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Jewish World Review Nov. 26, 2001 / 11 Kislev, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

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http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- SOME years ago, I was covering a rather uninformative program about Israel at a Jewish community center when, almost by accident, something memorable was said.

When a member of the audience asked the local academic "expert" on the Arab world about the danger of Islamic fundamentalism, the speaker could barely contain his disdain for the question.

Islamic fundamentalism was a spent force, he told us. The speaker, a professor at a prestigious liberal-arts college, dismissed any thought that Islamic terrorism was a threat to either Israel or the United States. He softly chuckled when the questioner futilely attempted to raise points about trends in the Arab world, including historic grudges against the West. Speaking at a time when the post-Oslo peace accords euphoria was in full bloom, he reassured us that terrorists - like those that had attempted to blow up the World Trade Center the year before in 1993 - were yesterday's news.

The tone was one of barely concealed condescension. Those who thought the Arab-Israeli conflict was intractable because of a growing Arab culture of hatred of Jews and the West were worthy of being ignored. Worse, those who focused on such things were to be considered anti-Arab racists.

Years later after the collapse of the peace process amid the increasing toll of Islamic suicide bombings and the rise of a violent anti-American Islamic terrorist movement that was capable of murdering thousands of Americans in one blow, the musings of that academic blowhard sound more sinister than foolish.

But, according to author Martin Kramer, such idiotic pronouncements were not the exception, then or now. The problem is, such views still reign supreme on American campuses today, with few scholars to challenge them.

Kramer, the editor of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Quarterly and a formidable scholar of the region in his own right, has just published a vital study of the academic establishment in this country, "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America" , which has provoked some nasty attacks from this corner of the academic establishment.

EDWARD SAID'S POWERFUL MYTHS

Kramer's slim volume tells the story of how, over the last 50 years, a new academic discipline rose and was taken over by a set of scholars who thoroughly politicized the study of the Middle East. Key to the tale is the influence of the ubiquitous Edward Said, a professor of English at Columbia University who rose to fame as the scourge of "Orientalism."

Said was the academic frontman for the Palestine Liberation Organization who eventually turned on Arafat because he signed the Oslo peace accords. Said's own fraudulent story of his mythical home in Jerusalem (he actually grew up in Cairo, as the privileged son of rich Arab businessman with an American passport) was itself debunked Justus Reid Weiner's article "'My Beautiful Old House' and Other Fabrications by Edward Said" in Commentary magazine in 1999. Said's book Orientalism (Pantheon, 1978) labeled all Western studies of the Arab and Islamic world as racist by definition, as well as part of an imperialist plot to exploit Arabs. Though it was profoundly flawed in both argument and reasoning, the work became the touchstone of modern scholarship on the subject. For what Kramer calls the "post-Orientalists," any discussion of the dangers of what we now call Islamism and its pernicious influence on the politics of the Middle East was to be ignored.

The influence of Said and other like-minded scholars who rose to the heads of university department was enormous. It also coincided with the exponential growth of centers devoted to the Middle East in the 1970s and '80s as both the U.S. government and foreign Arab donors invested heavily in American universities.

The result, says Kramer, was that just at the moment that Islamic fundamentalism was growing, the people we looked to for expertise on the subject were deaf, dumb and blind to the pitfalls that lay ahead.

One example was John L. Esposito of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, who achieved the status as one of America's leading scholars on the Middle East. His view that Islamism was a democratic and moderating force qualified him for an influential post as a foreign-affairs analyst in the Clinton State Department. Similar views gave Richard Bulliet of Columbia University comparable influence.

These people spent the 1980s and '90s pooh-poohing the threat from the Islamic world and urging Washington to distance itself from the only democratic state in the region: Israel.

As is the way of the academic world, those who did not adjust their views to fit the intellectual fashion of the day did not prosper. An unwillingness to confront the truth about the Islamic world is an essential element for advancement in Middle Eastern Studies and the State Department.

Indeed, the main source of resistance to this culture of disinformation grew up outside of academia. It is not by accident that the most sensible scholarly voice on the politics of the region, Daniel Pipes, is - despite the publication of several important books on the topic - not the head of a major university department, but the head of an independent think tank: the Middle East Forum.

THE 'TIMES' SMEARS KRAMER

Anyone who thinks that the cult of American Middle East studies will collapse just because their views were discredited by events doesn't know how academia and its sycophants in the media work.

Kramer's study of this foolishness was greeted by an extraordinary smear in the Arts and Ideas section of The New York Times on Nov. 3. Times writer Richard Bernstein chose to tackle the issue from the point of view of those whom Kramer's book had so thoroughly exposed. Rather than questioning the judgement of America's self-appointed failed prophets on the subject, Bernstein chose to let them slander Kramer and his publishers.

Bernstein cites Esposito at length, and in the sort of passage that would never have passed muster with his editors had it been aimed at a Muslim rather than a Jew, Esposito was quoted as saying: "If you look at Martin's [Kramer] own profile, his own ideological profile, and that of his publisher - which are not primarily concerned with what is best for America - it's clear that there is an agenda here, which is to discredit the entire Middle East establishment."

The implication was clear: Any scholar or institution with any ties to Israel or American Jewry was not only untrustworthy, but also inherently disloyal to the United States!

But as Ira Stoll reported on the smartertimes.com Web site, Esposito's use of the old dual-loyalty canard would not have come across as well had Bernstein chosen to mention in his piece that the Georgetown scholar's own institution, which is notorious for its hostility to Israel, is funded by Arab money.

The point is not so much that that the Middle East studies establishment is populated with fools, but that their views have helped mold wrongheaded American policies toward the Arab world and Israel. Judging by the statements coming out of the State Department these days, little has changed.

Even worse, these federally subsidized intellectual dolts have been educating our best and brightest in every major university in the country, preparing the way for future generations of tragically mistaken views of the Middle East.

Nevertheless, Kramer is an optimist. He concludes his book by predicting that "the academics themselves, by perpetuating their own stereotypes deliberately alienated themselves from every possible possible constituency but their peers. Middle Eastern studies under the post-Orientalists had become a remote enclave of esoteric and irrelevant endeavor."

Considering how wrong they have been and how great a price this country has paid for listening to them, we can only hope so.


JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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