The Question of Middle Eastern Studies

By Alexander, Nathan | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Question of Middle Eastern Studies


Alexander, Nathan, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


READING THROUGH THE LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS, NOT a month after the World Trade Towers in New York City were reduced to smoking ash and twisted steel, I was not unnerved by the reactions contained therein. That one erudite scholar was unable to determine whether the bombings amounted to an "event" or not (his quotations); or that another found himself quaking in fear less at the bombings themselves than "at the words of George Bush," was all to be expected. Most of the commentators were not specialists on the Middle East. They were art critics, experts on sexuality, novelists, and a reader of the works of Jean-Paul Sartre. Years of jousting with words sometimes renders their distinction from things a matter of ontological convenience. The wisdom of "sticks and stones..." would set in sooner or later. A British journal, the LRB could hardly be expected to represent American interests anyway. A more sober assessment of the events of 9/11 might surely be found among American experts, whose wisdom would more clearl y illuminate the turgid logics of the perpetrators of this terrible deed.

Or perhaps not. This is the extraordinary thesis of Martin Kramer, whose Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America argues that, in the last thirty years, Middle Eastern Studies Departments have become some of the least useful places for understanding America's relation to the Islamic World. An odd form of "Orientalism," Kramer argues, has blinded American scholars of the Middle East, preventing them from foreseeing any of the major upheavals that have shaken the region from the discipline's origin during the late forties. Today this scholarship is threatened with dogmatism and, consequently, political irrelevance. Kramer's criticisms are sharp and his outlook pessimistic.

Middle Eastern Studies in America have been dominated by three paradigmatic ways of viewing the region. The first emerged in the early sixties and evolved around the assumptions of "modernization" and "development." Born of the optimism of postwar America, they lent themselves handily to larger American projects and interests in the third world and defined a trajectory in which the Middle East was assumed to evolve along with the rest of the world. Drawing on Daniel Lerner's The Passing of Traditional Society, scholarship attempted to chart the Middle East's necessary path towards "secularization, urbanization, industrialization and popular participation." (1) More bluntly, as Lerner put it, "What the West is ... the Middle East [sought] to become." (2)

Consequently, the early sixties saw a proliferation of studies on the prescriptions of modernity. The vicissitudes of capitalism and pluralism in Lebanon were monitored, as was the fermentation of liberalism in the Iranian monarchy. Political scientists "waxed enthusiastic over the constitutional mediation of intergroup relations" in Lebanon. To one coterie of admirers, Lebanon's political system was not merely exemplary of the ways of the west. It was perhaps a model. It was a "ward politics writ large, tying together town and country, rich and poor and guaranteeing an admirable stability." (3) Islam, whatever that was, was always something, to the first generation of Middle Eastern Scholars, about to be overcome. It was an unspoken confusion thwarting greater literacy, an obstinacy preventing communication with the west, a difficulty which, in its historical potency, prevented "them" from becoming "us."

Lebanon's political disintegration and collapse into civil war, and the rise of fundamentalist revolution in Iran took Middle Eastern Scholars by complete surprise and forced a reassessment of the Modernization paradigm. Yet despite its theoretical failure, as a discipline, Middle Eastern Studies achieved great institutional success. While its outlook might have been flawed, it remained loosely affiliated with broader American interests in the third world and this bound it to American political interests in general: "The Founders knew that Americans divide the world into strategic areas and that strategy played a more important role in American perception than either culture or religion. …

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