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Middle East Studies under scrutiny in U.S.
By Michael Dobbs
When Rashid Khalidi took over the newly established Edward Said Chair of Middle East Studies at Columbia University last fall, the appointment was generally viewed as an academic coup for the school, which had succeeded in wooing away a prominent Middle East expert from the University of Chicago, a longtime rival.
But Khalidi soon became the target of an Internet campaign that questioned his patriotism. Conservative critics zeroed in on his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq and his public expressions of sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
"Columbia vs. America," declared a story on Campus Watch, a Web site dedicated to revealing the alleged bias of mainstream Middle East studies programs at U.S. colleges and universities. The New York Sun dubbed Khalidi "the professor of hate."
These are the best of times and the worst of times for the once-neglected field of Middle East studies. Enrollments in Arabic-language courses and area studies programs have boomed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Government funding is up. Universities and colleges are recruiting Middle East experts as fast as they can.
At the same time, academics who specialize in the region complain that they are under siege from conservative think tanks and self-appointed campus watchdog organizations. They say these efforts have resulted in a flood of abusive e-mail and calls for tightening congressional control over the funding of Middle East studies programs, which, they contend, could undermine academic freedoms.
Barbara Petzen, outreach coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, denounced a "right-wing thought police that is sending spies into classrooms to report on what teachers are saying in class." Michael C. Hudson, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, said his campus has become the target of a McCarthyist "witch hunt."
"Middle East studies have not served us well," countered Daniel Pipes, who founded Campus Watch a year ago as an offshoot of the Middle East Forum, a private think tank dedicated to "promoting American interests in the Middle East." He said mainstream academics had failed to adequately explain the threat posed by Islamic terrorism and were prone to overlook political repression in Arab countries.
"Americans need to know what terms like 'jihad' mean, and why we are being attacked," he said. "This is at the very heart of our foreign and domestic policy."
In recent months, Pipes and other conservatives have begun pushing for stronger congressional oversight of the $95 million in government subsidies for Middle East and other area studies programs. Legislation under consideration by Congress includes a provision for the establishment of an advisory board to ensure that government-funded academic programs "reflect diverse perspectives and [a] full range of views."
Some Middle East experts fear that the seven-member board would be dominated by spokesmen for the Bush administration and strong advocates of Israel.
"It's the thin end of the wedge," said Khalidi, who argues that the demand for "balance" in Middle East studies could degenerate into a "political correctness test."
Pipes, who has angered Arab American groups by calling for stringent background checks on Muslim visitors to the United States, said the McCarthyism charge is "silly." Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) was "a high government official with coercive powers at his disposal," Pipes said. "We are a tiny think tank, with few resources." He described Campus Watch as a kind of consumer guide to Middle East studies.
"We are like the toaster specialists who want to see how the toaster works," he said.
Government funding of area studies programs goes back to the height of the Cold War, when the launch of Sputnik in 1957 appeared to demonstrate an "education gap" between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Eisenhower administration responded with the National Defense Education Act, which authorized the public funding of foreign-language studies and national resource centers for politically sensitive areas, including the communist world and the Middle East.
Area studies went into a sharp decline after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism, and grant money began to dry up. At many leading universities, including Harvard and Princeton, it was much easier to raise money for political science programs than for area studies.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon reversed the trend. Within a few weeks of the attacks, Congress authorized an additional $20 million for area studies and language programs, with much of the money for focus on the Middle East and Asia. There are now 17 national resource centers for Middle East studies at U.S. universities, up from 14 in 2001. Grants for graduate research have increased by 250 percent, according to data collected by Miriam Kazanjian, a consultant for the Coalition for International Education.
Colleges across the country are scrambling to recruit Middle East experts, said Amy Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association, who teaches an introductory course in Arab literature and culture at the University of Arizona. Last fall, about 400 students signed up for Newhall's course, nearly double the pre-2001 attendance.
The increased visibility of Middle East studies has also spawned a cottage industry of mostly conservative critics who comb through what was once an academic backwater for signs of "bias" or "lack of balance." Campus Watch and other Web sites urge students to supply information about their own professors.
"Academic colleagues, get used to it," wrote Martin Kramer, a Pipes ally and author of "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America." "You are being watched. Those obscure articles in campus newspapers are now available on the Internet, and they will be harvested. Your syllabi, which you've also posted, will be scrutinized. Your websites will be visited late at night."
Kramer's comments were cited by Lisa Anderson, dean of international and public affairs at Columbia, as evidence of an atmosphere of intimidation that now surrounds Middle East studies at many universities.
Kramer, who teaches Arab history at Tel Aviv University, described his remarks as "tongue in cheek" and accused many Middle East scholars of being overly sensitive to criticism. "Academics make their living ridiculing government policies and the superficiality of the media, but when anybody examines their performance, they throw up their hands with cries of McCarthyism," he said. "There's a real asymmetry here."
Some professors, including Khalidi, said they became the target of massive e-mail campaigns after they were denounced as "left-wing extremists" by Pipes in a June 2002 article in the New York Post. Columbia professor Hamid Dabashi said his voice mail was filled with "racist and obscene" messages, including one denouncing him as "a stinking, terrorist Muslim pig."
Pipes has also become a divisive figure on American campuses. Many Arab Americans were outraged last year when President Bush appointed him to the board of directors of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a government-funded think tank in Washington. When Pipes addressed a recent meeting at Yale University, he was greeted by dozens of student protesters dressed in black with black gags across their mouths.
A favorite target for Campus Watch is the late Edward Said, a Columbia University professor best known for his book "Orientalism," which denounced the "neo-colonialist" policies of successive U.S. administrations. Its hero is Bernard Lewis, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton and the author of several books that analyze the rise of Islamic terror movements.
Pipes said the push for an advisory board to supervise the distribution of government funds for area studies programs was designed as a "shot across the bows" of what he considers to be the radical Middle East studies lobby centered in universities such as Columbia, Georgetown and the University of Chicago. "It is important symbolically," he said. "It will not materially change anything, but it will alert Congress to the problem."
The proposed changes are now under consideration by the Senate after receiving unanimous approval in the House. Officials at Columbia and other universities say the subsidies represent less than 10 percent of the money they spend on Middle East studies, and they would prefer to reject government funding altogether than to accept outside supervision.
Last year, Georgetown was accused by Campus Watch of using government money to organize a symposium on the war in Iraq dominated by critics of the Bush administration. University officials are unrepentant, saying it is pointless to look for political balance in every single seminar or lecture.
"We are very sensitive to having strings attached to what we do," said Hudson, the director of Georgetown's Arab studies program. "If an Arab government came to us and said, 'We will give you money, but we will have an advisory body check up on what you do with it,' I don't think we would take the money."
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