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Middle East Studies in Upheaval

[1]The troubled academic study of the Middle East and Islam by Americans is changing in fundamental ways. I offer some thoughts based on 42 years of personal observation:

From Western offence to Islamic offence: Muslim relations with Christians divide into four long periods: from Muhammad’s hijra to the First Crusade, 622-1099, during which time Muslims expanded at Christian expense; to the 2nd siege of Vienna, 1099-1683, which saw a mix of Muslim advances (e.g., Anatolia) and retreats (Iberia); to the Arab oil boycott, 1683-1973, with Christians on the offense; and since 1973, with Muslims on the offense.

When I entered the Middle East and Islam field in 1969, Americans looked almost exclusively at the Western impact on modern Muslims; today, the Muslim impact on the West features almost as prominently, from American slavery [2] to the problems of Malmö, Sweden [3].

From Arab to Muslim: Books on “The Arabs,” “the Arab world [4],” “Arab politics [5],” “Arab nationalism [6],” and “Arab socialism [7]” flew off the press during my student years. With time, however, the hollowness of this modern concept of Arabs became evident. I was one of those who argued for Islam as the real defining factor, devoting myself thirty years ago [8] to proving that “Islam profoundly shapes the political attitudes of Muslims.” Met with skepticism back then, this understanding has now become so blindingly self-evident that Amazon.com [9] lists no fewer than 3,077 items in English on jihad.

From critical to apologetic writing: Little did I know, but by taking up Islamic history when I did meant slipping in before the deluge of revisionism. Back in 1969, scholars respected Islamic civilization while usually (but not always [10]) maintaining a proudly Western outlook. Symbolic of old-fashioned learning, my first Middle East history professor assigned us Julius Wellhausen’s study, Das arabische Reich und sein Sturz (in English translation [11] to be sure), published in 1902.

Then came the revolution. Martin Kramer [12] ascribes the changes in Middle East studies to the publication of Orientalism by Edward Said in 1978; I see it more resulting from the sharp leftward turn [13] of universities. Whatever the cause, the field descended into revisionist, apologetic, jargon-laden, error-prone Third-Worldism.

The old masters dropped out of syllabi [14]. The Hartford Seminary [15] rapidly “turned from being the premier Protestant seminary for missions to the Muslim world into an institution promoting Islamization.” The academic understanding of jihad [16] epitomizes this transformation: in a single generation, jihad went from being interpreted as aggressive warfare to moral self-improvement. Academics took their biased and shoddy work into government [17].

Academic work has sometimes become a near-parody of itself, with specialists proving such absurdities as: ancient Israeli history [18] is a creation of modern Zionist propaganda, the Islamist movement [19] already failed by 1992, water imperatives drive the Arab-Israeli conflict [20], and homosexuals [21] do not exist in the Middle East. As maudlin obituaries [22] to Said suggest, many specialists remain in his malign thrall.

From public indifference to engagement: The Middle East was politically prominent well before 2001 thanks to cold war tensions, oil exports, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Iranian revolution. But American popular interest in the region remained modest until 9/11 and the subsequent Afghan and Iraqi wars. That surge of interest led to a wide awareness about the inadequacy of academic work. With the help of sophisticated critiques like Kramer’s [23], plus organizations like Campus Watch [24], the public has become actively involved in opposing radical Middle East specialists, for example through activism to deny them tenure [25]. One finds no parallel in other fields.

From trendy to retro: Another response to this failure consists of authors – often from outside the academy – harking back to pre-1980 scholarship to understand the region. Ibn Warraq, a pseudonymous ex-Muslim, published a sequence of books on the life of Muhammad [26], the origins of the Koran [27], its variants [28], and meaning [29], all of them premised on generations-old writings. Andrew Bostom, a medical researcher, anthologized significant portions of pre-1980 scholarship on jihad [30] and antisemitism [31]. Historian Efraim Karsh wrote Islamic Imperialism [32], which argues that Islam’s expansionist tendencies have driven the religion since Muhammad’s wars.

These old-fashioned books are yet few in number compared to the cascade of revisionism, but they mark a revival of ideas and themes that once appeared moribund. Their appearance, along with public engagement and the emerging presence of promising new scholars [33], signals that – almost uniquely in the humanities – a sound understanding of the Middle East and Islam may rebound.