Fred M. Donner, University of Chicago

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February 2012, Vol. 34 No. 1)

As 2012 begins we once again hear the unmistakable drumbeats of those preparing themselves—and us—for the next war. With the Iraq war behind us, at least in terms of active military engagement, and with America’s adventure in Afghanistan apparently beginning to wind down, we now see Iran looming as the next target.  
The signs that those who shape American foreign policy are grooming us, as American citizens, to support some kind of attack on Iran are many and unmistakable. They resemble eerily the portents we saw as we were being prepared, in the fall of 2002 and early months of 2003, to support an attack on Iraq. They were already noticeable several years ago, and since then have mounted steadily month by month. These signs include the persistent identification of Iran as the “problem” through alarming news stories, dire reports from murky “think tanks” dealing with foreign policy, and dark comments made by officials of the current administration. They also include sustained efforts to advise Americans of the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program, since the specter of weapons of mass destruction is the surest way to persuade a skeptical electorate that nothing short of war will solve a problem. Then there is the determined effort to marshal international support for sanctions that, inevitably, will fail to have much effect but will provide the necessary fig leaf of justification before moving to the ultimate recourse, war. Finally, we note the brinksmanship over such tactical concerns as the passage of ships through the straits of Hormuz. Despite these ominous signs, however, war against Iran is not inevitable. The decision will hinge, I believe, on how public debate over the issue unfolds in the year ahead. And it is here that MESA may play a crucial role.

MESA is, of course, a non-political organization dedicated to the pursuit and advancement of rigorous scholarship on the Middle East. It cannot, should not, and does not take any official position on the question of whether America should go to war against Iran. Our organization is open to all scholars, both those who may support such a war and those who oppose it; indeed, MESA must continue to remain open to all points of view if it is to sustain meaningful dialogue on this and other contentious issues of our day, dialogue conducted on the basis of sound information, reasoned deduction, and mutual respect, rather than on the basis of fear, emotionalism, and contempt.  It is for this very reason that MESA is the ideal forum for such dialogue, on Iran or on any contentious issue, and why it is essential that MESA eschew taking an official position as an organization on any issue, even though every one of us, individually, will likely hold strong opinions on them, one way or another.

This does not mean, of course, that MESA must passively watch events as they develop, but otherwise do nothing. MESA’s greatest asset is its membership—you. Collectively, we represent one of the greatest concentrations of culturally aware, historically grounded, and intellectually sophisticated understanding of the Middle East in the United States, and probably in the world. While as an organization MESA takes no position on any political issue, our association can nevertheless insist that public discussions of policies related to the Middle East be based as much as possible on facts, realities, and sober reflection. It is our responsibility, as members of MESA, to help hold our politicians and the press accountable, by presenting the factual information needed to challenge them (or anyone else) when they make public remarks about the Middle East and its peoples that are misleading, bigoted, or simply false—something that, as we all know, happens all too often, especially in an election year such as this one.

Several of my predecessors as MESA President—indeed, maybe most of them—have enjoined you to be bold in sharing your expertise through Op-Ed columns, letters to the editor, public lectures, media appearances, and other vehicles that can bring to the North American public solid knowledge, rather than biased opinion, about the Middle East. I add my voice to theirs, for we should consider such contributions one of the highest forms of service that we can perform, as scholars, both to MESA and to our fellow citizens. Only by keeping the level of public discussion high, and by making sure that facts and not falsehoods provide the supporting evidence in such discussion, will public opinion and government policy on the Middle East have any hope of finding a sound basis. Reasoned debate based on reliable information, not achieving any specific political position, is MESA’s goal.

And it is, of course, not only the question of whether America should, or should not, eventually wage war against Iran on which we must share our knowledge. We should seek to ensure that sound information is brought to bear also on the many other contentious issues that mark today’s Middle East: Israel and Palestine, Turkey and the Armenian and Kurdish questions, the role of Islamists in government in Egypt, Tunisia, and many other countries, the continuing unrest in Syria and what to do about it, human rights restrictions in the Gulf states and elsewhere—all these and many others are questions on which MESA takes no stand officially, but about which many of you know a great deal. Those of you who feel comfortable doing so—and I hope many of you will—owe it to your fellow citizens to speak out on these issues, frequently if possible, forcefully if necessary, bringing the full weight of your expert knowledge and insight to bear on the public discourse. The debates on such issues may be lengthy and unpleasant, but as long as these debates are based to the fullest extent possible on demonstrable facts and sober reflection, we can hope that whatever policy is eventually adopted will be seen in retrospect to have been the best choice available. We owe it to ourselves, to our fellow citizens, and to the peoples of the Middle East to be sure that we supply the essential facts and insights necessary for such informed debate.

It is not merely on matters of contemporary interest, furthermore, that MESA’s membership needs to be heard. Many MESA members—myself included—study mainly the pre-modern Middle East and its cultures. No one expects us to publish Op-Eds on what America’s policy toward the Ottoman Empire should be, or on whether the Abbasid caliph al-Amin or his brother al-Ma’mun has the stronger claim to rule. And we may not feel that we have the expertise to pronounce knowledgeably about current events. But there are many aspects of the Middle East’s history and pre-modern cultures that are still relevant today, knowledge of which is indispensable to sound decision-making even for contemporary issues. Officials and pundits who should certainly know better are on public record with comments that display shocking ignorance of, or that grossly misrepresent, such basic things as the difference between Sunni and Shi’i Islam, the events of World War I and their role in shaping the map of the modern Middle East, the teachings of the Qur’an and Islamic law on a variety of subjects, and countless other things. As academicians, we need to write (and speak), sometimes at least, in a manner that is not academic, but rather designed to communicate to a general audience at least the most basic points about our own area of special knowledge—whether in a book for the general readership, a magazine article, an Op-Ed piece, or a letter to the editor—or an open lecture at a public library, local church, mosque or synagogue. The public, I believe, is thirsty for straightforward, plain-spoken, unbiased, and well-informed presentations on all manner of subjects relating to the Middle East—presentations grounded in fact and not motivated primarily by current political objectives.  From my own limited experience in writing for the general public I have learned that, overwhelmingly, people really appreciate it. And because they appreciate it, they listen. And having listened, they are themselves in a better position to raise questions, to challenge stereotypes and misinformation, and to contribute to well-informed discussion. They sign petitions, make donations, write their Congressmen, and vote. This is why it is so important for MESA, through its members, to reach out to them in whatever ways we can.

So, I encourage all of you now and then to pick the topic with which you feel most comfortable, to leave your technical jargon and footnotes in your study, and to make an effort to share some of your hard-earned knowledge and experience with your fellow citizens in a clear and informative way. This being, as I noted before, a very political year, there is no better and more important time to do so than now.

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