Tomorrow, January 24, 2004, marks the Middle East Forum's tenth-year anniversary.
Thinking that this is a good moment to review the Forum's development over the decade, I'd like briefly to recall our beginnings and provide an overview of our current efforts, all in the context of current Middle East issues.
Why did we start this organization on that memorably icy day in January 1994? Because we saw a gap and sought to fill it. That was just four months after the Oslo accords, a time when most specialists and policy-makers were wearing rosy-tinted glasses – prophesying an Arab-Israeli peace breakthrough, subsiding radicalism in the Middle East, enhanced economic co-operation, and so on.
We were skeptical and made this known from the outset, pioneered issues and points of view, such as the bad faith of the Palestinian leadership; the Syrian regime's unwillingness to conclude a peace agreement with Israel; the threat of militant Islam against America and the West. The inaugural issue of our journal, the Middle East Quarterly, caused a mild sensation in March 1994 with a lead article by Hilal Khashan asking the unseemly question, "Are the Arabs Ready for Peace With Israel?"
And here are two examples from my own writing:
Within days of the Oslo accord signing on the White House, I wrote that "Mr. Arafat has merely adopted a flexible approach to fit circumstances, saying whatever needed to be said to survive. The PLO has not had a change of heart – merely a change of policy…enabling it to stay in business until Israel falters, when it can deal a death blow."
In 1995, I wrote, "Unnoticed by most Westerners, war has been unilaterally declared [by militant Islam] on Europe and the United States."
Today, this outlook is widely accepted. Back then, it was not and we set out to invigorate the public debate by promoting a new and sound definition of American interests, addressing issues that others neglected, publishing a journal in which those topics could be examined, and taking advantage of our location outside Washington, D.C. to look at the larger picture and bring fresh perspectives on policy.
Our start was modest; Al Wood, Amy Shargel, and I conjured up the Forum while sitting around my kitchen table. We had $25,000 in the bank; one secretary; and we worked for reduced or no salary. We worked the first six months out of a "home office" – my house. My dining room, study, children's room, and guest room served as MEF world headquarters. Those early days demanded endless hours and involved some rough moments as we forwarded a more skeptical approach to the Middle East. Frankly, this doubtful approach had a tough time getting heard.
Today, the issues that galvanized us ten years ago – such as militant Islam's jihad against the United States, the persistence of Palestinian hostility to Israel, the unacceptability of Saddam Hussein's rule, the need to address Syrian adventurism, and the danger posed by Islamist groups operating in the United States – are among the dominant the national U.S. political issues. Our work is no longer a somewhat arcane specialist's concern but the vital area of foreign policy (and, increasingly, domestic policy too). We no longer need to worry about getting heard. The challenge now is to find enough hours in the day to get all the work done.
Operationally, things have also changed dramatically. No more lugging files up and down three flights of steps. Currently located in downtown Philadelphia, we recently expanded our office to accommodate a growing staff that now numbers fifteen, plus student interns (fifteen on-site and five off-site this past summer). We raised almost $1 million in 2003. The Forum now boasts boards in four cities (Boston, Cleveland and New York, in addition to Philadelphia), with plans for a fifth in Los Angeles.
Have we succeeded? While much remains to be accomplished, the Forum's voice is heard in a wide range of circles, governmental, media, and academic, as the following suggests:
Research & Publications
Publishing – books, features, columns – was from the beginning essential to our work. After 9/11, interest in our work increased dramatically and with it opportunities to publish. My own writing reflects this interest, with two books out in two years (Militant Islam Reaches America and Miniatures), a weekly column that appears in a number of newspapers and regularly translated into 6-8 languages, and a web-log.
The Middle East Quarterly, now edited by Martin Kramer, continues to be a cutting-edge journal, bridging the scholarly and public divide. We have placed a wide range of the highest profile leaders, diplomats and scholars under the microscope: interviewees in the Quarterly over the years have ranged from Tariq Aziz to Yitzhak Shamir. In addition to the Quarterly, we now co-publish the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, edited by Gary Gambill, and have an active listserv, MEFnews.
Our four websites – www.meforum.org, www.Campus-Watch.org, www.MEIB.org, and www.DanielPipes.org – attract an astounding 3 to 4 million readers a year – by far the highest number for any organization providing Middle East-focused information.
Public lecture series. From the beginning, we sought to advance public understanding of the Middle East by sponsoring lively programs with leading figures. Today these events take place in four cities – the Robert Guzzardi Lecture Series in Philadelphia, the Middle East Briefings in New York, and programs in Boston and Cleveland—and often receive coverage from television and print media. Our programs have included heads of state, leaders of the opposition, and leaders of the opposition who are now in power, as well as a wide array of American politicians and analysts.
College Campuses. There is of course much about the Forum today that stands no comparison to ten years ago. An example is Campus Watch (CW), an initiative in operation only 17 months that exposes lapses in professionalism in Middle East studies in North American universities, especially its guild, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). The subject of a front page article in the January 13, 2004 issue of the Washington Post, CW focuses on five areas: analytical failures; the mixing of politics with scholarship; intolerance of alternative views; apologetics; and the abuse of power over students. Staffed by Jonathan Harris and Asaf Romirowsky, CW's influence has provoked this lament from a Middle East writer in the Lebanese Daily Star "You can't mention MESA without mentioning its nemesis: Campus Watch."
Our efforts have caught on among college students who frequently report their travails to us, ask for guidance in dealing with the radicalized faculty, or contact our Campus Speakers Bureau to invite MEF staff to give talks. In addition, students at Yale and Brandeis have formed MEF Clubs, adopting the MEF mission statement as their own in an effort to bring more balanced voices to their campuses.
Our success has made us the target of much hostility; and while this is not pleasant, especially given its crude nature, the name-calling, and the inaccuracies, noisy opposition has given us much publicity and thus an unprecedented opportunity to get our views heard. Two examples from 2003 illustrate this point:
- In January, when I was invited at York University in Toronto, Palestinian, Islamist, and far left groups tried to prevent me from speaking, prompting not just an immense security operation (one hundred security personnel, including Royal Canadian Mounted Police actually on horseback) but national coverage across Canada of my message.
- In April, when President Bush nominated me to the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Council on American-Islamic Relations led a campaign of vilification that led to hundreds of publications about my views and culminated in my being Borked by Ted Kennedy, then recess appointed by the president.
Another interesting indication of this visibility; I am one of the very few analysts in any field with over 100,000 citations at google.com.
In a decade we have come a long way, from the periphery to center stage, from humble beginnings to a multifaceted operation.
Two things alone determine our success and future impact: our elbow-grease and the resources supporters make available to us.
In closing, I thank those who have made the MEF's work possible through generous funding motivated by a far-sighted concern with some of the most dangerous issues facing the United States. Bolstered by the confidence in us, we remain determined to promote American interests and to face the challenges in the next decade.