Why Are Arch Conservatives Ganging Up on the Middle East Studies Association?

Culture Watch

Mr. Cole is Professor of Middle Eastern and North African History at the University of Michigan. His website is www.juancole.com.

 Whether its Military, History, War tactics and strategies or weaponry Military book club covers it all.

I had never even heard of Stanley Kurtz before he began attacking the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). He is woefully misinformed about my professional association. As far as I can tell, he speaks no Arabic or Persian and has never studied the Middle East. He does not show up in any author indexes I looked at online. Now he has set himself up to judge the scholarly work of persons like myself, though he has read almost none of it. He is a columnist for the National Review, and he was a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and is now is a fellow at the Hudson Institute, which has links to the Israeli Right as well as to Jewish neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz. Since his only trade appears to be in garish opinion, it is rather sad that some of what he says is so obviously incorrect that it makes him look like a clown.

Contrary to what Kurtz attempts to imply, the Middle East Studies Association is not a research institute. It is not a political action committee. Its members differ wildly among themselves about political issues. Arab-Americans, e.g., tend to vote Republican, and they are a small but significant proportion of members. Such matters do not arise in the panels, however, because it is just a professional association. Anyone can join it who can demonstrate possession of two of three criteria: a degree in, publications in, and service to the academic study of the Middle East. It was founded in 1966.

MESA's hundred or so founding members were highly diverse, including European immigrant scholars, WASP offspring of diplomats or missionaries who had encountered the Middle East as children, former State Department personnel who had gone into academics, Zionists who had learned their Arabic in Israel, Arab-Americans, and others whose lives had lead them into university teaching about the Middle East.

MESA has grown to have about 2600 members from colleges and universities in the United States, but by my count only about a thousand of them are tenured or tenure-track professors. The rest are adjuncts, graduate students, and associate members (e.g. architects and computer systems analysts who have at least an MA in Middle East studies). Still, there is no doubt that the field--though small--has grown enormously since 1966. MESA does not receive U.S. government money, and has a small income, mainly from private dues and its annual conference (in good years).

Now we come to Stanley Kurtz. After MESA's mid-November annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Kurtz commented in the National Review Online, that "they meet in DC regularly, to remind the federal government just how much MESA scholars contribute to our national security in exchange for all the money they get from the federal government." MESA does not meet in Washington, D.C., because of the U.S. government, and certainly not because the organization conceives itself as having anything to do with "national security." It is just an association of college teachers, for heaven's sake. I'm not aware that anyone from the government even bothers to come to most of the meetings. Washington is centrally located on the East Coast, and MESA conferences tend to be big when held there, generating a little extra pocket change for a cash-strapped organization every third year.

Moreover, MESA does not get any money at all from the Federal government. Some of its member institutions do get small sums, but they are not mediated by MESA. The 15 federally funded National Resource Centers concerned with the Middle East at major universities get an average of $200,000 a year each from the government through Title VI, much of which goes to funding graduate students to study Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew. Since a typical fellowship costs $20,000, and since the Centers do other things, they can only really support a handful of students each with this money. This is a paltry sum of money, and the scandal is that it is so little, given the need of a democratic society to keep informed of foreign policy challenges. Kurtz wants to make it seem that MESA and its members are raking mountains of funds from the taxpayer. The NRC's have for decades turned out many of the few Arabic, Persian and Turkish linguists of high caliber that we have in this country, and the main complaint I have at this moment is that the government did not spend more on turning out greater numbers of them.

Kurtz then goes on to say, "Trouble is, there are no panels scheduled on suicide bombing or Wahhabism, no mention of al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. Even the few mentions of 'terrorism' are put in quotes." Kurtz now attempts to make it seem as though the annual convention of the Middle East Studies Association had no panels of any relevance to current events, and that this is a sin of some sort. But this complaint has two flaws. First, it is rather like flogging the Modern Language Association for having no panels on the resignation of Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil. MESA is not a contemporary affairs research institute. A good third of its members are historians, who will likely not present papers on the present. Others work on literature, economics, and religion. Second, there were several important panels on contemporary affairs, including Islamic radicalism. I organized a well-attended panel on Afghanistan and the War on Terror in which Bin Laden and the Taliban were prominently mentioned and where there were no quotation marks in evidence. An evening session on the Israel-Palestinian peace process was addressed by the Bush Administration undersecretary of state for Near East, William Burns.

