Tuesday, November 27, 2001

An Ornamental Education? - Political relevance and the funding of Middle East studies in the U.S.

An Israeli-American scholar, Martin Kramer, has declared war on Middle East academe in the U.S., and the mortarboards are flying. Kramer, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, recently published a monograph titled Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America. In it he accuses Middle East academics of ignoring practical issues in contemporary Arab affairs. In a Wall Street Journal article, Kramer wrote that on September 11 experts of the Arab world failed to "prepare America for the encounter with Muslim extremism, and...can't contribute anything to America's defense."

To illustrate his point, Kramer quoted Edward Said's pre-September 11 dismissal of "speculations about the latest conspiracy to blow up buildings, sabotage commercial airliners and poison water supplies." At around the same time, Kramer's colleague, Daniel Pipes, wrote an article in the San Francisco Chronicle in which he cited another unfortunate pre-September 11 statement, this time by the Lebanese scholar Fawaz Gerges, to the effect that "the terrorist industry" had perpetuated an "irrational fear of terrorism by focusing too much on farfetched horrible scenarios."

Kramer believes it is time for Middle East studies to reform, and for the U.S. Congress to reexamine its financial aid to the discipline under Title VI of the International Education Act (1958). His attack is directed in particular at the 2,600-member Middle East Studies Association (MESA), a private nonprofit organization that brings together specialists studying the Middle East and Islam. Kramer asks that a utilitarian yardstick be used to consider Title VI funding, which is, he argues, "not an entitlement...[but] a discretionary appropriation. It has to be rationalized in terms of the public interest, on an ongoing basis."

The implications of Kramer's broadside go beyond Middle East studies. They address the rationale behind federal funding for education and culture. Some of Kramer's arguments in favor of reforming Title VI are similar to those raised, in a different context, on the future of the Public Broadcasting System. Kramer wants to introduce market mechanisms -- albeit policy-market mechanisms -- into Middle East studies, so that the government can draw greater advantage from what it funds. However, it is what Kramer's proposal might conceal that has fueled finger-pointing from his adversaries. And their accusations have not always been directly related to Kramer's contention that Middle East academia failed on September 11.

One assertion is that Kramer and his partisans have a "pro-Israel" agenda. They are accused of wanting to cut into MESA funding because the association (which includes American, Arab, and Israeli specialists) is frequently critical of Israeli policy. Neither Kramer, nor Pipes for that matter, denies a fondness for Israel. Indeed, that is probably why both men often are fixated on the behavior of Islamist movements. However, the fact remains that, whatever Kramer's agenda, Middle East academics have not really concerned themselves with the potential for Islamist attacks against the continental U.S., and have systematically played down latent threats to the U.S. emanating from the Arab world.

The problem is institutional, ideological, and definitional. Institutional, inasmuch as learning about the Middle East involves, as in all area studies, building up substantial political, cultural, economic, and linguistic competence. So those striving for academic promotion and recognition often have a natural (and laudable) tendency to move beyond the mundanely functional into history, theory, and ideas. Ideological, because Middle East academia is often favorably disposed towards the Arab world, while disapproving of Israeli and U.S. policy in the region. This is perfectly valid, but it has also dissuaded scholars from focusing on the insalubrious aspects of Arab states and Islamist militant groups, both for reasons of sympathy and out of concern that this might splinter the united front against Israel and the West.

But it is the definitional barrier -- notably regarding the word "terrorism" -- that is most intriguing. In his Wall Street Journal article, Kramer wrote that MESA has engaged in a "studied avoidance of the words 'terror', 'terrorism,' and 'terrorist.'" While no satisfactory definition of "terrorism" exists (and many MESA members employed far more condemnatory language to describe the September 11 attacks), the ensuing lack of a consensus on the term has been used by Middle East academia, consciously or not, to avoid researching the practical policy implications of, most conspicuously, violent Islamic militancy. Indeed, investigation of the topic is frequently perceived by the Middle East studies mainstream as philosophical surrender to those advocating the controversial terrorism definition. Rarely has discomfort with a word so pervasively shut down an entire branch of a discipline.

Kramer's demand that federal funding of Middle East studies be reconsidered (though not entirely terminated) has provoked anger in scholarly ranks. Some have openly accused Kramer of seeking to censor his ideological opponents and use the threat of a federal financial aid cutoff to push them into adopting his preferred political line. Others have gone further, stating that the underlying premises of Kramer's proposal are racist. As one scholar put it, Kramer is trying to peddle a message that Islamism is "inherently terroristic."

Charles Butterworth of the University of Maryland protests that congressional funding of area studies should not be a contractual arrangement, where specialists have their funding renewed only if they fulfill specified tasks. In a message sent to Gulf 2000, an interactive email list of individuals interested in Persian Gulf affairs, he wrote: "[A]t issue is ensuring that some citizens have the tools, especially the language tools, to study the literature, history, religion, mores, politics, and philosophy of peoples whose culture is expressed in something besides English. The goal of such study is to learn about others as part of understanding our own culture. Anything else is incidental."

Both criticisms expose the depth of difference between Kramer and Middle East academia. Where those who mistrust Kramer's politics converge on the surreptitious implications of his proposal, Butterworth outlines a theory of education. Kramer's response to Butterworth, also posted on Gulf 2000, was that he overlooked the wording of Title VI, which is robustly utilitarian. Kramer quoted from a Congressional finding on Title VI: "The security, stability, and economic vitality of the Unites States in a complex global era depend upon American experts in and citizens knowledgeable about world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs, as well as upon a strong research base in those areas."

The hidden agenda accusation is more pointed, but raises a question Kramer's critics must address. If Kramer is advancing Israeli interests, the way to derail his efforts -- at least regarding government funding -- is simply to insure that Middle East studies are more in-tune with everyday policy issues. That Middle East academia did not warn of Osama bin Laden is a serious problem. Congress is entitled to demand that taxpayer-funded experts be at least able to identify compelling threats to U.S. national security. Middle East studies would not suffer from competing in the marketplace of pertinence, particularly when there are plenty of private benefactors willing to finance more contemplative pursuits.

The two sides in the Middle East studies contest will continue to argue over what is the optimal way to survey the Arab world. For Kramer, Title VI must be modified because it essentially allows Middle East academics to disburse funds to themselves through a flawed peer review process, with little input from government officials and what Kramer calls "public consumers." Kramer's critics, in turn, charge that the process provides plenty of oversight and that federal funding for Middle East studies is negligible anyhow, and should be increased. At the heart of the dispute, however, is a more elemental divergence over how each side perceives the general welfare.

The implications are similar to those raised by supporters and opponents of public funding for PBS. For decades, PBS resisted reform by hiding behind a pretense of cultural uplift, where the station depicted itself as a citadel of enlightenment combating insidious commercialism. Middle East studies are in a similar predicament today. Under the guise of intellectual uplift, the discipline has often circumvented the bazaar of consequence. Butterworth is not wrong in arguing that general knowledge helps us learn about ourselves, but Kramer is right to say that this general knowledge must somehow profit its funders. Otherwise America's enemies will again pilot their commandeered aircraft through the gap between the supply and demand of relevant information furnished by Middle East academia.