Middle East Studies: What is the Debate About?

On April 4-5, 2005, Brandeis University convened the inaugural conference of the new Crown Center for Middle East Studies. The opening session bore the title “Middle East Studies in the United States: What is the Debate About?” Panelists included Steven Caton, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University; Malik Mufti, director of the Middle East Studies Program at Tufts University; and Martin Kramer. The following are Martin Kramer’s remarks, as delivered.

It’s an honor for me to be the first speaker at the opening panel of this inaugural conference. Professor Shai Feldman [the director of the new center] and Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz are both old friends, and I’m delighted to celebrate this inauguration with them. Congratulations, too, to Lester Crown and the Crown family, whose endowment of this new center is an act of inspired generosity. I hope it meets all their expectations.

I’ve said on more than one occasion that I myself have expectations of this initiative. These expectations don’t approach in significance those of the people directly involved. Still, what I propose to do here is explain not only “what the debate is about,” but more importantly, what I think the role of a new center like this one should be, in a field riven by controversy.

What is the debate about? The article in the Boston Globe the Sunday before last purported to give a primer, and noted that Professor Feldman doesn’t really know that much about it. Let me save Professor Feldman some time. He can function perfectly well without knowing all about the skirmishes over Campus Watch, H.R.3077, and the film Columbia Unbecoming. They’re not the essence of the debate. To some extent, these crises are a convenient substitute or shorthand for debate. Behind each of them looms some larger principle, but it’s not always crystal clear what that principle is, or how the crisis will affect it. It would be a mistake for Professor Feldman to immerse himself in the details of these controversies, because they consume time, and he won’t be in a position to affect their outcome anyway. It’s part of my job, not his.

But there is a debate in which each of us must take a position, including the Crown Center. It revolves around two questions. The first is this: what is academic expertise on the Middle East? And the second: what should be the role of the academic expert at a time of crisis and war?

Professor Feldman has dealt with these issues in the Israeli context, and indeed struck what may be described as a fine balance in the Jaffee Center. Here the context is rather different. Middle Eastern studies as a field have given the wrong answers to these questions for the past twenty-five years answers that represent a break from an earlier American tradition, and bear no resemblance to answers Professor Feldman gave at the Jaffee Center.

Let us start with this question: What is academic expertise on the Middle East? Or put another way, who is an expert? The question has dogged Middle Eastern studies from the outset. You might think that this is a simple matter: an academic expert is someone with a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies or in a mainstream discipline with a Middle East emphasis.

But it’s much more complex, thanks to the late Edward Said. In his book Orientalism, he threw out the old definitions of expertise and proposed a radical new one. Said argued that whatever the level of competence achieved by Western scholars, it was negated by a profound prejudice against their subject matter. That prejudice had roots in the long history of Western aggression and imperialism against the East. Orientalism, in Said’s lexicon, became a kind of antisemitism against “the Other,” and against Arabs and Muslims in particular.

The repudiation of established expertise unfolded in a striking passage in Orientalism that effectively cancelled the validity of any Western scholarship on the East: “For a European or American studying the Orient there can be no disclaiming the main circumstances of his actuality: that he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second.”

In one sweep, this passage added two implicit credentials to the list of criteria for expertise. The first was ethnic. Who could escape the Orientalist bind, if not the Oriental himself? All things being equal (or even unequal), should not the authentic voice be preferred? The second was political. Said offered the prospect of redemption from Orientalism through politics: he praised the work of some Westerners as having transcended prejudice, as evidenced by their willingness to identify with the political causes of “the Other,” and above all, with the cause of the Palestinians, which he established as a litmus test.

Said’s message revolutionized Middle Eastern studies. It turned what had been an old-fashioned guild of practitioners into a popular front of Third Worldist activists. Said’s ideas rode the crest of the academic tsunami that brought radicalism from grad student lounges to faculty clubs. And this popular front, once empowered, purged doubters and dissenters. Left-wing progressive, emancipatory Third Worldism became the ethos of the academic establishment of Middle Eastern studies, and so it is today.

This new guard promised to get things right where the old guard had been wrong. Alas, despite the elevation of these new criteria of expertise, they didn’t save post-Orientalist Middle Eastern studies from error. This is the theme of my book, Ivory Towers on Sand. It isn’t about bias; it’s about error. In a sentence, post-Orientalist Middle Eastern studies underestimated the rising power of Islamism, and overestimated the potential of civil society. The new mandarins predicted revolutionary change by progressive forces, the very forces admired and promoted by Edward Said; the Middle East instead got Islamism, whose trajectory the academic experts plotted erroneously. The right politics or the right ethnicity, or the right combination of the two, didn’t provide protection against error. In fact, it may have invited it, by shutting out consideration of other possibilities.

This is the face of Middle Eastern studies, and it hasn’t changed, at least not yet. And this brings me to my first piece of advice to Professor Feldman. On the question of “what is expertise,” or “who is an expert,” you can’t profess agnosticism. The core idea of Edward Said is an error that has produced still more errors. People will come to you urging that you include the Saidian side, for the sake of balance or diversity. I urge you to stand your ground, to refrain from endorsing expertise that’s really just advocacy in disguise, and that’s directly responsible for the epistemological crisis in Middle Eastern studies today.

