The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies
A review of Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America by Martin Kramer, Washington Institute For Near East Policy, 2001.
By Mitchell Bard
Martin Kramer, an erudite and respected scholar who now edits Middle East Quarterly, has taken a long overdue look at the state of Middle East studies in the United States and his findings, though predictable, are disturbing. Essentially, he has documented what anyone in the field has long known, and that is the principal practitioners in Middle East Studies programs are more polemicists than scholars, with an overwhelming anti-Israel bias, and funded largely by Arab interests.
It was not always thus. Kramer gives an excellent history of the field and explains how the study of the Middle East was once considered a noble and scholarly pursuit and its foremost proponents were respected thinkers and researchers such as Leonard Binder, Elie Kedourie, and Gustave von Grunebaum. Today, Bernard Lewis is one of the few people who warrant inclusion in this pantheon.
It should not really be surprising that Middle East studies in the United States should have taken the direction that it has. In many ways it mirrors the State Department's Arabist orientation. Given that there is just one Jewish state and about two dozen Arab/Islamic nations to study, it is clear where research interests will be directed. Still, it was disappointing when I went to speak at my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara, and learned Hanan Ashrawi was the featured speaker at the inauguration of a new Middle East studies center the year before. Talk about sending a message about that center's credibility from the get-go.
As Kramer notes, besides an inherent bias toward Arabist views, the biggest problem in the field is its lack of scientific methodology. While much of the political science world has adopted an increasingly rigorous, and quantitative approach to research, the Middle East studies practitioners rely almost entirely on old-fashioned historical and qualitative research. Given its subjectivity, and the biases of the researchers, it is unremarkable that the professors in the field have such an abysmal record of predicting events and why they are held in such low esteem in the policymaking community. Of course, they also face a daunting task, as did the old Kremlinologists and current Sinologists, and that is the inaccessibility to the decision makers in the autocratic Middle Eastern nations. How can anyone predict or explain the actions taken by the monarchy in Saudi Arabia or the strongmen in Iraq and Syria when they rarely discuss their views publicly and only their closest advisers know what they are thinking?
Another interesting aspect of the field, one that frustrates Jewish students to no end, is the enthusiastic involvement of professors in anti-Israel activities inside and outside the classroom while the often prominent Jewish professors remain silent and unwilling to engage in the campus debate or assist students trying to make their case heard.
I would have liked to see Kramer delve more deeply into the funding of the Middle East centers and their associated scholars because he is likely to have found that Arab petrodollars are trying to buy academic credibility and boost the Arab states' public relations efforts among the general public. He does note the indiscriminate pursuit of Arab government funding by Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, and the image of intellectual corruption that this and other academic solicitation efforts promote.
It also seemed that Kramer gave Edward Said more credit than he deserves for distorting the study of the Middle East. Given his advocacy efforts on behalf of the Palestinians, it is understandable that most people don't even realize Said teaches English and comparative literature and not political science. I didn't think reputable Middle East scholars took his work seriously, but he gave voice to the increasingly popular view that white American males have inherent biases that make them incapable of analyzing or interpreting anything that is not also produced by white males in the United States. The idea that no one can understand the Islamic world, for example, except Muslims from that part of the world is little more than an effort to shield groups from outside criticism. Not surprisingly, as Kramer notes, the only American white males who are accorded any sympathy in the field are those who are apologists. Thus, Kramer observes, you have people like John Esposito and Richard Bulliet trying to portray radical Islam as a kind of democratic reform movement and accusing critics of trying to smear Muslims. Predictably, representatives of this school of thought became popular in the post-September 11 propaganda campaigns to portray Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance to counter the practical reality that radical Muslims are engaged in a holy war against those they consider infidels.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Kramer's research is that so little hope is offered for reform. Given tenure, which protects incompetents and the polemicists masquerading as scholars, and the militant third worldism that remains the dominant influence in the field, it is unlikely Middle East studies in America will return to its scholarly roots. This is an important book for anyone who is interested in how the history and politics of this important region of the world is taught.