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Taste: Bernard Lewis Takes on Political Correctness in Middle East Studies
May 2, 2008

By Charlotte Allen

What to do if you are a college professor and the academic society that represents your field has been overrun by political correctness? One answer is: Form your own organization.

That is how, six months ago, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (Asmea) came into being. Now claiming 500 members and gearing up to publish its own scholarly journal, Asmea is meant to be a corrective to the 2,600-member Middle East Studies Association, the premier professional society for scholars of the Middle East. That organization is now regarded by many as stiflingly politicized. Institutionally, it engages in nonstop Israel-bashing and seems to blame America for every economic and geopolitical wrong on the planet.

Interestingly, both the Middle East Studies Association and the new Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa were founded by the same person: Bernard Lewis. Now 91, Mr. Lewis is the eminence grise of scholars of Islam. His 60-year scholarly career encompasses more than two-dozen books and decades of teaching, first at the University of London and then at Princeton, where he is now a professor emeritus. He gave up on MESA to found Asmea last fall because he wanted there to be "a truly open academic society."

Mr. Lewis spoke those words at Asmea's first annual conference at a Washington hotel last weekend. The two-day gathering—featuring only eight panels and roundtables, in contrast to the hundred or so at MESA's annual meeting in Montreal in November—showed the promise and also the problems that are part of any professional society's attempts to defy orthodoxy.

The promise is clear. MESA, while it might have been founded to further the historical work of scholars such as Mr. Lewis (he was the first Western academic granted access to the Ottoman Empire's archives in Istanbul), has gradually been taken over by disciples of Edward Said (1935-2003). "Orientalism," Mr. Said's most famous work, was published in 1978. It preached that Western scholarship on Islam was all but worthless because it had been motivated by efforts to further the "colonial" interests of Western imperial powers, still intent on dominating the East.

Unlike Mr. Lewis, Mr. Said had no training in Islamic or Mideast studies (he was in fact, for years, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University). More important, later scholars eviscerated his nonliterary research. Even so, Mr. Said continues to exert a powerful influence on many American Islamicists; He is their guru, and "Orientalism" is their catechism.

Perusing MESA statements and the scholarship of its leaders is a depressing exercise. The society's current president, Mervat Hatem, a professor of political science at Howard University, delivered a paper at Kent State University in 2004 in which, citing "Orientalism" and indulging in the worst sort of academic jargon, she described the 9/11 attacks as a result of U.S.-fomented globalization: "[The] dialectic of Jihad vs. McWorld explained the paradoxical interdependence and conflict associated with the global world along with the dual emergence of universalist/cosmopolitan forces and their tribal/particularistic/parochial/provincial opponents."

The MESA Web site features links to the society's many denunciations of Israel and its defense of such controversial academics as Rashid Khalidi, an apologist for the Palestinian Liberation Organization and a member of Columbia's faculty. As for last year's MESA meeting in Montreal, some 11 panels were devoted solely to Palestinian grievances.

"There's been a lot of lamenting about the political correctness that's taken over MESA," says Tristan Mabry, a visiting assistant professor of government at Georgetown University who decided to attend the Asmea conference for a breath of fresh air. "The A-No.1 issue that dominates MESA is always Israel, and even if you're not interested in Israel [Mr. Mabry's research focuses on Pakistan, India and Bangladesh], where you stand on Israel is always a litmus test."

Asmea aims to attract centrist scholars such as Mr. Mabry, and its conference dealt with matters that are clearly off-limits at MESA unless approached from an anti-American and anti-Israeli perspective: terrorism and suicide-bombing, for instance. In point of fact, however, relatively few of the 250 attendees last weekend were scholars at universities. Many were members of the military, defense specialists, think-tank researchers and free-lance writers. The presence of the defense contingent was understandable: In today's highly politicized academic climate, many scholarly societies forbid their members to consult for the U.S. military or intelligence services. The scholarship of Asmea's members may be the government's only academic resource for information useful in current Mideast conflicts.

That many of the papers at Asmea's first annual meeting had a distinct "know your enemy" cast suggests that Asmea might end up just as politicized as MESA, except in the opposite direction. Such a result could turn off scholars who are sick of MESA's ideological drum-beating but who are too liberal to join an organization that could turn out to be as closely affiliated with the right as MESA is with the left. It doesn't help that Mr. Lewis and Asmea's vice chairman, Fouad Ajami, the director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, have been vocal supporters of the Iraq war. Messrs. Lewis and Ajami are entitled to such an opinion but the academic climate in which they operate is unforgiving of deviants. Finally, the fact that Asmea refuses to disclose the sources for its original funding might send the message that there are some notorious conservatives behind the group.

Still, Asmea's scholars seem reflective and well-versed in their subjects. And it's comforting to go to an academic conference where one needn't face the "dialectic of paradoxical interdependence."

Ms. Allen is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's Minding the Campus Web site.

©2008 The Wall Street Journal


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