The Magazine

The Scandal of Middle East Studies

Bankrupt scholarship and foolish policy advice.

Nov 19, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 10 • By STANLEY KURTZ
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However tendentious the argument of "Orientalism," it was carefully drawn--all of it, that is, but the final chapter, which strongly indicted contemporary scholarship as neocolonialist. This Kramer says was superficial, unsubstantiated, and "lazy." Said offered virtually no evidence to support his bold condemnations and overlooked vast tracts of scholarly work that cut against his interpretations.

Yet, with rare exceptions, American scholars remained silent. Some dismissed Said's caricature as unserious, while others were cowed by the impossibility of disproving false charges of racism. Most important, Said's attack came at a time when the rise of religious reaction and social chaos in the Middle East had undermined the confidence of Middle East scholars.

The effects of "Orientalism" on the field were profound. It not only made the avowal of a scholar's political principles appropriate, even necessary; Said's work, in Kramer's words, "enshrined an acceptable hierarchy of political commitments, with Palestine at the top, followed by the Arab nations and the Islamic world." As UCLA historian Nikki Keddie put it, "orientalism" became a sort of swear word with which to dismiss the work of anyone who took the "wrong" position on the Arab-Israeli conflict or whose views were judged conservative.

But that was the least of it. The most pernicious effect of Said's book was presumptively to impeach as racist the scholarship of anyone not born in the East. "Orientalism" was turned into a manifesto for affirmative action for Arab and Muslim scholars, who, despite their predominantly upper-class origins, could gain admittance to the academy's racial spoils system once they were cast as victims of racist, colonialist oppression.

From the earliest days, immigrant scholars had played a role in the field, without enjoying any sort of preference. In 1971, Kramer reports, 3.2 percent of America's Middle East area specialists had been born in the region. By 1992, the figure was nearly half. This demographic transformation consolidated the conversion of Middle Eastern studies to leftist anti-Americanism.

Now in control of America's bastions of Middle Eastern studies, the Saidians (whose luminaries included University of Chicago historian Rashid Khalidi and MIT historian Philip Khoury) were nevertheless no better placed than the modernizers had been to make sense of developments in the region. This is because, at a time when the influence of Islamic fundamentalism was growing, Said's scheme stigmatized scholarly discussion of Islam as intrinsically "essentializing" and bigoted. Said himself was hostile to religion, a secular leftist with little knowledge of Islam.

Said's postmodern inflection of Marxism had no more place for Islam than did the leftism of the well-heeled secular immigrants who embraced the postcolonial paradigm. Instead of a fundamentalist revival, Said's followers awaited a progressive revolution. They took the chaos in Beirut, the advent of Khomeini, and other signs of transformation in the region as evidence of an emerging revolt of the dispossessed. A new order would arise in the Middle East, they thought, and it would be one that empowered women, students, intellectuals, and refugees. Under these circumstances, Kramer writes, "the duty of the sympathetic scholar was to study these forces, prove their potential on a theoretical level, and support them as a practical matter. As the progressive forces seized the initiative in Middle Eastern capitals, their allies would do the same on American campuses."

But no progressive revolution materialized in the Middle East. Khomeini ruthlessly purged the secular left, fundamentalism spread, and even "modern" women in many places began to don the veil. Having stigmatized any attention to the religious or cultural character of Islam as an orientalist thought crime, the postcolonialists were left without
a way to address these developments.

Into the breach stepped John Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Holy Cross College who, in books like "The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality" (1992) and (with John O. Voll) "Islam and Democracy" (1996), popularized Said's ideas by purging them of their overt leftism and anti-Americanism and ingeniously applying them to Islam.