Interim assessment

From Martin Kramer, “Jihad 101,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2002, pp. 87-95. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

The autumn of 2001 will be remembered in Middle Eastern studies as the best of times. The media besieged the profs, who became “experts.” On campus, at special events and teach-ins, they commanded audiences of hundreds and even thousands. Their books sold briskly. Reports from around the land told of droves of students standing in the aisles and pleading to get into packed courses on Islam, the Middle East, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Professors who command big enrollments are better positioned to demand raises from their deans, and you could almost hear the buzz over money. In one case, you did hear it: Anne Betteridge, the executive director of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), excitedly told a journalist that universities could find themselves in salary battles to lure the best of the long-ignored Middle East faculty.23

None of this will last. The academic repertoire is too limited to sustain general interest. Enrollments will fall back—they always do, since the performance of the professors just isn’t strong enough to keep students interested beyond a crisis. The academics will have had their moment in the limelight. They will cash their fattened royalty checks; where deans are impressionable, they will get their raises.

But, the true windfall of September 11 may be just around the corner. The U.S. Congress is asking why Johnny can’t read (or speak) Arabic, Dari, and Pashto. And, it wants Americans to know more about over a billion people, friends and enemies, who profess Islam. The international studies lobby is casting September 11 as the equivalent of the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957: a nasty surprise whose recurrence the profs can help to prevent, provided the public purse is opened wide to area studies. Vast new entitlements for Middle Eastern studies are under discussion, and academic salesmen are busy repackaging their wares for an eager market. Middle Eastern studies could strike the mother lode. Watch this column.

23 Quoted by Mark Clayton, “Standing Room Only,” The Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 2, 2001.