Kurtz continues, "These scholars, who are getting subsidized by the federal government for contributing to our national security, are busy planning panels on Middle Eastern 'sex and gender' in the early twentieth century." Most MESA scholars receive no subsidies from the government for contributing to our national security. And if Kurtz does not think sexuality and gender are wrought up with the region's current crises, he has not been paying much attention! In actual fact, there has been a lack of academic writing about sexuality in the Middle East, even though it clearly underlies many of the culture wars in the area. The panel he trashed was innovative and illuminating, but of course he did not bother to attend it, so how could he have known? Being informed is apparently not part of his job.

He ends this whine by saying, "where is the attention to the crisis of the moment? Is this what we're paying for? After all the embarrassing revelations about their refusal to deal with the reality of terrorism and Muslim fundamentalism, these scholars have learned nothing." But Kurtz has not paid for the MESA conference. Its members paid for it. Most panelists had never received a dime from the U.S. government. Many who did, received it because the Department of Education wanted historians of the region to be trained, and they are now doing history as requested. In actual fact, moreover, there have been papers on Muslim fundamentalism at MESA conferences ad nauseum since the late 1970s. There were such panels in Washington, and they were very interesting. Most Middle Easterners are not and never have been fundamentalists, however, and only a tiny number have ever been terrorists, so if you are interested in actually studying the region, having an overemphasis on these phenomena would not be very helpful. It would be like insisting that Italian historians work only on the Cosa Nostra.

Kurtz has been at this for some time. He has argued that the Middle East Studies field is ideologically dominated by the work of Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said and that dissenters are denied academic positions in it. This argument is plain silly. Hires are made by history, anthropology, political science and other departments on a grass roots basis at universities throughout the country, and no such conspiracy could possibly be orchestrated. Said's work, which remains controversial, almost never appears in the footnotes of the organization's flagship journal, the International Journal of Middle East Studies. MESA includes in its member organizations the Israel Studies Society, and some of its members are transplanted Israelis teaching at U.S. universities. Several presidents of MESA, including persons Kurtz and other conservatives have viciously attacked, have been Jewish Americans.

Last spring Kurtz implicitly attacked the political scientists at the Middle East Centers at American universities for being postmodernist, leftist, anti-American terrorist-coddlers. The 14 or so tenured professors of Middle East political science at the federally funded National Resource Centers, however, include Leonard Binder of UCLA (who fought on Israel's side in the 1948 war); Joel Migdal and Ellis Goldberg at the University of Washington, Seattle (exponents of the New Institutionalism and Rational Choice, respectively); Mark Tessler of the University of Michigan (with a Ph.D. From Hebrew University, who analyzes survey data quantitatively), Lisa Anderson and Gary Sick of Columbia (comparative politics and policy studies, respectively; Sick is a former naval officer and served on the National Security Council), and so on. Of the fourteen, only one (Timothy Mitchell at New York University) could be considered a postmodernist, and his work on the Middle East from that framework has been illuminating. None of the fourteen has ever to my knowledge supported any sort of terrorism.

Kurtz has no idea what he is talking about. The interesting question is why he should care. It may well be that this is a bank robbery. He wants Congress to give the little money that now supports the academic and linguistic study of the Middle East instead to partisan think tanks like his own Hudson Institute. Why should we fund a distinguished scholar like Leonard Binder and his students when we have Stanley Kurtz to tell us all about the Muslim world based on his vast fund of knowledge and his intricate knowledge of Arabic, Persian and Turkish? Or perhaps in his world, the study of manuscripts or the gathering of survey data is unnecessary. All that is important is to have a strongly held opinion, expressed with some panache.

