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An Area of Darkness

Jay Nordlinger
National Review Online

[COMMENT:   Some extraordinary insights into the current Middle East information-situation.    E. Fox]

Dear friends: Now and then, I expand a magazine piece in this column — and would like to do so again. In the October 20 issue of National Review, I had a piece called “When Knowledge Is Critical: Brief reflections on Middle East studies.” I’d like to reflect a little more here. Shall we just wade in?

The Cold War stretched from 1945 to 1991 — and, somehow, the West ended up on top. (It wasn’t simple.) One fine day — or one fine week, or one fine year — Soviet Communism gave out and gave up. Then we had our “holiday from history”: ten years of almost no concerns. Sure, there was a Khobar Towers here, a U.S.S. Cole there. (Not to mention a Balkan bother.) But Muslim terrorists were always acting up, weren’t they? They were something to put up with, like the weather.

Then came 9/11, and a new cold war — a new cold war, according to some.

In the original one, America and the West built up many institutions, aimed at countering Communism, understanding the Eastern bloc, and communicating with people under the lash. Have we done the same in the War on Terror? Not even close, as George Shultz stressed with me in an interview last January. It is a failing of these recent years — and we should get busy.

Be clear about something, however (and this is me talking, not Shultz): To understand someone is not necessarily to like or approve him. Understanding, in fact, may make you recoil all the more. But understanding is the best friend of anyone who wishes to be alert.

Professors of Middle East studies would be very helpful right about now. But they are, unfortunately, among the worst of the lot: among the worst in the American professoriate. A range of departments, of course, is the province of radicals and ideologues, rather than genuine scholars. But departments of Middle East studies may take the cake. Those wanting to read chapter and verse can turn to Martin Kramer’s book Ivory Towers on Sand.

In the old days, “Sovietologists” tended to sympathize with the Kremlin (to put it crudely, and perhaps McCarthyitely, but not untruthfully). Middle East studies men are apt to sympathize with the PLO and worse. And the China people are just as frightful.

Recently, I met with Jian-li Yang, the great dissident and scholar. Last year, he was released from a PRC prison after five years’ confinement. Despite that nasty interlude, he has considerable experience with higher education, particularly in America. He has two Ph.D.s: one from Berkeley, in math; and another from Harvard, in political economy. He lives in the Harvard community.

And I asked him, “Do you ever have contact with Sinologists there?” He answered, no way: They’re impossible, because they simply toe the PRC line. “They’re as bad as professors in Beijing University,” he said. “No, worse!”

These are all children of John K. Fairbank and Edgar Snow, men responsible for tremendous harm. The children — like their fathers — exist not so much to study and explain Communist China as to defend and justify it. And they are corrupt, said Yang: awash in PRC money. Yes, I replied, but they’d do it for free, being true believers. He conceded that this was so.

Whether China scholars have more money from Beijing or Middle East scholars have more money from Arab rulers is an open question — but the safe betting is on the Middle East men. Some critics regard this money as absolutely corrupting. Others say, “No, they’d do it for free” — which is my view, and also that of Daniel Pipes, a Middle East scholar who is decidedly not the type to win an emir’s favor. (That would have to be one enlightened emir.)

(And, incidentally: Many Arabs, elite and ordinary alike, are grateful for clear-minded scholarship and commentary about the Middle East. Often, they have to be quiet about their gratitude.)

On one thing, almost everybody can agree: Money must play some sort of role, if only at the margins. A scholar receiving money from a particular government will naturally pull punches about that government. If a scholar is hesitant about whether to say something — money may tip him in one direction. If he likes to travel to a particular country, he may want to watch what he says about that country’s government.

At the same time, you don’t have to be bought to be wrong.

There was never much money in “Sovietology,” according to Richard Pipes, the father of Daniel and the eminent historian of Russia. He remembered this crowd in a recent conversation: “They resented you if you criticized the Soviet Union, the Communist party, and I was regarded as really way out, because I was so critical.” Why were others so uncritical? Well, “for one reason, they simply identified with the Soviet Union. For another, they liked to go there” — and Moscow wasn’t real good about letting you in if you were critical (or letting you out if you were critical and a Soviet citizen).

