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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AS CONGRESS prepares to convene hearings on the intelligence failures exposed by September 11, it is important to recognize that the failures go beyond the dearth of agents on the ground in the Middle East and the shortage of Arabic speakers at the CIA. Our neglect of the terrorist threat is of long standing and reflects, among other things, the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of American academic programs in Middle Eastern studies.

Considering the wide publicity given to Osama bin Laden's activities, American scholars should have been onto him years ago. They should have been churning out analyses of his ideology and appeal and alerting policymakers to the threat he posed to the United States. Instead, they deliberately avoided the topic of Islamic terrorism and--in their writings, their testimony before Congress, and their advice to the intelligence community--argued that America could bring peace and democracy to the Middle East only by supporting Islamic fundamentalists.

It is a dismal story, recounted in Martin Kramer's unsparing new study "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America," commissioned by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Kramer is the editor of the Middle East Quarterly and a former director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. He holds graduate degrees from Princeton and Columbia, has taught at the University of Chicago, Cornell, and Georgetown, and is the author of six books on the Middle East.

The story begins in the late 1940s, when Middle East "area studies" sprouted in American universities. The founders of this discipline made a pitch for government funding on grounds of national interest. They argued, for example, that federal support for American-staffed universities in places like Beirut would strengthen liberal forces in the region, serving as a bulwark against both communism and indigenous movements of sectarian reaction. To a degree, their pitch was self-interested. By breaking with the European model of learning based on the command of ancient and modern languages, and instead framing their object of study as a region of strategic value to the nation, apolitical scholars could contemplate fifteenth-century Islamic architecture and still do it on the government's dime.

Whatever their personal views, the postwar generation, Kramer says, were "careful to keep their politics outside the fences they erected around the field." But these were men "of patriotic disposition," who had served their country in war and felt no aversion to maintaining ties to Washington. The government periodically opened its classified archives to scholars, but for the most part was content to reap the benefits of a broad and gradually accumulating scholarly knowledge of the region.

In those early days, the ruling paradigm in Middle Eastern studies was the investigation of "development" or "modernization." Drawing on social science texts like Daniel Lerner's "The Passing of Traditional Society" (1958), scholars argued that the Middle East had embarked upon a path of gradual but inevitable secularization, urbanization, industrialization, and political participation. The region was bound to become modern--that is, more like the United States--and American students saw their job as understanding that process and even helping it along.

Two events unanticipated by Middle East experts brought the modernization paradigm crashing to the ground: the disintegration of Lebanon and the Shiite revolution in Iran. Lebanon had been the center of cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and American influence in the Arab world before it was engulfed in civil war in 1975. And Shah Reza Pahlavi had been a leading modernizer. His overthrow by Islamic theocrats in 1979 stunned Americans.

Also in the late seventies, the radical students of the 1960s began to enter the professoriate. The way was cleared for them to wrest power from the Middle East studies establishment when Edward Said's "Orientalism" (1978) crystallized a new understanding of the field. The founding text of postcolonial studies, "Orientalism" effectively delegitimated all previous scholarship on the Middle East by branding it as racist. Said drew no distinction between the most ignorant and bigoted remarks of nineteenth-century colonialists and the most accomplished pronouncements of contemporary Western scholars: All Western knowledge of the East was intrinsically tainted with imperialism. Any scholarly characterization of the distinctive nature of Islamic civilization or of Middle Eastern culture was taken by Said to be a roundabout justification for Western rule of the irrational natives.