Meanwhile, when Stanley Kurtz wants insights into contemporary Egypt, where does he turn? Why to the work of Diane Singerman, a political scientist at American University and a member of the Executive Board of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. (See his "With Eyes Wide Open: Who They Are; What We're Getting Into," National Review, February 20, 2002.)

If you'd like to see Congress increase Title VI funding for the professional study of Middle Eastern languages and cultures, contact the long-serving and prominent member of the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations, Rep. David Obey (D-Wisconsin) at 2314 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515, phone: (202) 225-3365. Other committee members can be found at: http://www.house.gov/appropriations/members.htm, and you should especially write them if you are from their district.


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Andrew Ciconni Ciconni - 5/24/2004

Disregarding claims to being in lockstep with either conservatives, liberals, Jews, or Muslims, why does this always boil down to a binary declaration of the "other" side (whatever that is) being radical? I'm trying to avoid a Rodneyesque "Why can't we all get along", but doesn't it seem a bit odd that everyone is digging in their heels and insisting that it's the "other" side that's funding fundamentalists, encouraging violence and bigotry, etc.? In my mind, both sides bear an equal amount of responsibility for this. That comment probably caused the hair to stand up on the backs of a few necks, but in all honesty, it seems to come down to everyone doing what small children do in the back seat of a car: draw an imagery line and then whine when the other side comes close to it, despite the fact that they teased and cajoled the other side into doing it.


Stephen - 11/18/2003

This poster makes an argument that even if the universities feel that students' safety will be compromised, a speaker should be allowed to speak. By his reasoning, if a white supremacist was to come onto my campus and advocate segregation and apartheid, he should be allowed to speak? Freedom, sir, is not the absence of limits, as you seem to think.

Observer - 9/1/2003

Thank you for your comments Yitzak...very interesting.

However, you forgot to mention in your comments the true motivations and loyalities of Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes:

1) Israel
2) Israel
3) Israel

oh....and did I mention Israel?


Yitzak Israel - 9/1/2003

Shalom everyone,

Personally, I am enjoying watching all of our right wing zionist friends fall into a fit of collective apoplexy. For the first time since the creation of Israel, their hold over the centers of knowledge production with regards to anything relating to the middle east is being challenged. At no time prior to the late 1980s has Israel ever been portrayed negatively in the American media. Today, it is a common occurrence. Finally, the terrorism, mass murder, and rape perpetrated by the jewish settlers during the foundation of israel is being revealed.

Even the hijacking of U.S. foreign policy by the Sharonists following September 11th is simply an expression of the right wing jewish and christian zionist frustration that Israel has failed so spectacularly. By 2010, there will be a clear Palestinian majority in area between the Jordan river and the Meditterranean. By 2060, there will likely be a Palestinian majority inside of the green line. And there is not a single thing that the Sharonists can do about it.

The White House is now controlled by a cabal of neo-imperialists, jewish Sharonists, and christian zionists. These groups collectively decided to invade Iraq for three reasons: 1) Global intimidation, 2) to secure a strategic alternative to Saudi oil, and 3) Israel. However, with regards to the true motivations of figures such as Wolfowitz, Kristol, Kagan, etc.....there is only one over-riding motivation, and that is: Israel, Israel, and Israel.

Truly, it is a mistake to suggest that people like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Lewis Libby, John Bolton, David Wurmser, and Elliot Abrams have a dual loyalty to both the United States and Israel. The right wing Sharonists are loyal to only one nation, and that is Israel. period.

Unfortunately, for our rabid right wing zionist friends, the conquest of the Middle East is not going very well....and in fact, the military occupation seems we are headed to total disaster...oh well.....Israel will eventually bomb the Iranian nuclear reactors and will also inevitably invade Southern Lebanon on a one-month search-and-destroy mission, so maybe things are'nt all that bad. Also, the U.S. will be soon forced to exit the main areas of conflict in central and south-central Iraq and will instead attempt to redeploy its forces in order to hold the oil fields in the North and in the far South. However, even a limited American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually make Pakistan and Saudi Arabia ungovernable, and so within a decade or two, America will probably occupy the oil fields in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.