One day, Pipes testified before Senator Jackson’s committee about SALT. He took a hard, and realistic, line. Opposing him was an Ivy League Sovietologist who took the soft and unrealistic. As they were leaving, the Sovietologist said to Pipes, “I really agree with you, but if I talked as you do, I wouldn’t be able to go to the Soviet Union. They wouldn’t give me a visa.”

Pipes says that, on balance, the Sovietologists did more harm than good — misleading the public on a hugely critical issue. “They maintained, vehemently, that the Soviet government was stable, and popular with the citizenry. They said that, like it or not, we had to come to terms with this government — which meant that the kind of policies Reagan was pursuing were counterproductive and futile. These policies would simply bring another Stalin to power.” And the Sovietologists were “utterly wrong.”

Yup — but they just glided on, with hardly a backward glance. Today, many of them have “fallen in line behind Putin,” says Pipes, traveling to Moscow to attend conferences hosted by him. Sure.

Pipes told me a couple of other interesting things. Of course, the Sovietologists never said they were sorry or repented or anything of the kind. But one of them “simply stopped writing.” Also, one resentful scholar said that “Pipes was right, but for the wrong reasons” (whatever that means). Pipes quips: “Better to have been wrong for the right reasons!”

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum. And he has paid a price for being out of step in this field — for speaking bluntly about dictatorships, Islamism, and related matters. He would not be welcome in most faculty lounges; he has had to have something of an “alternative” career. Moreover, he has received his share of threats — and not of the light kind, either. When you write about the Middle East — certainly in an honest way — you play with fire.

Despite the difficulties, Pipes has had a full and useful career, pursued bravely. He knows Middle East scholars at universities who must keep their heads down — until they have tenure, at least. And he has this worthy point about money — the role of Middle Eastern money in scholarship on the Middle East: It may not buy people who have no need of being bought — but it gives them a much bigger megaphone.

You may wish to know how Pipes became a Middle East scholar. He wanted to be a mathematician, but thought better of it. (This was at Harvard, as an undergrad.) Then he thought of going into “area studies.” One area, Russia, was taken by his illustrious father; another, China, was taken by his roommate. So he fastened onto the Middle East.

And who was that roommate? Arthur Waldron — one of the most clear-eyed, independent, and fearless of the China scholars. That was one gutsy room, let me tell you.

There is an organization for orthodox scholars of the Middle East — that is, for leftist and politicized ones. It is called the Middle East Studies Association, or MESA. It is led by such men as Rashid Khalidi, the FOB (Friend of Barack) and occupant of Columbia University’s Edward Said chair. You also may have heard of Juan Cole, of the University of Michigan; and of Georgetown’s John Esposito. Men like this are the face of today’s Middle East studies. To say it as briefly as possible: Arafat would consider himself lucky — and probably did.

The late Said is the father of this MESA crowd, or at least an influential big brother. So much has been written about him, I will not add a word here. But I’ll give Paul Johnson one. In September 2006, he was contemplating a book to be called “Monsters.” And he wrote that he would include Said, “this malevolent liar and propagandist, who has been responsible for more harm than any other intellectual of his generation.”

Before 9/11, MESA was pretty much a joke, a Marxoid playground whose significance to the larger world was slight. It was hard to get a decent Middle Eastern education in the United States, but that was okay: We all have to make sacrifices. After 9/11, however, the joke was not so funny. There was a real need for soundness on the Middle East. You couldn’t just say, “Israel evil. America evil. Palestinians good. Hamas, Hezbollah, and mullahs misunderstood. Colonialism bad — left enduring scars. West bad. Terrorists driven to their acts by oppression. Arabs must unite, eschew factions — created by a scheming West — and win.”

No, that falderal was suddenly intolerable. As the Iraqi-American scholar Nibras Kazimi put it, “America and the world cannot afford to lounge around in the blissful lethargy of intellectual shallowness now that the jihadists of the Middle East . . . have declared their war and delivered their bomb-laden calling cards.”

