Arab Studies: My Critical Review

On April 1, 2005, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University hosted a panel on “Arab Studies in the Cross-hairs,” as part of the center’s thirtieth-anniversary symposium entitled “Arab Studies: A Critical Review.” Participants on the panel including Michael Hudson, As’ad AbuKhalil, and Martin Kramer.

The following are Martin Kramer’s remarks, as delivered. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

It’s a privilege for me to address this symposium. It’s no secret that I’ve been an occasional critic of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. So I commend the organizers of this symposium for including me in the program. The leadership position of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies is so unassailable, that it can afford to do what no other Title VI center has deigned to do since I published Ivory Towers on Sand: offer me a platform. It’s a sign of your strength that I am here today.

This conference has yet to live up to its title. It is devoted to Arab studies, but it hasn’t been a critical review. It’s been a self-validating review. Virtually all the criticism has been directed against perceived rivals. That’s telling, and it leaves me wondering what a conference called “Arab Studies: A Celebration” might look like.

This lack of deep introspection would bewilder a complete outsider. The hand-wringing lament about the think tanks; the ritual denunciations of any U.S. policy, from preemptive war through democracy promotion; the hagiographic embellishments of the Edward Said legend; the exorcism of Bernard Lewis—and none of that rigorous self-criticism that was the hallmark of Hisham Sharabi, to whose memory this symposium is devoted. I have a professional interest in these things, because they validate my own assertions, sometimes even beyond my expectations. But to anyone else, these proceedings must seem fundamentalist in the narrowness of their range.

Then again, I am here, and my mission is very simple. It isn’t to convince anyone in this room—that’s beyond my power. It is to plant a seed of doubt. If you find yourself, against every impulse and instinct, agreeing with just one thing I say, I will regard this morning as well spent.

No one has bothered to characterize Middle Eastern studies since your last state-of-the-art conference fifteen years ago. In the 1990s, I would argue, Middle Eastern studies became comfortable, routine, and self-congratulatory. The revolutionaries, the grad students of the 1970s, had become much-titled members of the establishment. Edward Said’s insights had hardened among his disciples into dogmatic pieties. Students had ceased to rebel. MESA presidents grumbled about the rise of the think tanks, but no one rose to the challenge. Federal funding stayed reliably constant, and people stopped worrying about it. There was a ripple of concern when the concept of area studies came under question, but the threat soon passed. As for the Middle East itself, the field shared in the general complacency that preceded 9/11, and perhaps even contributed to it. So Ivory Towers on Sand was a shot well placed, and perfectly timed.

Or so it seemed at the time. Since then, I have watched in wonder as Middle Eastern studies have advanced from gain to gain. On the pages of the Wall Street Journal, I warned Congress not to put another penny into Middle Eastern studies, and a month later it invested millions more. Title VI funding rose from $80 million to over $100 million a year, and most of the increase has gone to the study of Muslim areas. Today, there are seventeen National Resource Centers for the Middle East, more than at any time in American history. In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States wanted to boost study of the Middle East, and it had no alternative to the edifice built over the previous fifty years. President Bush will go down as the Title VI president, and the greatest material patron of Middle Eastern studies in American history. The prevailing sentiment in this administration might be conveyed by paraphrasing Secretary Rumsfeld: you go to war with the Middle Eastern studies you have, not the ones you might want or wish to have.

There’s more. The governing ideas of Middle Eastern studies in the 1990s have become the bedrock of current U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The first of these ideas is that a vibrant civil society exists just beneath the surface of Middle Eastern polities, and that a major reason it hasn’t surfaced is U.S. acquiescence in or support for authoritarian regimes. This presumption was the basis of the “civil society” industry of the 1990s in Middle Eastern studies. The second idea is the diversity of Islamism, and its openness to moderation through inclusion in the political process. Professor Esposito famously championed this idea from this university. These two concepts governed Middle Eastern studies in the 1990s. They are a powerful current in the Middle East policy of the Bush administration today, occupying a point of convergence among liberalism, post-Orientalism, and neoconservatism. That point is this: a repudiation of Arab-Muslim exceptionalism.

