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Crisis Studies?

The Middle East Studies Association goes on the offensive with some delicate suggestions for its members.

12:00 AM, Jul 19, 2002 • By BETH HENARY
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THE SEPTEMBER 11 terror attacks and the war on terror that followed have the Middle East studies establishment running scared. The recent events put the university scholars who should have been warning us about Islamic terror, and psychoanalyzing Osama bin Laden, on notice that their departments might be more closely scrutinized by the media and the public. Apparently, the ensuing criticism didn't sit too well.

In The Scandal of Middle East Studies, Stanley Kurtz called the decline of Middle East studies, led by postcolonial theorist Edward Said, "a sobering story of intellectual failure." American Middle Eastern scholars, he pointed out, "simply refused to study Islamic terrorism" throughout the 1990s. "Instead," he wrote, "they searched in vain for a Muslim 'Martin Luther,' some thinker who might reinterpret the Islamic tradition so as to adapt it to democracy."

Martin Kramer, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, launched a similar attack against the discipline in that journal's Winter 2002 issue. Kramer questioned the election of Stanford University historian Joel Beinin to the presidency of the Middle East Studies Association, a self-described "international organization for those involved in the study of the Middle East" run out of the University of Arizona at Tucson that has over 2,600 members. "Beinin," wrote Kramer, "is the avatar of the 'new left' insurgency that swept through Middle Eastern studies in the 1980s." The professor was a Zionist-socialist when he was younger, but morphed into an anti-Zionist Israel critic after living on a kibbutz in the country.

"What Beinin's elevation says is quite simply this: never has the Middle Eastern studies guild been more opposed to American values, U.S. policy, and U.S. influence in the Middle East," Kramer concluded.

Well, Joel Beinin has responded, but not directly to the criticisms levied against his discipline. In an e-mail sent July 16 to certain members of the Middle East Studies Association, Beinin begged them to fight for credibility.

"You are probably aware that the public attack on American Middle East studies and MESA in particular that began with the publication of Martin Kramer's Ivory Towers on Sand has continued throughout the year in the mass media . . . and many other places as well as articles and radio shows by one Stanley Kurtz (a fellow at the Hoover Institution located uncomfortably close to my house)," Beinin began.

"While the intellectual criticisms of MESA members are mostly mean spirited, ad hominem, and spurious, there is a significant threat to Middle East studies from this assault . . . . In the xenophobic current atmosphere [sic] of the United States, we would be seriously remiss if we failed to make a public case for the value of our scholarly enterprise not only for its own sake, but also for the public good it provides to American society at large."

But, when urging his fellow professors to speak publicly about the value inherent in Middle East studies ("explain why our understandings of the Middle East are often at variance with popularly held views"), Beinin offered specific advice about what they should say.

"Keep the focus on the positive work of MESA. . . . It is better to avoid engaging with the calumnies that have been directed against us."

Yes, indeed. In academia things are always easier without a debate.

Beth Henary is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.