Letters to the Editor: Middle Eastern Studies: What Went Wrong?
The following consist of letters from readers and a replies from Norvell B. De Atkine and Daniel Pipes.
To the Editor:
Virtually all the points made by Norvell B. De Atkine and Daniel Pipes in their article "Middle Eastern Studies: What Went Wrong?" (Winter 1995-96) are correct and well taken, but the essay itself betrays—subtly and I suspect quite unintentionally—the very bias toward Israel that has driven so many to the extremes of which the authors complain. Israel is certainly part of the Middle East, yet nowhere in their study do the authors criticize those writing in support of the Jewish state, many of whom demonstrate the same failings, distortions, and ad hominem nastiness rightfully condemned in pro-Arab leftist writers. As an example, every time I write or publicly say anything that is even remotely critical of Israel (and I am most emphatically not sympathetic to the Left or to Islam) I am immediately branded an antisemite, a common practice in Middle Eastern studies of which the authors make no mention. The strong implication of this article is that, in Middle Eastern studies, only those hostile to Israel and American policy in the region are subject to these failings, which is of course manifestly untrue and hardly makes this essay a model of scholarly objectivity.
Richard M. Berthold
Associate Professor of Classical History
The University of New Mexico,
To the Editor:
How disillusioning it is to find in the pages of Academic Questions the very kind of tendentious misrepresentation of evidence that the NAS has sought to combat. At least two such violations of scholarly standards appear in the article, "Middle Eastern Studies: What Went Wrong?"
Under the subhead "Apologies for Islamism" (65), the authors state (the word in brackets is their addition): "Of this deeply radical and anti-American movement, John Alden Williams of the College of William and Mary writes that Americans 'must become aware that these people [Islamists] are not our enemies, but our partners and potential friends, who can be talked to and who can be understood.'" As can quickly be established by consulting the article by Professor Williams, where the quoted words originally appeared, however, he was unmistakably referring not to Islamist extremists but rather to the world-wide population of a billion-some Muslims.
Similarly misleading is the use made in the article of Professor James A. Bill's words. Under the subhead "Friendly to Enemies of the United States" (68), De Atkine and Pipes assert that "Anti-Americanism often implies a soft spot for the enemies of the United States. This goes far to explain why specialists overwhelmingly show sympathy for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Some go further and take its side in controversies with the United States….James Bill of William and Mary pays homage to its 'tenacious and courageous performance.'" Yet here, too, recourse to the quoted words as they originally appeared quickly reveals misrepresentation, since Professor Bill was describing the Iranian army's resistance to the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, not siding with the Islamic Republic in a controversy with the United States.
To suggest groundlessly, either through malicious intent or wanton carelessness, that American scholars are anti-American or friendly toward enemies of the United States is libelous. To do so on the basis of misrepresented quotations is antithetical to the standards for which the NAS stands. In failing to catch the defamatory aspersions of De Atkine and Pipes prior to their publication, the editors of Academic Questions have apparently forgotten that eternal vigilance is the price of scholarly integrity.
Henry Ashby Turner, Jr.
New Haven, Connecticut
To the Editor:
"Middle Eastern Studies: What Went Wrong?" by Norvell De Atkine and Daniel Pipes should have been titled "Middle Eastern Studies: What Went Wrong for De Atkine and Pipes?" Its offensive language and sophomoric analysis undermine the mission of Academic Questions: "Utilizing the best of scholarly analysis to expose how the established voices of the academy often speak in tones that are self-congratulatory rather than self-critical." Is the following indictment of all Middle Easterners an example of "scholarly analysis": "The lead author's experience as an instructor in military schools leads him to conclude that it is very difficult to have a critical discussion of controversial Middle Eastern issues with Middle Easterners at present" (70). On another page, the authors state that "given the difficulty of gauging public opinion, scholars should present their sweeping generalizations as speculations and not as conclusions drawn from hard evidence"! (62)
De Atkine and Pipes attack more than forty scholars of the Middle East, accusing them of everything from anti-Americanism to interjecting personal views in "what purports to be reasoned academic analysis." As an example of the latter, they mention my essay "War's Havoc in Saudi Arabia and Iran" in which I maintained that a U.S. war with Iraq would lead to upheavals in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Confidently, De Atkine and Pipes inform the readers of Academic Questions that "of course, these predictions proved completely wrong."
