by Michelle Goldberg | Salon | November 6, 2003
Neoconservative critics have long charged Middle Eastern studies departments with anti-American bias. Now they've enlisted Congress in their crusade.
Nov. 6, 2003 | On Oct. 21, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that could require university international studies departments to show more support for American foreign policy or risk their federal funding. Its approval followed hearings this summer in which members of Congress listened to testimony about the pernicious influence of the late Edward Said in Middle Eastern studies departments, described as enclaves of debased anti-Americanism. Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a right-wing think tank, testified, "Title VI-funded programs in Middle Eastern Studies (and other area studies) tend to purvey extreme and one-sided criticisms of American foreign policy." Evidently, the House agreed and decided to intervene.
Emboldened by its dominance of Washington, the right is trying to enlist government on its side in the campus culture wars. "Since they are the mainstream in Washington think tanks and the right-wing corridors of Congress, they figure, 'Let's translate that political capital to education,'" says Rashid Khalidi, who was recently appointed to the Edward Said Chair of Arab studies at Columbia University.
It's not surprising that they started with Middle Eastern studies. There's a particular enmity between hard-line supporters of Israel -- who, with the extraordinary ascension of neoconservatives in the Bush administration, now dominate the American right -- and academics who specialize in studying the Arab and Muslim world. That enmity burst into open conflict after Sept. 11, when conservatives saw an opportunity to accuse Middle East academics not just of biased scholarship but of representing a kind of intellectual fifth column. Soon after the World Trade Center fell, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington-based group co-founded by Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice president, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., published a report called "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It," which listed examples of insufficiently patriotic behavior of the part of the professoriate and called universities the "weak link" in the war on terror.
At the same time, Martin Kramer, editor of the right-wing Middle East Quarterly, published a book called "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America," in which he argues that academia, in thrall to romantic third-worldism, has turned a blind eye to the region's dangerous pathologies. Last year Daniel Pipes, a colleague of Kramer's who has since been appointed by President Bush to sit on the U.S. Institute of Peace, launched Campus Watch, a Web site devoted to monitoring Middle Eastern studies departments for signs of anti-American bias. He published dossiers cataloguing the political sins of some of the most respected professors in the field, and invited students to submit reports on their instructors.
Until recently, though, this fight has been rhetorical, confined to Web sites, books, magazines and lectures. Now, with HR 3077, the International Studies in Higher Education Act, the House has taken sides. If it becomes law, it will create a board to monitor how federally funded international-studies centers impact national security. The board will evaluate whether supporters of American foreign policy are adequately represented in university programs. Conservatives, says Kramer, "need to be able to compete on a level playing field with others."
Inherent in the act is the assumption that if most established experts believe American Middle East policy is bad, the flaw lies with the experts, not the policy. "There's the threat that centers will be punished for not toeing the official line out of Washington, which is an unprecedented degree of federal intrusion into a university-based area studies program," says Zachary Lockman, a New York University history professor and director of the school's Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies.
The International Studies in Higher Education Act would not grant the government the power to exclude voices from Middle Eastern studies departments, but it would give the government a role in defining which views need to be included in the academic mainstream. The seven-member board it creates would make recommendations to Congress about how the centers "might better reflect the national needs related to the homeland security," and make sure that programs "reflect diverse perspectives and represent the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs." Two members of the board would represent national security agencies, while others would be appointed by Congress and the administration.
The bill also mandates that centers allow government recruiters full access to students in the centers. In the past, professors have resisted cooperating with national security agencies, fearing that if the line between independent research and government intelligence was blurred, they and their students might be targeted as American agents while studying abroad.
And because the bill mandates that centers train students for government service, Kramer hopes students who plan to pursue fields useful to national defense will be given special consideration when fellowships are awarded. Right now, he says, "If you're interested in gender in eighth century Cairo, you're just as likely to receive a grant as if you're interested in the discourse of Osama bin Laden. Studying gender in eighth century Cairo is perfectly valid, but I'm not sure it's a taxpayer priority."
Of course, right now all this is speculative -- the bill remains just a bill. "This is a bill that's passed the House," says Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, the country's foremost higher education lobby. "There are several other steps in the process. Obviously a lot of people remain very concerned about the bill. People will continue to try and perfect it."
The American Council on Education decided to support the bill, which also reauthorizes funding for area studies, after language was added to prohibit the board from reviewing syllabi or interfering with curricula. After all, says Hartle, there's nothing inherently objectionable about having a panel oversee federal grant-making programs. "Stanley Kurtz is someone who is looking for a conspiracy behind every tree, but that doesn't mean a properly constructed advisory committee has to be a threat," he says.
