Ivory Towers and Twin Towers, 20 Years Later

• This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of the Middle East Quarterly.

In 2001, my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America became a part of a much bigger and heated discussion over what made the United States vulnerable on 9/11. The main argument in the book was that Middle Eastern studies in America had consistently missed the most important developments in the region. One of them was the rise of very radical forms of Islamist extremism. That claim is why the book took off.

The book does not argue that academics or anyone else could or should have predicted 9/11. Even the greatest experts cannot predict such things. Winston Churchill once said, “It is not given to human beings … to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events.” In fact, nearly all the events that have transformed the Middle East since I started to study it, were surprises: the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, 9/11, and the “Arab Spring.”

However, the book does show that when events failed to conform to academic models, the academics disregarded or distorted the evidence. Still worse, they poured scorn on anyone who dared to propose another way forward. Every intellectual endeavor, to stay credible, has to correct itself. This was the problem: not that Middle Eastern studies got some big things wrong, but that they would not acknowledge it and then revisit their assumptions. This was the greater sin.

New Experts for Old

So much for what preceded 9/11. What has happened since, and what is happening now?

The market share of academics in interpreting the Middle East for Americans is now much smaller than it was right after 9/11. Up until then, studying the Middle East and writing about it were very much a niche industry. The lead producers were university-based academics and a few specialized think tanks. If you were smart and ambitious and did not have a stake in some Middle Eastern fight, you usually specialized in something else. Sure, the Middle East erupted every so often, but it did not stay on the front burner or the front pages for long.

Following 9/11, Americans demanded to know “why they hate us,” and “how do we change them.” At the time, the academic experts were swamped with invites from television producers, newspaper editors, and senior officials. They performed unevenly, to say the least. That was because the academics tended to sound one repetitive note: America is to blame. This was not so much an analysis as an ideological profession of faith.

But very quickly, the whole ecosystem changed. The main effect of 9/11 was to make the Middle East a matter of very wide concern. That meant that smart people who had not given the Middle East much thought made themselves into experts—some, quite credibly.

Not only did the region-specific think tanks grow large. The all-purpose, general think tanks built out large shops to deal with the Middle East. These alternative experts drove the academics out of the limelight. Generally, the non-academic voices ignored the “blame America” narrative and searched for deeper causes. And they discovered a whole world of rage and grievance that the academics had overlooked.

Especially impressive was the way top journalists rode 9/11 to become some of America’s leading interpreters of the Middle East. There is, today, a large shelf of books about al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, Afghanistan and Iraq, Islamism and the “Arab Spring,” written by journalists. Many made the best-seller lists and won prizes.

Then there were the military commanders, diplomats, and intelligence officers who served on front lines from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria. Before 9/11, few of them had much on-the-ground experience in the region. They took an over-the-horizon view. But the wars cycled several million Americans through the Middle East, and many of them developed a high-resolution knowledge of politics, society, and culture. If one looks today at the people summoned to comment on the region, the proportion who had their boots on the ground is very high, and it is likely to stay that way for years to come.

In sum, very little of what the public reads or hears about the Middle East today comes from academics. This is evident in the 9/11 documentaries that have been broadcast in the general media on this twentieth anniversary. Among the quotable talking heads, academics are almost entirely absent. They mostly write for and speak to each other in a narrow circle, or for the slightly wider circle of the farther left.

If one wants more proof, ask this: Does anyone in the field, any credentialed professor of Middle Eastern studies, enjoy any broad name recognition in America? The answer is an obvious “no.” The last one was the late Bernard Lewis. Lewis had two New York Times bestsellers right after 9/11: What Went Wrong and The Crisis of Islam. They were quick, readable syntheses that filled an immediate void and that flew off the shelves.

But Lewis, and to some extent also Fouad Ajami, were the exceptions that proved the rule: The academic study of the Middle East does not produce high-profile public intellectuals.

America has not looked to academics for its ideas about the region in a long while.

A Classroom Monopoly

And yet, Middle Eastern studies still matter, not because of what the academics say or write but because of what they teach.