Since the Gulf War ended in 1991, the widely reported riotings in major Iranian cities in 1991, an assassination attempt on President Rafsanjani who supported neutrality for Iran, a massive car bombing of a U.S.-run military training center in Saudi Arabia in 1995 that killed five Americans and wounded sixty, and uprisings in the Persian Gulf country of Bahrain where the American naval fleet is stationed have nothing to do with a Gulf War that cost the region $676 billion in 1990 and 1991, not counting vast damage done to the environment and a continuing drop in the rate of economic growth in the region (New York Times, 23 April 1993)....
Obviously, De Atkine and Pipes assumed that Academic Questions' readers are not that informed about publications on the Middle East. Those readers should see how De Atkine and Pipes write about the same subject differently, depending on the journal. In Academic Questions, they accuse American scholars of the Middle East of offering "glib and facile defense of Islamic movements who seek to impose their totalitarian ideology on as many people as possible." According to De Atkine and Pipes, "the intolerant and polarizing aspects of fundamentalist Islam need to be challenged" (66, emphasis added).
But, in another journal, (Parameter; Spring 1996, 138), Mr. De Atkine praises the work of Graham Fuller, A Sense of Seige: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West, for being "succinct and highly readable" for political-military planners and operators. "The author recognizes that there is little we can do to prevent Islamic takeovers of states that are failing in their obligations to the populace" (emphasis added). For those who are reading Parameter; De Atkine is not offering "a glib and facile defense of Islamic movements," but for those who are reading Academic Questions, more than ten scholars are accused of doing service to the "enemies of the United States"!
Finally, in an article that attacks more than forty scholars, as well as a professional association that has over 3,000 student/faculty members, De Atkine and Pipes ask what can be done to remedy the situation. "Scholars need more contact with the life outside the academy," and "the university world has become so large and remote from the country that professors have come predominantly to write for each other." These sophomoric statements demonstrate that De Atkine and Pipes have not thought seriously about how Middle Eastern studies can be reformed.
University of Maine, Orono
To the Editor:
Norvell B. De Atkine and Daniel Pipes have attacked in these pages dozens of the leading scholars in Middle Eastern studies, often citing only a sentence or even a phrase to criticize them for their "pronounced leftist bias and a proclivity toward apologetics for enemies of the U.S."
Though flattered to be in such good company, I was puzzled as to why I was included. De Atkine and Pipes quote me, from a 1994 article in Middle East Journal that criticizes the PLO's support of Saddam, as stating that Ariel Sharon is "no less brutal than Saddam." In fact, my entire sentence is "surely, Sharon was, as Palestinians pointed out, no less brutal than Saddam." Preceding this sentence is an explanation of how in the summer of 1990 West Bank and Gaza Palestinians compared Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, which resulted in some 600 Kuwaiti deaths, to Sharon's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which resulted in about 18,000 deaths, 84 percent of whom were civilians, including 900 massacred at Sabra and Shatila camps.
Even if I thought and wrote that Sharon was the soul mate of Saddam, why would that make me into a leftist apologist for the enemies of the U.S.? Surely criticizing Sharon is not anti-American? More to the point is that De Atkine and Pipes misquoted me, and one wonders how many of the four dozen scholars were similarly treated. Incidentally, no one who knows scholars such as Gary Sick, Shibley Talhami, Richard W. Bulliet, and Lisa Anderson would consider them apologists or leftists, but then when one like Pipes (I do not know De Atkine) is on the far right, everyone must seem to be a leftist.
