Arab studies in critical condition?

“Arab Studies: A Critical Review” that was the title of the thirtieth anniversary symposium of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. I’m grateful to the organizers for inviting me to participate. I learned a lot. In fact, it was an eye-opener.

The bottom line is this: just now, there aren’t many new and interesting ideas in the field, and people aren’t spending a lot of energy trying to come up with any. Instead of ideas, there are obsessions.

The most dominating obsession of them all is the think tanks. An entire cottage industry has emerged within the field, focused on analyzing the think tanks: their intellectual genealogies, the key personalities, and the techniques by which they’ve usurped the academy as the seat of “knowledge-based expertise.”

What I find alarming is how little direct experience or empirical research informs all this. You wouldn’t deliver a paper on the tribes of the High Atlas without actually having gone there and interviewed a few of the sheikhs. But you can expound on think tanks without having taken even one neocon to a K Street lunch. The result is a lot of factual errors about who is connected to whom, and a confusion even in basic affiliations. The rule seems to be that, when in doubt, say that whoever you don’t like is part of the Middle East Forum, the outfit of Daniel Pipes. (One speaker who should have known better was quite certain that Bernard Lewis was some kind of affiliate of the Forum, and indeed owed his influence in Washington to it. Really.)

In addition to hand-wringing over the think tanks and their false expertise, there was more ritual stoning of devils: Lewis, Pipes, Kanan Makiya, Fouad Ajami, Judith Miller, and the latest addition, Dennis Ross. If this list sounds familiar, it should: the late Edward Said cast the first stone at all of them, and continuing the tradition affirms membership in the church.

The presence of Said was very much felt in the room. One panel, in particular, devoted itself to recitation of his saintly virtues. A certain panelist, one of Said’s former students, who talks the talk from Palestine to Proust, is an uncanny mimic of the great man, down to his intonation and mannerisms. Discipleship rises (or maybe sinks) to a new level. (I’m not mentioning any names of speakers in this entry, but you can judge for yourself once the video of the proceedings is posted.)

How was I received at this gathering? With gracious, unfailing hospitality. Here I’ll mention a couple of names: Professors Judith Tucker and Michael Hudson, the organizers, seemed genuinely pleased to have me there. I asked each of them what possessed them to invite me, and they both answered that they hoped it would make the proceedings more interesting and lively. I tried not to disappoint. Here’s my presentation as delivered. I made a rather novel argument, and I think I struck the right note. The panel on which I spoke, entitled “Arab Studies in the Cross-hairs,” was particularly well-attended, and I was gratified to see so many students in the audience.

I didn’t hesitate for a moment to accept the Georgetown invitation. In fact, I’m willing to speak at any Middle East center that has the self-confidence to invite me. (Well, almost any.) I’ll be back in Washington right through the fall. Plan early.