The most prestigious universities are no longer the beacons on a hill they once were, but their degrees are still coveted. One still gets mileage from a Princeton degree, or one from Harvard. These are the most durable brands in America, some predating American independence. So it is not surprising that young people still compete ferociously to get into these schools. And from there, they will go on to make policy, form opinion, and command U.S. power in the world.

The best guess is that the indoctrination in these places is as bad as ever. It is a “guess” because the classroom is not public domain. But if academics teach in the classroom what they say and write in the public domain, then it is still a closed circle. Back around 9/11, there were maybe half a dozen universities where a student could find enough balance to get a credential worth having. Today, one would not need all the fingers of one hand.

Previously, the government might have been able to balance things in institutions subsidized by the taxpayer, such as university Middle East centers. Now, that is doubtful. Higher education has an effective lobby in Washington, and the White House and Congress do not care much because, in relative terms, the money is quite small. So yes, by all means, let us have accountability for biased outreach programs. And let us have universities disclose foreign funding as required by law. But let us not delude ourselves because this will not make much of a dent.

What does seem to work, at least in certain cases, is shaming. Of course, much of academe is shameless, and in those places, the game is long lost. But even in this era of rampant “wokeness,” there are university administrations that care about quality. Calling out error and bias in these settings—as Middle East Forum’s Campus Watch does—has some value. It is not going to reverse the trend. It is not going to stop it. But it might slow it down.

Taking the Initiative

But criticism can only do so much. Just as important is creating alternatives. For example, on the disciplinary level, there is the alternative to the Middle East Studies Association, named the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, or ASMEA. The Middle East Quarterly also makes room for dissenting views. In the field of international relations, including the Middle East, there is the Alexander Hamilton Society. And there are some initiatives at individual universities and colleges.

Creating alternatives is labor-intensive because it involves swimming against the prevailing currents in academe. Success requires cunning, tact, and money. And there is no packaged formula: Every campus is a planet unto itself. What flies on one will crash on another.

But this is the only way left open. We are not going to witness a revolution in Middle Eastern studies. A generation or more will have to die out before that has a chance of happening. The objective must be more modest: to create some space for alternative views and free debate on the Middle East. To some extent, that has been achieved over the past twenty years. The challenge of the next twenty years is to enlarge that space and fill it.


Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from a Campus Watch webinar interview by Winfield Myers, September 10, 2021.

Campus Watch: You mentioned the disappearance of star professors of the caliber of Bernard Lewis. With all due respect to journalists and other non-academic commentators, has anyone really filled those shoes? Has the quality of information that is available to the public today regarding the Middle East, regardless of its source, increased or decreased over the past twenty years?

Kramer: My overall impression is that it has probably increased in terms of firsthand familiarity with the situation on the ground. Hundreds of people were sent out to “cover” the region, and they accessed information that even people like Bernard Lewis couldn’t access.

For example, prior to 9/11, the bookshelf on Saudi Arabia was virtually empty. Academics didn’t work on it, either because they couldn’t get access, or they were afraid that if they wrote something uncomplimentary about Saudi Arabia, it would forever block their universities from ever getting any Saudi funding. After 9/11, journalists began to pick up the story, and now we have a very impressive accounting of Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia, the leading actors in the Saudi royal house, and so on.

So yes, there’s more out there, in absolute terms of quantity. What we don’t have is what the likes of Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami provided: the longer historical perspective. That was something that could only be done by academic scholars. No one is doing it for a wider public today. So we get a lot of reportage of a very high quality. But we haven’t had a major book or even a major article in a mass circulation outlet like The Atlantic or The New Yorker putting things in the broader historical perspective.

CW: To what practical extent does foreign funding, particularly but not exclusively from Saudi Arabia, impact the agenda of Middle Eastern studies? Does this funding play the same role that it did twenty or twenty-five years ago?

Kramer: There is still some money coming in. But I think the more interesting development isn’t so much the funding of Middle Eastern studies, but the satellite campuses that have been created by American universities in some of the Persian Gulf states. These universities are internationalizing and creating dependent relationships on certain governments.