But many Middle Eastern studies professors fear that the committee will consist of the very neoconservatives who pushed for its creation. After all, the Bush administration routinely raids right-wing, pro-Ariel Sharon think tanks to fill foreign policy positions. (In the latest example, David Wurmser, a key neoconservative scholar known for his close ties to the Israeli right, was appointed six weeks ago as a Middle East advisor to Dick Cheney's national security team headed by Lewis "Scooter" Libby.) Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Michigan, worries that the International Studies Act would give the field's most vituperative critics a perch from which to judge their doctrinal opponents.
"One of the subtexts is they don't like criticism of Ariel Sharon and want to shut it down," says Cole, who formerly directed the school's Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, which could have its funding threatened under the act. "I could imagine the board making it a criterion that the politics of a faculty are not balanced, so the university must balance things out by hiring pro-Likud scholars, or else funding could be withdrawn."
The funding that's at stake supports area study centers -- interdisciplinary programs devoted to researching specific regions. It was appropriated under Title VI of the 1958 National Defense Education Act. Although the International Studies Act would affect centers concentrating on all parts of the globe, almost all of the debate about it, both inside and outside of Congress, has been about Middle Eastern studies.
There are 17 Middle Eastern studies centers in America, many of them at the nation's best schools, including Harvard, Columbia, New York University and the University of Chicago. They receive Title VI grants to fund graduate student fellowships and to do community outreach and education -- activities like training high school teachers about Middle Eastern issues and providing insight on the region to the media. No Title VI money is used for professor salaries.
The centers form the core of American higher education about the rest of the world. According to Kramer, "70 percent of Ph.D.'s in international studies did their work at these national resource centers, and government money has been vital to the production of Ph.D.'s in this field."
But government money is being misspent, conservative critics say, because, having imbibed Said's sinister post-colonial ideology, Middle Eastern studies departments have become apologists for the Arab world and have neglected the study of inconvenient subjects like the rise of fundamentalist Islam and terrorism. "Take a look at the program of the Middle Eastern Studies Association's annual conference," says Kramer. "There are hundreds of papers there, and none of them are on terrorism. That's because from an ideological point of view, a lot of academics look at the study of terrorism as an overemphasis of an aspect of reality that they would just as soon go away."
Many Middle East studies scholars, says Kramer, entered the field because "they were enamored of the subject, but that subject has an underside. A lot of academics who entered the field in certain generations did so with a third-worldist perspective. They're sympathetic to revolution and believed the Middle East was on the brink of it. They became enthusiasts of various resistance movements, nationalist movements, even at one point Islamist movements."
Other neocons decry the fact that the field has been overtaken by non-Westerners. David Horowitz, a right-wing pundit who has spent much of his career documenting and fighting what he claims is rampant leftist bias in academia, says that in 1979, 3 percent of Middle Eastern scholars were non-Western. "As a result of leftist control of hiring, now 50 percent come from Middle Eastern countries," he says. One might not think it was surprising that a significant percentage of scholars working in a field with a specific regional, cultural and religious emphasis would be from that region, but Horowitz apparently regards many Middle Eastern scholars as mere mouthpieces for their countries' terrorist ideologies. "These are fascist countries!" says Horowitz. "They're Islamofascist countries, and they support terror."
To restore balance to this degraded field, conservatives propose a kind of ideological affirmative action. They want to see a revolution in the ethos of contemporary universities, in which scholars will devote themselves to pulling their weight in the war on terror. That means schools must be compelled to seek out faculty devoted to furthering American interests. If this sounds oddly like a flag-waving version of the extreme academic left's strident calls for "engagement," that doesn't trouble the conservatives.
As Kramer wrote in "Ivory Towers on Sand," "Middle Eastern studies must regain their relevance, or risk becoming 'Exhibit A' in any future case against public support for area studies. They can best achieve this by rediscovering and articulating that which is uniquely American in the American approach to the Middle East. The idea that the United States plays an essentially beneficent role in the world is at the very core of this approach."
To those who object, Kramer writes on his blog, Sandstorm, "Get off the federal dole. Float undisturbed in your post-orientalist bubble while more practical people use the resources to build credible alternatives."
But Cole says the neocon vision of Middle Eastern studies as post-orientalist bubble is a deranged fantasy. (The expression "orientalist" refers to Edward Said's seminal work, "Orientalism," which argued that racist blinders led the West to see people of color as "exotic" Others.) "These arguments that Kurtz, Kramer and others make are only plausible if you don't actually refer to reality," he says. As an example, he reels off the backgrounds of political scientists at centers receiving Title VI grants. "The political scientist at the UCLA Middle Eastern center is Leonard Binder, one of the greats of the field, who fought on Israel's side in the 1948 war. At the University of Washington in Seattle, the political scientists of the Middle East are Ellis Goldberg, who does rational choice and political economy, and Joel Migdal," a Harvard Ph.D. whose latest book is "Through the Lens of Israel: Explorations in State and Society."
