Home inFocus Rashid Khalidi, Campus Watch & Middle East Studies

Rashid Khalidi, Campus Watch & Middle East Studies

Cinnamon Stillwell Winter 2008

For a brief time during the 2008 presidential campaign, Columbia University’s Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies Rashid Khalidi was the most famous Middle East studies academic in the country. Khalidi’s relationship with now President-elect Barack Obama brought him national attention and unprecedented media scrutiny. At the heart of the controversy was Khalidi’s role as a spokesman for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) when he lived in Beirut in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During those years, the PLO was listed by the State Department as a designated foreign terrorist organization.

But this was not the first time that Khalidi’s PLO past had come back to haunt him. In 2004, Campus Watch (campus-watch.org), a project of the Middle East Forum, broke the story with a Washington Times article by Asaf Romirowsky and Jonathan Calt Harris titled, “Arafat Minion as Professor.” Among other indicators, the authors pointed to a June 9, 1982, Thomas L. Friedman column in the New York Times describing Khalidi as “a director of the Palestinian press agency.” Adding further confirmation, Middle East studies historian Martin Kramer, who has written extensively about Khalidi, recently augmented the compendium of attributions linking him to the PLO.

Propaganda As Scholarship

One need only examine Khalidi’s history of anti-Israel and anti-American rhetoric to perceive his ideological underpinnings, something that Campus Watch has been doing since its inception in 2002. Given its mission statement of “reviewing and critiquing Middle East studies in North America with an aim to improving them,” Campus Watch has consistently pointed to Khalidi as an example of the politicization and apologia that has compromised the field. As far back as 1986, Daniel Pipes, who would go on to found both the Middle East Forum and Campus Watch, reviewed Khalidi’s book, Under Siege: P.L.O. Decisionmaking During the 1982 War, and noted its transparent partisanship. As he put it, “Under Siege is propaganda parading as scholarship.”

This is a consistent theme in Khalidi’s work, which, all too often, takes on the tenor of Palestinian propaganda, perhaps due to his years on the PLO press agency payroll. He was interviewed in the 2006 PBS documentary, “Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence,” and his transformation from professor to partisan is painfully clear. In his first clip, Khalidi seems informed and reasonable as he dispassionately discusses virulent anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world. Yet in his second clip, Khalidi is visibly angry as he shifts blame to the “occupation” and the alleged “40-year dispossession” of the Palestinians. He then loses all sense of proportion, charging Israel with “killing children” and “old people.” Nowhere does he mention the countless terrorist attacks directed at Israelis or the genocidal intentions of the Palestinian “resistance.” In his third and final clip, Khalidi repeats the ludicrous assertion that a “just end” to the Arab-Israeli conflict will cause anti-Semitism in the Arab world to come to an end. Summing up Khalidi’s performance, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) described his remarks as “obviously propagandistic.”

Virulent Diatribes

Martin Kramer has written about Khalidi’s dual persona. Khalidi uses rational, peaceful language when addressing English-speaking audiences, yet switches to virulent diatribes when speaking Arabic. In a 2004 interview in Arabic on al-Jazeera television, Khalidi became enraged at the mere mention of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

By God, I say that the participation of the sons or daughters of the Arabs in the plans and affairs of this institute is a huge error, this Israeli institute in Washington, an institute founded by AIPAC, the Zionist lobby, and that hosts tens of Israelis every year. The presence of an Arab or two each year can’t disguise the nature of this institute as the most important center of Zionist interests in Washington for at least a decade …if you look at the output of this institute, it’s directed against the Palestinians, against the Arabs, and against the Muslims in general. Its products describe the Palestinians as terrorists, and in fact its basic function is to spread lies and falsehoods about the Arab world, of course under an academic, scholarly veneer. Basically, this is the most important Zionist propaganda tool in the United States.

This was hardly the first or the last time Khalidi spewed vitriol against “Zionists” or “neocons.” Even before the 2003 war against Iraq was launched, Khalidi subscribed to the conspiratorial notion that the U.S. was acting at the behest of “neocons” who were doing Israel’s bidding, as illustrated in a 2003 In These Times article:

…this war will be fought because these neoconservatives desire to make the Middle East safe not for democracy, but for Israeli hegemony. They are convinced that the Middle East is irremediably hostile to both the United States and Israel; and they firmly hold the racist view that Middle Easterners understand only force. For these American Likudniks and their Israeli counterparts, sad to say, the tragedy of September 11 was a godsend: It enabled them to draft the United States to help fight Israel’s enemies.

In his review of Khalidi’s 2004 book, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East, Michael Rubin, the editor of Middle East Quarterly, highlighted the professor’s propensity for “bizarre (and anti-Semitic) conspiracies” regarding the war in Iraq. Khalidi, as Rubin put it, “questions the loyalty of top administration officials, alleging falsely that they were advisers to former [Israeli] Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.” Predictably, Khalidi has not acknowledged the success of the surge strategy on what he once dubbed the “doomed occupation.”

Blame the West

In Khalidi’s opinion, even justifiable Western intervention must be opposed, while all misdeeds on the part of Arab leadership must be whitewashed. Despite the fact that he is a specialist in Palestinian history, Khalidi fails to address the internecine Palestinian conflict between Hamas and Fatah; doing so would break his relentless focus on Israel and the U.S. as the sources of all that ails the Middle East. When cornered on the subject, Khalidi unsurprisingly blames the West.