I think that many gulf states play a positive role overall in Middle Eastern politics. The Abraham Accords represent a signal breakthrough. But I’m always wary of partnerships between institutions that pride themselves on promoting the pursuit of truth and the free and open exchange of ideas, and governments for which these things are anathema, or at least not priorities.

If you’re in the Middle Eastern studies department in a university that is avidly pursuing a relationship with a moneyed Middle Eastern state, you’re likely to pull your punches. The effect is not so much to generate scholarship that is sympathetic to these countries but to take unbiased study of those countries off the agenda. No one who wants to advance a career is going to focus on these countries if that’s going to alienate their dean or provost.

So you get black holes of research, which no one ventures to fill. It’s the non-academics who have managed to keep up our understanding of what goes on in these black holes. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. We’re just going to have to live with the fact that the flow of foreign money is a force that constricts the range of study of the Middle East in the American academy.

CW: Does anything remain of the role of the liberal Arabists of old? Is that still a viable school of thought within Middle Eastern studies? If so, how does it affect views about Israel’s existence?

Kramer: The liberal Arabists were pushed out of Middle Eastern studies a while ago. One of the last of them was Malcolm Kerr from UCLA, later president of the American University of Beirut, where he was assassinated. He wrote a very sharp critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism.

There was some degree of fair-mindedness about the liberal Arabists. They had their biases and prejudices, and they certainly regretted the creation of Israel. But they understood that Israel had to be accommodated, provided it made far-reaching concessions to the Arabs and the Palestinians.

But these liberals were pushed aside long ago. The people who determine the pace of Middle Eastern studies today tend to be radical leftists. And they aren’t focused on the terms of accommodation with Israel. They seek to delegitimize it completely; they lend their support to BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement], and they champion the “one-state solution” in a form that would end Israel. If only there were still some liberal Arabists around, we could have a meaningful dialogue with them. But instead, we’re stuck with radicals, many of whom come from radical political traditions within the Middle East. The Middle East Studies Association resembles nothing so much as a semi-official union of academics in some benighted dictatorship in the Middle East.

CW: Just to segue into that, you have over the years noted the increase in the share of those professors whose origins are in the Middle East—not simply by ancestry, but who were themselves born there, and who have come to the United States to work. Do you see that trend continuing? Are we going to continue to import faculty at the rate we have over the past twenty or thirty years?

Kramer: I don’t know. I don’t have the statistical basis on which to answer that.

As a general matter of principle, people coming from the Middle East to teach in American universities could be a huge asset. Fouad Ajami, an immigrant from Lebanon, was one of my undergraduate teachers, and later my close friend. He made a major contribution to America’s understanding of the Middle East.

There is potentially huge value here. The problem is when people bring along, in their baggage, the very same ideas in which they were indoctrinated in their countries of origin. Ajami was a good example. As a young man, he was indoctrinated as a Nasserist. But through his long engagement with American values, American mores, American politics, and Americans, he had a change of heart.

And so it’s really a question of acculturation. We want an amalgam of people with regional knowledge. Sometimes the knowledge of individuals who come from the region can’t be surpassed. But are they acculturated to the values that America generally shares, such as openness, tolerance, and the free exchange of ideas? That’s a problem for those who remain embedded in another culture and have not adapted to the norms that make intellectual life in America tolerable.

CW: You have written that when you received your PhD in 1981, so grim was the situation that you didn’t bother applying for jobs in the United States. That was forty years ago. It doesn’t seem to be getting any better in hiring. The gates are still controlled by the people who are as hostile to someone with your viewpoint as they were when you came out of Princeton. Do you agree with that? Can anything be done about such ideological homogeneity?

Kramer: I hate to end on a pessimistic note. But I have a hard time even getting invited to speak on American campuses today.

I come back to the point I made in my remarks, about creating alternatives. I see shoots coming up from the ground that have the potential to create alternatives even within an academic setting. And remember, while the top tier institutions are the same as when I was a graduate student, once you get down to second and third tier, there’s a lot of room for entrepreneurs to try new approaches.