"At the University of Michigan," Cole continues, "our political scientist is Mark Tessler, who does survey and opinion research. He has a Ph.D. from Hebrew University. There's Gary Sick at Columbia, who served on Jimmy Carter's National Security Council. We could go on."
The real radicals, many professors say, are Kurtz and company -- and they're lightweight radicals at that. Kurtz, Pipes and Kramer all have Ph.D.'s, but have not established themselves in American academia, finding a home in the world of partisan think tanks instead. Khalidi believes they're trying to punish the academic mainstream for rejecting them.
"It's amusing that people who are by and large failed academics, people who just didn't make it through the standard approach, should argue that it's because of radical bias," says Khalidi. "Theirs are the sourest of sour grapes."
If they wanted to, Khalidi argues, conservatives could do what others do who want more attention paid to a neglected field. "They could raise money for a chair in terrorist studies," he says. "The problem is they want respectability. They want to displace virtually everybody who teaches the Middle East in this country from the center and say the center is between us and them. They want the academic respectability that comes with having federal funding. They want to move from the extreme fringe."
In the end, the debate about what constitutes the mainstream, about the role of ideology in evaluating scholarship, can go on ad infinitum, with evidence on both sides. For all their hysterical nationalism, Kramer and his cohorts obviously aren't wrong that Middle East departments, and the humanities in general, tend to be liberal, or that shrill radicalism abounds on college campuses. Horowitz is just one of a group of conservatives who have made their names documenting leftist excess at American universities, and they rarely have to look far for egregious examples. In one infamous case last year, a U.C. Berkeley course on "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance" warned, "Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections." The graduate student instructor was forced to remove the notice after a national outcry.
"Clearly, Martin Kramer and his colleagues see themselves as an embattled minority who have been unfairly excluded from academia by what they see as the liberals and leftists who run Middle Eastern studies in the United States, so they want the federal government to come in and somehow make sure people like them get hired or their views get more attention," says Lockman.
Yet the question, finally, isn't whether conservatives really are an embattled minority in the university. It's whether the federal government should supersede experts in deciding which scholarly views deserve to be promoted, and which can be overlooked.
Ironically, given the epic scope of the debate, the actual amount of federal funding at stake is quite small by the standards of large universities. Most centers only receive a few hundred thousand dollars annually from the government. But experts say the programs are often dependent on it. Khalidi presided over five such programs when he was director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago prior to moving to Columbia. Title VI grants, he says, are "peanuts in university and federal terms, but in terms of these fields, they're really important." Around 30 percent of his graduate students learned foreign languages on area study grants, he says.
Because federal funding is so crucial to these centers' survival, Khalidi says, the threat that HR 3077 poses to Middle Eastern studies in America is "deadly serious." The bill, he says, would do one of two things. Either it would "impose the teaching of one twisted version of Middle East reality, what I call terrorology, impose it at the taxpayers' expense as one central element in the way the subject is taught. Or, by subjecting self-respecting universities to conditions they will not under any circumstances accept, it would curtail the teaching of the Middle East."
Cole says scholars will have a hard time convincing their bosses to give up funding. "It may be that some centers would forgo it if the interference looks like it's too heavy-handed," he says. "But it's really hard to go to a dean and ask to throw away $200,000 a year if the criteria that has to be met could be met in some way that isn't completely odious to the university. There would be pressure to meet it."
Michigan Republican Pete Hoekstra, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Select Education and author of the bill, insists that's not what lawmakers intend. The advisory committee, he says, will be there "to help schools to learn from each other, to gather information and help schools learn what other schools are doing so they can really improve their own international programs."
Hoekstra agrees with some of Kurtz's criticism of Middle Eastern studies, but says that has nothing to do with his legislation. "I do think that there may be some validity in some of his comments," he says. "I don't believe these studies should be used to promote an ideological point of view. I'm about getting students educated in international affairs, not having students get into a classroom and have them be indoctrinated into a political philosophy. But did we put anything into the bill that puts in some kind of screening process? For those who believe it's there, ask them to point out where it is."
Other congressmen, though, have been less cagey about the bill's likely effect. Welcoming its passage, Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., said, "I am encouraged that the creation of this Advisory Board will help redress a problem which is a great concern of mine, namely, the lack of balance, and indeed the anti-American bias that pervades Title VI-funded Middle East studies programs in particular ... surely it is troubling when evidence suggests that many of the Middle East regional studies grantees are committed to a narrow point of view at odds with our national interest, a point of view that questions the validity of advancing American ideals of democracy and the rule of law around the world, and in the Middle East in particular."
The International Studies in Higher Education Act is a singular victory for Martin Kramer, who proposed similar legislation in "Ivory Towers on Sand." An American-born Israeli citizen with a Ph.D. in Near Eastern studies from Princeton, he served as the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. Returning to the States, he joined the same network of conservative think tanks that nurtured defense intellectuals like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. The journal he edits, Middle East Quarterly, is published by the Middle East Forum, whose director is Daniel Pipes, the man behind Campus Watch. His book was published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a staunchly pro-Israel think tank whose board of advisors includes Perle and former CIA Director James Woolsey. Wolfowitz resigned from the board when he joined the administration.
