MESA: Nothing Learned, Nothing Forgotten

A Washington friend has rushed ahead of me, reading through the program of the next annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). That conference will meet at the end of November in Washington. (Every third year, the meeting takes place in the nation’s capital, in order to demonstrate the health of Middle Eastern studies to government funders.) This is what my friend discovered:

I read through the MESA conference program. Amazingly, they still haven’t learned—not even enough to cover their tracks. The words “al-Qaeda” and “Osama bin Laden” are nowhere to be found. The word “terrorism” is either between quotation marks or in the context of “Arab Responses to America’s War on Terrorism.” Not a single panel on suicide bombings, the impact of Wahhabism, or the ideological roots of Osama. These people are still spending their time on “Sex, Gender and Family Structures in Modernizing Projects of the Early 20th Century” and “Perspectives on Today’s Middle East Textile Industry”—nail-biters all! You would think the smart people in this business would have led an in-house corrective movement, to forestall another attack. But evidently they either didn’t try or were rebuffed.

Now no one can object to lectures on clothes and sex. And reading through the program, I confess that many of the more obscure subjects appeal to my antiquarian tastes. But there is very little in this program to justify the notion that Middle Eastern studies serve the national interest, or that they deserve the massive increase in federal funding authorized by Congress last January. Given the fact that the conference is meeting in Washington, the omissions are even more striking.

Journalists should read the program as an invitation to find out whether anything has changed at MESA since Franklin Foer wrote his devastating New Republic piece on last year’s conclave in San Francisco. To the extent that the program reflects the research priorities approved by the mandarins of Middle Eastern studies, the answer would appear to be a resounding “no.”