None of this will help Israel of course, and before long, the fake empire will collapse and then we can expect a domestic crisis within the U.S. of enormous proporations....thus, if I were a right wing Sharonist....I would start thinking seriously about making travel plans......


Benjamin Raty - 4/4/2003

Disregarding claims to being in lockstep with either conservatives, liberals, Jews, or Muslims, why does this always boil down to a binary declaration of the "other" side (whatever that is) being radical? I'm trying to avoid a Rodneyesque "Why can't we all get along", but doesn't it seem a bit odd that everyone is digging in their heels and insisting that it's the "other" side that's funding fundamentalists, encouraging violence and bigotry, etc.? In my mind, both sides bear an equal amount of responsibility for this. That comment probably caused the hair to stand up on the backs of a few necks, but in all honesty, it seems to come down to everyone doing what small children do in the back seat of a car: draw an imagery line and then whine when the other side comes close to it, despite the fact that they teased and cajoled the other side into doing it.

Brian Singleman - 1/28/2003

I don't see how this essay is "courageous" as one poster described. That must have been posted by one of Cole's graduate students. A simple (and obvious) refutation to Kurtz would have been to cite several articles published in top-tier journals of middle-eastern studies that take the arab world to task for its use of terrorism. Why does Cole not offer such direct and irrefutable evidence? Also, this quote..."It would be like insisting that Italian historians work only on the Cosa Nostra" is so silly that it's difficult to believe that the author has a graduate degree. Kurtz never suggests that MESA scholars should work "only" on topics of islamic radicalism. Cole must know this, so I can only guess that Cole finds the only way he can refute Kurtz is by refuting something Kurtz did not say.

Ruth Roded - 1/26/2003

If Prof. Cole's quote is accurrate, then Stanley Kurz has, like many others, failed to notice that over half of the population of the Middle East is (and were in the past) female. Moreover, gender and more recently sexuality have been a prominent part of ME politics, ideology, society, and culture. More specifically, gender has been a major factor in Islamist theory and action, on the one hand, and western rhetoric on the ME, on the other.

Another concerned scholar - 1/25/2003

I couldn't agree more that Cole's essay is a "self-parody," though one comment called it "courageous." The fact is that the people showing real courage in dealing with the politicization of Middle East studies are individuals like Pipes and Kramer. Some indication of what they have to go through in order to present their views is illustrated by what Pipes has to confront whenever he is invited to talk on American and Canadian campuses. Cole and other MESA figures would show real courage is they denounced these campus Stalinists. So far, however, they've been silent when it comes to speaking out in favor of Pipes' right to speak. But when they are criticized, they scream about McCarthyism, when it is the intolerance of the Left that is the real enemy of free discourse on campuses today. Read the following. It is all too common:

Pro-Israeli expert's appearance at York blocked
by Caroline Alphonso
Globe and Mail
Page A1
January 24, 2003

A student-run centre at York University in Toronto has blocked a pro-Israeli academic from speaking at its facility, fearing that it may lead to Concordia University-style protests.

But the university administration said Thursday it is considering whether it can find another place on campus for Daniel Pipes, who has been invited by the Jewish Student Federation at York, to speak at an open event next week.

Mr. Pipes, a Middle East expert and director of the Middle East Forum, is described in his biography as "one of the few analysts who understood the threat of militant Islam." He is the creator of Campus Watch, a controversial Web site that details what he calls pervasive anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments on college campuses across the United States.

The public lecture at York was to be held at the Student Centre's restaurant, Underground, on Tuesday. But a number of student groups met with representatives of the centre this week, expressing concerns about Mr. Pipes speaking on campus.

"Our concern is the racism toward Middle Eastern students," said Ali Hassan, president of the Middle Eastern Student Association at York. "If he is allowed to speak on campus, our concerns will remain."