Kramer's entire book can be read as an argument for legislation like the International Studies Act. Most of "Ivory Towers on Sand" is a discussion of what Kramer sees as the ideological corruption within Middle Eastern studies, but he also details the minutia of government funding, outlining Title VI's history in order to examine how it can be reformed.
As Kramer reports, Title VI was, from its inception in 1958, "administered as a no-strings-attached benefit." Back then, though, the leaders of the field were people "of a patriotic disposition, who could be counted upon to help out," Kramer writes. This, he makes clear, is no longer the case. Thus the time has come to attach strings.
"It is important for Congress to take a deeper interest in Title VI, and Middle Eastern studies are as good a place as any to begin asking questions," he wrote in "Ivory Towers on Sand." "A relevant congressional subcommittee might hold a hearing on the contribution of Middle Eastern studies to American public policy."
In June, the Congressional Subcommittee on Select Education did just that, convening hearings on "International Programs in Higher Education and Questions of Bias." At the end of his opening statement, Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., said, "I am interested in opening the discussion and debate to learn more about the merits of and concern for federal support given to some of the international education programs that have been questioned in regard to their teachings, which have been associated with efforts to potentially undermine American foreign policy."
Kurtz, testifying before the subcommittee, nodded to Kramer, calling his book "the most comprehensive and authoritative account of the extremist bias against American foreign policy that pervades contemporary Middle East studies." Much of the blame for this bias, he said, is a result of the malign influence of Edward Said and post-colonial theory, which he called the "ruling intellectual paradigm in academic area studies."
He proceeded to list some of Said's more inflammatory statements, including his 1999 call for Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Wesley Clark to be tried for war crimes along with Slobodan Milosevic. Said, Kurtz continued, "has even treated the very idea of American democracy as a farce. He has belittled the reverence in which Americans hold the Constitution, which Said dismisses with the comment that it was written by 'wealthy, white, slaveholding Anglophilic men.'"
There might have been an eerie déjà vu in seeing a congressional committee examine the work of a renowned scholar for treasonous intent, but Kurtz told the panel he was not proposing to blacklist Said. "My concern is that Title VI-funded centers too seldom balance readings from Edward Said and his like-minded colleagues with readings from authors who support American foreign policy," he said. This was more generous than Kurtz's comrades have been toward their enemies' work. Last year, Pipes told Salon, "I want Noam Chomsky to be taught at universities about as much as I want Hitler's writing or Stalin's writing. These are wild and extremist ideas that I believe have no place in a university."
At the end of his testimony, Kurtz made several policy recommendations, including the creation of a board to manage Title VI. Asked about the role of the board in an e-mail interview, Kurtz wrote, "The board should look to encourage intellectual diversity, and it should also encourage programs that successfully bring students into positions of responsibility in the areas of international affairs, international business, foreign language expertise, and national security."
According to Kurtz, the legislation is in the spirit of the best liberal tradition. "I hope that HR 3077 will encourage vigorous debate within the academy on the state of the world generally, and on American foreign policy in particular," he writes. "I'd like to see the sort of debate that now goes on between the academy and its outside critics take place within the academy itself. That doesn't mean excluding critics of American foreign policy from the academy. It means bringing supporters back in."
For professors of Middle Eastern studies, though, it's outrageous, and dangerous, that the government is meddling with academic freedom. And it's especially galling that those who are calling for government intervention are the very neocons whose fear-mongering claims about Iraq have been shown to be false. "The thing that burns me, these are the guys who told us that Saddam had an active nuclear weapons program and would have a nuke within three years," says Cole. "And they're coming back and telling us that our scholarship is shoddy and we need to be overseen by them?"
To Khalidi, the neoconservative attack on Middle Eastern studies recalls the assault launched earlier this year on American intelligence agencies that failed to confirm right-wing assumptions about Iraq. Once again, conservatives are questioning the competency of those who don't agree with them about the Middle East, insisting their views would triumph if only they weren't suppressed by a mandarin establishment in need of immediate reform. And just as Pentagon hawks set up their own intelligence office when the CIA didn't tell them what they wanted to hear about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, now the neocons are trying to do the same thing in academia.
"Neoconservatives want to substitute zealotry and true belief for real expertise," Khalidi says. "They're not just after us in the Middle East field. They're not just after academics. You see this inside the military, inside the intelligence community. You see this in the way the State Department has been treated. Anybody who knows anything about anything is suspect. Unless you have the right views you are not allowed to speak, and if you do, you do so at your peril."
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About the writer
Michelle Goldberg is a staff writer for Salon based in New York