Columbia’s slippery boycotters

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on October 2.

In a post in late August, I asked whether Columbia University’s federally-funded Middle East Institute was boycotting Israeli institutions of higher education. Why? Its director, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, has signed a pledge by some Middle East studies academics “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions.” Did that personal pledge extend to the Middle East Institute, a Title VI National Research Center under her direction?

I posed the question to David Stone, executive vice-president for communications at Columbia, and received this reply from him:

If an individual faculty member chooses not to participate in events involving Israel, that is a personal choice that has no effect on the programs of the Middle East Institute or the rest of the University. The Institute itself is home to a broad range of teaching and research including a number of fellowships and grants that support faculty and student research and study in Israel; and its faculty members are engaged in a variety of projects with Israeli scholars.

Alan Luxenberg, president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, posed the same question directly to Abu-Lughod, and received this reply:

My decision does not affect the Middle East Institute where we welcome distinguished scholars and students from all over the world, fund language training for students in all Middle Eastern languages, support study abroad in all the region’s universities, and support, modestly, summer research for students in all the countries of the region, including Israel.

The Middle East Institute serves the Columbia community. It does not have any institutional partnerships with other universities, whether in the US or abroad.

I’m not surprised (or persuaded) by these answers. I think it’s telling that Abu-Lughod has not issued a public statement of her position, which might be deemed an unacceptable compromise by the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) cult. After all, if you really believe that Israel is South Africa (or worse), why not demonstrably abjure any administrative role in academe that compels you to treat it equally? What’s the worth of a boycott if it doesn’t mean sacrificing your access to something to advance a cause—whether it’s a home soda maker or the coveted directorship of a Middle East center?

But that’s neither here nor there. The taxpaying public has the right to expect that every signatory of the boycott pledge who runs a Title VI National Research Center issue an assurance that the boycott doesn’t apply during working hours. And the public has the right to expect an equal assurance from a university’s higher administration. Anything less than that should be automatically suspect, because it’s the bare minimum, and because it’s obvious that even these assurances don’t mean that there isn’t a stealth boycott underway.

A Title VI federally-funded National Research Center is committed by law to making sure that its programming will reflect “diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions.” Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education, which administers the program, has failed even to define what this means. Consider this test case. On September 19, Columbia’s Middle East Institute co-sponsored (with the university’s Center for Palestine Studies) a panel entitled “The War on Gaza: Military Strategy and Historical Horizons.” (Notice the title, as though there wasn’t a war on Israel too.) It included three Palestinian-American boycotters: Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi, Barnard professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, and legal activist Noura Erakat. And that’s it. Read the live tweets from the session, and judge the tenor of the proceedings yourself. Did this event offer “diverse perspectives and a wide range of views,” and was it structured to “generate debate”? No. So just what must the Middle East Institute do now to assure that it meets its obligation?

My own view is that there’s nothing that a bureaucrat in Washington can do to assure that it does. No Department of Education official is going to detect a stealth boycott or do any serious follow-up on whether taxpayer dollars are going to political activists in academic guise. That means that the reform of Title VI, a creaking holdover from the Cold War, is impossible. If you think that Title VI, on balance, does more good than harm, you’re just going to have to accept that some of your tax dollars will go to agitprop for Hamas. If you think that’s totally unacceptable, you should favor the total elimination of Title VI from the Higher Education Act, now up for reauthorization. There is no middle ground.

Enough Said

Review by Martin Kramer of Robert Irwin, Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents (Woodstock: Overlook Press, 2006). The review appeared in Commentary, March 2007. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

THE British historian Robert Irwin is the sort of scholar who, in times past, would have been proud to call himself an Orientalist.

The traditional Orientalist was someone who mastered difficult languages like Arabic and Persian and then spent years bent over manuscripts in heroic efforts of decipherment and interpretation. In Dangerous Knowledge, Irwin relates that the 19th-century English Arabist Edward William Lane, compiler of the great Arabic-English Lexicon, “used to complain that he had become so used to the cursive calligraphy of his Arabic manuscripts that he found Western print a great strain on his eyes.” Orientalism in its heyday was a branch of knowledge as demanding and rigorous as its near cousin, Egyptology. The first International Congress of Orientalists met in 1873; its name was not changed until a full century later.

