Essay: The Middle East Studies Mess
Jul 2, 2015 | Michael Rubin
The Middle East is in chaos. After four years of Syrian civil war, there are now more refugees and displaced persons seeking to escape violence than at any point since World War II. Libya and Yemen are in chaos. The Islamic State has both revived medieval notions of the caliphate and returned such practices as slavery, beheadings, and crucifixions to the headlines. Turkey, once celebrated both as a bridge between East and West and more recently as proof of the compatibility of political Islam and democracy, slides down the path to Islamist autocracy. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and Iran’s path to nuclear weapons seems assured as Western leaders – including Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop – retreat on long-standing principles. Sectarian struggle threatens to set the entire region alight. Indeed, from Algeria to Afghanistan, it seems that the only bastion of stability is Israel.
Pundits and politicians whose introduction to the Middle East comes from Middle Eastern studies programs in Australian or United States universities might be surprised by the current shape of the region. After all, after preaching for decades that Israel and perhaps the United States were at the root of regional problems, it now is evident that Israel is the only truly stable oasis in the greater Middle East and North Africa.
To understand how narrow and polemical academic conventional wisdom about the region has become, look no further than Australian National University Professor Amin Saikal. Throughout his career, he has at times appeared to internalise regional conspiracy theories. In a 2004 Sydney Morning-Herald op-ed, for example, he embraced the fringe, antisemitic conspiracy theory that a small cabal of neoconservatives hijacked American policy. While he was unreservedly critical of the US-led invasion of Iraq, his real animus appeared to be American support for Israel in its existential struggle against rejectionist Arab states and terrorist groups like Hamas, whose charter openly endorses genocide.
He was not alone. In the aftermath of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, the (now late) Macquarie University professor Andrew Vincent was unapologetic in his and the Australian academic community’s pro-Hezbollah orientation. He also whitewashed al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents as merely “local opposition.” Cultural equivalence and moral inversion became academic manna for a generation of Macquarie students.
Today, Vincent is memorialised in an annual lecture bearing his name. Fittingly, it has become a celebration of conspiracy, hate, and self-flagellation. In 2011, for example, former Australian diplomat Ross Burns gave the address and lamented “the Leon Uris narrative” of Israel’s founding and the failure of Australia to advocate fully for the Palestinian perspective. Indeed, even against the backdrop of Arab Spring protests toppling dictators across the region, Burns saved his real animus for Israel, the region’s only democracy and an issue irrelevant to the street battles playing out in Arab capitals from Tripoli to Manama. Syrian refugees seeking medical treatment inside Israel would be hard-pressed to see Israel, rather than dictators like Bashar al-Assad, as the region’s original sin.
In June 2011, I participated in a small conference at Melbourne’s Latrobe University on “The Obama Middle East Peace Initiative: Lessons Learnt and Implications for a Dialogical Roadmap for Peace.” It remains the most polemical academic conference I have experienced in my 20-year career. One scholar advocated for a one-state solution, academic code for Israel’s eradication. No other area studies discipline contemplates eradication of existing states. Roundtable participants regularly interrupted speakers with applause when they embraced the Palestinian cause, and boos when they addressed Israel as a normal, legitimate state.
In October 2015, Deakin University in Melbourne will host an “International conference on the Geo-Politics of the Middle East.” Among the topics to be discussed are whether “we [are] witnessing the demise of ideology as a normative tool for change.” If the role of ideology is declining, someone should tell Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s Caliph, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, or Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
Why has Middle East studies diverged so greatly from reality and become an exercise in radical political self-affirmation? Almost 15 years ago, Israeli-American scholar Martin Kramer penned a thoughtful assessment of Middle Eastern Studies in which he traced the descent of Middle East studies as an academic discipline to its embrace of Edward Said’s theories. The irony here, of course, was that Said was not a Middle East scholar but rather a literary critic. Few people who cite Orientalism, perhaps the most influential Middle East studies book in the last century, have ever read it closely. If they had, they would cringe at Said’s error of both fact and logic. Quite simply, the reason why Said remains so popular on campuses from Washington to Wollongong is because he justified prioritising politics above scholarly rigour. No longer would radical professors need to prove truth; they could just assert it and make it so. Up was down, wrong was right, and power was original sin.
Middle East studies scholars have become so insulated within their Saidian universe that they never challenge each other’s basic assumptions. At the same time, most embrace an attitude of entitlement based more on credentials than experience. They are the experts, and policymakers should heed their advice as much as any first year undergraduate. Few in Australian or American universities are willing to tell the emperor that he is wearing no clothes.
Within the United States, the best example of this is Rashid Khalidi. A former PLO press attaché turned academic, Khalidi is now the Edward Said Chair at Columbia University in New York. In 2004, he penned Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East, which espoused a vision similar to Saikal’s. He complained that policymakers ignored the consensus opinion of Middle East Studies professors and sided too much with Israel. What makes Khalidi important is he had his dreams realised. He was a close friend of Barack Obama from their mutual days in Chicago. While between Kenyan family and a boyhood in Indonesia, Obama might seem an international president, when it came to the Middle East, he was a neophyte, so Khalidi was able to shape his vision. He preached the idea that the region’s root problems lie not in radical ideologies, but rather in grievances born from Western intervention and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In effect, the Chicago neighbourhood community organiser transformed himself not into the leader of the free world, but instead Jerusalem’s zoning commissioner. Rather than jump start the peace process, Obama succeeded in setting it back decades.
Khalidi, Said, Saikal and Vincent all saw occupation and military intervention as the region’s core problems. Obama followed their policy prescriptions to a “T”. He withdrew precipitously from Iraq and Afghanistan, “led from behind” in Libya, and allowed the Syrian conflict to metastasise. It might not fit in academe’s worldview, but Western power projection is the proverbial finger in the dyke which prevents a deluge of chaos.
Australian and American academics also almost universally preach dialogue as a cost-free policy. This too is nonsense. Both Obama’s and Bishop’s outreach to Iran has achieved little but bolstering a theocratic dictatorship while shaking decades-long alliances with moderate Arab states. Never before – not in 1967, not in 1979 – has the Middle East been so torn asunder.
Universities may see themselves as bastions of knowledge and intellectualism, but they have long since forfeited this role. Instead, they have become repositories for theories long since discarded in the region and which bear little resemblance to reality today. The more professors prioritise theory over fact, the more they will condemn themselves to irrelevance. Unfortunately, when policymakers embrace blindly their untested conventional wisdom, the consequences can be far worse.
Dr. Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School, and the author of Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes (Encounter Books, 2014) along with a number of other books on Middle East politics. He thanks the Middle East Forum (www.meforum.org) for its sponsorship of this essay.