Although the Student Centre has decided to cancel the event because of student concerns and fears of protests, Cim Nunn, a spokesman for the university, said the administration is in the process of trying to find another venue for Mr. Pipes.

"What we don't want is an event to take place where the safety and security of our students, faculty and staff can't be ensured," Mr. Nunn said. "And that's the reason for trying to find a different venue here."

Mr. Nunn acknowledged that Mr. Pipes will be discussing issues with which not all students will agree, and the university still has to determine whether there is space available on campus to accommodate the academic.

Mr. Pipes, author of 11 books on the Middle East, said the Student Centre's move shows the "aggressiveness and intolerance of the pro-Palestinian . . . and extreme left.

"If you don't subscribe to those points of view, you don't have a legitimate voice," he added.

But the university said it needs to take necessary precautions so that there will not be a repeat of what happened at Concordia in September. Violent clashes between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students forced the cancellation of a speech by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Montreal university.

Ed Morgan, Ontario chair of the Canadian Jewish Congress, hopes that Mr. Pipes's visit will not lead to another Concordia-like protest, even if it is on a smaller scale.

"Frankly, Daniel Pipes is not even a politician. He's just one more academic analyst," Mr. Morgan said. "If students are riled up to protest an academic analyst ... then I would say that it almost nullifies any possibility of academic exchange on these issues."

Zac Kaye, executive director of Jewish Campus Services of Greater Toronto, an umbrella organization for the York student group, sat in on the meetings with York students this week. He said many were uncomfortable with Mr. Pipes visiting the campus.

But Mr. Kaye said universities shouldn't stifle different views. "That's what universities are all about," he said. "One doesn't have to always agree with their opinions. We felt somebody like Daniel Pipes should have the opportunity to speak."

Fearing Academic Retribution - 1/25/2003

With regard to COle's views toward Jewish neo-conservatives, false labels, and conspiracy theories, a brief glance at the opus of his commentaries will show a definite pattern of unsubstantiated and unsupported accusation, willful omission of contrary evidence, and a belief in think-tank conspiracies. There is also a distressing element to Cole's writing suggesting that "Jewish neo-conservatives" have dual loyalty to the Likud Party. Lastly, when you dismiss Cole's reference to Jewish neo-conservatives, why is it that Cole ignores all those non-Jewish neoconservatives? The Pentagon and White House are full of Christians and Muslims--and even looking at lists of neo-conservative speakers (e.g. Benador's website), many are Muslim. Cole most certainly seems to have a problem with Jews, and a more general problems with those who disagree with them. Either you agree with Cole, or you have dual loyalty. That is why his essay strikes as a self-parody.

Benjamin Raty - 1/25/2003

I believe his reference to "Jewish Neoconservatives" was meant in the same way we might refer to "Christian Fundamentalists"; neither label is intended to encompass the whole of Jews nor of Christians. Rather, it identifies groups which form around certain ideologies (the citizens of Israel are not homogenous in their beliefs and political thinking). Hence Mr. Cole's use of the phrase "Jewish Neoconservatives" rather than "Jews".

Furthermore, this complaint is rather naive; it would be the equivalent of an abortion-rights activist demanding that others not recognize him as a part of any opposition to pro-life activists, yet himself explicitly defining pro-life activists as a group in opposition to himself. An acknowledgment of factions and groups which might look upon another with disfavor is certainly not, in my mind, a thought-crime, nor does it invalidate his views.

Although I watched carefully for it, I didn't notice any sort of reference by Mr. Cole to some larger conspiracy. Rather, he focused on one individual's commentary and, to provide a basis for certain statements, mentioned that funding for Middle Eastern studies (which, incidentally, includes Israel, as it is in the Middle East) has for whatever reason been lacking. In my opinion he views this more as a case of oversight rather than a conspiracy.

Wouldn't the phrase "Fearing Academic Retribution" imply that people labeled as "Academics" are the same, with common purpose and beliefs? If there is diversity in academics then most commentary could expect to receive praise and criticism.

