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The Hijacking of Middle East Studies

Funded by the federal government to improve U.S. national security, Middle East studies centers have become hotbeds of anti-American and anti-Israel activism

Asaf Romirowsky
Alex Joffe
November 04, 2022
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
CUNY students at a protest demanding that the CUNY university system divest from IsraelAndrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Few trends in academia are more depressing than the continued domination of Middle Eastern studies departments by postcolonial professors whose shtick involves recycling cliched attacks on the United States as the “Great Satan” and Israel as the “Little Satan.” The results of this trend are evident in faculty antipathy toward Israel, which is increasingly playing out in their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

This reached a new pinnacle in March 2022 when the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) voted to formally support an academic boycott of Israeli universities. “Our members have cast a clear vote to answer the call for solidarity from Palestinian scholars and students experiencing violations of their right to education and other human rights,” MESA’s president, Eve Troutt Powell, wrote of the resolution. “MESA’s Board will work to honor the will of its members and ensure that the call for an academic boycott is upheld without undermining our commitment to the free exchange of ideas and scholarship.”

MESA, which has more than 2,800 members and more than 50 institutional members, describes itself as a “private, non-profit learned society that brings together scholars, educators and those interested in the study of the region from all over the world.” Academic Middle East studies departments are crucial in the development of American students’—and by extension the American public’s—views of the Middle East. It is also the mechanism that informs and helps shape U.S. policymakers, from the State Department to the military and intelligence communities. MESA’s vote to boycott Israeli academics and institutions puts scholars on notice that professional acceptance in the organization now demands that they discriminate against individuals on the basis of their national, ethnic, and religious origins.

Part of MESA’s decision to boycott Israel is explained in a new report from the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a conservative nonprofit organization that advocates for academic freedom, on the takeover of Middle East studies centers (MESCs). Established by the federal government in the 1950s in the interest of advancing U.S. national security, MESCs have been hijacked by Arab and Muslim states who donate generously to universities and departments, the report finds, and by activist professors who have “repurposed critical theory to galvanize activism on Middle East issues.”

A now-rescinded rule from the Trump administration’s Education Department forced colleges and universities to divulge billions of dollars in foreign contributions. Not surprisingly it revealed that as federal money has waxed and waned, private donations—especially from states like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar—increased, often after being funneled through opaque funding mechanisms such as “university foundations.” Twelve universities disclosed a total of $6.5 billion in foreign funding. The true number is likely much higher.

In one sense, these revelations form part of the larger story of foreign states discreetly buying influence in American universities and society as a whole. No nation has deployed this strategy as aggressively as China, which has spent more than a billion dollars in recent years—with $93 million gifted in the past decade to Harvard alone—to promote the values of the Chinese government. Confucius Institutes, established by the Chinese government at universities around the world, have been especially effective disseminators of Chinese Communist Party talking points, shaping the public’s understanding of “Tibet, Taiwan, China’s military buildup, [and] factional fights inside the Chinese leadership,” among other topics. Most of those donations have gone unreported. The institutes were finally designated as “foreign missions” in 2020 by the State Department and more than 100 of them closed, though some have since reopened under different names.

China tries to use its position within the American academic establishment for both commercial and ideological purposes, from the Thousand Talents Program, which aimed to recruit “high-end foreign scientists, engineers, and managers from foreign countries” to steal trade secrets, to the Confucius Institutes’ K-12 programs, which teach Chinese language and culture to thousands of American students.

The Arab and Muslim donor states funding MESCs prioritize a cultural and political agenda over an economic one, and universities that have taken money from Middle Eastern or Muslim countries dance to the tune those donors play. In the case of MESCs, that has involved apologetics and downplaying the dangers of Islamic radicalism, while suppressing objective scholarly inquiry into the fundamentals of Islam and the state of the Muslim world. Georgetown University, which received $20 million from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, offers a course on “Muslim Women and the West,” which is designed to counter the notion that Muslim women are “oppressed, silent, and victimized” by focusing on the “myriad ways in which they construct preferred futures against racist, capitalist, and heteronormative logics.” Harvard, which in 2005 also received $20 million from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, offers an “Islam in Early America” course that presents a revisionist history in which Muslims were among the first people to arrive in the U.S., and whose influence is supposedly reflected in Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of a Quran. Another Harvard course, “The Arab American Experience in Fiction, Film, and Popular Culture,” is largely a study in victimography.

The University of Texas-Austin’s teachers workshop “Critical Literacy for Global Citizens Summer Institute” is reflective of the growing orientation in MESCs, away from rigorous scholarship and toward activist polemics working in the interest of teaching and promoting identity politics. Georgetown’s Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding’s workshops are designed to correct “ignorant misunderstandings” and increase “cultural competency of the Middle East,” mostly by presenting simple-mindedly positive perceptions of Islam. Yale’s Center for Middle East Studies Summer Institute for Teachers included a “keynote address on ‘BLM in the MENA: The Global Impact of an American Movement,’ a musical retelling of the Palestinian and Syrian diasporas, and a presentation on the Sephardic & Mizrahi Jewish experiences”; language instruction or discussions of scholarly methods were absent.

