The Ideology Police

Targeting Middle East studies, zealots' 'homeland security' creates campus insecurity

In a gesture that consolidates the 1990s culture wars, the post-9-11 chill on dissent, and the relentlessness of hawkishly pro-Israel lobbying, the U.S. House voted unanimously last fall to establish an advisory board to monitor how effectively campus international studies centers serve "national needs related to homeland security" and to assess whether they provide sufficient airtime to champions of American foreign policy. Currently the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions is considering a parallel provision for its upcoming higher education reauthorization bill. The bill will likely go to the floor in March.

Though it's just a few paragraphs in an arcane piece of routine legislation reauthorizing a relatively small amount of money to what's called "area studies," the advisory board provision represents an ominous offensive against academic freedom and oppositional views. For decades now, since the end of the McCarthy period that saw countless academics expelled from the classroom for their views and international research controlled by a Cold War agenda, the critical assault on left-leaning professors has been launched from books, articles, websites, and media broadcasts—unpleasant enough for the people targeted, but still the stuff of discourse. Even the creepy post-9-11 list of 40 profs accused by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni of giving comfort to America's adversaries turned out to have no teeth.

But the very possibility of legislation sounds old alarms anew. Even if the measure does not make it past the Senate—ranking Democrats on the panel don't expect it to get much traction—the very idea of ideological feds inspecting campus lecture halls takes the culture wars to a perilous new level.

Columbia's Rashid Khalidi: "This is part of  a wider campaign to intimidate."
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Columbia's Rashid Khalidi: "This is part of a wider campaign to intimidate."

The seven-member advisory board—which would include two appointees "from federal agencies that have national security responsibility"—would oversee the country's 118 international studies centers. This year, they shared about $95 million under Title VI of the Higher Education Act. Centers may use the funds only for graduate student fellowships, language instruction, and lectures and other public programs. They do not hire faculty or offer courses—traditional departments such as art history or political science do that. The centers then involve local faculty from across the disciplines who have expertise in such areas as Latin America, Russia, Africa, and East Asia. Only 17 of the nation's international studies centers focus on the Middle East—covering the Arab countries, Turkey, Israel, and Iran—but no one doubts that they are the intended targets of the legislation.

"The priority of those behind this is defending Israel from any criticism," says Zachary Lockman, director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center at New York University. "They understand that universities are one of the few places where debate and argument take place that cannot be heard in the media or anywhere else."

Indeed, the most vociferous critics of the centers have been three right-wing Zionist think-tankers : Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution and a columnist for the National Review Online; Martin Kramer, whose screed Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America was published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, whose website Campus Watch posted "dossiers" on professors whom Pipes deemed to hold unacceptable views on Islam, Palestinian rights, and U.S. or Israeli policy. Students were urged to send in reports on teachers who made any dubious remarks.

Kurtz was the star witness in House testimony on the bill last June, when he painted a frightful caricature of area studies programs. He accused them of having "extreme and monolithic" perspectives and "stifling free debate" as they buckle under an insidious "ruling intellectual paradigm" set forth in Orientalism by the late Edward Said, "the most honored and in-fluential theorist in academic area studies today." Kurtz recommended the government-appointed supervisory body to assure that "over and above questions of peer review, due consideration was given to the national interest."

Members of Congress did not check to see that, in fact, international studies programs are filled with scholars with a range of contentious views, or that the influence of Orientalism is largely confined to the humanities and even there has been subject to ongoing critique since its publication in 1978. Nor did they systematically investigate any of Kurtz's other apoplectic charges, among them that professors discourage students from taking jobs with the government. Nor did it matter that international studies centers are already monitored by the Department of Education, to whom they must submit detailed annual reports and from whom they must reapply for funds every three years.

"This is part of a wider campaign to intimidate," asserts Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Chair of Arab Studies at Columbia and head of its Middle East Institute. "It won't work with my generation, but it will discourage younger scholars from going into the field. One of the objectives is to put the universities in an impossible position—either to accept partisan intrusion into academic affairs or just not take the money." According to Amy Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association, the effect will be counterproductive: fewer and fewer students studying Arabic, Pashtu, Turkish, Urdu.

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