The Problem with
Middle East Studies
As one of the
few pro-U.S. and pro-Israel voices in the field of Middle East studies, I find
my views get frequently mangled by others in the field – thus I have had to
post a 5,000-word document titled "Department of Corrections (of Others' Factual Mistakes about
Me)" on my website.
Usually, the precise evolution
of such mistakes escapes me. Recently, however, I discovered just how one
developed in three steps and confronted the two academics who made the errors.
Their unwillingness to acknowledge their errors illustrates the mixture of
incompetence and arrogance of Middle East studies as it is, unfortunately, too
often practiced in the academy.
(1) In "The Muslims are Coming! The Muslims are Coming!" National
Review, November 19, 1990, I wrote about some of the reasons for Western
fears of Muslims:
Muslims have gone through a
trauma during the last two hundred years – the tribulation of God's people who
unaccountably found themselves at the bottom of the heap. The strains have been
enormous and the results agonizing; Muslim countries have the most
terrorists and the fewest democracies in the world. Only Turkey (and
sometimes Pakistan) is fully democratic, and even there the system is frail.
Everywhere else, the head of government got to power through force[,] his own
or someone else's. The result is endemic instability plus a great deal of
Despite such problems, I
concluded, "none of this justifies seeing Muslims as the paramount
(2) Yahya Sadowski, then of the
Brookings Institution, quoted the bolded line of the above paragraph in an
entirely different context in "The New Orientalism and the Democracy Debate," Middle
East Report, July-August 1993, p. 14. Discussing Western considerations of
democracy's prospects in the Middle East, Sadowski wrote:
The thesis that Middle Eastern
societies are resistant to democratization had been a standard tenet of
Orientalist thought for decades, but in the 1980s a new generation of
Orientalists inverted some of the old assumptions and employed a new vocabulary
which allowed them to link their work to a wider, international debate about
the relationship between "civil society" and democratization. These
updated arguments sought to prove not only – as neo-Orientalist Daniel Pipes
put it – that "Muslim countries have the most terrorists and the fewest
democracies in the world," but that they always would.
Sadowski quoted my words
accurately but turned their meaning upside-down; he transformed my rather
prosaic observation of fact into part of a grand theory that I never enunciated
– and which, for the record, I repudiate. Throughout my work, I stress
mutability and change and argue against historical essentialism concerning Islam. I
see the Muslim world as changing and avoid extrapolations from present-day
circumstances to the future. I make a point not to say something will
"always" be a certain way. Further, contrary to Sadowski, I hold that
democracy are indeed compatible.
Joel Beinin of Stanford
University and Joe Stork of the Middle East Report then gave the
Sadowski article legs by reprinting it in their co-edited 1996 University of
California Press book, Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report; I am
quoted on p. 34.
(3) Then along came Yakub
Halabi, at the time a Ph.D. student at the University of Denver, with "Orientalism
and US Democratization Policy in the Middle East," International
Studies, 36 (1999), pp. 385-87. Halabi relied on Sadowski's distorted version
of my words and further elaborated on it, now in the context of his discussion
of Western attempts to understand how a passive Muslim people could have
brought off the Iranian revolution:
The neo-orientalist school
emerged in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. It was an attempt to remove
the anomaly in the orientalist approach that could not explain why a Muslim
society rebelled against the Shah. … Orientalists as well as neo-orientalists,
however, ignore any sort of modernity or novelty in Islamic societies in
general and in the Iranian revolution in particular.
Halabi went on to note that
some analysts depicted Islamic movements as not just radical but also
anti-Western and anti-modernist.
One such writer Daniel Pipes,
for example, depicts Muslims as "permanent" anti-democrats and
terrorists. In his words: "Muslim countries [not only] have the most
terrorists and the fewest democracies in the world, but that they always will."
"In his words"?
Hardly; I said nothing of the sort. Halabi changed my meaning by ascribing the
word "permanent" to me, though it appeared nowhere in my essay; by
adding two words in square brackets; and by falsely ascribing Sadowski's phrase
to me. To complete the transformation, he even altered Sadowski's language,
changing the final bolded word from "would" to "will."
As with Sadowski's perversion
of my sentence, I disavow the fictitious quote Halabi attributes to me.
(1) Sadowski and Halabi turned
my simple statement into the linchpin of their quite distinct generalizations
(2) I wrote to each of Sadowski
and Halabi, requesting a retraction and an apology. Sadowski did not respond.
Halabi wrote back and justified his inaccuracy with a reference to post-modern
subjectivity, with its convenient insouciance toward such concepts as truth and
falsehood: "This is the way I understood and interpreted your article.
When you write an article, you cannot control the way others interprete [sic]
it." Such defiant subjectivity undermines the scholarly enterprise.
(3) How to explain that two
specialists hostile to my outlook each mangled my words? I see two
possibilities: That they did so purposefully; or that bias colored their
reading. I doubt they did so intentionally – no one wishes to be caught out and
ridiculed for making errors. My hunch is that, in their eagerness to discredit
someone whose approach differs from theirs, they read my analysis hastily and
prejudicially, prompting the sequence of mistakes documented here. Such
attitudes have contributed importantly to what Martin Kramer characterizes as
"the failure of Middle Eastern studies in America."
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