Fearing Academic Retribution - 1/25/2003

Cole's essay is illustrative of the way politics has trumped scholarly analysis in the academic world. Before reading Cole's missive, I did not realize how right Kurtz et al. were.

For example, COle talks more or less about one person, but his essay makes it appear as if he is uncovering a vast conspiracy. Is Cole the type of scholar that bases fairly wild theories on one piece of evidence, ignoring all others? He tends to assign people labels--without evidence supplied--and after setting up often false and dishonest strawmen, he seeks to break them down. Second only to plagarism as an academic sin is omission of evidence that undermines one's own thesis; it is the sin of political omission that makes Cole an increasingly shrill but fading star who threatens to bring down MESA with him.

And what is Cole's obsession with Jews? In many of his essays, he talks about "Jewish neoconservatives." Are all Jews neoconservatives? Are all neoconservatives Jews? Cole seems almost to buy into a Protocols of the Elders of Zion-like conspiracy to uncover vast links and nefarious plots against those who dare to question his political assumptions. Increasingly, as Cole demonstrates, the academy is not about scholarship, but much more about politics.

asobh - 1/23/2003

It is time enough that Prof. Cole's words reach the ears of the neo-fascists that are increasingly in control of our government. There is a major difference between ideologues and scholars. Kramer, Pipes, et. al. are the mouthpieces of political hacks and sectarian interests. They have nothing to do with scholarship. In their shrill cries, they will lead this country and the rest of the world into disaster. But perhaps that is what they want; after all, the Christian right will support and follow them, as they are hope for the Apocalypse.

Arthur Goldschmidt - 1/23/2003

Why does "concerned scholar," who describes Juan Cole's detailed and (to my mind) courageous, article as "tendentious," fear to sign his own name?

Another Concerned Scholar - 1/22/2003

I forgot to cite the URL for Martin Kramer. It is:http://www.martinkramer.org/pages/899526/index.htm

Also, one typo: There you will find how that organization was politicized, which you won't find in Juan Cole's tendentious article.

Another Concerned Scholar - 1/22/2003

For those who want another opinion of MESA and its poltical agenda, go to MartinKramer.org. There you will learn how that organization which you won't find in Juan Cole's tendentious article. Read this excerpt for beginners:

"Nation reports that "at its upcoming annual conference, MESA is expected to pass a resolution condemning Campus Watch, similar to the one it unanimously endorsed 18 years ago censuring the efforts of the ADL and AIPAC." (The Anti-Defamation League and the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC had issued campus guides that offended the guild.)
Without even asking my friends over at Campus Watch (a project I've endorsed), I can easily imagine their response: "Condemn us. Make our day."
That wasn't the attitude of the ADL and AIPAC, all those years ago. Their condemnation by MESA persuaded them to back off their name-naming of academics. So what has changed? Why has MESA's opinion become worthless? Why will Campus Watch welcome a MESA condemnation as though it were an endorsement?
I've written a book about it, but the bottom line is this: Middle Eastern studies have become intellectually incestuous and thoroughly politicized. Eighteen years ago, MESA still had the aura of a professional association. Today its reputation lies somewhere between that of an ethnic lobby and a radical front. Eighteen years ago, MESA still counted respected founders of the field among its leaders. Today it is regarded as the plaything of a few masters of agitprop, exemplified by its current president. This is a MESA that made Edward Said one of its ten honorary fellows ("internationally recognized scholars who have made major contributions to Middle East studies")—yet never got around to including Bernard Lewis. (For more MESA madness, see my MESA Culpa in the current issue of the Middle East Quarterly.)
I don't intend to zap MESA in the Wall Street Journal on the eve of its conference (as I did last year). And I don't go where I'm not welcomed. But I'm sure to get plenty of reports on the proceedings: the presidential address, the plenary, and the business meeting. If there is any good hearsay, you'll hear it from me."

Concerned Scholar - 1/22/2003

Thank you for your excellent article, Dr Cole!