Lewis, Ajami launch anti-MESA

The inevitable has happened: obviously frustrated that they are still a minority in the field of Middle Eastern Studies, a group of well-connected academics has set up an alternative to the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the respected multi-disciplinary group that gathers the brightest minds in the field. Who better to do this than the usual suspects of Bush-friendly academia, Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis? Thus was created the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. I'll quote extensively from the Chronice of Higher Education piece about this:

Seeking to change the direction of Middle Eastern and African studies, a new scholarly organization was announced Thursday — with some big name scholars on board and some tough criticism for the discipline. The biggest scholarly names in the new group, Bernard Lewis of Princeton University and Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University, are associated with support for the Bush administration’s view of the Middle East, a decidedly minority opinion within Middle Eastern studies.

The Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa aims to have a full range of services — conferences, a journal, newsletters, and so forth. Its council, in addition to Lewis and Ajami, includes Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a veteran of the Johnson and Carter administrations, and George P. Shultz, who was secretary of state under President Reagan.

Materials sent to reporters said that the new group was founded because of “the increasing politicization of these fields, and the certainty that a corrupt understanding of them is a danger to the academy as well as the future of the young people it purports to educate.”

A statement from Lewis said: “Because of various political and financial pressures and inducements, the study of the Middle East and of Africa has been politicized to a degree without precedent. This has affected not only the basic studies of language, literature and history, but also has affected other disciplines, notably economics, politics and social science. Given the importance of these regions, there is an acute need for objective and accurate scholarship and debate, unhampered by entrenched interests and allegiances. Through its annual conference, journal, newsletter, and Web site, ASMEA will provide this.”

While the announcement didn’t mention it by name, the Middle East Studies Association has to date been the scholarly organization for that region. The kinds of criticisms made by Lewis in his statement are similar to those others have made about MESA — charges that scholars in the group feel are an unfair slur on their group and on their work. The new group arrives at a time that Middle Eastern studies has been the subject of intense debate on many campuses, with dueling charges that academic freedom is at risk.

Mark T. Clark, president of the new association, is a professor of political science and director of the National Security Studies Program at California State University at San Bernardino. In a brief interview Thursday, he said that the new group was started “by mutual interest by a bunch of us” who wanted an association “that would be more independent and reflect the academic community more than interest groups.”

He said that his interest in the Middle East is strategic, rather than just historic or cultural, and that he thinks it is good for American scholars to have a strategic view of the region in addition to more traditional approaches.

Asked about MESA, he described it as “kind of a closed circle” of people with similar views. Asked if he had ever participated in that association’s activities, he said he had not. Asked why he didn’t try to add his perspective to the existing group, he said that would be, “for lack of a better word, apartheid,” in which his views would be separated off from the rest. “We’re going to have a greater mix of perspectives than MESA ever had,” he said.

While some of the scholars involved in the new group are known for similar political views, Clark said that “it’s not neoconservative at all” and that scholars of a range of views are welcome to join.

The goal of the association is to be supported entirely by members’ dues, to preserve its independence. To get off the ground, the association also has received some “private donations.” Clark declined to say who had given the funds.
It's somewhat appropriate that ASMEA's new president is someone from the field of security studies, a field whose very purpose is to provide consulting services to governments and tends to be of the same mindset as policymakers (not always of course). This has been one of the key arguments by the people behind Campus Watch, who are unhappy about the fact that the top experts on the region tend to be rather negative about current US policies or about the extraordinary (and misguided) amount of support for Israel that America provides. That is naturally a rubbish argument, because policymakers should be listening to experts who tell them what they need to know, not what they want to hear.

One of the great ironies behind ASMEA is, of course, that it claims to want to fight the "politicization" of the field. Ironic, then, that its entire board appears to be composed of people who focus on politics, whereas MESA has plenty of academics who do nothing even remotely political.

Ironic, then, that its founders are people with a reputation for fierce partisanship (Victor David Hanson is up there) -- in fact they appear almost exclusively to be conservatives who wear their politics on their sleeve. Also all supporters of Israel, including the non-Americans on the board like Cevik Bir, a former Turkish general who played a key role in building the Turkish-Israel alliance and was decorated by Israel. Others include Kenneth Stein, the former Carter advisor who made a big hullabaloo about rejecting his book on Israeli apartheid.

Ironic, then, that its vice-chairman Fouad Ajami is a well-known public defender of the Bush administration who told Dick Cheney that "the streets will erupt in joy" if the US invades Iraq. (See Adam Shatz's classic profile of Ajami.)

Ironic, then, that its chairman Bernard Lewis is increasingly seen a kook because of his predictions last summer that eschatological concerns drive Iranian policy. I would say merely leaving it at that is not enough -- Bernard Lewis, perhaps once a serious scholar (his work on Ottomans is appreciated by experts in the field), has turned into a racist apologist for imperialist policies. I don't use the word "racist" lightly, but I think it's warranted. Take for instance a recent column he penned for the Atlantic Monthly -- I don't have a link and am copying from the November 2007 magazine's page 23, where Lewis was asked to write about the "American idea":

The better part of my life was dominated by two great struggles-- the first against Nazism, the second against Bolshevism. In both of these, after long and bitter conflict, we were victorious. Both were a curse to their own peoples, as well as a threat to the world, and for those peoples, defeat was a liberation.

Today we confront a third totalitarian perversion, this time of Islam -- a challenge in some ways similar, in some different.
Note that he doesn't say "Islamism" or "political Islam" or "Islamic extremism" -- just Islam. This is hardly a constructive, nuanced approach to take, although perhaps not a surprising one from a cheerleader for the Crusades. There are more examples of his strange politics here.

In other words, while there would be nothing wrong with starting another (or many others) alternatives to MESA, or more specialized scholarly associations, ASMEA appears from the get-go to have been founded with a very political purpose: to denounced as "politicized" academics who do not agree with their views. The involvement of people who are no doubt embittered by their estrangement from mainstream academia (i.e. the general consensus of a majority of experts in their field) speaks volumes about their intentions. In other words, this is the next step up from Campus Watch.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.