My country, always wrong
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 21, 2001
The total failure of Middle East scholars to foresee the dangers of Islamist terrorism has exposed the wonderful irrelevance of academia to a degree not seen since the downfall of the Soviet Union. As Martin Kramer, former director of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center, notes in his devasting expose of Middle East studies, Ivory Towers in the Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America, "not one single, serious analysis of Osama bin Laden" emerged from academia.
At the most recent, None of 144 originally scheduled panels for the most recent gathering of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in November dealt with the issue of terrorism.
Middle Eastern scholars learned nothing from their failure to predict the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. They refused to confront the possibility that Islam in any form might constitute a threat to the United States. They did not just miss the terrorist threat; they chose to deliberately ignore it or downplay it.
Thus John Esposito, head of Georgetown’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and a past president of MESA, dismissed the fear of terrorism as a throwback to Cold War paranoia and a form of thinly veiled anti-Islam prejudice. Professor Fawaz Gerges accused those who warned of the terrorist threat of "feeding irrational fear of terrorism by focusing on farfetched horrible scenarios."
After the first World Trade Center bombing, Columbia University historian Richard Bulliet organized a conference to combat a predicted wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, which never materialized. And that same year, The New York Times Magazine featured an article by Edward Said, a Columbia University professor and member of the Palestine National Council, entitled "The Phony Islamic Threat."
Said attained oracular status among Middle Eastern scholars for his 1978 book Orientalism, in which he argued that all Western scholarship on Islam was inherently colonialist in nature and that Westerners are incapable of understanding Moslems or Islam. Eager to prove themselves free of the taint of colonialist bias, American scholars decided that even the terms "terrorism" and "fundamentalism" are racist.
Those same scholars proved almost uniformly hostile to any U.S. action in the region, and tended to blame the region’s ills on American bullying. Bulliet, for instance, argued that American suspicion of Islamic politics was responsible for strengthening the radical fringe.
A far better case could be made that American vacillation and weakness in the face of repeated attacks on American citizens and interests – e.g. the Iranian hostage crisis, the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Lebanon, the suicide bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen – led to a surge of support for radical Islam. As Barry Rubin has noted in these pages, a common theme links Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, and Osama Bin Laden: all believe that America is weak and can be defeated.
The failures of Middle East scholars bear a striking resemblance to those of academic Russologists towards the end of the Cold War. Today the Reagan arms buildup and lusty ideological combat with the Soviet Union are widely credited with causing, or substantially expediting, the implosion of the Soviet Union, an event predicted by virtually no Russian scholar. Yet at the time, the academic response to American actions was almost uniformly hostile.
Reagan was accused of pushing the world to the brink of nuclear conflagration. Even Soviet human rights violations and expansionism in South America and Africa were blamed on America. America’s confrontational stance, it was argued, merely strengthened hard-line elements in the Kremlin and destabilized the world.
Like the Middle Eastern scholars who see bias behind any criticism of Islamic states, Russologists questioned the right of America to criticize Soviet human rights violations. Princeton’s Stephen Cohen urged Americans to stop referring to the Soviet "regime" and Eastern European countries as "satellites," and accused American politicians of overestimating the coercive aspects of Soviet rule.
Soviet dissidents were dismissed as out of touch with the masses, who, it was argued, were far more concerned with their economic well-being than civil liberties. In the economic realm, Harvard’s John Kenneth Galbreath contended – absurdly, it turned out -- the Soviet economic system was a success because it was more fully utilizing manpower. He and others predicted that Soviet economic development would lead to a more open society, and that a confrontational attitude by America would only slow that process. That argument also has its parallels among the Middle Eastern scholars lampooned by Kramer. Those scholars predicted that Middle Eastern states would either evolve towards Western models of modernization or that Islamic political movements would themselves provide the impetus towards a civil society.
The academic criticisms of Reagan’s foreign policy took many forms, not all of them consistent with one another. The only link between them was their uniform opposition to any possible American action. That same dogmatic anti-Americanism underpins Middle Eastern studies.
At the hastily convened MESA panel on "September 11: Response and Future Consequences", the panelists assumed as a matter of course that their audience opposed President Bush’s declared war on terrorism. Georgetown’s Michael Hudson (as reported in the December 3 issue of The New Republic) trotted out the familiar moral equivalence argument, declaring, "We have not shown that our actions differentiate us from those who attacked us." His co-panelist Ann Lesch of Villanova proceeded directly to a discussion of what could be done to oppose U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, without even troubling herself with the issue of what America could do to forestall future such attacks.
Only one professor from Baltimore Hebrew University had the temerity to question the prevailing consensus by suggesting that the American failure to act forcefully after the first World Trade bombing contributed to the September 11 tragedy. He was summarily dismissed by one of the panelists. Another audience member, who took the microphone to say, "We ought to be reminded of our responsibility for Hiroshima and Nagasak and understand that we’re not so good," received a round of applause and was commended by the chairman for his definitive statement on the issues.
Even the fact that the Taliban was the world’s most anti-female government was not sufficient to win any support for their removal. Dogmatic anti-Americanism and multiculturalism trumped dogmatic feminism.
One wonders how many more embarrassments American area studies can sustain before triggering a massive parental revolt by those called upon to shell out $30,000 for an "elite education."
Related Topics: September 11 Attacks
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