Under historic challenge, what is the future of Middle Eastern studies?

Tarek Ghanem examines the arguments in a sometimes fiery academic debate.

Two streets away from the site of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, about 2,000 experts and students of Middle Eastern studies gathered in downtown Boston late last year to take part in the annual convention of the Middle East Studies Association (Mesa). Many came to participate in panel discussions, some to seek job opportunities, a few were there to attend meetings, but almost everyone intended to socialise and catch up with colleagues.

The conference was convened on the heels of Donald Trump’s historic election victory and the emergence shortly afterwards of watch lists produced by ultra-right activists targeting several Middle Eastern studies’ experts and students. For a long time, Mesa has drawn a plethora of accusations: ranging from its irrelevance to US national interests to it being overly critical of US foreign policy in the Middle East.

So, what should be the role of the academics in the field?

When I sat down with Beth Baron, president of the 2016 Mesa, she said that “while the region is under tremendous stress, the field is blossoming. The scholarship is cutting-edge.”

But the picture is not as bright as we might think. As a field, Middle Eastern studies has had its share of controversies. Last year’s convention was special both because of the extraordinary atmosphere in post-election America and the turmoil rolling through the Middle East. The name Donald Trump found its way out of the mouths of everyone I met, and rightly so.

“With the ascendancy of Trump, we are setting up a task force to study the effects of this new climate on the field as a whole,” explained Nathan Brown, professor of Middle Eastern law and politics at George Washington University, and a former president of Mesa.

“One of my concerns and focuses will also be to create a safe environment in the classroom, not just for my Middle Eastern students, but for Trump supporters as well – agreement is not a goal but understanding is.”

It might be said, however, that Middle Eastern studies has been painted in a somewhat contemptuous light, compared to other disciplines such as political science and history.

Experts in disciplinary sciences often argue that area studies are lacking in theoretical rigour. Another aspect of the criticism targeting area studies is their inability to serve policy.

These reasons inspired Martin Kramer, a controversial Middle East expert who previously served as a senior adviser to Rudy Giuliani in 2007, to write Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, a widely-read work that is highly critical of this field of inquiry.

Kramer calls for Middle Eastern studies to be brought back to its Orientalist roots and his book is especially critical of two theoretical subjects in the field: democratisation and civil societies.

Middle Eastern studies also has its own counterargument against social science disciplines. Experts who are in the thick of this tension argue that it is the parochialism of disciplinary social sciences, and their one-size-fits-all view that are at the crux of this tense relationship.

In What Future for Middle Eastern Studies? a valuable paper by Pinar Bilgin, a professor of international relations at Bilkent University, the writer argues that there are three possible futures for Middle Eastern studies: first, going back to the Orientalist roots of Middle Eastern studies, as suggested by Kramer. Second, aligning itself with disciplinary theory and method, or, third, using interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary and comparative insights to strengthen the discipline through testing their theories in real-world contexts; thereby freeing disciplinary sciences from their self-inflicted parochialism and western-centrism.

In a forthcoming paper from Pinar, she examines this tense relationship within her work on security studies in the Mediterranean. Through her findings, she shows how parochial limitations of the disciplines of world politics work in action. She also demonstrates how ignoring local voices, elites and otherwise is detrimental to scholarly findings and perspectives. This last point surely would have helped Middle Eastern studies experts anticipate the tidal waves of the Arab Spring.

Last October, Kramer delivered a speech in which he cited the failure of interdisciplinary Middle Eastern studies in predicting the Arab Spring as proof of the superiority of his proposed approach.

Pinar’s argument of focusing more on non-state actors seem to be a more balanced solution that surely would not only have strengthened disciplinary theories, but also helped predict social phenomena, even though prophecies and predictions are not the objective of academic research.

But this tension does not equally affect Middle Eastern studies in all its shades.

There is, of course, a difference in applying theory between the perception of role of theories in soft sciences (history, sociology, anthropology) on the one hand, and in hard social sciences on the other (economics, and psychology).

With the region battered by the tumultuous challenges of our age, Middle Eastern studies is facing increasing challenges, some of which are common with other area studies, like disciplinary analytic pretension. Others are from outside the field, like diminishing funds and ideological attacks by opposing political actors and institutions.

Other challenges are particular, like the politicisation of the field by voices from within and without, something that will surely only become further exacerbated in the next few years.

Further challenges include the dangerous environments in the Middle East and restrictions on academic freedom and freedom of expression.

Listening to the voices of the people and experts from the region itself will help the field put disciplinary theory and method to task.

It can be said that it is these mounting challenges that face this particular field, rather than any claims to the particularism of the region, that are likely to make the field stronger.

Tarek Ghanem is a writer and a commissioning editor at The American University in Cairo Press