Last year, an encouraging event occurred: the founding of a new organization, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). Their website is here. ASMEA was to be, in brief, what MESA should be, and almost certainly used to be. (The older group was founded in 1966, before the rot set in.) The new group’s chairman is Bernard Lewis, the great nonagenarian British-born scholar. On the academic council sits George Shultz — who, as I said at the outset, is so desirous of new and helpful institutions.

Launching the institution, Lewis gave a typically learned, elegant address. Here are brief but potent excerpts:

I would like to begin with a quotation from the famous Dr. Johnson, one of his conversations recorded by Boswell. He says, “A generous and elevated mind is distinguished by nothing more certainly than an eminent degree of curiosity. Nor is that curiosity ever more agreeably or usefully employed than in examining the laws and customs of foreign nations.” A very interesting statement and . . . one uniquely Western — uniquely distinctive of this Western civilization of which we are the heirs at the present time. And I use the word “we” in the widest sense. . . .

Today we confront new obstacles in our study of the Middle East . . . One of them I have already mentioned: postmodernism. . . . The second is a combination of political correctness and multiculturalism — which combination established orthodoxies in the academic world, [instituting] a degree of thought control, of limitations on freedom of expression, without parallel in the Western world since the 18th century, and in some areas longer than that. I don’t need to tell you how careers can be furthered or destroyed by this kind of imposed orthodoxy. This, it seems to me, is a very dangerous situation. It has now made any kind of scholarly discussion of Islam, to say the least, dangerous. Islam and Islamic values now have a level of immunity from comment and criticism in the Western world that Christianity has lost and Judaism has never had.

Toward the end of his remarks, Professor Lewis said, “It seems to me that we are beset by difficulties” — this is understatement typical of him (and of his native country). And he spoke of “the deadly hand of political correctness.”

The MESA men have denounced the upstart organization — ASMEA — as, essentially, a neocon plot. Cinnamon Stillwell (have you ever heard a more delightful name?) recorded some of their comments at FrontPageMagazine.com (here). For example, Juan Cole said that ASMEA was “exclusively ideological” and “for people on the right.”

Speaking of this word “right,” let me say this: I never cease to be amazed that, in our present period, to desire liberalization in the Arab world is conservative, or “neocon.” Even to make noises about freedom in the Middle East is to be “on the right.” Not so long ago, “conservatives” were happy to deal with the existing despotisms, or were at least perfectly resigned to them: What could one do? Besides, these despotisms represented stability. And to be a progressive was to talk about, or at least desire, liberalization.

Funny old world.

At any rate, many people — not with MESA — have been calling ASMEA “a breath of fresh air,” and so it is.

Recently, it was my pleasure to talk with Professor Lewis, as it always is — and I asked him a bit about his education. He was born in London in 1916. What set him on his course as a Middle East scholar? He studied Hebrew, in preparation for his bar mitzvah. “I was very fortunate in that my teacher was a real scholar, a man who was able to inspire and guide me.” Even after the bar mitzvah, Lewis studied Hebrew — “and that led on to Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and the rest.”

Lewis might be said to have been ideal material for Middle East studies: His two great loves were history and languages — and after he was done with common languages such as French and Latin (common, that is, to Westerners), he was ready for things a little more adventurous.

He went to the School for Oriental Studies — now the School for Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS — part of the University of London. He earned both a B.A. and a Ph.D. there. Among his professors was the famed (and not uncontroversial) Sir H. A. R. Gibb. Another professor was Norman H. Baynes, the historian of Byzantium.

I asked Professor Lewis whether it was possible, in this day and age, to obtain the kind of education he was afforded. He said this was “very doubtful.” Just as the Maoists took over Chinese studies, a certain crowd has taken over Middle East studies: which “are now, to a very large extent — how should I put it? — one-sided. They take a certain view of things, an orthodox Arab view. It is difficult to make a career unless you conform.” Moreover, “vast sums of money are pouring in from Arab governments, Arab princes,” and that makes a difference.

As you might expect, there are scholars who tell Lewis, privately, that they are in agreement with him. “They explain that coming out openly would be destructive of their careers, and they’re right — it would be.” Well, are they cowardly or merely prudent? That was what I wanted to know. Lewis was not inclined to pass judgment.