Like the universities that host them, these MESCs serve an increasingly internationalized client base of donors and students. “The modern shift in Middle East studies,” according to the report, is that it “focuses on self-study and advocacy of Arab students rather than benefit to American citizens.” These programs are engaged in for-hire advocacy work rather than objective scholarship.

Still, the report notes that most centers “see themselves as builders of ‘cultural bridges of understanding’ between the East and West who have been appointed to tear down negative stereotypes of Muslims.” American interests, much less national security (which provided the basis for the MESCs’ founding and ongoing federal funding) are nowhere to be found. Building bridges, while perhaps a laudable mission for humanitarian organizations, is not always compatible with the pursuit of scholarly truth.

As the report recounts, wealthy Arab countries began funneling money into MESCs in the wake of Israel’s victories in the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars as part of a deliberate strategy of influencing American policy in the Middle East. But foreign influence is only part of the equation. At present, the report notes that centers that are not being funded by foreign countries display “the same extensive bias as those with significant foreign involvement.” Moreover, the report finds:

Foreign governments typically do not fund the most harmful materials produced by the centers, such as critical race theory (CRT) workshops for local K–12 educators. Instead, the U.S. government subsidizes these materials through Title VI of the Higher Education Act.

As the report makes clear, MESCs have followed newer trends in higher education, emphasizing “intersectionality,” “diversity,” immigration, critical race theory, and of course “Islamophobia.” “Antiracism” and “unlearning whiteness” have become important causes, along with the effort to collectively portray Islam as a subaltern religion perpetually exploited by Western powers. The U.S. and capitalism, meanwhile, are treated as uniquely destructive forces in the Middle East and globally.

There are institutional alternatives to the MESC emerging that are comparatively small in scale but poised for growth among faculty not beholden to existing ideologies. In a few weeks, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), in which one of the authors of this article serves as executive director, will meet in Washington, D.C., for a conference that will bring together hundreds of scholars from around the world to present scholarly papers on topics ranging from the role of World War II veterans in Nigerian politics to Fethullah Gulen’s conflict with the Turkish state to China’s Belt and Road Initiative in East Africa. Critical approaches will be on display that take all parties to task when appropriate as opposed to those that shoehorn complex realities into simple anti-American or anti-Israel morality tales. Israelis and Palestinians will be represented, of course, but will not dominate, and the politics of that region will not cast a stultifying blanket over the proceedings.

But even as some countervailing forces attempt to reestablish a spirit of open-minded inquiry and academic rigor in the field, the entrenched power of these state-sponsored MESCs will not be easy to dismantle. The deliberate location of the centers in influential Ivy League schools like Harvard, in federal government feeder schools like Georgetown, and in institutions located in conservative states such as Arkansas, reflects the growing power of these programs.

It is tempting to suggest, as the report does, that the federal government should simply cut off funding to National Resource Centers responsible for Middle East Studies. “Federal funding is not well suited to impose reform on Middle East studies,” the report argues, “but neither should the American public be required to fund a system of education antithetical to the national interest.” But academic centers have already been replacing foreign and federal money with local donors. Additionally, as historian Martin Kramer has pointed out on his blog, the serious Arab and Muslim money has shifted to think tanks, all of which empower the remaining academic radicals.

Acknowledging the extent to which American colleges and universities have become post-American institutions, promoting the values of what analyst John Fonte has called “transnational progressivism,” in which transnational entities such as NGOs, international organizations, and courts usurp the legislative responsibilities of sovereign states, is a first step. From this flows a series of decisions for parents, students, alumni, and legislators whether they should continue supporting the university and its values. The crisis of the humanities is, at its root, a manifestation of students voting with their feet, shunning fields that are too negative, too abstruse, or simply not useful to young people. But the same process, ironically, empowers and radicalizes those students and faculty who remain.

Building bridges, while perhaps a laudable mission for humanitarian organizations, is not always compatible with the pursuit of scholarly truth.

Reengagement is necessary, but on new terms. The growing rebellion against “wokeness” at all levels of education is an opportunity to redefine the mission of these institutions. Expunging identity politics and overcoming the current tyranny of feelings over facts is certainly part of the new equation.

How to keep academia out of the business of influence peddling is difficult. As the report suggests, the easiest solution is for the federal government to demand absolute transparency regarding “contracts, memoranda of understanding, and other deals with foreign countries” and for the advisory boards of MESCs to include only American citizens. Universities will complain that this goes against their global mission and global orientation, but if universities genuinely believe this, they should be forced to defend it publicly. Meanwhile the rest of us will be able to judge the sources and impacts of foreign money.

Finally, as the Middle East undergoes an upheaval that is seeing Israel accepted as a full member of the community of nations, the obligation is on academics to study and represent the region as it really is. Postcolonialism was always an effort by intellectuals to remake the region in their own image; now foreign governments are using lavish gifts to universities to do the same. All of this must change. Quietly, a new generation of scholars is doing so.

Asaf Romirowsky is Executive Director of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).

Alex Joffe is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

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