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Planned Obsolescence

The state of scholarship in the Middle East Studies Association.

12:00 AM, Aug 2, 2006 • By BRUCE THORNTON
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THE MIDDLE EAST STUDIES ASSOCIATION, the professional gatekeeper of American academic orthodoxy on all matters Islamic, has posted the lineup of presentations for its upcoming meeting in Boston this November. As always, what's not going to be talked about says as much about the political priorities of America's Middle East studies establishment than what's actually being covered.

Of the 100-plus talks spread over three-and-a-half days, many are concerned with the status of women in the Middle East, but only two discuss the revolutionary political liberation of Muslim women in Iraq and Afghanistan, an unprecedented event in Middle Eastern history--albeit one inconveniently triggered by the intervention of the United States. We can look forward, however, learning all we need to know about "The Turkish Women's Union and the Politics of Women's Rights in Turkey, 1929-1935."

A whole session on "The Oppressed in the Ottoman Empire" manages to say nary a word about dhimmis, the oppressed Christians and Jews whose lives under Islamic dominance were circumscribed by formal and informal restrictions designed to ensure that the infidels remembered their inferior status. The "oppressed" the professors are concerned about are factory workers and prostitutes. Speaking of the oppressed, two sessions are devoted to the Copts, the Christian Egyptians subjected to legal restrictions and relentless violence incited by Islamic preachers. But MESA is interested only in "Copts and Muslims in Pre-Modern Egyptian Society," or "Reviving Copts: Imagining a Past, Creating a Future." Three more talks concern the representation of Copts, which apparently is more interesting than their actual day-to-day suffering.

But the most curious choice is MESA's approach to terrorism. Judging by the titles of the presentations, terrorism is interesting only in terms of the impact that the fight against terrorism has had on Muslims: "Impact of September 11 on Civic Participation of Muslim Women."

Subjects that do more to catch the profession's attention reflect the hyper-specialization and trendy jargon that characterize most academic work in the humanities. The usual jargonish suspects have been rounded up, including "discursive clashes," "contested metanarratives," "gendered politics," "(post)modernizing the fairy tale," and the "politics of re-territorializing commerce." If you've been dying to learn more about "Gendered Politics of Location of Three Generations of Palestinian Women in Israel, 1948-1998," or "Representation and Resistance: American Protestant Missionary Encounters with Women in Greater Syria," then the MESA conference is the place for you.

Of course, the politically-correct prejudices of MESA, amply documented by Martin Kramer in Ivory Towers on Sand, are on display, too: "Anxious for Armageddon: Christian Zionism and U.S. Policy in the Middle East"; "Bad Fences for Bad Neighbors: The Divisive Process of the Israel-Palestine Border"; "A Tale of Two Walled Cities: Jerusalem and Johannesburg"; and "Expression under Duress: Palestinian Creative and Visual Arts."

Indeed, the virtues missing in much of the Middle East--a rational search for order, a commitment to tolerance and pluralism, the triumph of reason over passion, and open intellectual inquiry--are absent from MESA's fall conference. Ironically, by mimicking their research subjects' cultural traits and habits of mind that stand most in need of reform, MESA offers an unintended warning to the rest of us on the costs of jettisoning Western scholarly norms: the willingness to ignore crucial topics, and to accept cant as scholarship, can ossify an entire profession as easily as it can retard a society.

Bruce Thornton is professor of classical studies at California State University at Fresno. Among his books are A Student's Guide to the Classics and Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization. This piece is a product of Campus Watch.