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Commentary: What's MESA's alternative?

By BARRE LUDVIGSEN

HALDEN, Norway, Dec. 2 (UPI) -- In his article "Academia Silent on Militant Islam" in the Nov. 25 issue of Frontpage Magazine, Jonathan Harris decries academics' failure to place issues such as "fundamentalism," "Al Qaida," "Palestinian suicide bombing," "the targeting of civilians," and "anti-American incitement" at the forefront of the Nov. 23-26 MESA conference in Washington.

By way explanation, MESA is the acronym for the Middle East Studies Association of North America, which numbers some 2,600 academics and others interested in that field of education and research. Jonathan Harris is the managing editor of "Campus Watch," a World Wide Web-based project intent on making scholars of Middle East studies see the errors of their ways, which are seen to be at odds with U.S. interests defined as: "strong ties with Israel, Turkey, and other democracies as they emerge; human rights throughout the region; a stable supply and a low price of oil; and the peaceful settlement of regional and international disputes."

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Harris' reasoning is incorrect and self-contradictory. Campus Watch's Web pages explain that much of its concern is due to the "activist" attitudes of a majority of scholars. In his article on the MESA conference, he complains the conference restricts its concern to such irrelevant topics such as "The Rug Producing Bazaaris of the Holy City of Qum," "Ceramic Production & Consumption in Almohad Seville" or "Changes in Religious Celebrations among Moroccan Immigrant Women in the Netherlands."

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If that is so, then there sure can be no need to worry about MESA scholars' subverting American students sensibilities or being a threat to correct U.S. political strategies. It is correct that the MESA conference includes numerous presentation on aspects of life in the Middle East that do not enjoy daily coverage on primetime news. But that is the essential nature of Middle East studies, to understand all aspects of life in that region of the world.

Campus Watch's Web pages complain that the overwhelming majority of academicians in Middle East studies are "activist/scholars" overly concerned with politics but in this article Harris derides them for not concentrating enough on politics.

I have attended the past three MESA conferences including the latest one in Washington to which Harris refers. Although the facts might not be as catchy reading as breezy polemics, the conference program of more than 500 speaker is not all parched scholarship and deserves more attention than that given by Harris.

Here are some examples from the first day; a panel under the title "Political Islam in a Comparative Perspective:" Emad Shahin, American University in Cairo, "Moderation and Radicalism of Political Islam;" Iliya Harik, Indiana University, "Between Islam and Democracy;" Robert Kevin Jaques, Indiana University; "Islamic Legal Interpretations and Responses to the September 11 Attack" and Nazif Shahrani, Indiana University, "State and Political Islam in Afghanistan and Post-Soviet Uzbekistan."

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The rest of that first day continued with sessions such as a panel on "Views of the Other in Israeli and Palestinian Textbooks," a roundtable on "Water Issues and Debates," a thematic conversation: "September 11 and the Muslim Public Sphere," "Middle East Studies in the Wake of September 11: Comparing Perspectives from the Middle East, Europe, Canada, and the United States," "Economic reforms, Democratization and External Relations: The Case of Yemen, 1995-the Present," "State-Building in the Gulf," "Media and Politics" (covering the recent closing of Murr TV in Lebanon and Al Jazeera's rise to prominence after Sept. 11), "Problems of Science and Modernity in the Middle East" (focusing on Turkey and Egypt - both important U.S. allies in the Middle East), "Where is the Palestinian Problem Heading in the Post-September 11 Environment?" and "Afghanistan and the 'War on Terror.'"

All topics that cover most of the subjects Harris felt were "conspicuous by their absence from the meeting" if not in title, then surely in content.

It's worth noting that while MESA traditionally concentrates on history and linguistics, Harris might be more successful in finding his more lurid topics at the center of debate at Middle East section of the American Anthropological Association's conference, which was held just a couple of days before MESA, in New Orleans.

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The overwhelming majority of Middle East scholars are not only well trained to understand and analyze both cultural and political trends in the region, they are often well-traveled and speak its languages. In order to understand the conflicts both within the region and with the world outside, its culture both contemporary and historical needs to be learnt and understood. The MESA conference is a forum where not only established scholars discuss ongoing research, but an environment in which emerging scholars present their studies, exchange ideas and seek new opportunities. But from what I hear from attendees at the AAA conference, many scholars of anthropology are averse to presenting their thoughts on such subject because they are constantly taunted, insulted, and interrupted in class by students representing the far right of Israeli and U.S. Jewish opinion.

Other reports of such incidents have emerged in the media in connection with public appearances by people representing both sides of the conflict over the Palestinian territories.

Surely Harris' intention in his article is to inspire discussion, debate and analysis on the subjects that give rise to "fundamentalism," "Al Qaida," "Palestinian suicide bombing," "the targeting of civilians," and "anti-American incitement" in order to attain a fundamental understanding of why these phenomena occur. Or is it to admonish "taxpayers and university donors" to withdraw their support for the building of such knowledge? What would then be the alternative science that among other things would ensure "human rights throughout the region; a stable supply and a low price of oil; and the peaceful settlement of regional and international disputes?"

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(Barre Ludvigsen is professor of informatics at Ostfold University College in Halden, Norway. He is also editor and builder of the Al Mashriq Web site (http://almashriq.hiof.no/.)

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