About ASMEA, he said, “I hope to be able to accomplish something” — and “a lot of people in the Middle East are with us. We in the West complain about these odious tyrannies, but they are the first sufferers, the first victims.”

Professor Lewis then told me something about Sadat. I will paraphrase, but pretty faithfully, I think:

“Sadat did not decide to make peace with Israel because he suddenly converted to Zionism. His reason was quite different. He was aware that Egypt was becoming a Soviet colony. I saw that myself, on frequent visits to Egypt. The Soviet presence was palpable — more obtrusive than the British presence, and I’m old enough to remember that. The Soviets were taking over, there were places where no Arab was able to set foot.

“I remember talking with a shopkeeper in Upper Egypt. He said there were no tourists coming anymore, which was, of course, very bad for business. ‘But you have plenty of Russians,’ I said, whereupon he spat into the gutter and replied, ‘They won’t buy a package of cigarettes, and they won’t give you a cigarette.’

“Anyway, the Russians were taking over, and Sadat saw that. He realized that, on the worst estimate of Israel’s intentions, and on the most generous estimate of Israel’s power, they were less dangerous than the Soviets. And the Israelis were not going to take over Egypt, that was clear. That was why Sadat decided to make peace. Fortunately, he found someone on the other side who would respond.

“We are moving to a similar situation now. Many Arabs have concluded, ‘Israel is not our main danger, our main problem.’ If you look at the Hezbollah war, in 2006, Arabs silently hoped that Israel would finish the job, and were very disappointed when they failed to do so. That continues now. Obviously, they don’t come out strongly in support of Israel — they wouldn’t do that. But there is, shall we say, a readiness to accommodate which did not exist in the past.”

Some time ago, Professor Lewis was paid an extraordinary compliment. One of his books was published in Arabic translation (unauthorized). It was published by the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, the book was published in Hebrew by the Israeli defense ministry — and, as Professor Lewis says, that is an interesting pairing: the Muslim Brothers and the Israeli defense ministry.

In his preface to the Arabic version, the translator said, “I don’t know who this author is, but one thing about him is clear: He is either a candid friend or an honorable enemy, and in either case is one who has disdained to falsify the truth.”

An extraordinary compliment indeed.

I myself once thought of being a Middle East man. May I give you something autobiographical? I published the following in Impromptus a few days after 9/11:

When I was young, I was quite the little Arabist — cocksure, arrogant, wholly misguided. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., and there were many Arab students — most of them Palestinian — in my high school. I befriended them, loved them. Was intensely interested in them. Some wore keys around their necks, and they claimed that these were the keys to the homes back in Palestine their families had been forced to abandon. I was mightily impressed. Later on, I knew to doubt the authenticity of those keys.

I remember one girl, who liked me, asking, “Jay, you’re not Jewish, are you?” She had to be reassured before our friendship could continue.

I was taught to believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict was very much like the American South: a civil-rights struggle. The Arabs were the blacks — the victims, the oppressed. The Israelis were the whites, the oppressors. Menachem Begin was pretty much George Wallace; his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, was Bull Connor (they even looked alike). Arafat, of course, was Martin Luther King. It seemed very clear.

In due course, I grew up, but it took a while. I enrolled in the Near Eastern Studies Department at the University of Michigan, where I took several courses, including the Arabic language. The department was dominated by extremists. The graduate assistants, certainly, were Arabs to the “left” of the PLO, meaning, they took Arafat and Co. to be sell-outs, untrue to the cause. There was no discussion of the legitimacy of Israel: It wasn’t discussable; Israel was illegitimate, and every worthy person knew it.

One day, we trooped into an auditorium to see a documentary on the conflict. I can’t remember the name of the documentary or of the documentary-maker, but I can see her, and she was on hand to introduce her film and to take questions. The film featured mainly radical Palestinians talking about dismembering Israel.

During the Q&A, a middle-aged white woman — a little fat — raised her hand and asked the following question: “These were such extreme voices. You’ve made a wonderful film, but couldn’t you have found some softer, more moderate voices?”

In the row in which I was sitting were several Arab students — older ones, graduate students — and one of them, in front of everybody, stood up and said words I will never forget. I won’t forget the words, or his face, or his relatively quiet, determined tone. He said: “I will kill you.” (This was directed at the woman who had asked the question.) His buddies got him to sit down.

