Over the break, Gilles Kepel, the French Arabist, published a Tocquevillian opinion piece on Middle Eastern studies in America, in the Financial Times. Kepel, who recently traversed America on a book tour, stakes out a position between the rival camps—but not exactly in between.
Kepel writes of how the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), once “the central forum for intellectual debates in the field… is now a shadow of what it was. Debate takes place instead inside think-tanks, which all have agendas, be they political, cultural or religious. They are usually stimulating places, but not for scholarship and pursuit of knowledge.”
During Kepel’s tour, he and I did debate at one of those nefarious think tanks, and it was stimulating. The disappearance of real debate at MESA is the legacy of Edward Said, whose disciples turned the association into a popular front for the liberation of their field. MESA is as despotic as any satrapy in the Middle East; its militant leaders garner standing ovations in plenary sessions that look like political rallies. Kepel has provided important external validation for what he now calls the “sorry state” of Middle Eastern studies in America. Americans should take note.
Addendum: Tim Cavanaugh at Hit and Run wonders how I could endorse the views of Gilles Kepel, when Daniel Pipes so dislikes him. Well, I have my own view of Kepel, and Pipes has his, and they are different. Shocking, isn’t it?