To push this false narrative, Khalidi has at times erred grievously. “Solomonia” blogger Martin Solomon pointed to a 2006 appearance on PBS’s “NewsHour with Margaret Warner” in which Khalidi claimed that neither Hezbollah nor Hamas is a “direct threat to the United States.” He tried to explain away Hezbollah’s 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 American military personnel, claiming that U.S. peacekeeping forces were an invading army that could be opposed justifiably.

Khalidi also claimed that, “Hamas, as far as I know, and as far as I’ve seen, has never attacked America, the United States, or Americans.” In fact, as Solomon noted, there have been scores of American victims of Palestinian terrorism, both before and after the founding of Hamas, evidenced by numerous lawsuits stemming from such incidents.

A Disciple of Said

Like so many of his contemporaries, Khalidi was an intellectual follower of the late Columbia University professor and Orientalism author Edward Said. Khalidi now holds the chair at Columbia named for Said and dedicated one of his books in Said’s memory. This is only fitting; Khalidi has done his utmost to advance Said’s post-colonialist ideology that has proved so destructive to the cause of true scholarship.

As National Review‘s Stanley Kurtz put it, “Rashid Khalidi is really, in a sense, the American successor of Edward Said, a very strong advocate for the Palestinians, extremely radical in his views and his opposition to American foreign policy.”

A Recipient of Federal Funds

Despite his record, as director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Khalidi wields great influence, thanks in part to taxpayer support. As Martin Kramer pointed out, Khalidi gets “a $400,000-a-year Title VI [funding from the U.S. State Department and Department of Education] handout from the American taxpayer.”

Khalidi is also a member of the Palestinian American Research Center (PARC), a nonprofit that receives Title VI funding for “Palestinian studies,” but too often produces anti-Israel polemics.

Khalidi’s Peers

Rashid Khalidi’s story is not unique. There are many other examples of Middle East studies academics with radical associations.

Swiss Islam scholar Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, has been at the center of a recent controversy. Despite being hailed by the Western elite as a Muslim reformer, the Department of Homeland Security has barred Ramadan from entering the U.S. based, in part, on information tying him to terrorism. Three University of South Florida Middle East studies professors—Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, Bashir Musa Mohammed Nafi, and Sameeh Hammoudeh—were indicted as material supporters of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in 2003. These figures may not exemplify the entire field, but they do little to inspire confidence in the vetting process.

Even when they do not have direct ties to terrorism, many of the field’s leading lights defend, praise, or align themselves with individuals or organizations that abet Islamic terrorism or have Islamist ties. Professors such as UC Irvine’s Mark LeVine, the University of Michigan’s Juan Cole, and Director of the Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University John Esposito have all taken part in fundraising events for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an unindicted co-conspirator in the Hamas terrorism financing case against the Holy Land Foundation.

Esposito, in fact, is known for his vigorous defense of University of South Florida computer science professor Sami Al-Arian, who was convicted in 2006 for supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Similarly, professor of Middle East studies and history at New York University Zachary Lockman testified on behalf of Arabic translator Mohamed Yousry, who was on trial for aiding and abetting Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh who plotted to attack numerous New York landmarks and has long-standing ties to the Egyptian terrorist group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya.

Middle East Studies Watchdog

It’s difficult to imagine that in a post-9/11 world, America’s universities would be proud to host professors with the tainted backgrounds of Khalidi and company. Yet, the trend of radicalism in Middle East studies grows. It is exacerbated, in part, by the increase in Title VI funding for Middle East studies after 9/11, not to mention the influx of Saudi and Gulf dollars, which has hastened the field’s transformation into a tool not for understanding, but for obfuscation.

The highly politicized umbrella group for the discipline, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), has done little to help. Indeed, Campus Watch director Winfield Myers describes its contribution as, “precious little beyond post-modern nihilism, post-colonial discourse, and other faddish, intellectually vacuous career-building studies.”

In light of these problems, Campus Watch is needed now more than ever. It is the only organization that focuses solely on Middle East studies, commissions work from specialists in the field to engage in rigorous critiques, and supports the largest archive of related news and information available on the Internet. Most importantly, Campus Watch is not afraid to criticize powerful and entrenched people and universities. Where once Middle East studies academics were able to live in an intellectual bubble, insulated from outside commentary, they now find themselves under the microscope.

Those on the receiving end of Campus Watch’s critiques often lack the means to deconstruct its rigorous research. They instead hurl clichés such as “McCarthyism” and “censorship.” The emptiness of such charges is made clear by the simple fact that Campus Watch holds no governmental power, does not control academic or financial decision-making at colleges and universities, and has no desire to silence anyone. Campus Watch takes no position on debates over tenure or campus speakers and, according to its mission statement, “fully respects the freedom of speech of those it debates while insisting on its own freedom to comment on their words and deeds.”

Only those who equate criticism with censorship could confuse Campus Watch with being anything other than what it is—a participant in the free exchange of ideas. Indeed, how else would the public know that Rashid Khalidi was a former PLO spokesman?

Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.