Highly impressed by the post-9/11 and post-Iraq cohort to enter the field of Middle East studies, I have been predicting for years that by about 2015 the field will begin evolving in a more mainstream direction. The eccentrics and extremists of yesteryear who dominate academic studies of the region will be replaced by individuals with a greater dose of common sense and ambition.
Today, for the first time that I am aware, someone within the field has gone public with this same observation. Mark Lynch of George Washington University focuses on one important aspect of this transformation, "a flood [of] smart, young veterans" back from Iraq especially but also Afghanistan. Lynch notes some of the differences between them and traditional students:
When they enter academic programs, these veterans will (and already do) bring a great deal of on-the-ground experience to the classroom and to their research. Many will (and do) enter their programs with far more advanced language skills than did earlier generations of students, although perhaps with more familiarity with colloquial spoken dialects than with Modern Standard Arabic (reversing a common traditional pattern). Their point of reference will be (and is) Iraq and the Gulf, not Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, or other areas where a great number of current faculty began their encounters with the region. And they will have much greater familiarity and comfort with military and security issues than do many currently in the field.
Lynch finds that the officers "are all over the map politically and in terms of their intellectual aspirations" and doubts that their main effect on the field will be to push it to the right. Instead, he expects them to bring a bias toward "pragmatism and empiricism, and against any kind of ideological doctrines."
Comments: (1) That prospect sounds great to me. I look forward to the point when pragmatic academics reign and Campus Watch can close down, its work accomplished. (2) Returning veterans are just one-half the story. The other is the larger and more varied cadre of non-military students going into the field as a result of 9/11, individuals who just a decade ago would have shunned it. Their orientation has less to do with Iraq and more to do with Islam. (July 29, 2009)
Aug. 4, 2009 update: For responses from other specialists, see both the comments at Lynch's article and Scott Jaschik, "Shift in Middle East Studies?" at InsideHigherEd.com. Plus Lynch provides more reactions at "Changing Middle East Studies, part 2."
Aug. 11, 2009 update: A "post-9/11 non-veteran student of Islam" writes anonymously (by necessity, given the realities of Middle East studies) to offer an important corrective to Lynch's and my optimism. This student, whom I know personally, argues at "Despite 'Flood of...Veterans,' Drought in Islamic Studies" that the good news in area studies (history, politics, etc.) emphatically does not hold in Islamic studies, where a quite contrary development of da'wa-minded students has emerged in full force. This tend "is comprised of Salafi types who have now found greater funding and resources for the spread rather than the study of Islam in American universities." They go to school, in other words, to enhance their ability to proselytize, not to engage in a scholarly pursuit.
tend to emerge from two related cross-sections of Western society. The first is comprised of first and second generation non-Arab Muslim immigrants in Europe and the UK who, coming from the top universities and educated in both the Islamic and Western traditions, combine these distinct systems of education in their studies with the aim of reviving Islam with a "western flavor". These perhaps are the inheritors of Tariq Ramadan's legacy and tend, more often than not, to enter into Islamic law and hadith/Qur'an studies.
The second is an emerging community in the US comprised of either converts or children of converts, likely entering into Islam as one variation of the "soul/spirituality searches" of America the 1960's. Not surprisingly, their academic interest tends toward Sufism. They generally do not have as great a following, if only because they represent such a specific part of elite, well-educated American society. In their studies, they have "transcended" mere academics and have embraced Islam in all its dimensions. They likely seek to demonstrate, most appropriately in the post-9/11 post-Iraq era, that Islam has no borders, no nationalities, no race, no ethnicities. Nay, even a full-blooded American can be a Muslim!
The writer concludes that by regretting "more veterans are not present in Islamic studies. In their absence, the pragmatic position in Islamic studies is being sustained by such non-veteran 'academic' types who do face the formidable up-hill battle of countering da'wa in the classroom. It would seem, then, that at least for the foreseeable future, Campus Watch will remain critical for the survival of Middle East studies."
Comment: In short, Islamic studies, now dominated by the Left, will progressively become Islamist.