But there are no self-declared Orientalists today. The reason is that the late Edward Said turned the word into a pejorative. In his 1978 book Orientalism, the Palestinian-born Said, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, claimed that an endemic Western prejudice against the East had congealed into a modern ideology of racist supremacy—a kind of anti-Semitism directed against Arabs and Muslims. Throughout Europe’s history, announced Said, “every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”

In a semantic sleight of hand, Said appropriated the term “Orientalism” as a label for the ideological prejudice he described, thereby neatly implicating the scholars who called themselves Orientalists. At best, charged Said, the work of these scholars was biased so as to confirm the inferiority of Islam. At worst, Orientalists had directly served European empires, showing proconsuls how best to conquer and control Muslims. To substantiate his indictment, Said cherry-picked evidence, ignored whatever contradicted his thesis, and filled the gaps with conspiracy theories.

Said’s Orientalism, Irwin writes, “seems to me to be a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations.” Dangerous Knowledge is its refutation. An Arabist by training, Irwin artfully weaves together brief profiles of great Orientalist scholars, generously spiced with telling anecdotes. From his narrative, Said’s straw men emerge as complex individuals touched by genius, ambition—and no little sympathy for the subjects of their study.

SOME of the Orientalist pioneers were quintessential insiders. Thus, Silvestre de Sacy founded the great 19th-century school of Arabic studies in Paris; Bonaparte made him a baron, and he became a peer of France under the monarchy. Carl Heinrich Becker, who brought sociology into Islamic studies, served as a cabinet minister in the Weimar government. But it was marginal men who made the most astonishing advances. Ignaz Goldziher, a Hungarian Jew, revolutionized Islamic studies a century ago by applying the methods of higher criticism to the Muslim oral tradition. Slaving away as the secretary of the reformist Neolog Jewish community in Budapest, Goldziher made his breakthroughs at the end of long workdays.

Some great scholars were quite mad. In the 16th century, Guillaume Postel, a prodigy who occupied the first chair of Arabic at the Collège de France, produced Europe’s first grammar of classical Arabic. Irwin describes him as “a complete lunatic”—an enthusiast of all things esoteric and Eastern who believed himself to be possessed by a female divinity. Four centuries later, Louis Massignon, another French great at the Collège, claimed to have experienced a visitation by God and plunged into the cult of a Sufi mystic. When lucid, Massignon commanded a vast knowledge of Islam and Arabic, but he held an unshakable belief in unseen forces, including Jewish plots of world domination.

Above all, many Orientalists became fervent advocates for Arab and Islamic political causes, long before notions like third-worldism and post-colonialism entered the political lexicon. Goldziher backed the Urabi revolt against foreign control of Egypt. The Cambridge Iranologist Edward Granville Browne became a one-man lobby for Persian liberty during Iran’s constitutional revolution in the early 20th century. Prince Leone Caetani, an Italian Islamicist, opposed his country’s occupation of Libya, for which he was denounced as a “Turk.” And Massignon may have been the first Frenchman to take up the Palestinian Arab cause.

Two truths emerge from a stroll through Irwin’s gallery. First, Orientalist scholars, far from mystifying Islam, freed Europe from medieval myths about it through their translations and studies of original Islamic texts. Second, most Orientalists, far from being agents of empire, were bookish dons and quirky eccentrics. When they did venture opinions on mundane matters, it was usually to criticize Western imperialism and defend something Islamic or Arab. In fact, it would be easy to write a contrary indictment of the Orientalists, showing them to be wooly-minded Islamophiles who suffered from what the late historian Elie Kedourie once called “the romantic belief that exquisite mosques and beautiful carpets are proof of political virtue.”

IN other words, Edward Said got it exactly wrong. Other scholars said as much in the years after his book came out; Irwin’s critique echoes those made by Jacques Berque, Malcolm Kerr, Bernard Lewis, and Maxime Rodinson. These doyens of Islamic and Arab studies came from radically different points on the political compass, but they all found the same flaws in Said’s presentation. Even Albert Hourani, the Middle East historian closest to Said personally, thought that Orientalism had gone “too far” and regretted that its most lasting effect was to turn “a perfectly respected discipline” into “a dirty word.”