The Institute for Palestine Studies
To the Editor:
For Academic Questions to have published an article like "Middle Eastern Studies: What Went Wrong?" is deeply discreditable. Anything that may have "gone wrong" with Middle Eastern studies in America is certainly due far less to any of the obscure causes that the authors contrive to hint at than to fifty years of relentless politicizing by ideologues like De Atkine and Pipes themselves. Their preposterous suggestion that disagreement with whatever may be the views of the regime currently in power in Washington means "disloyalty" is an outrage unworthy of utterance in any American context, but especially an academic one. It is also an assault on precisely those Constitutional principles for the sake of which one has hitherto been happy to support the NAS.
Les Martys, France
To the Editor:
It was a bit breathtaking to find an entire academic profession condemned utterly in "Middle Eastern Studies: What Went Wrong?" Those venturing to engage in such academic slash-and-burn tactics, one would suppose, must be armed with impeccable credentials. I was unfamiliar with the work of Norvell De Atkine, so I searched the catalogues of the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. To my surprise, I found not a single reference.
Daniel Pipes's writings, on the other hand, are easy to find. He publishes his own journal (from which this article was recycled). It is, in fact, so easy to find examples of his views that he might be expected to be cautious of accusing others. But not so.
In this article, Mr. Pipes deplores the fact that "evaluations by academics often derive more from personal predilection than from scholarly inquiry." He also complains that Middle East scholars "tend to speak on behalf of vast populations" without rigorous proof, and that "ungrounded assumptions are sometimes exposed."
ITEM: USA Today, 20 April 1995 [an interview about the bombing that day in Oklahoma City]:
The West is "under attack," says Daniel Pipes, editor of the Middle East Quarterly. "People need to understand that this is just the beginning. The fundamentalists are on the upsurge, and they make it very clear that they are targeting us. They are absolutely obsessed with us."
At another point in the article, referring to writings on Lebanon, he says: "The celebration of bloodshed is an...offense against civilized intellectual discourse."
ITEM: The Charlie Rose Show, 22 March 1995 [on the subject of Algeria]:
DANIEL PIPES: Hafez al-Assad of Syria killed twenty, thirty thousand fundamentalists, and he's there 14 years later. And it could work here [in Algeria], too. I don't want to condone it or encourage it, but this is a civil war, and we've got to pick our side, and I prefer the killers who are not going to then turn against us to the killers who are then going to turn against us.
Mr. Pipes and his associate lament ad hominem attacks, and then proceed to attack personally, and by selective quotation, anyone in the field who disagrees with their own views. Presumably the editors of this article were aware that they were publishing a parody, for in a few brief pages the authors manage to commit every sin that they pretend to denounce.
If we really wish to understand what is wrong with Middle East studies, this article is an excellent place to begin.
Gary G. Sick
New York, NY
Colonel De Atkine Responds:
Good golly, the Middle Eastern specialist class has had its holy writs questioned! How dare one challenge the conventions of those gurus? Our article aspired to serve notice on an academic community that too often has abrogated its scholarly standards in the quest of political correctness and an elitist countercultural stance. The academy continues to speak to itself while ignoring the outside world. If it wishes to be taken seriously by others, it might start by admitting the existence of the problems the article discussed—and that the replies published here so amply reinforce.
Professor Berthold charges our article with being unbalanced and places its argument solely within the context of the Arab-Israeli debate. But the issue runs much deeper than that foreign policy dispute. I support the right of Americans to challenge the notion that Israeli and U.S. national interests coincide; I worry about a widespread elitist disdain for all things American that prevails in much of academia.
Dr. Turner objects to my inserting the word "Islamists" in brackets to a citation from Professor John Williams. I added the word not to misrepresent Professor Williams's argument but to make it understandable in the context of the article. Dr. Turner seems to think the thrust of the article is about Muslims in general, not about Islamists in particular. I say the two are not so sharply distinguishable, either in this article (1) or in life (2). You judge:
(1) The article. Professor Williams clearly indicates he is writing his article about the resurgent political power of Islam:
Islam is first a religion, and it has never recognized any natural division between church and state, between religion and politics. And Islam today is vibrant and revitalized. This must have political consequences.
