[Marxism] Mideast Studies witch-hunt

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Feb 6 07:17:57 MST 2004

Chronicle of Higher Education, February 6, 2004

The Clash Over Middle East Studies
Critics say the programs are biased against U.S. foreign policy and need 
a review board


Brandeis University plans to open a Center for Middle East Studies this 
fall that, officials there say, will be free of bias.

It will not be solely focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is 
what most centers pay attention to, says Jehuda Reinharz, the 
university's president. And it will be "ideologically free," he says, 
"to the extent we can make that possible."

But offering a program in Middle East studies whose ideology offends no 
one may prove to be no less difficult than dividing an ancient homeland 
between two warring peoples.

Scholars of Middle East studies today find themselves in the middle of a 
war of ideas as politically charged as the region they study. The 
discipline's critics, often conservative supporters of the Bush 
administration, have denounced the programs as anti-American and 
anti-Israeli and have called for the creation of an advisory board to 
review them. The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed a bill 
to create such a board; the Senate will consider the measure within the 
next few months. Many faculty members and administrators, however, argue 
that such a board would curtail their academic freedom.

At the center of the debate is what the centers actually do, whom they 
are training, and what they are training them for.

Legislating Cultural Diversity

The first stone was cast in June, when Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow 
at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, told a House subcommittee 
that many academics in Middle East studies were biased against U.S. 
foreign policy and discouraged students from entering government service.

The influential postcolonial theory of Edward Said, the late Columbia 
University professor of English, promotes the idea that "it is immoral 
for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at 
the service of American power," Mr. Kurtz told the subcommittee. The 
centers, many of which receive funds under Title VI of the Higher 
Education Act -- generally three-year grants of no more than $500,000 -- 
rarely balance Mr. Said's work with that of scholars who disagree with 
him, Mr. Kurtz said.

The centers should correct that imbalance, he said, or else risk losing 
federal money. "Unless steps are taken to balance university faculties 
with members who both support and oppose American foreign policy, the 
very purpose of free speech and academic freedom will have been 
defeated," Mr. Kurtz told the panel.

His testimony helped persuade the House last fall to pass HR 3077 
unanimously. The bill would create an advisory board to ensure that 
foreign-language and area-studies programs that accept federal funds 
"reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world 
regions, foreign languages, and international affairs."

The board, made up of political appointees, would review the programs 
but not run them. Three members of the board would be named by the 
secretary of education, and one each by the majority and minority 
leaders of the House and Senate. "Nothing in this title shall be 
construed to authorize the International Advisory Board to mandate, 
direct, or control an institution of higher education's specific 
instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction," the 
measure says.

Professors of Middle East studies fear not what such a board is supposed 
to do, but what it would try to do.

Amy W. Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies 
Association, says advisory boards in other programs, like that of the 
National Science Foundation, function as peer-review panels -- made up 
of academic experts in the field -- and so should the Title VI board. 
Otherwise, she says, political appointees, lacking expertise in Middle 
East affairs, would fall back on their particular political biases 
instead of any real knowledge when reviewing the centers.

Although the bill's language forbids the board to control curricula, the 
"potential for meddling is still very great," says Ms. Newhall, an 
assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of 
Arizona. "Proponents certainly see it as intrusive." In fact, she says, 
"they're looking forward to it."

Mark Smith, director of government relations at the American Association 
of University Professors, says the presence of an advisory board would 
intrude on academic freedom and create "a huge, intimidating force over 
curriculum decisions, books chosen," and "approaches taken to the 
subject." Professors, and not legislators, he says, should be the ones 
responsible for determining course content.

Nezar AlSayyad, chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the 
University of California at Berkeley, says the idea for the advisory 
board is part of an effort by the Bush administration to wrest more 
control over what gets said in academe and in the news media.

"We get money from the federal government," he says. "That does not mean 
we do what the federal government says. As academics, we have academic 
freedom. That's our God-given right. Being in the academy means that 
we're allowed to form opinions actually based on intellectual discourse, 
not on political position."

A Particular Need

Area-studies centers were first created during the cold war, when the 
United States decided that it needed to know more about the languages 
and cultures of the rest of the world, including the Middle East.

Of the 118 area-studies centers receiving Title VI funds from the U.S. 
Department of Education, only 17 focus on the Middle East, up from 14 in 
2001. Their areas of study usually include the Arab countries, Iran, 
Israel, and Turkey.

The House bill applies to all area-studies programs, including those on 
Russia, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. But Middle East studies 
gained new relevance -- and a bigger audience -- after September 11, 
2001. There is little doubt that the bill is aimed squarely at Middle 
East studies.

Arizona's Ms. Newhall says she saw the enrollment in her class, "Middle 
East Humanities," jump from about 250 students before the terrorist 
attacks to 400 this fall. Jon Mandaville, director of the Middle East 
Studies Center at Portland State University, in Oregon, says his 
first-year Arabic-language class has grown from 19 students before 2001 
to 50 students this year.

