Book launch: Ivory Towers on Sand

Martin Kramer offered these remarks at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy on October 16, 2001, on the occasion of the launch of his book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

A book launching is a curious sort of event. There’s no point in summarizing the book itself. Here it is, and the gist of my argument is summarized in at least three places: the back cover, the preface, and the introduction. Nor do I want to give away the plot—the whodunit. The plot is pretty intricate, it has a stellar cast, and I don’t want to spoil the reading. In a launching, the author’s job is not so much to enlighten you as to tease you, and the message is simple: read my book.

If you do read it, you’ll find confirmation for something many of you have probably suspected for a long time: for more than twenty years, Middle Eastern studies in this country have been a thoroughly unreliable guide to the Middle East itself. A generation ago, a group of younger scholars ritually assassinated the character of their orientalist forebears, and took over the institutions of the field. Those forebears had created a remarkable little empire, but they were sideswiped by the Palestinian “awakening,” the Lebanese civil war, and the Iranian revolution. Edward Said led the assault on the Bastille, and a new generation took over from the mid-1980s. These self-described post-orientalists promised to get things right. As one of their leaders put it, “Middle Eastern politics are much less unpredictable than is often supposed.” This book takes Middle Eastern studies up on that claim. And what I demonstrate is this: the record of Middle Eastern studies, in prediction and analysis, has been one of repeated, collective failure.

Of course, many issues came to the top of the agenda in Middle Eastern studies during these two decades, and I don’t cover them all. Instead, I focus on the two that seem to me most central, because they require deft analysis of state and society. Anyone can make a mistake in analyzing the acts of an individual leader, or the outcome of a battle. Getting these things right is the job of intelligence agencies, not scholars. The essence of academic expertise is an understanding of the larger forces at work on society and state—the shifts of landscape that are only visible from some height above the daily rush of events. There were two issues of this magnitude that preoccupied Middle Eastern studies in the 1980s and 1990s: Islamism and civil society.

Had one spent the last twenty years locked up in a room only with the work of academic scholars, or been condemned, as in an episode of the Twilight Zone, to attend every panel of every conference of the Middle East Studies Association, one would have emerged into daylight expecting to see the following: first, a Middle East full of benign and non-violent Muslim movements, the end result of an “Islamic Reformation,” all promoting political pluralism in their respective polities; and second, a flourishing of “civil society,” and a withering of the authoritarian state.

None of this came to pass. Muslim movements never moved toward pluralism and tolerance. The influence of Osama bin Laden exceeds the combined impact of all the “Muslim Martin Luthers” unearthed by the academics. “Civil society” is either dead or coopted across the region. And the authoritarian state has only strengthened its hold. The reams of articles and the shelves of books produced to sustain academic paradigms and win tenure are now silent monuments to what one scholar rather unscientifically described as “wishful thinking.” This is how the academics wanted the Middle East to evolve; this is how their theories predicted it would evolve. And they were wrong.

Of course, the interesting question is why. Experts always make mistakes. Anyone who has had dealings with a stockbroker, a physician, or a car mechanic, knows this for a fact. None of us has a perfect record; our reputations rest, at best, on getting things right over fifty percent of the time. Far more interesting is collective error, when a whole bevy of experts get things wrong in the identical way. This happens when the internal dynamics of a group are so intense that they overwhelm, even shut out, external evidence.

This is precisely what has happened in Middle Eastern studies. Take a tiny field with under 3,000 practitioners; add to it a whole mish-mash of ethnic rivalries and political disagreements; subject it to the influence of an academic celebrity, speaking in the name of powerful extra-disciplinary theories; limit accountability to “peer review;” and then tell the whole crowd that the possibility for future expansion is next to nil. The result will be a group of people who are insecure, defensive, self-obsessed, and more focused on academic survival than on the ostensible subject of their study. This is exactly what has happened in Middle Eastern studies. Their product will tell you an immense amount about the norms and expectations of their American surroundings, academic fashion, and ethnic politics—and very little about the Middle East. As a result, the credibility of Middle Eastern studies in the general public has seen a steady decline. I devote an entire chapter to the ways in which Washington has come to write off Middle Eastern studies. I’ve written an entire chapter on how the think tanks and journalists filled the gap, and how the foundations and the disciplines withdrew their favor. For some time now, Middle Eastern studies have been in dire straits—and until September 11, no one really cared.