To find expertise that hasn’t been compromised, you will have to go outside the box, well beyond conventional Middle Eastern studies that is, beyond the people who hold Ph.D.s from Middle East programs. You’ll need some Middle East academics, because this isn’t a center for strategic studies. But much expertise in many disciplines can be tapped from other sources. Ignore the carping of the gatekeepers in the other centers and in the Middle East Studies Association. Doctorates in Middle Eastern studies aren’t the ultimate credential, and they haven’t spared their holders from error or dogmatism. Your criteria should be excellence, not ethnicity; proficiency, not politics.

Good people are as widely available outside the academy as inside it. This is particularly true in the Middle East itself. Brandeis was once famed for taking in people whose career development had been fractured by the rise of Nazism in Europe. The Middle East, which is seized by so many problems, still spits out people at all stages of their careers. It would be fully in accord with the Brandeis tradition to search out the best of these people, regardless of their formal credentials, and make space for them.

I come now to the second question at the heart of the debate: what should be the role of the academic expert at a time of crisis and war? Of course, this issue goes far beyond Middle Eastern studies, but it has special relevance to the field, for this reason: because of crisis and war, the U.S. government is lavishing new resources on Middle Eastern studies.

Post-9/11, the Congress and the Administration expanded its subsidies to the field dramatically, and added to the number of subsidized centers. There are seventeen National Resource Centers for the Middle East, more than at any time in American history. Other new federal programs are at stages of implementation or planning. After 9/11, I urged that no new money be put into the field, unless and until Congress made a reassessment. I was ignored. The Bush administration will go down as the greatest material benefactor of Middle Eastern studies ever. The attitude in the administration is perhaps best 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.

But here is the paradox. The field is full of people whose perspective is Third Worldist, often militantly so. They distrust or detest every and any U.S. policy, from preemptive war through democracy promotion. They have an attitude to the American use of force as predictable as any antiwar group. Edward Said warned them against complicity with power, especially imperial power, and they have done everything to distance themselves from it.

Well, almost. They remain hopelessly addicted to the public treasury, which has opened to them in the name of national security, and they’d like it to open still further. They, too, want the spoils of war. And they’re intensely jealous and resentful of the Washington think tanks that have inserted themselves in the policy arena, especially those think tanks devoted to the Middle East.

As a result, a debate is underway about the relationship between Middle Eastern studies and Washington. It is most intense in the subsidized National Research Centers. The last time this debate took place, with the same urgency, was twenty years ago at Harvard. The director of the Harvard center at the time took CIA money for a conference and research, and was pilloried and disgraced as a result. Washington saw the reaction, and disengaged almost entirely from the field. But post-9/11, the agencies of government are knocking at the doors of academe once more, seeking cooperation in training and research.

Among today’s students and a few younger faculty, there are many who would partner with Washington; but among the tenured radicals who form the establishment, there is a profound suspicion. Middle Eastern studies, in this regard, are entirely different from strategic studies and public policy studies. The culture is really a counter-culture, which holds the ideas of the national interest and national service to be foreign to its purposes.

What does this mean for the Crown Center? Again, on this question, I don’t think there’s room for agnosticism. It is true that the center isn’t funded from the public purse. It has no contractual obligation to government. But while the other centers debate, the Crown Center has an opportunity to act. The United States faces many difficult choices in the Middle East, and for its benefit and the benefit of the region, it’s crucial that these choices be well-informed.

In addition to the center’s purely academic role, it can actually propel itself to the new forefront of Middle Eastern studies, by entering a partnership with Washington. It need not emulate the think tanks, which tend to generate work of immediate policy relevance. But there is an immense demand for deeper research on the state, Islamism, civil society, and democratization.

These are actually the areas where academic Middle Eastern studies have had some impact in Washington. I’ve been surprised to see how certain concepts, popular in Middle Eastern studies in the 1990s, have migrated across ideological and political divides, into the think tanks and then into government. U.S. policy is predicated on some of them. It’s important, I think, to reexamine some of these ideas, from an academic platform, and to share the results with Washington. There is opportunity here to make a difference, at a crucial moment when the United States weighs its ideals against Middle Eastern realities, in planning its forward strategy for democracy.

I conclude. There aren’t two camps in Middle Eastern studies, between which the Crown Center must maneuver. Middle Eastern studies are only one camp. But it’s dangerous to enter it, because a fever rages inside it. Until it passes, it’s important for the Crown Center to pitch its own tent, on its own ground. It cannot and must not accept the standard answers of Middle Eastern studies to the two questions at the core of debate. In that respect, it can’t but assume a dissident position, for now and for some time to come.

But I’m also fundamentally optimistic. The fever will pass. I see many signs that it’s abating, especially among a younger generation of students and scholars, who think that the status quo must change. In the past, a new Middle East center would eagerly seek to conform to the establishment model, and win acceptance. This is tempting. It’s also a trap. I have expectations of the Crown Center, and they are these: that it celebrate its difference, that it provide an alternative, that it prove there is another way forward. It mustn’t waste time reinventing the wheel. Instead, it should figure out how to fly.

My best wishes, once more, to the center on its inauguration. May it prosper.