Sunday, August 19, 2007

Power, Faith and Academe

An article about Middle Eastern Studies from an unusual viewpoint: The Philanthropy Roundtable. Its thrust is simply this: the academy cannot be trusted with the Middle East because, since Edward Said's Orientalism, it has been politicised and now attracts activists rather than scholars. Therefore philanthropy should step into the breach.

Examples from the Academy

Much has been made about how the CIA's failure to penetrate al Qaeda -- a shortcoming in "human intelligence" -- paved the path to 9/11. Yet one of the greatest human intelligence failures occurred among scholars associated with Middle Eastern studies. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as Kramer documents, they downplayed the threat of terrorism. John Esposito of Georgetown University even suggested that Islamic radicalism would lead to democracy and reform: "The nineties will prove to be a decade of new alliances and alignments in which the Islamic movements will challenge rather than threaten their societies and the West."

Esposito's colleague John Voll defended the Islamic government of Sudan: "It is not possible, even using exclusively Western political experience as a basis for definition, to state that if a system does not have two parties, it is not democratic," he said in Congressional testimony. Today, Sudan is one of five countries on the Department of State's list of terrorism sponsors -- and Esposito and Voll are director and associate director, respectively, of Georgetown's HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

[The Alwaleed Bin Talal Center was set up with a gift of $20 million by the eponymous Saudi prince, whose money set up a similar centre at Harvard, but whose gift of $10 million to New York in 2001 was refused by Giuliani because the prince accompanied it with requests that the US should adjust its foreign policy in response to the 9/11 attacks.]

Philanthropists are already doing this. One example is that of Michael Oren, whose Six Days of War: June 1967 I have just finished and recommend highly. Thanks to sponsorship to cover $5-600,000 in research costs, he has written Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present.

One of the book's key lessons is that U.S. involvement in the Middle East stretches back much further than the current Bush administration or even the Truman and FDR administrations -- all the way back, in fact, to the founding of the country. "The United States is often portrayed as an imperialist power, but Americans have worked for the independence of Middle Easterners for nearly 200 years -- Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Libya owe their independence largely to American support," says Oren. The first U.S. soldiers to die in combat overseas were the victims of Arabic-speaking hijackers.

Then there was the little matter of the Barbary slave trade.

Why does it cost so much to research a book on Middle Eastern history?

Unlike the Western world, with its open archives and free access to documents, similar materials in the Arab world must be bought. "If you want the war archives of the Jordanian and Syrian armies, you need money," says Oren. "It's cloak-and-dagger stuff, involving envelopes of cash and so on."

It is puzzling that George Bush has chosen to put money into Middle East Studies departments (why is any faculty whose name includes the word 'Studies' inevitably a purveyor of rad-chic cobblers?), when they can be so little use to him? Can such departments be reformed? Or must they just be left to wither on the vine with their sour fruit? Is this another case of the private sector coming to the rescue of the public?

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