That’s a bit surprising, since for over forty years, Middle Eastern studies have been supported by taxpayer dollars. Under Title VI of the Higher Education Act, the U.S. government supports over a dozen National Resource Centers for the Middle East. You’ll find a listing in the appendix. You would think that from time to time, at least the government might take an interest in what was happening. But while government money has been crucial for this tiny field, it’s a speck on the federal budget—so much so that, basically, the academics are allowed to divvy it up themselves, according to their own criteria. The Title VI appropriation has effectively become a semi-entitlement, with no real measures of how it serves the national needs of the United States.

Until September 11, then, Middle Eastern studies had become a kind of educational backwater—disconnected from the Middle East, isolated from the public and government, shunned by the disciplines, engrossed in self-contemplation. That was where I picked up the research and writing of this book. But over the last month, the world has changed—and it has certainly changed for Middle Eastern studies.

Not that anyone in Middle Eastern studies was ready for it. Nothing you would have read from academe would have given you the least inkling that September 11 was even possible. I will be kind, and describe this as a failure of imagination. Now of course, it was not just Middle Eastern studies that failed. After all, we’re in Washington today. But Middle Eastern studies were a special case. It was here that one found an actual denial of the potential of terrorism, even a reluctance to use the word terrorism as an analytical category. (Look at the Middle East Studies Association statement on September 11: it is an exercise is avoiding recourse to this one word.) It was here that one found the most profound contempt for the journalists and mavericks who did argue that a September 11 was possible. Nearly all of us were surprised; but few of us were as surprised as the mandarins of Middle Eastern studies. “Middle Eastern politics are much less unpredictable than is often supposed,” one of their leaders had written. That same professor, returning from Europe, wound up stuck in Nova Scotia when the United States closed its airspace on September 11.

In fact, September 11 took all of Middle Eastern studies by surprise—and left them stranded intellectually in Nova Scotia. The dominant paradigm of Middle Eastern studies could never have predicted this event, and cannot explain it after the fact. At the start of the 1990s, one of the champions of this paradigm wrote the following: “The nineties will prove to be a decade of new alliances and alignments in which the Islamic movements will challenge rather than threaten their societies and the West.” Instead, America got a decade punctuated by the bombing of the World Trade Center, Khobar, Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam; the region got indiscriminate terror from the GIA, Hamas, and the Gamaa Islamiyya, and the proliferation of suicide bombings. Usama bin Ladin is but the culmination of this process. And when he did appear, this same champion wrote that focusing on him, and I quote, “risks catapulting one of many sources of terror to center stage.” Now we have had September 11, and I submit that it is inexplicable if you accept the assumptions that have governed Middle Eastern studies these last twenty years. In the book, I resist invoking Thomas Kuhn, but this is the kind of event that should compel a paradigm shift.

Instead, Middle Eastern studies are enjoying a windfall. Let me divide it into three categories: enrollments, media exposure, and money.

I’m sure you’ve seen the reports about how Middle East courses are overflowing. September 11 fell during the first week or so of classes, when students were still shopping for courses. The heightened interest drove students in their multitudes into courses on the Middle East, Islam, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Christian Science Monitor ran a story entitled “Standing Room Only,” which described the influx as a “student stampede.”

One of the courses in which the media took a special interest is the big introductory undergraduate course at Harvard, “Thought and Change in the Contemporary Middle East.” One of the students lost her father at the World Trade Center, the media reported; students jammed the aisles. Enrollment was 100 students last year; 300 showed up this year, and six new teaching assistants had to be added to the original three. By the way, if you want a hint at what they might hear, the professor who teaches that class offered one, in an article in the Harvard Crimson. (Pardon the fractured grammar here.) “September 11 was obviously an act of blood revenge, a subject about which anthropologists have long written about in terms of the tribal codes of the Middle East. There is, regrettably, nothing very surprising in this. There had been too much murder going on in Israel and the West Bank for no extreme reprisals to take place.” Harvard, ladies and gentlemen. Undergraduate tuition this academic year is $34,269.

