Truth About Islam in Academia?
by Cinnamon Stillwell
While the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has long dominated the field, its highly politicized leadership's inability to withstand criticism, inattention to radical Islam, and apologetic approach towards the West's foes has left many Middle East studies scholars feeling unwelcome by their umbrella professional organization.
Enter the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). Founded last year by Professors Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, ASMEA offers an alternative to MESA's post-colonialist biases and a venue for studying those elements of Islam and the Middle East that MESA's leaders ignore or downplay.
ASMEA's emergence is cause for optimism. As Franck Salameh, a scholar of the Middle East at Boston College, has written,
The complex and richly textured Middle East deserves far more than the bromides and reductionist commentary that have of late become the hallmark of some of our day's most influential scholars in the field. ASMEA promises to provide such critically needed diversity of perspective.
To see how things have progressed during its first few months of existence, I interviewed ASMEA's director of public affairs, Patrick Creamer to find out more about the organization's founding, its inaugural conference in April, 2008, and its future.
CS: Why was ASMEA founded?
Creamer: ASMEA was formed as a response to the mounting interest in these increasingly inter-related fields, and the absence of any single group addressing them in a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary fashion. The Association also seeks to fill a second void caused by the absence of free inquiry and honest scholastic debate on research pertaining to Middle East studies and African studies within academia.
CS: ASMEA president and professor of political science at California State University at San Bernardino, Mark T. Clark, told Inside Higher Education that ASMEA's founders wanted an association "that would be more independent and reflect the academic community more than interest groups."
Can you elaborate on that?
Creamer: ASMEA's goal is to be the academic association of choice for scholars with an interest in the Middle East and Africa. We intend to achieve this goal by offering superior services and encouraging a robust exchange of ideas amongst members—principles which are often shunned in other circles. Free inquiry, greater mix of perspectives, and a desire to learn about the entirety of the Middle East and Africa, and not just issues and viewpoints dictated by a few, are among the ways ASMEA seeks to build the bedrock for the next generation of scholars and teachers.
CS: Was ASMEA meant to be an alternative to MESA and if so, what are the problems with MESA that led to its founding?
Creamer: There is a feeling among many who study the Middle East and issues concerning the region that there was not a truly open academic society for them to participate in prior to the creation of ASMEA. As ASMEA Chairman Bernard Lewis said during his keynote speech at the inaugural conference, Middle East studies are "beset by difficulties." During Professor Lewis's keynote, he cited "the clash of disciplines and lack of mutual recognition between them," as well as "the deadly hand of political correctness," as the major difficulties facing those who participate in Middle East studies. To that end, Professor Lewis concluded his keynote by saying, "I hope this organization will make a significant contribution to changing that." That is certainly a founding goal of ASMEA.
CS: Scholars who are loyal to MESA argue that ASMEA has its own biases. For instance, Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University, accused ASMEA of being "a response, rather than an organic expression of a desire to learn."
University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole labeled ASMEA "exclusively ideological" and only "for people on the right."
And Laurie A. Brand, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and the head of MESA's academic freedom committee, accused ASMEA's leadership of being "at the forefront of the neoconservative support group for the new administration" and of having its own "political agenda."
What is your response to these accusations?
Creamer: I am not going to respond point by point to their accusations. A quick scan of each of these individual's writings will show that they are not shy about spreading their ideological viewpoints. That said, it is important to note that ASMEA—to use Professor Haddad's interesting choice of words—was born out of an "organic expression of a desire to learn" in the truest sense. This Association blossomed because many in the academic community felt the status quo quashed their efforts to engage in the discussion. Scholars want a true academic association where all ideas are discussed and research is judged on its merits, not whether it passes the litmus test of the status quo.
CS: How is ASMEA funded?
Creamer: We are a non-profit organization which receives revenue from members along with a network of private foundations.
CS: In comments posted at the Middle East Strategy at Harvard website, Middle East studies scholars Philip Carl Salzman and Raymond Ibrahim had nothing but praise for ASMEA's April, 2008 inaugural conference. Ibrahim described it as "a breath of fresh air," while Salzman noted that the "‘postcolonial' approach so prevalent in MESA, blaming all problems of the Middle East on the West, was not much in evidence" and that "many of the difficult issues of contemporary conflict were tackled head-on in ASMEA conference papers." How do you think the conference went?
Creamer: The feedback we received from the conference from presenters and attendees alike has been overwhelmingly positive. We are looking forward to, and laying the groundwork for, our second annual conference to be held in 2009, as well as looking at some ideas for smaller regional conferences in the future to build off the successes of our inaugural conference.
CS: Critics have pointed to the alleged preponderance of representatives from military and national security-related think tanks and organizations as reason to question ASMEA's appeal to fellow academics. Meanwhile, Philip Carl Salzman called this "a constructive development" and noted that "we want academics to be more realistic, and we want agencies, governments, and the military to be better informed." How do you respond?
Creamer: ASMEA's leadership and the general consensus of members on hand at the conference was that this was a positive benefit of holding our conference in Washington. By its nature, there is a large military presence as well as a large think tank population within the Beltway. With their attendance at our conference, our members had the benefit of sharing their research with policy-makers, decision-makers, and influence-makers. Most scholars would jump at that opportunity. The same could be said of the Embassy representatives from the African and Middle East nations who attended. So we think it is an additional service we can offer our members. I do want to stress, however, that the overwhelming percentage of those on hand at ASMEA's inaugural conference were either professors or students.
CS: How does ASMEA approach the study of Islamism/Jihadism/Islamic terrorism?
Creamer: Jihadism is certainly a topic that our membership is extremely interested in and that the Association is not going to shy away from. Our first conference centered on the profound influence of Islam in Africa and the Middle East and it sparked many discussions about Jihadism. Over the course of the two days of the conference, a number of presentations focusing on the impact of Islam, both in the traditional sense and the modern, more extreme interpretations, touched on or focused intensely on Jihad. Most of the feedback we received on the conference's theme and discussions has been positive and there appears to be a real thirst for scholastic inquiry into this subject matter that others have traditionally swept aside in academia.
CS: What are ASMEA's future plans or goals? Do you see the organization growing?
Creamer: As ASMEA's membership continues to grow, we have big plans for the future. We hope to hold smaller regional conferences and events along with our annual conference; our first published journal is set to come out at the end of the year; and we intend to roll out a new state-of-the-art website which will allow for a number of new services via the web for our members.
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