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A Different View of the Middle East

November 2, 2007

Seeking to change the direction of Middle Eastern and African studies, a new scholarly organization was announced Thursday -- with some big name scholars on board and some tough criticism for the discipline. The biggest scholarly names in the new group, Bernard Lewis of Princeton University and Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University, are associated with support for the Bush administration's view of the Middle East, a decidedly minority opinion within Middle Eastern studies.

The Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa aims to have a full range of services -- conferences, a journal, newsletters, and so forth. Its council, in addition to Lewis and Ajami, includes Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a veteran of the Johnson and Carter administrations, and George P. Shultz, who was secretary of state under President Reagan.

Materials sent to reporters said that the new group was founded because of "the increasing politicization of these fields, and the certainty that a corrupt understanding of them is a danger to the academy as well as the future of the young people it purports to educate."

A statement from Lewis said: "Because of various political and financial pressures and inducements, the study of the Middle East and of Africa has been politicized to a degree without precedent. This has affected not only the basic studies of language, literature and history, but also has affected other disciplines, notably economics, politics and social science. Given the importance of these regions, there is an acute need for objective and accurate scholarship and debate, unhampered by entrenched interests and allegiances. Through its annual conference, journal, newsletter, and Web site, ASMEA will provide this."

While the announcement didn't mention it by name, the Middle East Studies Association has to date been the scholarly organization for that region. The kinds of criticisms made by Lewis in his statement are similar to those others have made about MESA -- charges that scholars in the group feel are an unfair slur on their group and on their work. The new group arrives at a time that Middle Eastern studies has been the subject of intense debate on many campuses, with dueling charges that academic freedom is at risk.

Mark T. Clark, president of the new association, is a professor of political science and director of the National Security Studies Program at California State University at San Bernardino. In a brief interview Thursday, he said that the new group was started "by mutual interest by a bunch of us" who wanted an association "that would be more independent and reflect the academic community more than interest groups."

He said that his interest in the Middle East is strategic, rather than just historic or cultural, and that he thinks it is good for American scholars to have a strategic view of the region in addition to more traditional approaches.

Asked about MESA, he described it as "kind of a closed circle" of people with similar views. Asked if he had ever participated in that association's activities, he said he had not. Asked why he didn't try to add his perspective to the existing group, he said that would be, "for lack of a better word, apartheid," in which his views would be separated off from the rest. "We're going to have a greater mix of perspectives than MESA ever had," he said.

While some of the scholars involved in the new group are known for similar political views, Clark said that "it's not neoconservative at all" and that scholars of a range of views are welcome to join.

The goal of the association is to be supported entirely by members' dues, to preserve its independence. To get off the ground, the association also has received some "private donations." Clark declined to say who had given the funds.

Laurie A. Brand, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California who heads MESA's academic freedom committee, said she found considerable irony in Lewis and Ajami citing the politicization of the field. "I don't disagree that there's been tremendous politicization, but it's been coming from the folks establishing this new organization," she said. "I see these people as part of the problem. They can speak from experience about introducing politics to the agenda."

She noted that Lewis and Ajami "were key advisers to this administration in the Iraq debacle and in cheerleading and justification and so on -- it would be hard to think of anything more highly politicized." Most of those on the new group's Web site are "at the forefront of the neoconservative support group for the new administration -- talk about setting out a political agenda."

While Brand said she thought the founders of the new group were being unfair in describing the field, she said that "part of academic freedom is that people can join whatever they want to join."

This is not the first time that a group has formed as a new scholarly association in contrast to an existing one. Both the Historical Society and the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics were formed by scholars dissatisfied with the primary scholarly groups -- the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians in the case of the former, and the Modern Language Association for the latter. As is the case with the new Middle Eastern group, the earlier organizations had big name scholars at their debuts, argued that they were being created to promote full debate, and were viewed by some of their critics as conservative.

The current president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, Christopher Ricks, said in an interview Thursday that a challenge for groups like his is that they come into existence (as most things are born) in opposition to something, but then must decide how much to focus on what it is that bothered them. "Some people think we are not spending enough time resisting bad things, while others -- and I'm in this wing -- think our main enterprise should be to show good things," said Ricks, a professor of humanities at Boston University, who stressed that he was offering his own opinion, not speaking for the group. Personally, he said, it's important to define a group beyond what it was created to oppose. "The reasons we came into existence aren't the same as our raison d'être," he said.

While he said that the group was indeed formed by people upset with the MLA, he said that association does "many honorable things," and that any visions that ALSC would challenge the larger association were foolish. "If anyone thought our organization was going to bring down the MLA, they belonged in an asylum," he said.

Today, Ricks said, he is proud of his association's many activities -- its journal, its conference, its blog -- and he said that he believes the group fills an important niche. But he acknowledged it is a small one. The MLA boasts more than 30,000 members. The ALSC has fewer than 1,500 and the numbers are down from what they once were and are something Ricks said he worries about.

While some of the conditions of literary study that galvanized the foundation of the group remain, he said, other things have changed. "A lot of the heat has gone out of the culture wars," he said. "A lot of people convinced of a certain kind of necessity to theorize have become convinced not to. A lot of people have left every kind of -ism because it became boring to them and boring to their students," he said.

Of course, a lot of scholars of the Middle East would argue that the culture wars haven't lost their heat, but that the heat has shifted from the English departments to their departments.

 

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