Another interviewed professor claimed this would not be a one-time surge of student interest: “We’ve moved to a different level. This attack was on American soil, and my guess is there will be a lot more interest for years in Middle East and Islamic studies on campus.” The Middle East experts, sweating away in relative obscurity over the past decade, are set to be big men and women on campus.

Then there is the media. I was struck by how few academics appeared in the media in the first couple of weeks. This wasn’t an “Islam” story yet, probably because of the early fear of hate crimes. The mainstream media didn’t want to contribute to an atmosphere that might encourage such crimes. But once this possibility receded, it became more of an “Islam” story, especially over the last ten days, and we’ve seen the academics as talking heads in growing numbers. Frankly, some of them look like deer caught in the headlights—they’ve been working so long out of the limelight. But you’re familiar with the best of them, and they front for the field as a whole, giving America a false sense of reassurance that, well, at least somewhere, these things are studied seriously.

Student enrollments and media exposure are but a prelude. Then comes the most important windfall of them all. Listen, for example, to Anne Betteridge, executive director of MESA. She told the Christian Science Monitor that colleges may soon find themselves in salary battles to lure the best of the long-ignored Middle East faculty. I don’t think I’ll ever live to see that day, but her comment says something about the wild expectations that are running rampant through the field at this moment.

Then there will be the grants. The National Science Foundation has already made two grants, to look at the impact of anti-Arab backlash in this country, and to compare Islamic movements. The U.S. Institute of Peace website says the Institute “will seek additional funding” for four separate initiatives on terrorism and the Middle East. The grant-award process at the USIP will be accelerated. The Middle East academics who are fastest off the mark will have no difficulty landing major funding from these institutions.

And can it be long before an initiative comes for a special government program? There’s a precedent. As I write in my book, the Gulf War a decade ago led to the passage by Congress of the Near and Middle East Research and Training Act. For some seven years, this special appropriation pumped grant money into Middle Eastern studies, under the rubric of “national security.” The program ended up funding all sorts of esoteric research, on everything from Nubian dance to Egyptian masculinities, and it was eventually dropped; I tell the sad story in the chapter entitled “Beltway Barrier.”

But how long will it be before the academics get the ear of some senator or congressman, and persuade him or her that America’s performance in the “war on terror” could be enhanced if only more funds were pumped into Middle Eastern studies? Perhaps the Social Science Research Council will move to speak on behalf of Middle Eastern studies, as it did ten years ago.

The Title VI lobby will want its share, too. They will try to ride the language train. Don’t you see? There’s a drastic shortage of Arabic- and Persian- and Pashto- and Dari-speakers. To teach these languages, we need crash programs based in the universities, more faculty hirings and student fellowships. The National Foreign Language Center has already recommended more funding of Title VI centers with this rationale.

Let me be as unequivocal as I can about this. In my book, I do not call for a cessation of Title VI funding for Middle Eastern studies. Even if I thought it were a good idea, it would be pointless to recommend it. Title VI is one indivisible package for all area studies, and Middle Eastern studies only account for one tenth of it. I call for procedural reforms; not a cut-off. Middle Eastern studies should be given a chance to reconstruct themselves in the very different climate that now prevails.

But let there be no doubt: any additional funding for Middle Eastern studies, either through reallocation within Title VI or a special new appropriation, would not only be a complete waste of money. It would delay all the much-needed rethinking of the basic paradigms that have dominated the field. It would reward a guild that has, these last twenty years, deliberately refused to render any service in return for its subsidy, and that has fostered a culture of irrelevance and contempt for Washington. This is the time to call Middle Eastern studies to account, not to pamper them. Provosts and deans won’t do that, especially now that enrollments have inflated. Only Congress, on behalf of the public, can assure that the denizens of the ivory tower realize that the rest of us out here are sorely disappointed.