The existence of such a convergence isn’t acknowledged in academe. The self-perception of Middle Eastern studies, these past several years, has been one of a field under virtual siege, a field whose dominant ideas have been totally ignored by the powers-that-be. This notion of a field besieged and scorned is a self-serving myth. Those who repeat it show no grasp of the complex and ironic processes by which academic paradigms can and do percolate to the top of the decision-making pyramid. By such a process, an idea like pressuring friendly regimes to yield to “moderate” Islamists as a way-station to democracy winds its way from the academy to the American Enterprise Institute and then to the inner sanctums—trimmed, adjusted, and repackaged, but essentially intact. U.S. policy has come to depend in good part on paradigms that originated in the workshops of Middle Eastern studies. Just as there were no other Middle Eastern studies into which government could pour money, there were no alternative paradigms about state and society which it could appropriate.

So the state-society paradigms of Middle Eastern studies won by default. You might lament that your specific ideas on Iraq and Palestine do not resonate. But on the use of American force and the primacy of Palestine, you have a reputation of being as doctrinaire as an anti-war group, and as predictable as an ethnic lobby. Where you claim some exclusive expertise, though, your ideas have percolated upwards.

Even the attacks on the field have not harmed the field, and probably benefited it. Their effect has been to alleviate the traditional isolation of Middle Eastern studies within the academy.

Campus Watch bore sufficient resemblance to a 1950s blacklist that it could be portrayed as such, and this had the effect of rallying academics around the field.

H.R.3077, as misrepresented in the academy, rallied all of international and area studies around Middle Eastern studies, to repel the assault. In the process, Middle Eastern studies gained something they had never had: high-level academic allies. The tangible result of the controversy has been almost $2 million in contracts to the National Research Council and the Social Science Research Council, to study Title VI. In all likelihood, they will pronounce Title VI healthy—and in need of a lot more money.

As for the Columbia affair, the endgame will involve a significant expansion of Middle Eastern studies at Columbia, which is likely to be emulated by other universities that encounter similar problems.

In sum, Middle Eastern studies, post-9/11, are not plunged into an existential crisis. To the contrary: they’re awash in resources, their ideas have resonated in high places, and all of academe has rallied to their defense. It’s been impossible to exclude them from their share of the spoils of war—and not for want of trying.

Is this not the moment for the leaders of the field finally to address the well-grounded critique of Middle Eastern studies? It seems to me that from the position of strength enjoyed by Middle Eastern studies—and this Center is an example—debate and reassessment pose no danger.

Let me remind you of the nature of that critique, as I made it in Ivory Towers. It wasn’t primarily about bias. It was about error. The book’s two core chapters dealt with errors in assessing the aims and the trajectory of Islamism; and errors in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the state and of civil society. In a sentence, the perils of Islamism had been underestimated, the potential of civil society had been overestimated. In pointing out errors, I hoped to compel a reexamination of underlying paradigms.

I was disappointed. This is not the place to consider the arguments of the reviewers in detail. For now, I note that a few themes recur, the most common being that I read selectively, and so missed this or that article, which would have proved that insiders knew precisely of the pitfalls I pointed to; or that I misunderstood what I did read because of my inadequate grounding in the social sciences, especially as I seemed to insist on accurate prediction as a measure of their validity. (I’m amused, a few years later, to see how some of the very same academics now claim validity for their expertise by citing their predictions on Iraq.) Interestingly, quite a few reviewers were suddenly at pains to protest that the field did not answer to Edward Said; and one reviewer even boxed Said and I together, as the authors of two equally outrageous attacks on the field.

