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Gasping for Air

Reader comment on item: The Cowardice of Middle East Studies

Submitted by Reno Deno (United States), May 3, 2019 at 01:26

I must've been one of the last students of Middle Eastern subjects to be trained in the old Orientalist tradition. In 1970, at my level (MA program), regardless of your specialty (or interests), you weren't going to get through the program without having tackled some of the commentaries on Surah Yusuf, have at least some familiarity of Jahiliyya poetry, be able to present a summary of the period, and have read nearly all the extant literature in European languages on Islamic civilization in general: French and English absolutely necessary, German, at least a passing reading knowledge and as I was to find out as my studies progressed, Italian was proving to be increasingly vital, so I quickly picked up a basic working knowledge. Russian would have been nice to but I was already overwhelmed.

Naturally, you were expected to already know another Semitic language depending on your interests – but preferably Hebrew – and at least one additional Islamic language.....Farsi, Urdu, Turkish and so on. All this was just the raw material – the basics, so to speak.

Due to the influence of European literature, especially French and English, on modern Arabic literature, you were expected to already be competent in the literature (which means culture in general) of France and England. Then you could discuss, for instance, why Taha Hussein got his PhD (one of them) at the Sorbonne rather than anyplace else. By "already", I mean, your competence had to have been already acquired before you even applied to grad school. If your knowledge here was weak, there was almost no chance you'd be accepted into the program, even if you had fluent Arabic.

Our guiding luminaries included true scholars like von Grunebaum down at UCLA (of all places), the indefatigable W.M Watt over at Oxford or Cambridge (the one in England, I mean) and some distant Hungarian demigod writing in his unfathomable language, Ignaz Goldziher, one of the founders of the study of Islam in Europe at whom we peered in awe. (To this day, I believe, much of his work remains untranslated, lamentably). They're all gone, now, but their influence remains.

There was no emphasis - you might say there was hardly an acknowledgment - that the modern Middle East existed or held anything of importance for serious study. The colloquials were routinely dismissed as of only passing curiosity and I don't think there were any courses in, say, the politics of the contemporary Middle East. In a lot of ways, the approach was similar, I would say, to what used to happen and still does, with the study of Greek. If you go into Greek studies, you're not going to study what is happening in contemporary Athens or Sparta.....you're going to go back at least 2500 years to study what happened there then.

This all changed starting in the mid to late 1970s when Edward Said came out with his book "Orientalism", vilifying the entire European experience in the Near East and, even more important, when Patricia Crone published her awesome book "Hagarism " challenging pretty much the entire Islamic tradition since it's beginning somewhere and sometime in the 6th – 7th centuries AD.

It was Crone's work, I contend, that began the climate of "fear" that exists today in Middle East studies. The first edition of her book was immediately bought out by some mysterious force and copies were nearly impossible to obtain. A few did make it through the slaughter because occasionally, a copy became available but the asking price was by then in the thousands of dollars, so rare had it become. Even today, a copy in average condition can reach $1000 easily.

Since those days, of course, more than 40 years ago now, there have been countless retributions on publishers, scholars and ordinary citizens world-wide who dare to challenge the accepted tradition of the Islamic experience and scholars have pretty much migrated to less volatile subjects, as Dr.Pipes suggests in his essay. This is the current state of Middle Eastern studies or more precisely Islamic Studies and similarly named specialties. When scholars do continue to work on sensitive subjects, such as the Koran, they almost invariably publish with pseudonyms. It's a sad state of affairs to be sure.

Currently, the field is barely a shadow of what it once was. It used to be, in fact, a calling in the way the priesthood used to be. It's now populated with charlatans and tricksters with questionable competence. Something newsworthy takes place in the Middle East and "experts" crawl out of the woodwork to instruct us as to what is going on. These experts base their competence on a couple of weeks residence in a 5 star hotel in Beirut or Casablanca thereafter anointing themselves as Islamic experts or some such. Yet they don't know the difference between a Mohammad bin Salman, Mohammad bin Nayef and a Malik Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, their relationship and importance. Arabic? Forget it....Possibly a hastily memorized "Salaam 'Alaykum" and that's about it.

I have no idea what the future will hold for the field. But I don't see how it can go much below where it currently finds itself. As it stands, it is pretty much irrelevant and meritless – ultimately uninteresting and consequently attracting 2nd and 3d rate talent, at best.


Note: Opinions expressed in comments are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of Daniel Pipes. Original writing only, please. Comments are screened and in some cases edited before posting. Reasoned disagreement is welcome but not comments that are scurrilous, off-topic, commercial, disparaging religions, or otherwise inappropriate. For complete regulations, see the "Guidelines for Reader Comments".

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Reader comments (5) on this item

Title Commenter Date Thread
1Gasping for Air [884 words]Reno DenoMay 3, 2019 01:26249695
1Remembering John Wansbrough [178 words]dhimmi no moreMay 4, 2019 14:26249695
Exactly the reason why many people don't trust academia. [58 words]DongMay 1, 2019 20:57249669
1I Want Constantinople Back [2 words]David RyanMay 1, 2019 17:39249660
2An opportunity for swashbuckling researchers [153 words]DaveMay 1, 2019 13:43249653

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Note: Opinions expressed in comments are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of Daniel Pipes. Original writing only, please. Comments are screened and in some cases edited before posting. Reasoned disagreement is welcome but not comments that are scurrilous, off-topic, commercial, disparaging religions, or otherwise inappropriate. For complete regulations, see the "Guidelines for Reader Comments".

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