Scholars of the Middle East consider why their field flourishes in some ways, but is shut out by the government and the press.
November 21, 2005

Middle East studies professors benefit from what Zachary Lockman termed on Sunday a morally troublesome fact: "The worse things get in the Middle East, the more jobs there are in American academia."

Lockman, chair of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, spoke Sunday of a "disconnect" between the health of the field (stronger every day) and its influence outside of academe (perhaps at an all-time low). Not only are more colleges and universities hiring Middle East experts, he said, but the quality of their work is high and is reaching into important new areas. Some campuses are building clusters of Middle East experts while other campuses are bringing their first such person on board.

But the session that Lockman kicked off at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association was far from self-congratulatory. Speaker after speaker -- both those who prepared remarks and audience members -- said that their knowledge was being ignored by the country, and especially by its leaders, at a time when that knowledge may be more crucial than ever before. On some areas of public policy, Lockman said, academics can be found briefing national leaders and serving as talking heads on television. On the Middle East, he said, those roles are largely being filled by people in the military or think tanks -- "not us," he said.

And while he said that he would like to think that scholars' thoughtful critiques of U.S. foreign policy are playing a role in the growing public opposition to the war in Iraq, he said he couldn't make that argument. Opinion is shifting because "more bodies are coming home" and because average people are realizing the inconsistencies between what the Bush administration said and what has happened in Iraq. "It's not us," he said.

Not only are Middle East scholars ignored, but they are attacked by "right wing crazies" who create Web sites to distort their work, scare off younger scholars from going into the field, and confuse the public, he said. While acknowledging that study of the Middle East is bound to be controversial, Lockman said that the current attacks on Middle East studies are "unprecedented" for the field and may be equaled in American academic history by the McCarthy era attacks on scholars of China.

Generally, scholars in the audience agreed with Lockman's analysis, although one person said that there are more Middle Eastern studies professors consulting for the government than is widely known -- these professors don't boast about their consulting work as it wouldn't be popular with their colleagues, this scholar said, and anyway, the government isn't listening to what they said.

But as more professors spoke, the mood in some ways became more gloomy to participants as many questioned whether Middle East studies is in fact respected in academe. Several speakers said that much of the growth of the field is in history, cultural studies and political science -- with other disciplines skeptical.

Jennifer C. Olmsted, an associate professor of economics at Drew University, said that Middle East studies is "quite marginalized" in her field, in part because most economists are dubious of any regional expertise. Economists like "unambiguous answers," and experts on the Middle East "know that there's a lot of ambiguity" in the region, she said. She noted that some of the experts brought in by the Bush administration to rebuild Iraq's economy had experience in helping to transform economies in Eastern Europe -- and that the failure these economists are having isn't surprising.

Lori Allen, a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University, said that she is part of a small group of young anthropologists who have been asking why their discipline -- known for being "on the side of the underdog" -- places relatively little emphasis on the Middle East. Many scholars are "deeply concerned," she said, that anthropology has been "a little timid" when it comes to the Middle East.

One big obstacle, she said, is the question of "how to be an activist academic without tenure."

Allen said that one answer is that young scholars are approaching more senior (tenured) scholars, and offering to do some of the legwork or early research on statements or projects that might be associated with the senior professors.

Much of the discussion that followed concerned strategies for engaging the public (and eventually policy makers). Koray Caliskan, who recently earned his Ph.D. in politics at NYU and now is an assistant professor at Bogazici University, in Istanbul, talked about the lessons he learned helping to organize his fellow NYU graduate students for their union. He said that many of the exercises that the United Auto Workers put them through -- like role playing -- seemed silly at the time. But he found them useful in a student group he then formed to draw attention to Palestinian issues.

Caliskan said that scholars, if they want to be effective in reaching a broader audience, need to remember that when they aren't with students, they don't have the license to talk in 50-minute chunks. "We talk and we don't stop," he said.

Stuart Schaar, a professor of Middle East history at Brooklyn College, said that there were "easy things" scholars could and should be doing. He said that they should be speaking in high schools, to church groups, to civic organizations, and others. "Individuals need to start doing things where they are," he said.

The role of national groups also came up. The Middle East Studies Association was criticized for not taking an active enough role in orchestrating public responses to issues in the news that relate to the field. Two professors also said that the association had erred in joining other American academic groups that criticized a boycott against Israeli universities called by the main faculty union in Britain.

Another audience member urged scholars who feel that their views are being squelched to speak out, and she noted that the National Council of Arab Americans recently created a new unit to help faculty members who feel that they are being unfairly attacked.

Malik Mufti, an associate professor of international relations at Tufts University, endorsed all of the talk about reaching out, but warned that it will be difficult. American students are patriotic, he said, and will be skeptical of analysis from Middle East scholars "if we project ourselves as hostile."

And in a session in which numerous disparaging remarks were made about U.S. military activity in the Middle East, Mufti said that a major target for outreach by scholars needs to be the military. However much this fact may depress scholars, he said that for years to come, "the military will be the front line of American engagement with the Middle East."


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