I said earlier that no one can make predictions about the Middle East. I don’t think anyone can make predictions about Middle Eastern studies and be sure that they’ll come to pass. So, I’ll just end on an optimistic note and say that, hopefully, in another twenty years on the fortieth anniversary of Ivory Towers on Sand, I’ll be able to report on more progress.

Ivory Towers on Sand at 20

This week marks twenty years to the launch of my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. That’s a whole generation. Someone who sat in second grade on 9/11 (like the elementary school kids visited by President Bush that morning in Florida) may be finishing a Ph.D.

This is an invitation to that generation to read Ivory Towers and consider the controversy it stirred. The establishment in the field would prefer to forget both the book and the controversy, which is precisely the reason they should be revisited. There is no progress without contention, and the debate stimulated by my book was a good thing. The fact that there hasn’t been a comparable dust-up in twenty years doesn’t speak well for Middle Eastern studies. Like the Middle East itself, there was a glimmer of “spring,” followed by a return to a long “winter.”

Over the years, I’ve occasionally issued assessments of the field, usually because someone invited me to do so. This happened as recently as last month, on the anniversary of 9/11. None of these “updates” was as comprehensive or timely as the original book, but they do suggest where I thought I saw continuity and change over the years. Even I find surprises in rereading them.

So here’s the library I’ve assembled for this anniversary. Begin by reading (or rereading) the book. It can be downloaded here in its entirety. It’s not long; its brevity actually made it more effective.

2001 (October 16): At the book launch, held at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, I highlighted what seemed to me the book’s significance. Read my remarks here.

2005 (March 6): When a huge controversy broke out at Columbia University, implicating Middle Eastern studies professors, I placed it in a wider context, in an address to Columbia students. Read my remarks here.

2005 (April 1): Much to my astonishment, the Center for Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University invited me to speak at a conference on the state of the field. Read my remarks here. (I didn’t mince words.)

2005 (April 5): On this date, Brandeis University inaugurated a new Middle East center. I spoke at the inauguration, spelling out what was wrong, and how the new center might help to fix it. Read my remarks here.

2007 (April 12): The Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank, asked me to revisit the state of the field. Listen to my remarks here.

2007 (November 7): At Harvard University, graduate students used to take a course on approaches to Middle Eastern studies. I had a Harvard affiliation at the time, and the instructor asked me to come to class and reflect on my book and its impact. Read my remarks here

2016 (October 28): After 9/11, two of my mentors, Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, created an alternative to the Middle East Studies Association. The Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa continues as an essential venue for solid scholarship. In 2016, I delivered the plenary address at the annual conference in Washington, on the pathology of Middle Eastern studies. Read my remarks here, or watch me deliver them here

2021 (September 10): On the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, the Middle East Forum, under the leadership of Daniel Pipes, asked me to give a current assessment. Among other points, I emphasized that if I wrote a book on the subject today, almost no one would care. Watch to see why.

As I reread myself, it strikes me how much I’ve wavered between optimism and pessimism over the years. It’s hard to get a comprehensive read on something as amorphous as an academic field. But I’m quite sure I did just that twenty years ago. Is there anyone out there willing to attempt it again?

Edward Said and Middle Eastern studies in America

On May 11, 2017, the Persian intellectual journal Ghalamro interviewed me about the state of Middle Eastern studies. A Persian translation appeared in the journal. Below is an edited version of the original English transcript. Posted retroactively on Sandbox.

Interviewer: Is it correct to say that Edward Said was the first one who raised the issue of politics in Middle Eastern studies by his book Orientalism, arguing that behind this kind of study, there is politics leading in a specific direction?

Kramer: Edward Said was not the first one to do it. He published Orientalism in 1978, but already from the late ’60s and into the early ’70s, there was criticism of Middle Eastern studies coming from a Marxist point of departure. The Egyptian Anouar Abdel-Malekwrote a very influential piece critical of Orientalism, to which some Orientalists responded at the time. And there was a group called MERIP [Middle East Research and Information Project] which had a strong left orientation, and in the early ’70s published attacks on some of the leading scholars, accusing them of complicity with the Pentagon and so forth.

