Bernard Lewis and MESA’s Shame

The president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has just published a letter to members of the association. So I have exercised my prerogative as the anti-MESA, to write my own letter to the members. Check back soon: letters to MESA could become a habit.

Dear MESA members,

We last met in Chicago in December 1998—the MESA conference that celebrated and canonized Edward Said on the twentieth anniversary of his book Orientalism. Many of you will recall the occasion. A diverse panel—not diverse intellectually, but diverse in the ways that really count in academe (ethnicity and gender)—hailed Said as the conquering hero of the field. MESA’s multitudes celebrated this achievement with repeated standing ovations for Said. The atmosphere was one of feverish triumphalism.

It was also premature. Since then, you have entered a state of disarray. One younger scholar has claimed that you have embraced a “bunker mentality.”

Recently, in order to fend off criticism, your leaders have told the public that yours is a diverse association, hospitable to every view, an arena of real contention. So explain this piece of evidence to the contrary.

Prior to 9/11, MESA had nine honorary fellows, “outstanding internationally recognized scholars who have made major contributions to Middle East studies.” Ten persons may be so honored at any one time; one was Edward Said. Shortly after 9/11, I suggested to one of your influential members that the easiest way for the field to apologize for past error (without admitting it) would be to honor Bernard Lewis by offering him the vacant slot. It would do nothing for Lewis, but it would signal to the American public that MESA wasn’t blind to his monumental scholarly contribution.

I understand that a board member of MESA did propose Lewis, formally—and that the proposal was shot down for a lack of support. Last fall, Said died, and a second slot opened. A short time later, both vacant slots were filled by two scholars whose works, whatever their merits, do not begin to approach Lewis’s contributions to Middle Eastern studies. To refresh your memories, here is your list.

What sentient being would compile a list of the ten major living contributors to Middle Eastern studies, and exclude Bernard Lewis? One of your own past presidents, in an important and fair assessment of Lewis, cited “the extraordinary range of his scholarship, his capacity to command the totality of Islamic and Middle Eastern history from Muhammad down to the present day. This is not merely a matter of erudition; rather, it reflects an almost unparalleled ability to fit things together into a detailed and comprehensive synthesis. In this regard, it is hard to imagine that Lewis will have any true successors.” Since that appraisal, Lewis has raised the bar still higher, writing two international bestsellers.

What possible reason could there be for the exclusion of Lewis from your list, and the inclusion of Edward Said (and lesser figures), except political bias? Your current president tells you this: “There is no desire on the part of [MESA’s] board to turn MESA into a political organization.” This claim is easy and convenient to make. The difficulty is that MESA is already a political organization, as the Lewis case demonstrates.

A group within MESA—I cannot say whether it is a majority or a minority—has used the organization consistently as an instrument of political advocacy. It has done so by grading scholars on the basis of their politics. This happens all the time in university appointments and promotions. It is therefore the role of the professional association—if it is professional and not political—to establish a purely professional measure of distinction, for the emulation of its members. Instead, MESA has followed the basest political instincts of its most benighted segments. No denial can conceal this fact.

You now have before you a proposal to change MESA’s mission statement, to include the defense of academic freedom among its functions. MESA is profoundly unsuited to this task. By the choices I have described, MESA has undercut academic freedom. It has excluded on the basis of politics; its very standing as a professional association is open to question. MESA’s honorary fellows are distinguished scholars all. But the list, as a whole, is a badge of MESA’s shame.

I hope you will pardon me if I take the liberty of writing to you again, about other matters of mutual concern.

Yours respectfully,

Martin Kramer