Cluster-Bombs and Sandcastles: Kramer on the Future of Middle East Studies in America

By Brynen, Rex | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Cluster-Bombs and Sandcastles: Kramer on the Future of Middle East Studies in America


Brynen, Rex, The Middle East Journal


Book Reviews

Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, by Martin Kramer. Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001. x + 130 pages. Appendix to p. 131. Index to p. 137. $19.95 paper.

Martin Kramer's Ivory Towers on Sand is nothing if not blunt. According to Kramer, the field of Middle East studies has, in America at least, proven an abject failure:

... the boosterism of [the Middle East Studies Association] could not conceal the failure of the men and women who had led Middle Eastern studies for more than twenty years. They had erred in assessing the politics and societies of the Middle East. They had fenced themselves from effective interaction with government. They had cut themselves off from the general public. They had even lost the confidence of their colleagues in the disciplinary departments and their old friends in the foundations. Academic Middle Eastern studies had become irrelevant to everyone beyond them .... Middle Eastern studies under the post-orientalists had become a remote enclave of esoteric and irrelevant endeavor, resting on an ever-narrowing base of moral support (pp. 116-17).

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001 - as the world has sought to respond to brutal and unprecedented terrorist attacks against New York and Washington, DC - such a critique has particular resonance. So that his point would be disseminated even more widely, Kramer also penned an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, which appeared on the eve of the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). In it, he lambasted what he saw as MESA's unwillingness to issue a statement decrying terrorism and supporting the use of military force in response.1 More broadly, he complained once more of a "sick discipline - one that did nothing to prepare America for the encounter with Muslim extremism, and that can't do anything to contribute to its defense."'2 American scholars of the Middle East, he argued, "are part of the problem, not its remedy." Official Washington, he urged, should ignore their input and end federal subsidies for existing Middle East studies programs.

Not surprisingly, Kramer's book, and even more so his op-ed, struck a raw nerve. The Philadelphia Inquirer described the book as a "cluster bomb" of a polemic.3 The Chronicle of Higher Education devoted an online colloquy to it. The merits and demerits of Kramer's case were intensely debated on academic e-mail lists and in corridor discussions among colleagues. The past, present, and future presidents of MESA wrote to the Wall Street Journal, complaining that Kramer had set an unfair standard of predictive capacity that no discipline, including Middle East studies, was able to meet:

Following the logic of Dr. Kramer's analysis the U.S. government should stop any support for the study of U.S. history or political science since neither of the professional academic organizations associated with these subjects predicted the blowing up of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City or the current bioterrorist anthrax attack on "liberals" in the media and government.4

Their unpublished letter also complained that Kramer had attacked the notion of independent scholarship ("a form of free expression which is ... one of the liberties that make America great"), miscast MESA, and systematically misrepresented the purposes and activities of the organization.

Kramer raises a number of important points about the state of the art, about the nature of the field, about the influence of fads and ideological preference, and about the interrelationship between scholarship and public policymaking. However, he does so in a fashion that is at times injudicious, exaggerated, incoherent, selective in the evidence he cites, and so blind to key elements of his topic that he fails to make a productive or credible contribution. Instead, one is presented with a rather distorted and artificially-constructed portrayal of existing scholarship - leaving one unclear whether Kramer is challenging real "ivory towers on sand," or cluster-bombing sandcastles of his own construction.

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