Shift in Middle East Studies?

New generation of students -- veterans and others returning from Afghanistan and Iraq -- may have different focus from many who have traditionally entered the field.
August 4, 2009

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may be about to change Middle Eastern studies -- and not just by adding plenty of new subject material.

The incoming director of Middle Eastern studies at George Washington University last week published a post at his Foreign Policy blog that has set off a discussion about the next generation of Middle Eastern studies students and, eventually, professors.

Marc Lynch writes (and some others agree) that master’s programs and doctoral programs are starting to see an influx -- one he expects to grow -- of veterans, many of them military officers as well as those who worked for non-governmental organizations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The duration of the war, he writes, has led to an unusually large cohort of future thinkers about the Middle East shaped by their experiences there.

That could mean a real shift in the field, he argues.

“Their point of reference will be (and is) Iraq and the Gulf, not Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, or other areas where a great number of current faculty began their encounters with the region. And they will have much greater familiarity and comfort with military and security issues than do many currently in the field,” he writes.

And while Lynch notes that some scholars fear these students will “push the field to the ‘right,’ ” he anticipates a less ideological shift. “The officers I've met are all over the map politically and in terms of their intellectual aspirations. Indeed, I'd guess that the bias would be towards pragmatism and empiricism, and against any kind of ideological doctrines,” he writes, adding that “at any rate, the allegations of the politicization of Middle East studies -- particularly political science -- have always been wildly exaggerated.”

While Lynch views the possible changes in Middle Eastern studies as a good thing, he also notes potential problems. Already, he writes, “I've had a few soldiers interested in pursuing degrees ask me nervously whether they would be shunned by academics. I would be shocked if any experienced prejudice or bias because of their war service -- certainly not at a place like GWU -- and would be appalled if they did.”

At the same time, Lynch writes that the veterans also will need to accept being in a different environment. “To succeed, of course, this new generation will need to be open to engaging with the academic literature and to learning from faculty and fellow students with very different forms of experience, expertise, and methodological approaches. Academic work is different, with its own rules and norms and expectations.”

To judge by the comments the article has attracted, there is some agreement that there is about to be an influx into Middle Eastern studies of a different kind of student -- but less agreement on the impact or whether it will be positive.

Some skeptics view the trend as likely to raise concerns -- most prevalent in anthropology -- about whether scholars with military ties can be true to their disciplinary obligations, especially as they relate to research subjects. One commenter on the article writes: “It depends on whether those scholars are prostituting themselves to the Pentagon. There are going to be quite a few 'anthropologists' (quotes intentional) who are about to find themselves unemployable over the next few years due the ease with which they spread (their wallets) wide open for a John named 'The Pentagon''s funding.”

Others see more positives. “I think the aspect of this that interests me most is the question of what will come out of the encounter between two very different kinds of discipline: one that values commitment to procedure, protocol, and pragmatism in the interest of securing a particular understanding of social order, and the methodological standing-apart-from that social order so as to understand its conditions of possibility that characterizes the academy,” writes one scholar. “While there may on the face of it seem to be something of a contradiction between these worldviews, I think there is also significant potential for productive cross-fertilization between them."

Notably, leaders of two organizations in Middle Eastern studies (groups that do not agree on many issues) both said in interviews that they saw the Lynch article as significant and the trend as positive.

Roger Allen, chair of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania and president-elect of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, said one positive aspect of the influx of veterans will be, not only their age, but their experience.

In terms of substance, he said that "these returning personnel will be able to provide much amplification of evidence and theories that have long been advocated in academic circles, and that will be invaluable. But I hope that they will also be able to provide proof also of the validity of theories about the Middle East, its religions and its history that have long been advocated and discussed within academic circles, but that have been largely ignored by the various agencies of Washington who have implemented American foreign policy."

If that doesn't happen, Allen said, "our Middle East policy will continue to send young Americans to places in the Middle East where wiser heads would choose not to send them."

Mark T. Clark, director of national security studies and professor of political science at California State University at San Bernardino. said that it's "hard to argue" with Lynch's points. "I think he's right to believe that we will see an increased interest in pursuing advanced degrees by servicemen and women returning from sometimes several tours in the region with a deeper understanding of the 'ground truths' of our experience there. I've already seen a number of veterans coming through my program and it has enriched the experience of others."

Clark is also president of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, a new group formed by scholars who tend to have more sympathy than others in the discipline for the policies of Israel and the United States.

"My hope for the future of Middle East studies is that these returning vets, and the challenges they will pose to the academy, will be for the better, if mainly because they will challenge and debunk those professors and programs that are too heavily influenced by postmodernism," Clark said. "The vets' pragmatism and empiricism will not abide the view that it's all interpretation. That's where the ideological lines are drawn, not between 'left' and 'right.' "

Of course, some say that the traumas associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may result in a wealth of knowledge at a time many Americans may want to stay out. One comment on Lynch's article said: "You could have a flood of people researching Middle East studies, at a time when the U.S. government attitude towards Iraq and the other areas nearby is basically going to be 'Thank God, now let's never go back.' "


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