Academic Freedom and Middle East Studies

By Colla, Elliott | Academe, September/October 2007 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom and Middle East Studies


Colla, Elliott, Academe


What happened when the campus rabbi tried to send students to disrupt a forum on academic freedom at Brown.

When my colleague Marsha Pripstein Posusney of Bryant College and I organized a workshop, entitled "The Study of the Middle East and Islam: Challenges after 9-11," at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University last spring, I naively assumed it would come off without friction. After all, I thought, we were not even talking about the Middle East-instead, we were addressing the academic context of Middle East studies in this country. Our event brought together a range of scholars and professionals whose work has been challenged since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, including people from academe, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) including the AAUP, university administration, academic publishing, and the U.S. Department of State.

As we planned the workshop, we had no difficulty enumerating the challenges facing the research and teaching of topics related to the Middle East and Islam. On the one hand, there are the new visa restrictions that have made it increasingly difficult to bring students and scholars from the region to U.S. campuses. On the other, there are the growing pressures from outside academe for supervision of Middle East studies curricula and research. Since September 11, a small group of NGOs has argued that the academy has been too critical of U.S. foreign policy and lobbied for congressional oversight of Middle East studies courses. Other NGOs have appointed themselves monitors of university curricula and have vilified instructors deemed to be promoting "dangerous" views in the classroom. Similar pressures have been placed on publishers, making it difficult for some researchers-particularly those whose work addresses the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict-to find outlets, jeopardizing their career advancement.

In our study of the situation, we found that the new challenges were having a mixed impact on Middle East studies research and teaching, in no small part because they appeared concomitantly with an upsurge in interest in Middle East studies. Undeniably, the careers of many of our colleagues have been tragically affected by the coordinated slanders of monitoring groups such as Campus Watch. At the same time, interest and funding for Middle East studies research and teaching have expanded nationally in the last few years-and more Middle East studies scholars are finding employment than ever before. While too many scholars have been deported from or denied entry to this country for what appear to be mere ideological reasons, the number of students studying Arabic, Persian, and Turkish has exploded, and course offerings in Islam and the history and contemporary politics of the Middle East continue to grow across the country.

These new challenges in Middle East studies, I thought, were uncontentious facts. As we were to learn, however, not everyone at Brown University shared our opinion.

Disruption

Some weeks before our conference, we became aware of organized efforts to disrupt our workshop, efforts that involved at least one member of the Brown staff. In a meeting in April, Brown Students for Israel, a pro-Likud "Israel advocacy" group, met with organizers from the David Project and, according to students present at the meeting, our workshop was one of the foci of discussion. The David Project is the organization that played the leading role in surreptitious efforts to record classroom discussions at Columbia University a few years ago and, along with the conservative group Campus Watch, was largely responsible for the vicious ad hominem attacks on Arab and Muslim faculty in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department there. At the campus meeting, Serena Eisenberg, the Hillel rabbi (an employee of the Brown chaplain's office), encouraged students to intervene "confrontationally" at the workshop and to record clandestinely the presentations of the speakers. …

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