In recent years, Campus Watch (CW) analysts have leveled a barrage of criticism against the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) as a bastion of groupthink for scholar-activists peddling a politicized agenda. CW’s current director, Winfield Myers, noted that its “reputation has been shattered by years of politicized scholarship, one-sided teaching, and bullying students.” Jonathan Calt Harris, formerly with CW, called the organization a “hive of academic opposition to America, Israel, and, in the larger sense, rationalism itself.” After years of responding to such criticism with cries of “McCarthyism,” MESA just might be owning up to a few of its failures.
The 2008 MESA conference, held in Washington, DC in November, consisted of 12 sessions over four days with more than 1,500 scholars and professionals in attendance.
In recent years, even after the 9/11 attacks, MESA has failed to offer useful information on the Middle East and Islam and almost completely ignored American national security issues. Not surprisingly, critics charged that MESA was increasingly irrelevant.
This year, MESA actually hosted several panels to correct the problem. Indeed, MESA’s 2008 lineup reflected real improvements from 2007. Though few in number, there are positive indications that MESA may grasp, at least in some small way, why critics charge that the field has become a den of corruption and activism posing as scholarship.
One panel, titled “International Relations of the Middle East,” featured a number of senior scholars — including Gilles Kepel of France’s Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland — who conducted some soul-searching. In MESA’s description of the panel, the organization admitted that “academic research has not always prioritized” policy issues. The session was held to assess “the state of the field: what has gone right, what has gone wrong, and the future of the field over the next decade.” Former MESA president Lisa Anderson also served on the panel. The willingness of MESA to engage in a bit of self-criticism is a welcome departure from its traditional insistence that all is well in Middle East studies.
While many panels covered arcane subjects (i.e., The Diversity of Yemeni Poetry), as is customary throughout academia, there were a few earnest attempts to put the Middle East academic brain trust to work for the good of society. Ghada Al-Madbouh of the University of Maryland addressed a critical policy topic in “Inquiry into the Struggle between the Palestinian Authority Fatah’s and Hamas over Governance.” An entire panel was reserved for Iraqi scholars to provide suggestions on the “Role of Academics in Building Civil Society in Iraq.”
MESA even included the study of Israel and the participation of Zionist Israelis this year, although it seems that Zionists seldom mixed with Arabists on panels. One homogenous panel, sponsored by the Association of Israel studies, examined “Israeli Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy after the Annapolis Conference.” Chaired by veteran Johns Hopkins professor Robert O. Freedman, the panel also included Tel Aviv University’s Eyal Zisser, a respected scholar of Syria. The goal appeared to be a serious presentation of scholarship on Israel and its security needs rather than MESA’s usual drubbing of the Jewish state.
These and other small improvements suggest that the efforts of off-campus groups that closely monitor and critique Middle East studies have forced MESA to make some much-needed changes.
These changes are small, however. It must be noted that the politicized, anti-Western old guard still holds the reigns at MESA. Extremist professors like Juan Cole and Joel Beinin made a joint appearance to discuss “solutions” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The late Edward Said’s dangerously anti-Western book Orientalism was celebrated, and panelists predictably presented papers that vilified Israel (Ilan Pappé on “The Vicissitudes of Israeli Historiography on 1948”). One University of California, San Diego student was honored (not challenged) for a paper that downplays the spiteful impact of Hamas’ al-Aqsa television channel.
A further sign that the old guard remains strong was a panel hosted by the Palestinian American Research Center (PARC), a federally funded (Title VI recipient) organization that boasts some of the most politicized professors of the field. Titled, “New Studies in Palestinian Society and Economy,” the panel provided a soap box for Palestinian apologists and Israel detractors to talk about “the Palestinian Economy after 40 Years of Occupation,” the “Impact of Israeli Movement Restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” and the “Survival Narratives of Internal Refugees under Military Rule in Nazareth.”
That taxpayers continue to fund PARC, via the Departments of State and Education, so that it can peddle propaganda at a scholarly conference is an outrage. Moreover, that MESA would host another PARC panel, as it has done in years past, is a continued black eye for the discipline.
Ideological change within the field of Middle East studies has only just begun. Professors continue to bully their students, apologize for jihadists, and teach fringe ideas in the classroom.
It is therefore too early to know if MESA’s small first steps toward long-needed improvement will continue, or whether next year’s annual meeting will be a return to the status quo.
MESA’s change did not come easily. Six years of critique yielded just small improvements. Only continued external criticism will ensure reform.