But that’s not the important part — what he said is not the important part. The important part is, no one said a word. No one reacted. We all sort of coughed, and looked away, nervously. We all pretended that what had just occurred had not, in fact, occurred — or that it was normal, acceptable. We simply ignored it.

Eventually, I took another path, both at the university and in my own thought. I could never be convinced that America and its influence were evil. I could not be convinced that Israel was illegitimate. And I could not accept the “I will kill you” and our complete cowardice, or complicity, in the face of it.

I sort of vowed, inwardly, that I wouldn’t be afraid, wouldn’t be intimidated, by Arab extremism. We all dance delicately around it. We tend to sweep it under the rug. We look away, all politically correct, and cough. I further vowed that, unlike my fellow white liberals, I would pay Arabs the compliment of treating them as full human beings, accountable for their words and actions, capable of good or bad, like everyone else — morally responsible. I wouldn’t treat them as children, unable to help a certain savagery. I wouldn’t “understand” that savagery, in the sense my teachers intended. I wouldn’t have double, or triple, or quadruple standards. All men were equal.

My lessons were hard, but they have lasted, and I believe they are right ones.

You remember the expression “scared straight”? This referred to drug use — if you saw the horrific effects of it, you were scared straight. And something similar happened to me in Middle East studies: I saw true radicalism, zealotry, and belligerence, and recoiled from it.

Tell you something else, too: One afternoon, a young professor of ours gave a kind of beer-hall speech. This was at a forum dominated by Arabs — grad students and others. Shouting and pumping his fist, the professor admonished the audience to forget any negotiating with Israel and not to surrender an inch. Stay true, stay true, he said. The audience cheered like crazy. Later, an older professor said to this younger one, “No one gets Arabs riled up like you do.” (The young professor was not an Arab, by the way.)

In the fullness of time, my guy became president of MESA — a perfect fit.

May I add something on Jimmy Carter? In my “Carterpalooza!” of May 2002, I wrote,

You who read Impromptus have heard me say: When I was growing up, I perceived the Arab-Israeli conflict as a great civil-rights drama. The white oppressors were the Israelis, and the black sufferers and innocents were the Arabs, in particular the Palestinians. Menachem Begin, I thought, was George C. Wallace, and his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, was Bull Connor. (This was in the early ’80s.)

Well, blow me down. I had never heard anybody else — a soul — say anything like this. But here is Carter, to Douglas Brinkley, Carter’s biographer and analyst: “The intifada exposed the injustice Palestinians suffered, just like Bull Connor’s mad dogs in Birmingham.”

The Carter-Nordlinger axis rides again (but, hang on, I’ve changed my mind — had “an evolution of thought,” as we say).

In due course, I was able to educate myself, which is to say, find sources beyond those provided by my teachers. I found Lewis, of course, and David Pryce-Jones, and Fouad Ajami, and others. You can always find such people — piercers through the fog. But you have to work at it, and how many people have either the time or the drive?

I once heard DP-J say, “I emerged from Eton and Oxford a perfectly nasty little leftist — and Commentary was my university.” That invaluable magazine helped him, as it would help me — a lot. Norman Podhoretz, who for 35 years was the editor, was extremely important to me, and so were the writers he presented.

I have related a great compliment paid to Bernard Lewis. Would you like to hear a great compliment paid to DP-J? Once, Edward Said condemned the “unholy trinity of Lewis, Kedourie, and Pryce-Jones.” (Elie Kedourie was the great Baghdad-born scholar of the Middle East.) David says to be put in such company fills him with humility and joy.

It would be nice if today’s Middle East scholars, in general, were more helpful than they are. The same is true of the China guys — and was true of the Sovietologists. But somehow we make do. And we are lucky to have the Middle East Media Research Institute — MEMRI.org. They are a top-flight education all by themselves.

Besides which, if you have 10,000 MESA profs on one side, and Professor Lewis on the other — it’s still an unfair fight, favoring Lewis.

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Date Posted -  11/12/2008   -   Date Last Edited - 09/15/2012