Martin Kramer: Dare to Be Different as You Design Your Middle East Studies Reading List

Martin Kramer, at his blog (Aug. 9, 2004):

Balance your syllabus, with a Kramer supplement.  It's that time of year again, when my professorial friends are scrambling to put together their syllabi. You can usually tell a professor by his or her syllabus. That's because, as every mandarin of Middle Eastern studies knows, balance is a false god."University teaching is not about 'balance'," writes one of them."Our cancer institute isn't required to hire at least a few biologists who believe smoking is good for your health.... some stories only have one true side." (You didn't know that Middle Eastern studies were such an exact science, did you? Check out all those double blind studies on Islam and democracy.) So bias is de rigueur, which is convenient, because it's a lot easier to achieve than balance, which is... well, hard work.

So this is for those professors who don't get it, and who have a deluded notion that they owe their students some alternative readings. As I did last year, I offer my pick of my most syllabus-friendly articles. They're friendly in another way too: I've put them on the web. No running up a bill at the university store, no shuffling across the icy quad to the library. Just click. The best things in life are free.

Studying the Middle East. In a number of leading universities, professors are assigning my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies. There have been reported sightings in syllabi at Arizona, Chicago, Columbia, Georgetown, and Harvard. The book has to be ordered from its distributor, the Brookings Institution Press, but about a quarter of it is available on the web. This includes the introduction; chapter two, (Edward) Said's Splash; and chapter three, Islam Obscured. (And being a good sport, I'll even link to the two latest critiques: Behind the Battles Over US Middle East Studies by Zachary Lockman, and Is the 'Orientalist' Past the Future of Middle East Studies? by Pinar Bilgin. Of course, they've got it completely wrong.)

Arab nationalism. The saga of Arab nationalism figures in every general introduction to the Middle East. That's probably why the most popular article in my archive is my comprehensive overview of the subject: Arab Nationalism: Mistaken Identity. It covers the vicissitudes of Arab nationalism from the late nineteenth century to the early 1990s, untangling a complex history that often confuses beginning students. The article is nicely illustrated, and has links to four maps.

Islamism. A good place to start is a general panorama: Fundamentalist Islam: The Drive for Power. This tells the story of the successive phases of Islamism, from Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani through Sayyid Qutb and Khomeini and into the 1990s. It's also richly illustrated. I recommend assigning it in conjunction with another article devoted to the question of terminology: Coming to Terms: Fundamentalists or Islamists? This is a convenient history of terms, which doubles as a history of interpretation.

Democracy Debate. For a general statement of my side of the controversy, assign my classic essay Islam vs. Democracy. For my latest angle on the same subject, try a lecture I delivered just before the Iraq war: Should America Promote a Liberal, Democratic Middle East? Both pieces are sure to stimulate a discussion in class, especially if you don't agree with them.

Terrorism. My best work on the subject deals with Hizbullah, which is still very much on the terror list. Hizbullah: The Calculus of Jihad is an overview of the movement (there's an even shorter one, an encyclopedia entry on Hizbullah in Lebanon). And then there is The Moral Logic of Hizbullah, an examination of how Hizbullah has rationalized suicide bombings and abductions. If you are assigning Robert Pape's quantitative Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (it seems to be popular), tack on my critique of same: Political Science Targets Suicide Bombing.

So dare to be different, and assign one of my texts in your class. You can side with me, or hang me out to dry--it doesn't matter. The students will benefit one way or another. If you won't give them a balanced diet, at least give them a small Kramer supplement--available as free samples.

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