Now I actually think I did rather better than Said did in Orientalism in at least one respect, in identifying the actual center of the field I critiqued. But I will accept the parallel, for the sake of argument. Ivory Towers, like Orientalism, may have been selective in its use of evidence. Ivory Towers, like Orientalism, may have lacked nuance in representing the state of certain disciplines. Ivory Towers, like Orientalism, may have had a polemical edge, since it named names. But Ivory Towers, like Orientalism, also spoke a fundamental truth, and it is the same truth: that the Western academy still represents the Middle East as it needs it to be, and as it wants it to be.

Edward Said wrote this nearly twenty-five years ago, and I quote:

There is no denying that a scholar sitting in Oxford or Boston writes and researches principally, though not exclusively, according to standards, conventions, and expectations shaped by his or her peers, not by the Muslims being studied. This is a truism, perhaps, but it needs emphasis just the same.

This is just as true now as it was then, even though the standards, conventions and expectations largely conform to those established by Said himself. In fact, it’s even truer, because, over the past twenty years, those conventions have grown rigid and unforgiving. Under the illusion that scholars had escaped Said’s truism, that they now really knew “the Muslims being studied,” a quiet purge swept Middle Eastern studies. The old guild, which tended to value proficiency, gave way to a popular front, which insisted upon conformity. The idea spread that Middle Eastern studies, a small and incestuous field at the best of times, didn’t need diversity. Their mission was to stand as a bulwark against the media, the government, and the think tanks.

In Ivory Towers, I showed how “the Muslims being studied” still somehow managed to elude even this popular front, which had erred precisely because it had failed to diversify. And I concluded that this problem could only be solved by deliberately reopening Middle Eastern studies. The Middle Eastern studies nomenklatura may be impossible to abolish, I wrote, but it must permit opposition. And I would argue that there is no better moment to run that risk than now.

Why now? The history of Middle Eastern studies is largely one of boom and bust. At the moment, the field is booming. But there is another truism I bring in the book, this one from Gustav von Grunebaum. I quote:

No group, society, or civilization, so history allows us to postulate, will consistently support an intellectual endeavor unless it believes this effort to be serviceable either to its practical or to its existential needs.

Middle Eastern studies cannot escape this truism either, and it means they must always justify themselves, at some level, by meeting practical and existential needs. And they must do so more insistently than, say, postcolonial studies, precisely because they’re addicted to the public treasury, which has opened up to them in the name of national security.

Earlier I said that Middle Eastern studies have prospered by default since 9/11. But the fact that they don’t prioritize what the nation prioritizes isn’t a secret anymore. Of course no one expects the field to chain itself to meeting practical and existential needs. The problem is that it stigmatizes and punishes the very few who are willing to consider issues from just that angle. As a result, the genteel game, by which vice-provosts go to Washington to pitch area studies in the nation’s service, and Washington gives them benefit of the doubt, has become a little too transparent.

I get messages all the time from latecomers and newcomers who say they want to do things differently, and directly answer the needs not being met by Middle Eastern studies. These aren’t think tankers, these are academics, and they have identified a willingness in university administrations to generate entirely new academic programs that do meet those needs. I go from here to Brandeis, which is inaugurating a new Middle East center. Others are in the planning stage. Academe is full of entrepreneurs and poachers.

If the present boom is not to end in another bust, along with the creation of a parallel universe of Middle Eastern studies—in addition to the think-tank parallel universe—von Grunebaum’s truism must be acknowledged and accepted. The most effective way to do that is to allow a more diverse range of scholars to find their places at the table. The myth of the siege should be set aside; the convergence I alluded to should be acknowledged; the gatekeepers should reopen the gates.

As someone who was educated in Middle East programs and centers at Princeton and Columbia, who taught in or alongside major centers at Chicago and here at Georgetown, who for years attended MESA, I prefer to share one table. If those days are gone forever, then I would like to hear it—I will have learned something important at this meeting. If others share my preference, then I would like to hear that too, and so would many others through me. Then perhaps this meeting will have been a beginning.

My congratulations to the Center on its thirtieth anniversary. I admire its many achievements.