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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Scholars faced the challenge of explaining the seeming exceptionalism of Islam--its resistance to modernization and democratization--at a time when belief in Islamic exceptionalism had been identified as neocolonial bigotry. Esposito's solution was to announce that Islamic fundamentalism had been a movement of democratic reform all along, and only orientalist prejudice had prevented Westerners from seeing this happy truth. Americans would need to transcend their ethnocentric notions of democracy in order to understand that fundamentalist Islamic movements might forge "effective systems of popular participation" in ways unknown to the West.

His reputation growing, Esposito was elected president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America in 1988, and in 1993 took the helm of Georgetown University's new Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He and his followers disparaged public concern about terrorism as barely disguised anti-Muslim prejudice. Thus, after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, Columbia historian Richard Bulliet organized a conference not to grapple with the emergence of terrorism in New York, but to attack the wave of anti-Muslim prejudice that supposedly would be set off by a guilty verdict in the bombers' trials.

Throughout the 1990s, American academics simply refused to study Islamic terrorism. Instead, they searched in vain for a Muslim "Martin Luther," some thinker who might reinterpret the Islamic tradition so as to adapt it to democracy. Osama bin Laden could only be an embarrassment to scholars who saw political Islam as benign. To this day, American scholars have produced not a single serious study of bin Laden, his ideology, or his influence. Six months before September 11, Sarah Lawrence professor Fawaz Gerges, whose work drew on Esposito's paradigm, asked: "Should not observers and academics keep skeptical about the U.S. government's assessment of the terrorist threat? To what extent do terrorist 'experts' indirectly perpetuate this irrational fear of terrorism by focusing too much on farfetched horrible scenarios?"

The Clinton State Department actually made John Esposito a foreign affairs analyst in its intelligence bureau. Edward Said, meanwhile, was approvingly recycling the argument of Esposito's book "The Islamic Threat"--that the fear of terrorism is the latest mutation of Cold War paranoia. An influential article of Said's appeared in the New York Times Magazine on November 21, 1993, under a title that, in retrospect, nicely encapsulates the worthlessness of his prognostications: "The Phony Islamic Threat."

The decline of Middle Eastern studies is a sobering story of intellectual failure--of the persistent inability of scholars to predict or explain real-world developments in the region of their supposed expertise. Martin Kramer has performed a crucial service by exposing the intellectual rot in a scholarly field of capital importance to our national well-being.

Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute.

November 19, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 10