He tells of threats he received from Muslims as an American in the Middle East:
If you aren't afraid of God, aren't you at least afraid of what we may do to you someday?
Professor Williams also points out that
one of the astonishing political, cultural and religious facts of our time is that Islam has been revived and is a force again in the last quarter of the 20th century.
Quite correctly he writes of Islam in terms of power:
Today Islam is resurgent. We must be conscious now of the historical phenomenon of Islam.
Together, these and other statements suggest that Professor Williams was writing about Islamists.
(2) Life. I have the greatest respect for Islam as a religion and for those who adhere to its tenets. I especially find the tenacity and strength of Muslim belief in the rightness of their faith a dramatic and refreshing contrast to the New Age relativism so prevalent in Western churches.
But I have had some personal experiences with what Professor Williams delicately calls "resurgent" Islam, and I find this rather less attractive. I sat about thirty feet away from Anwar Sadat in October 1981 as he was gunned down in the name of Islam. I looked into the impassive face of an assassin as he emptied a magazine of ammunition into a pile of bodies on the reviewing stand. I later learned that these fanatics not only did not see themselves as fundamentalists but that they denied that the vast bulk of Egyptians, including Sadat himself, were worthy of the name "Muslim."
More than a decade later I had a close professional relationship with an ex-Egyptian army officer and a veteran of the Afghan war against the Russians, someone who denied that he was a radical fundamentalist, or a visceral anti-American. But that relationship led me to the witness chair of a New York district court in July 1995, where I found myself a reluctant witness subpoenaed by one of the men (Sayyid Ali Nossair) convicted in the World Trade Center bombing trial. Again, not one of those people on trial accepted the characterization of "Fundamentalist" or "Islamist." Rather, they claimed to be simple, devout Muslims.
These and other experiences deriving from years of study and observations in the Middle East led me to conclude that Western officials, journalists, and academics may use terms to distinguish "bad" from "good" Muslims, but Muslims themselves reject these terms. I have also learned that downplaying the aggressive impetus of the self-styled Islamic movement is dangerously naive.
I appreciate the depth and breadth of Professor Williams's knowledge (and indicated as much in a letter to the editor published in a subsequent issue of the same periodical). I disagree with him on the mutual compatibility of Islamism and Western political culture. I believe that real give-and-take is not possible with those who see themselves as warriors for Islam; the only common ground is surrender by ourselves.
Professor Pipes Responds:
Six letters, two constructive and four aggressive, take issue with "Middle Eastern Studies: What Went Wrong?"
Professor Berthold starts by saying that "Virtually all the points" in the article "are correct and well taken." But he then goes on to draw implications that lead him to deem the article hardly "a model of scholarly objectivity." How does a correct piece of writing have biased implications? Perhaps the inconsistency lies in Berthold's confusing the scholarly arena with the public one. Yes, an anti-Israel public record prompts a sharp retort in the press or the voting booth. But the subject of our article is the world of Middle Eastern scholarship—a world that Berthold, a classical historian, presumably does not inhabit. There, the rules are different. In the rarified circles of Middle East specialists, far from getting one in trouble, a strong bias against Israel (as well as other allies of the United States) wins one a bounty of rewards.
I am responsible for the quote of James A. Bill that Professor Turner cites. Yes, Bill praises Iran's "tenacious and courageous performance" against Iraqi forces, and he does so in the context of what he calls the U.S. government's having "tilted noticeably toward Iraq" (202). Thus is Bill friendly to enemies of the United States.
The other four respondents all resort to name calling. Baktiari twice labels De Atkine's and my work as "sophomoric," Mattar dismisses me as "far right," Robenbeck rages against our "preposterous" ideas, and Sick calls our article a "parody." Our article contained no offensive language, and I would have hoped that our critics could have restrained themselves. That they could not, but had to resort to ad hominem language, betrays the weakness of their arguments.