Said’s critique came from a different corner. It wasn’t a Marxist critique; one might say it was a humanist critique, and while it won sympathy on the left, I think its basic premises were rather different. Nevertheless, Said had much more of an effect than the left-Marxist critics precisely because he came from the very center of the academy and from the humanist rather than the Marxist tradition. So very soon people forgot the leftist criticism, and the Saidian critique became the dominant one.

Interviewer: And several decades after the publication of Orientalism, what can you say about the impact of Orientalism on Middle Eastern studies?

Kramer: It had a very profound impact because it came at a particular moment in the history of the academy. There was a crisis of self-confidence in Middle Eastern studies because scholars failed to anticipate the rise of the Palestinian movement, of which Said was an avatar, and they failed to see the rise of the Islamic movement as well. Many in Middle Eastern studies were probing their own premises—why did we not anticipate, why could we not predict? 

So they were vulnerable and incapable of mounting a spirited defense. Said entered, and delegitimated the mandarins, the leading figures in the field, including my teacher Bernard Lewis.

This also coincided with a very particular moment in institutional Middle Eastern studies. There had been larger and larger numbers of Middle Easterners coming to do their work in the field. There were not a lot of positions open at the time, it was a period of retrenchment in the academy, and so there was a very acute struggle over each academic appointment. Said’s book was a kind of manifesto for affirmative action for Muslims and Arabs, because once Orientalism was defined as a kind of racism, you wanted to be sure when you made an appointment that you didn’t select someone who was tainted with it. 

And if Said was right that no Westerner could escape the influence, the gravitational force, of Orientalism, then the way to be sure that you didn’t appoint someone who might be a latent Orientalist, a latent racist, was to appoint a Muslim or an Arab.

Orientalism became a kind of manifesto on which many built their careers; it opened up entry-level positions to Muslims and Arabs. They owed their livelihoods to Edward Said, and they formed a huge constituency which has carried forth his critique of Middle Eastern studies and institutionalized it. Just as there was an old establishment, today there is a newer establishment, and the present-day establishment is the one which gained entry through the work of Edward Said.

Interviewer: Was impact of Said on Middle Eastern studies departments in the United States different from his impact on other departments?

Kramer: Said’s book had an impact in several fields. It was considered the founding text of postcolonial studies, and it had some broader impact in cultural studies. It had a later effect on Middle Eastern studies because there was initial resistance to it and it took some time for the battle to be decided. It was twenty years after publication of the book, in 1998, when Edward Said appeared at the Middle East Studies Association to celebrate the anniversary of publication. There he was finally acclaimed as having won the debate. 

But it took a while. In fact, in 1986, there was an actual debate between Bernard Lewis and Edward Said at the Middle East Studies Association. So it took time for Said to achieve his decisive victory in Middle Eastern studies.

We’re now many years later and Said’s influence in other disciplines has waned. Elsewhere, Said’s portrayal of the interaction of East and West is seen as too black-and-white. Today, the emphasis is on hybridity. But in Middle Eastern studies, Said’s influence has persisted because it still fulfills that same function that I mentioned earlier: it encourages preferential treatment for certain practitioners over others.

Interviewer: How do we evaluate this impact? Was it good or was it bad? What was missed or what was uncovered?

Kramer: Oh, there’s no question that the net effect was negative. It’s always important for a discipline or a field to revisit its premises, but I think that the only valid criticism of what was called Orientalism in the old tradition could have come from within the Orientalist tradition itself, not from the outside. 

For all its limitations, the Orientalist tradition did put the study of Islam and the study of the Middle East on a scientific footing. It was that scholarly tradition which was responsible for banishing medieval prejudices and false assumptions, fake knowledge, and replacing it with a more accurate representation based on a careful reading of the Islamic texts. It is to Orientalism that we owe the assembly and translation of the core texts of Islamic civilization, and it is to its careful philological methods that we owe the critical readings of these texts.

The criticism of Orientalism threw out the good with the bad. It presumed that the tradition was one of prejudice and bias against Islam, when in fact it was precisely the Orientalist tradition which broke the medieval prejudice and bias against Islam. That’s not to say that there weren’t individual scholars with their own prejudices. Some of them came from the missionary tradition, for example, and they may not have made the full transition to scholarly research. But on the whole, it was a tradition which was making progress, just as archaeology, philology, and any other science were making progress. This progress was arrested by the Saidian revolution, which elevated politics above competency. Your ability to interpret a text and its context was less important than your fealty to a certain set of political convictions.