If Congress does choose to appropriate funds, there are other instruments that could efficiently absorb more resources to improve the situation in languages and area studies. Probably the most efficient is the National Security Education Program, which provides student fellowships with a language emphasis, in return for a modest service obligation. The elites of area studies at the big centers fought the establishment of this program, and still look down on it because of its “security” designation. But it has an excellent record of bringing students into international studies, especially from non-humanistic disciplines. I wouldn’t oppose more money for campus-based research offered through the USIP, the NSF, or the Defense Department—provided there is a careful review of previously-funded Middle East research, to see whether it’s been on track. We should be very wary about crash programs, instant grants, and accelerated grant-awarding procedures. It goes without saying that more should be done at the defense colleges and the service academies.

Recently it’s been reported that the Defense Department wants to create a language ROTC on a few campuses, including those strong in Arabic. It’s an excellent idea, with one problem: the culture of the Middle East centers is incredibly hostile to it. For example, the University of Michigan, which has always been strong in Arabic instruction, has so far resisted the idea. As one Michigan professor of Arabic put it, “We didn’t want our students to be known as spies in training. By intertwining intelligence and academics, we’d essentially be recruiting Arabs to later inform on members of their own community.” That, in a nutshell, is the prevailing culture. At these centers, you can prepare openly for careers in academe, business, law, even diplomacy—but not defense. More money here will not add one iota to the capability of the United States to defend itself, and that’s true across the board for all the centers. Hopefully, student demand in the wake of September 11 will compel these centers to give students a choice.

But government can only do so much. As I emphasize in my book, the reform of Middle Eastern studies will have to come from within, and it will be accelerated by generational change. Here I can only hazard a guess, but my sense is that as the radicals of my generation grow gray, the grip of their dogmas will diminish. Over the next ten to twenty years, a new generation will emerge throughout academe, with a different agenda. Perhaps they will recall September 11 as some sort of watershed, the point of departure for forging a new paradigm. So I am not pessimistic; and it’s because I’m basically optimistic that I took the trouble to write this book. Middle Eastern studies can change, must change, and will change—of this, I have no doubt.

I’d like to end on a personal note. I wrote this book more in sorrow than in anger. The reason is simple: I myself am a product, in part, of Middle Eastern studies in America. I hold all my degrees from major American universities; I’m criticizing not only a world I know, but the world that accredited me.

So I would have been happier had someone else written this book. Here and there, I detected hints of auto-critique in the field, and I’m careful to mention them in my book. But no one was coming forward to do a systematic job, and at some point I realized that no one would—that the guild would be too unforgiving of anyone who dared. If I didn’t do it, no one would. In academe, you’re always told that the noblest mission is to tell truth to power. When academics say this, they usually mean their telling truth to Washington-type power. But that’s an easy day’s work; academe rewards it. Who will tell truth to academic power? Only what I call an “intimate stranger” like myself can afford to do it.

The most difficult part of writing this book was naming people I know, including a few people with whom I’ve had amicable relationships over the years. About ten years ago, when the Islamism debate was at its height, I shadow-boxed some of them. In this book, I not only box; I take my gloves off. But I certainly didn’t decide to do so out of an impulse to do gratuitous damage, and I anguished over not a few of the passages in this book.

I named names because past experience proves that no other approach has any impact. When Edward Said, another “intimate stranger,” wanted to have an impact on Middle Eastern studies, he understood there was only one way to do it, and it wasn’t by understatement. I felt I had no choice but to follow his model—although I could never bring myself to describe any scholar as “utterly ninth-rate”—see Said’s quote on page 38. I’ve adhered to my own red lines, but I know my approach will leave some people sore. Alas, there’s no other way to get a hearing for change.

The book will stir controversy, and I’ll be attacked for having written it. Hell hath no fury like a professor scorned, and academics have all the time in the world to settle scores. The index of this book is a pretty good guide to the sources of the coming rebuttals. But I hope that once all the fur has flown, and after all the dust has settled, there will be a few students who will have taken it to heart, and a few key scholars who will say at least this: “Martin Kramer went too far, but he made some valid points, and we’d better address them fast.” If I get that much of an admission, I’ll consider the book a tremendous success—the first step toward revitalizing a field I love too much to abandon.