemporary issues: to assume more public roles and use our expertise to inform; to defend vigorously the right to access to information and to freedom of speech as the basis a democratic society, and to recognize the immense contribution that our own Committee on Academic Freedom (with the help of the Academic Freedom Fund) performs for us in its vigilance about abuses to the MESA intellectual (university) communities here and abroad. While I cannot claim to be particularly politically active, I have always assumed that university citizenship obligated me to be engaged with such questions. Constructive social criticism and participation in governance is an explicit part of our responsibilities on our campuses. The need for all of us to reaffirm that is just as acute as ever.
Some find political activism especially difficult in our field since 2001, but there are other disturbing trends at American universities which also require our vigilance. Not just the concerted attack on university “liberalism,” or “political correctness,” but also the corporatization of university administrations, including the marketing of an imagined education (and campus) in places such as Dubai’s International Academic Centre or Qatar’s Education City. Tenure and academic freedom are utterly irrelevant (a nuisance) to a world of contracts, online MBAs and virtual universities. We are on the edge of a precipice as a society, one which likely involves an economic and intellectual paradigm shift of considerable force, or at least a pause in the endgame to take stock. How to do that is a harder question. It could begin with a self examination: most of us have a passion for our particular subject, but do we really think about audience and influence beyond our own like-minded colleagues? How often do we turn down the risky encounters or even the not so risky because “it is not our subject?” How often do we resist new approaches to over-worked topics, and wax nostalgic about our particular subfield and its special language, to the exclusion of generalizing the story? Taking stock could continue by thinking about the absences in our curriculum. Extraordinary shifts are occurring in the location, consolidation and accessibility of information on the internet which we all take for granted but fail to interrogate as it seeps into our classrooms and research agendas. Who will be controlling that knowledge and how will it be disseminated? What will the curriculum in liberal arts colleges look like in twenty years, and how will the Middle East be part of it? What kind of resources will be needed to make it happen? And who will pay for them? Everything is marketable in the new knowledge economy. The web remains both a place for all kinds of collaborative efforts, such as AMEEL (Arabic and Middle Eastern Electronic Library) at Yale University Library or Harvard’s Historians of the Ottoman Empire project, but equally a source of concern about oversight and loss of individual and professional autonomy. We need to be much more proactive in the construction and critique of the internet world.
There is no question but that current events and the new global order have had an impact on our disciplines. A quick glance at the MESA program for 2008 reveals just how cross-disciplinary, transnational, and broadly comparative we are becoming. The new map of the Middle East triangulates the Levant, North Africa and the Gulf, addresses thematic commonalities of Arabic, Turkish and Iranian societies; draws in the wider web of Central and South Asia into a Eurasian network; enlarges the Braudelian Mediterranean (and Europe) as historical subjects, and legitimates the study of Muslim societies, new media, global cultures, violence, memory and reconstruction in vigorous and exciting ways. The “war on terror,” in spite of, or because of the poisonous public discourse, has created new openings on campuses for the study of Middle Eastern languages, pre-modern history, religion and cultures. We are a healthy, growing community of scholars whose internet skills, native linguistic range and global sophistication are inspiring, but we need to take charge of how these new directions translate into our research agendas, the classroom, and the street. The Board always welcomes suggestions about special sessions on evolving campus environments; on new research initiatives or new methodologies for the Boston meeting and beyond.
Finally, taking stock also means asking what role MESA plays in helping us to rethinking our obligations as academics in today’s world. Ours is an umbrella organization which runs a skeletal operation with great efficiency and dedication. Your colleagues sit on boards, serve on committees, write letters, and edit journals and bulletins on your behalf. Amy Newhall serves as our advocate with like-minded organizations, vigilant about the preservation of federal funding levels which underwrite U.S. Middle East Centers, the American Research Centers abroad, and the granting agencies which support individual research. The Secretariat staff mounts an annual meeting with an eye to making it intellectually stimulating, affordable and comfortable. In the best of times, finances are stretched thin, and certainly will not be helped by the deepening recession. I beseech you, on behalf of the Board, to have patience in the next little while as the financial impact of the recession becomes clear, to serve willingly when asked, and to remember, as you renew your membership or pay your annual meeting fee, to contribute whatever more you can to your MESA activity of choice.