Sunday, November 18, 2007

Middle East Studies for Neocons

Apparently unhappy with the critiques of their overarching generalizations and fanciful interpretations of the Middle East, Princeton's Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus Bernard Lewis and his disgruntled Lebanese counterpart and friend Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University, who both advised the Bush administration on the Iraq War, have founded their own Middle East studies academic association: the Association for the Study of the Middle East and North Africa (ASMEA). The new organization, which has been praised by Rudy Giuliani foreign policy advisor Martin Kramer, apparently seeks to challenge the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the largest and most important academic association of scholars and graduate students who study the Middle East, North Africa, and areas such as the Balkans and Spain which have historically been under the control of Middle Eastern states.

Scanning ASMEA's roster of officers and council members, besides Lewis, Ajami, and a couple other regional scholars, it's remarkable in contrast to MESA's board and officers how few of the new organization's officers actually specialize primarily in the Middle East and North Africa. Instead, ASMEA is headed by the likes of Cevik Bir, a former Turkish general from a democratically-challenged institution which has launched several coups in the past 30 years against democratically-elected governments, former Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz, and James Madison University's chickenhawk Neoconservative professor J. Peter Pham [RIGHT] who has sought to define himself as a Middle East "expert" when in reality he is not, much like a former political science professor I had the misfortune of studying with once at my alma mater George Mason University.

Am I opposed to American neo-rightwingers and Neoconservatives having their own academic association? No, of course not. However, their attempt to masquerade that they want "balance" in Middle Eastern and North African studies should be revealed for the farce it is. Rather than balance, they wish to tilt the discussion of the region to the right much like a certain cable news channel, and this is fine. Problems arise when they then try to pretend to be something which they clearly are not. An argument can be made that many MESA members share similar views on issues but this cannot then be interpreted as an indictment of the entire organization and all its members. MESA recently turned down an advertisement from Daniel Pipes' watchdog group Campus Watch which is another organization which uses the "balance" argument when it really seeks to move the discussion to the right and, in Mr. Pipes' case, the far right when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (he continues to oppose peace talks and from evaluation of his writings, seems to favor the one-state/Israel-only "solution" sought by Jewish and Evangelical Christian extremists.)
ASMEA's restrictive policies on who may submit papers to their annual meeting (professors, postdoctoral scholars, and "senior" graduate students) also will limit access that younger scholars-in-training have to the discussion. MESA, on the other hand, has policies which are much more inclusive. ASMEA's closed nature both intellectually and at their meetings is not conducive to a broadening of the discussion of the region and its affairs. It's also doubtful that they'll be able to produce a journal to rival MESA's International Journal of Middle East Studies, the standard in Middle Eastern and North African studies. ASMEA will instead produce a "newsletter."

ASMEA's scholarly credentials rest on the lapels of Lewis, whose recent essay-length generalist screeds are Gospel to Neoconservatives, and Ajami, whose last book, The Foreigner's Gift, praises the results of the Iraq War. Lewis also was a staunch proponent of the war and was the originator of many of the claims which have since proven tragically false (America would unquestionably be accepted as a liberator instead of an occupier.) In terms of contemporary affairs, that's 0-1 against the Lewis-Ajami nexis.

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