Bulliet on target at Columbia

This week’s New York Magazine runs a big feature story on the mess in Columbia’s Middle East department (MEALAC), and it’s well worth reading. I’m quoted there, but I said predictable things. Not so Professor Richard Bulliet, who teaches Islamic and Middle Eastern history in the History department:

The university should have looked at MEALAC five or ten years ago. It’s become locked into a postmodernist, postcolonialist point of view, one that wasn’t necessarily well adapted to giving students instruction about the Middle East…. We’ve had advocacy in the classroom for a long time. But in the areas where it’s most visible, like black studies and women’s studies, the point of view tends to coincide with the outlook of the Columbia community… But here we have an area where no consensus exists. And that’s the problem.

Bulliet and I have crossed swords a few times (he’s had the last word for now, in his recent book), but we’re on speaking terms, and I’d heard this from him in person. That someone of his standing at Columbia should have come forward now to criticize MEALAC in the media is testament to the damage the rogue department is doing to the university. And it’s another sign that the spell of intimidation cast by the radicals has been broken. Professor Bulliet: Bravo aleik.

Predict this

From Martin Kramer, “Jihad 101,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2002, pp. 87-95. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

Who even imagined the possibility of a September 11? Well, you might say, Steven Emerson and Daniel Pipes did. Well, you are wrong. Richard Bulliet, professor of Islamic history and past director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, now claims that the academic “experts” on Islam had seen it coming all along. In recent years, “a torrent of studies of Islamic movements and political currents gushed from academic and journalistic presses around the world,” wrote Bulliet, in an essay for a website.

There is little to indicate, however, that any government policy horses chose to drink from the fresh scholarly water poured in their trough. On September 11, 2001, therefore, while a substantial number of analysts in the scholarly world could honestly claim that they had seen and understood the handwriting on the wall, even if the message had not included the date, place, and time of the actual attacks, very few people in the policy community could make the same claim.1

Now perhaps I haven’t read enough in the literature this past decade, but I cannot conjure up a single scholarly analysis that acknowledged even the existence of a wall, let alone the handwriting on it. Of course, in Bulliet’s case, one never knows what constitutes a prediction: this is someone who claims he predicted the Iranian revolution—in a novel.2 But there have been plenty of conventional predictions in recent scholarly writing, and they all pointed away from terrorism as an Islamist option. And while the policy community will have to answer for itself, it would be impossible for officials to have been more negligent than the academics.

So, Bulliet has the chutzpah of a true New Yorker. After all, a few introspective academics have admitted to missing the trends that led to September 11. They excuse themselves by claiming that the FBI and CIA did no better, despite their vast resources—an argument with some merit. Bulliet’s claim is much more sweeping: he says the academics got it right and fed that knowledge to government, which ignored it. This is a serious charge, and it cannot be left sitting unsubstantiated on a website. This column urges Professor Bulliet to assemble the mystery analyses and publish them. If he doesn’t, consider this more of the wind that has blown off Morningside Heights ever since Edward Said discovered himself.

Which reminds me: do give credit to Bulliet for one of the more quotable quotes to follow September 11. “Does this mean I’m throwing my copy of [Edward Said’s] Orientalism out the window?” he quipped to a student forum in the first week after the attacks. “Maybe it does.”3 That would be a good start.

1 Richard W. Bulliet, “Theorizing Islam,” at http://www.ssrc.org/sept11/essays/bulliet.htm.
2 Richard W. Bulliet, “Twenty Years of Islamic Politics,” Middle East Journal, Spring 1999, p. 189. His (thoroughly enjoyable) novel: The Tomb of the Twelfth Imam (New York: Harper and Row, 1979).
3 Lionel Beehner, “SIPA Students, Faculty React to Terrorist Attacks,” The SIPA Communiqué, Sept. 4-19, 2001.