Commentary Magazine

Ivory Towers on Sand by Martin Kramer

Ivory Towers on Sand
by Martin Kramer
Washington Institute. 137 pp. $19.95

This is a small monograph about large misjudgments. Martin Kramer, an American-trained Arabist who lives and teaches in Israel and has directed the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, presents a clear thesis. It is that the field of Middle Eastern studies in the United States (previously known as “Orientalism,” a now strictly pejorative term), while growing by leaps and bounds since World War II, has been intellectually compromised by government and foundation funds, Arab endowments, voguish anti-Western and post-modernist theories, and the blight of political correctness. The result, in Kramer’s view, is an academic industry that has lost the ability to think straight about the region of the world it is responsible for thinking about.

That Middle Eastern studies have been a growth industry is demonstrated by Kramer’s figures. “In 1949,” he writes,

the Committee on Near [now Middle] Eastern Studies reported that “at no university [in the United States] does there appear to be a person who would claim to be an expert in the economics, sociology, or politics of the present-day Near East.” Twenty years later, in 1969, there were an estimated 340 full-time faculty members in Middle Eastern studies; in 1977, there were 530. . . . In 1951, there were five Middle East programs at universities; in 1956, twelve; in 1962, eighteen; in 1970, 36.

By 1976, these new programs had produced “4,300 bachelor’s degrees, 1,500 master’s degrees, and 800 doctorates.”

The reason for this boom, of course, was the greatly heightened importance of the Middle East in the geostrategic thinking of these years. Prior to World War II, the Arab world had been peripheral to America’s consciousness and American interests; starting with the 1950’s, all this was changed by American dependence on Arab oil and American-Soviet competition for spheres of influence. Suddenly the U.S. government needed extensive information about, and analysis of, Arab societies and their political elites. It was natural to turn for this to the universities—which, since they lacked the scholars to provide it, had to be jump-started with government money, largely allotted under Title VI of the National Defense Education Act. Foundations like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford chipped in handsomely as well.

Even money without strings, however, can tie its recipients to its donors. The consequence, as Kramer relates, was that the flourishing Middle Eastern departments developed by universities like Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Michigan, UCLA, and Berkeley produced scholars whose view of the Arab world was, by and large, highly congenial to the State Department That view was based on what Kramer calls “the paradigm of development”—that is, the assumption that the countries of the Middle East, every one of which except Israel was living in a state of economic backwardness, political autocracy, and widespread Islamic militancy, were about to follow the same route to liberalization and modernization once taken by the West.

This was a convenient scenario because it justified a foreign policy that already existed—namely, providing these countries with an American military shield without pressuring them to democratize or institute economic or religious reforms. After all, if democracy, Western-style capitalism, and secularization were the inevitable future in any case, why step on anyone’s toes by trying to hasten them?

Yet the paradigm of development was a colossal failure. No matter what ostensible course Arab regimes in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s sought to follow—a “revolutionary” one like Nasserist Egypt or Ba’athist Iraq, a traditional Islamic one like Saudi Arabia, or a laissez-faire one like Lebanon—what emerged were brutal dictatorships, stagnant economies, continued religious and intellectual regimentation, and bloody civil wars. Not a single Arab country came any closer in these years to resembling the West. Many moved in the opposite direction.



It was time for the academic paradigm to shift. Yet when it did, the turn was not toward a more realistic appraisal of the Arab world but, if anything, toward an even more ideologically distorted one. And the new ideology’s prophet was not even a member of the guild. Rather, he was a Palestinian literary critic just then coming into fame, Columbia University’s Edward Said, whose Orientalism (1978), a crass and politically motivated attack on the entire tradition of Arabic studies in the West, quickly became, as Kramer describes it, the Bible of Middle Eastern studies.

Orientalism argued that, from its inception in the 19th century, Western scholarship in the field of Arabic and Islamic culture was corrupted by racism and a colonialist agenda. It was indeed a pernicious book. (I read it at the time of its publication and remember feeling outraged, as the son of a scholar of medieval Arabic and Judeo-Arabic texts, by its dishonest attack on a profession I knew to be conscientious to a fault.) In the words—quoted by Kramer—of the British historian Clive Dewey, “historian after historian must have put [Said’s book] down without finishing it—without imagining, for a moment, the influence it would exert. . . . Yet it clearly touched a deep vein of vulgar prejudice running through American academe.”

The outlook promulgated by Orientalism, which no doubt would also have spread without it, touched a deep vein of self-interest as well. If, young Middle Eastern scholars could conclude, the “paradigm of development” had been wrong, this was not simply because it had been wishful thinking, much less because Arab societies were constitutionally incapable of modernizing. Radier, it was because the idea of modernization itself was a construction of Western capitalism, and one that these societies were wise to resist. Moreover, in such forms as Islamic egalitarianism and popular Palestinian resistance to Israel, democracy already existed, or at any rate would develop spontaneously from local traditions and ways of doing things.

Not only was this a flattering thought for Arabs themselves, whose oil money by now had become a significant part of the budgets of departments of Middle Eastern studies, it also spared American experts on the Arab world the need to offend anyone in it with their criticism. Indeed, writes Kramer, by the end of the 1990’s,

while political Islam may have failed in the Middle East, it [had become] a spectacular success in American academe. The high profile it conferred upon certain scholars produced tenure, grants, book contracts, and even directorships of centers [of Middle Eastern studies]. . . . It will take years for Middle Eastern studies to restore its reputation for credibility and relevance.



All this was bad enough in a pre-September 11 world in which an American foreign policy influenced by academic theories was guided by the assumption that, from Iraq to Sudan and from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, things were not all that bad and getting better. It is far more serious in a world after the attack on the World Trade Center. Once the first, Afghan stage is over, a cogent response to that attack will depend on the ability to assess accurately the workings of Arab societies and governments that—passively or actively—shelter and support terrorist organizations. Without the ability to think coherently about such societies, coherent action is hardly possible.

If Martin Kramer is right, such an ability is now at a lower ebb than it was when the boom in Middle Eastern studies began 50 years ago. For those of us who do not have his insider’s view of the academic world, it is difficult to judge some of his pronouncements. But it is enough to listen to the reactions to September 11 on the part of the great majority of our politicians, pundits, and intellectuals, with their pious litany that “Islam is not to blame” and their repeated warnings against antagonizing the Arab world in the war against terror, to realize that Kramer cannot be far wrong. Although State Department officials and newspaper columnists may not derive their ideas directly from the universities, much of their thinking is ultimately passed down from the world of scholarship. And if Islam and the Arabs are to blame—not all of Islam and all Arabs, certainly, but something deep-rooted in both—the last ones to catch on are likely to be our academic specialists in the study of the Middle East.


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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