Neither of those classes is taught at a Middle East-studies center. The 
centers can use their Title VI funds to pay only for language 
instruction, fellowships for graduate students, and special lectures and 
discussions. Courses themselves are carried on by language or history 
departments. In fact, some professors and administrators at the centers 
scoff at the idea of a review board, noting that lectures about such 
subjects as 19th-century Moroccan poetry shouldn't need reviewing.

In December 2001, Congress added $20-million to Title VI, which governs 
foreign-language and area-studies programs, mostly for Middle East and 
Central and South Asia studies. The total budget now stands at 
$95-million. A report that accompanied the appropriations bill said that 
the purpose of the increase was to produce more Americans with expertise 
on the Muslim world.

It "wasn't to generate 25 more professors," says Martin Kramer, editor 
of Middle East Quarterly and a proponent of the review board. "Title VI 
was supposed to increase the number of graduate students working in 
Muslim areas, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, from 200 to 400." The 
hope was that these people would then go into government service, he says.

But Middle East-studies professors often dissuade graduate students from 
pursuing careers in national security and discourage scholarly work on 
terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, says Mr. Kramer. "The message 
being sent is [that] doing anything related to Islamic extremism or 
groups that perpetrate terror is 'terrorology,' and that's not what we 
do," he says.

Mark Tessler, a professor of political science at the University of 
Michigan at Ann Arbor who edits a series of books on Middle East 
studies, disputes Mr. Kramer's contention by ticking off several of the 
titles published this year by Indiana University Press. They include 
Islamic Activism: Exploring Political Violence in Algeria, Hamas in 
Palestine, and Islamic Women in Yemen.

"The notion that [these centers] are not doing their job and that 
they're soft on terrorism and anti-Israel -- that is just not the case 
in my experience," says Mr. Tessler, a former director of the Middle 
East Studies Center at the University of Arizona. He earned his Ph.D. 
from Northwestern University, lived in Israel for more than three years, 
and studied at Hebrew University of Jerusalem during one of them.

Taking the Money

Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia University's Middle East Institute, 
contends that critics of the field are actually intent upon a "witch 
hunt." Mr. Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia, has faced 
considerable scrutiny already. Some critics routinely accuse him of 
support for Palestinian terrorists and prejudice against Israel. This is 
the same group, he says, that has convinced House Republicans that there 
is gross bias against the United States and Israel in Middle East studies.

Mr. Khalidi doesn't know whether Columbia's institute will continue to 
seek federal money if an advisory board is created. "It depends on the 
language," he says. If the board "did have the kind of prosecutorial 
intent to search out malfeasance that is presumed but does not exist, 
that would be objectionable," he says. "The university might feel this 
was political infringement on academic freedom."

Kenneth D. Whitehead, a former director of educational programs at the 
Department of Education, says academe's concerns are unfounded. For 
eight years in the 1980s, he was executive director of a Title VI 
advisory committee. In 1987, the Reagan administration and Congress 
agreed to eliminate several advisory panels, including the one for Title 

The decision was made for financial reasons, says Terry W. Hartle, a 
senior vice president at the American Council on Education. "The federal 
government was running a budget deficit," and "each advisory board cost 
$500,000," he says. The move to disband the Title VI board created no 
controversy, he adds, and it died quietly.

Mr. Whitehead, a career Foreign Service officer who speaks Arabic, says 
that during his tenure with the board, two university presidents led it, 
and that one of its members was John R. Silber, Boston University's 
chancellor. Also holding seats were representatives of all of the 
federal agencies with an interest in Title VI, he says.

The old board's purpose, not unlike that of the newly proposed version, 
he says, was "to promote competent language-area specialists to serve 
the needs of the United States."

"It's not a scary thing," he says. "What does whether or not you're 
competent in Arabic or Chinese or Farsi have to do with academic freedom?"

If the centers are worried, he says, "maybe they shouldn't be taking the 

Mr. Mandaville, at Portland State, doesn't yet know whether his center, 
which has received Title VI funds off and on since it opened, in 1961, 
will reapply for the money. He would rather receive it without strings. 
The next grant competition is set for the fall of 2005.

To him, the language of HR 3077 implies that a center's Title VI support 
is conditional on "the committee's potential review of your program, 
whether it serves national security interests."

In the past 20 years, about half of the students who have completed 
Portland State's undergraduate program in Middle East studies, which 
graduates 7 to 10 students each year, have gone on to government 
service, he says. The rest have gone to graduate school.

"We do serve the national interest," Mr. Mandaville says. "We always 
have. We don't need Congress to tell us to do this."

If the legislation passes the Senate and becomes law, he says, then "we 
become subject to the whims of whatever administration is in power," and 
to shifts in whatever part of the world dominates the news.

For now, Brandeis officials say only that they are unsure whether they 
will seek federal support for their new center. But the university's 
president, Mr. Reinharz, has some idea of one subject the program should 
focus on -- the study of Islam.

Plenty of think tanks and academic centers already deal with the subject 
of terrorism, he says. An examination of Islam, however, does belong in 
the new program's work, he says. Islam is "not by definition a 
fundamentalist religion," he says. "All religions have fundamentalist 
elements. Clearly it's of major concern today."


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