Turning to specifics. Baktiari defends his prediction that Desert Storm would lead to upheavals in Iran and Saudi Arabia by listing some problems those countries have suffered over the past seven years. To which I offer two rebuttals: (1) His 17 December 1990 article warned Americans that they would pay a terrible price for going to war against Saddam Hussein, a prediction that turned out to be, as we said in the piece, completely wrong. (2) Baktiari's letter deceptively implies that those who advocated extirpating Saddam's forces from Kuwait imagined this to be a panacea for the region's many problems; in fact, it was seen as a way to deal with a short-term threat to U.S. interests, nothing more.
Mattar claims to have been "misquoted." But where? We noted that he deems Ariel Sharon "no less brutal than Saddam." He presents the preceding seven words: "surely, Sharon was, as Palestinians pointed out, no less brutal than Saddam." Mattar does not disagree with us that he, in his own words, made the odious comparison of Sharon with Saddam. The extra words only establish that he reported Palestinian agreement with his views.
Robenbeck labors under two mistaken impressions: that our criticism was on behalf of the "regime currently in power in Washington" and that, in contravention of the First Amendment, we seek to silence dissent. Both points are plain silly. We both express our own views and speak up when we disagree with the Clinton administration, which in my case is often enough. Second, Robenbeck should reread the U.S. Constitution, where he will find that the Bill of Rights states, "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech." It says nothing about private citizens' criticizing other citizens. He can rest assured that we advocate responsible scholarship, not censorship.
Finally, there's the special case of poor Gary Sick. For many years he enjoyed high repute as an analyst and his views carried weight in such precincts as the White House and the Ford Foundation. I counted myself among his admirers; in a 1985 book review I praised All Fall Down, his account of the fall of the shah of Iran and the hostage crisis, as "wise, even profound." Then one of Lyndon LaRouche's mad-cap conspiracy theories mesmerized Sick—about Candidate Ronald Reagan's colluding in 1980 with Iranian mullahs to keep American hostages in Iran, thereby stealing the election from Jimmy Carter—and Sick has since never been the same.
LaRouche first propounded this thesis in late 1980, and it quickly attracted a crackpot cult. But it remained on the fringes until April 1991, when Sick, in a nearly full-page analysis in the New York Times, somberly endorsed it. Sick's credibility now caused leading television shows to devote hours to the subject, national weeklies to make it the topic of cover stories, and Jimmy Carter to call for an investigation. A January 1992 poll showed 55 percent of Americans believing Sick's allegations to be true and just 34 percent finding them false. Building on this response, Sick made this conspiracy theory the centerpiece of his work, writing a book titled October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan (New York: Times Books, 1991) and reportedly taking a retainer from Oliver Stone to help prepare a movie treatment on the subject.
But then several investigative reporters established beyond reasonable doubt that the October Surprise was fantasy, and the two congressional inquiries further confirmed these conclusions. Sick, now hopelessly mired in conspiratorial thinking, stuck to his guns and, even after its disproof, continued to insist on the validity of the October Surprise. Our article devoted a paragraph to this case; note that Sick in his letter says not a word in defense of these shameful calumnies.
Instead, he attacks me for my comments. Well, what did I say that was so bad? On the day of the Oklahoma City bombing, when news reports indicated a Middle Eastern connection, I noted that while fundamentalists had already attacked Americans (an allusion to the World Trade Center and the drive-by shooting of Hasidic students), the assault had just begun. Subsequent acts of violence (most recently, the rampage of a Palestinian fundamentalist atop the Empire State building) would seem to confirm this observation.
Sick then quotes me as saying that "The celebration of bloodshed is an...offense against civilized intellectual discourse." Hmmm. What's wrong with that?
Almost as uncontroversial is my comment about Algeria and Syria. The Middle East often presents Americans with a Hobson's choice (the Iraq-Iran war, for example) and I suggested that, because we often must side with one party, we should prefer the one that threatens us less. In Algeria and Syria, this means working more with the government than the fundamentalist opposition. What's the alternative? Preferring the side that threatens us more?
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