Interviewer: When you look at Middle Eastern studies in the United States since the publication of Orientalism, what are the main turning points in its development?

Kramer: In its initial phase (and I’m going back here to the early twentieth century), Middle Eastern studies were driven to some extent by missionaries or children of missionaries. Some were associated with the American University of Beirut. The department from which I graduated, Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, had a very close association with this tradition.

Then when you get to the ’40s and into the ’50s, you have the influx of scholars from Europe. Some of them were Jews who were fleeing from Nazi persecution, others were not Jews but refugees from tyranny like Gustave von Grunebaum. And they were some of the founders of major Middle East centers—for example, von Grunebaum, first at the University of Chicago and then at UCLA. Then you also had people who came from the Middle East. Princeton was much influenced by Phillip Hitti, and Farhat Ziadeh came to the University of Washington. So you had the great minds of Europe and the wise men from the East. These were the founding fathers of the field.

When you get into the ’60s and ’70s, you have the rise of American-born and trained social scientists in Middle Eastern studies. They did not come from the Orientalist tradition, they came from within the disciplines. Leonard Binder was a good example of this trend in the field. It was very American, and it was very oriented toward modernization theory. Edward Said made his appearance toward the end of that phase. 

Since then, you’ve had the present phase, which is third-worldist, anti-Orientalist, left-oriented, characterized by the marked presence of people from the region in leading positions. So that’s where we stand now, and really the question is whether we’re on the verge of another shift. 

9/11 represented a kind of watershed. 9/11 was as much a shock to the new establishment as Edward Said was a shock to the old establishment, because Said had a blind spot when it came to Islam and Islamic movements. Bernard Lewis saw them coming. In 1976, he published a very prescient article entitled “The Return of Islam.” Edward Said did not see them. He saw the Palestinian revolution, and the Palestinian revolution caught many people by surprise, but he didn’t see the Iranian revolution coming.

He wrote a book after Orientalism called Covering Islam. It was an attempt to cover his own failure to anticipate the new salience of Islam. It’s not surprising that someone who was himself not a Muslim, was strongly secular, and was living in Morningside Heights in Upper Manhattan, wouldn’t have seen this. Someone who had a disdain for the the study of Islamic texts and was unfamiliar with them would not have seen Khomeinion the horizon. That’s always been the weak spot of the Saidian critique.

After 9/11, Said himself retreated from the media because he had no answers. He said something like: “Who am I to pronounce on the motives of these people?” Well, Bernard Lewis did pronounce on their motives, and he became a best-selling author twice in the aftermath of 9/11. 

So I think that there’s a sense that this newer establishment is under siege, and its premises have now been called into question, just as Said and followers had called into question the premises of the previous generation.

Today we have many Americans who have been out to the Middle East in far greater numbers than ever before, several million in various capacities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. They represent, perhaps, the next phase, that is, one of direct experience. Those people are beginning to make their way to academic careers, and I think that will be a major challenge to the Saidian aristocracy in Middle Eastern studies.

Interviewer: And what could be the new premises for this kind of approach?

Kramer: The new premises would first of all give religion its due place—not as simply an effect of some other cause, but as a prime mover in its own right. Not exclusively so, but it can no longer be seen as a subordinate element or a mere trace of something deeper. 

There will be a much greater awareness of the subnational identities in the Middle East. Said emphasized the Palestinians, others emphasized the nation-state, but the Palestinians and the nation-state in the Middle East are in disarray. So I think there’s more interest in sects and tribes, and you can talk about these things today, unlike in the past. Before, it was deemed to be a colonialist agenda. Well, a lot of Americans have been out to the Middle East and back, and they don’t see tribes as part of a colonialist agenda, but as realities. So there will emerge a more empirically-based and less ideological view of the region.