Yet the criticisms did not stick; what stuck was the dirt thrown by Said. Not only did Orientalism sweep the general humanities, where ignorance of the history of Orientalism was (and is) widespread; not only did it help to create the faux-academic discipline now known as post-colonialism; but the book’s thesis also conquered the field of Middle Eastern studies itself, where scholars should have known better. No other discipline has ever surrendered so totally to an external critic.

As it happens, I witnessed a minute that perfectly compressed the results of this process. In 1998, to mark the 20th anniversary of the publication of Orientalism, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) invited Said to address a plenary panel at its annual conference. As Said ascended the dais, his admirers leaped to their feet in an enthusiastic ovation. Then, somewhat hesitantly at first, the rest of the audience stood and began to applaud. Fixed in my seat, I surveyed the ballroom, watching scholars whom I had heard privately damn Orientalism for its libel against their field now rising sheepishly and casting sideways glances to see who might behold their gesture of submission.

This may help us understand something in Irwin’s account that might otherwise leave a reader bewildered. Why should Said have singled out for attack a group of scholars who had done so much to increase understanding of Islam, and who had tirelessly explained Muslim views to a self-absorbed West? The answer: for the same reason that radicals usually attack the moderates on their own side. They know they can browbeat them into doing much more.

By exposing and exaggerating a few of the field’s insignificant lapses, Orientalism stunned Middle East academics into a paroxysm of shame. Exploiting those pangs of guilt, Said’s radical followers demanded concession upon concession from the Orientalist establishment: academic appointments and promotions, directorships of Middle East centers and departments, and control of publishing decisions, grants, and honors. Within a startling brief period of time, a small island of liberal sympathy for the Arab and Muslim “other” was transformed into a subsidized, thousand-man lobby for Arab, Islamic, and Palestinian causes.

THE revolution did not stop until Said was universally acclaimed as the savior of Middle Eastern studies and, in that ballroom where I sat in 1998, virtually the entire membership of MESA had been corralled into canonizing him. It did not stop until he was elected an honorary fellow of the association—that is, one of ten select scholars “who have made major contributions to Middle East studies.” (No similar majority could be mustered to accord the same honor to Bernard Lewis.) It would not stop until it achieved the abject abasement of the true heirs of the Orientalist tradition.

This is the missing final chapter of Dangerous Knowledge. The established scholars in Middle Eastern studies never did deliver the crushing blow to Orientalism that it deserved. With the exception of Bernard Lewis, no one went on the warpath against the book (although, according to Irwin, the anthropologist Ernest Gellner was working on a “book-long attack” on Orientalism when he died in 1995). Going up against Said involved too much professional risk. He himself was famous for avenging every perceived slight, and his fiercely loyal followers denounced even the mildest criticism of their hero as evidence of “latent Orientalism”—or, worse yet, Zionism.

Still, the power of Said and his legions did begin to wane somewhat after the attacks of 9/11. Said had systematically soft-pedaled the threat of radical Islam. In a pre-9/11 revised edition of Said’s Covering Islam, a book devoted to exposing the allegedly biased reporting of the Western press, he mocked “speculations about the latest conspiracy to blow up buildings, sabotage commercial airliners, and poison water supplies.” After the planes struck the towers, Said declined to answer his phone. Irwin writes that when, unrepentant, he finally responded, “he put the terrorists’ case for them, just as he had put the case for Saddam Hussein.” September 11 broke Said’s spell. “Does this mean I’m throwing my copy of Orientalism out the window?” quipped Richard Bulliet, a professor of Islamic history at Columbia, in the week following the attacks. “Maybe it does.”

Since Said’s death in 2003, more doubters have found the courage to speak out. Some of Columbia’s own students did so in 2005, when they took on a number of Said’s most extreme acolytes, whom he had helped to embed as instructors in the university’s department of Middle East studies. Irwin’s Dangerous Knowledge is a challenge to that minority of scholars in the field who still preserve a spark of integrity and some vestige of pride in the tradition of learning that Said defamed. They won’t ever call themselves Orientalists again. But it is high time they denounced the Saidian cult for the fraud that it is, and began to unseat it. Irwin has told the truth; it is their responsibility to act on it.

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.