It’s not totally unconnected to the expanded role of American power in this part of the world. But just because knowledge is acquired through the exercise of power doesn’t make it invalid. Even if you think that the United States is a thief in the night, the thief still has to know which windows can be opened easily and where the safe is hidden in the house. That’s actual knowledge, and it can’t be so readily dismissed. 

So, yes, there’s an association between this new trend and the exercise of American power over the past fifteen years in the Middle East, but that doesn’t invalidate the knowledge; in fact, to a considerable extent, it gives it an empirical base.

Interviewer: So can we say that your book Ivory Towers on Sand was an effort to legitimize such knowledge anew?

Kramer: You can never go back. I think that even if there had been no book such as Orientalism, there would have been a revision. I think that there would have been a greater interest in social movements, there would have been an understanding of the limitations of modernization theory. Right through the ’70s, it was generally assumed by leading scholars that the Middle East was on the same track to modernization as parts of East Asia, and that it was simply a matter of time. Now we know, of course, that that did not happen. 

I think there would have been a crisis of Middle Eastern studies one way or another, but it would have produced a new synthesis, which would have been much superior to the ideological and the highly politicized kind of Middle Eastern studies that emerged from the Saidian revolution.

My purpose was not to legitimize things which had their day; the aim of my book was just to create more space. One of things I noticed among the acolytes of Edward Said was a high degree of intolerance for views other than their own. They were almost militant in closing out other approaches and assuring that only their associates were appointed to academic positions, creating a kind of an academic monolith. It’s happened in other areas in the humanities; Middle Eastern studies are not unique in that respect. So the purpose of my book was just to open some space for other views. 

I might have had a small effect there. The larger effect was the events that happened in the Middle East. I’m not a young student anymore, but I’m not too old that I might not hope to see further change before I retire.

Interviewer: Please give us your assessment of the impact of your book in different academic circles in the United States.

Kramer: The book received a lot of attention at the time it was published because it appeared six weeks after 9/11, and people were asking, what did we not see and why did we not see it? When I wrote the book, I thought the only people interested in it would be in Middle Eastern studies. When you write a book, you always think of your reader looking over your shoulder. The reader looking over my shoulder was someone in the field. 

But because of 9/11 many, many other people read the book. Journalists read it, policy people read it, other academics outside of Middle Eastern studies read it, college presidents, university presidents, and provosts read it. There was an article in the New York Times about it, which gave it a lot of momentum, and in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It was much discussed in the journals, including two critical reviews in Foreign Affairs. It created a stir because the timing was right.

What was the actual effect it had? Not surprisingly, those I criticized circled the wagons, and did everything to try to discredit me. They said the publisher was The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and “they obviously have an agenda.” “Martin Kramer is a student of Bernard Lewis, he obviously is taking the Saidian critique personally.” 

But it wasn’t enough to stop the discussion. I remember being told by Larry Summers, who was at the time president of Harvard, that after he received a copy of the book, he took it to a meeting with the Middle East faculty, held it up and said, “Is any of this true?” They were not pleased. They had to defend themselves. It made many university presidents and provosts say to themselves, “You know, I’ve got one of these programs or departments in my university, and I haven’t been paying attention. Maybe I should.” So it brought more scrutiny. 

The then-president of Brandeis, Jehuda Reinharz, ordered a carton of the books and used them to mobilize support for a new alternative Middle East center which was founded shortly thereafter. I spoke at the inauguration.

Now, it would be presumptuous of me to say that this made for some huge change in Middle Eastern studies. And yet, I think that it did open, in a few places, some space for people to feel a little bit more confident in asking: What did we not see that manifested itself on 9/11? What did we not see that has manifested itself in the Iranian revolution? And it made a little bit of space for bringing religion back in. People went back and maybe read Bernard Lewis a little more carefully and Edward Said a little more critically.

Fifteen years on, it would be useful for someone else younger than I am to go back and do this again, repeat the exercise, because there were other things which since then have surprised us—the Arab Spring, most notably. We need an account of what went wrong in academe’s understanding of the Arab Spring, for which there was a huge amount of enthusiasm and an overestimation of its potential for change. So there’s more to be done, and I hope to have successors.