Politicization of Middle Eastern Studies – by Brendan Goldman


“We overthrew a dictatorship only to go from bad to worse,” said Mansour Farhang, a prominent figure in the early Islamic Republic of Iran who now serves as a professor at Bennington College.

Farhang was speaking at a Columbia University conference held on December 12th entitled, “Iran After the Election”. Green shirts and scarves, symbols of the Iranian opposition, permeated the audience of some 250 people that filled the sterile Altshul auditorium. Attendees included Iranian expatriates, prominent experts of the field, students, and members of the general public.

The conference served to highlight the leftist politicization of Middle Eastern studies. With a few notable exceptions, the panels’ academics drew moral parallels between the Islamic Republic’s policies and those of the Bush and Obama administrations and encouraged an acquiescent American foreign policy in the face of Iran’s nuclear program.

Columbia professors Richard Bulliet and Hamid Dabashi made it clear from the onset that there would be no attempt at academic objectivity. They opened the conference by criticizing Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, as “incredibly irresponsible” for having had the audacity to publicly chastise Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he came to Columbia two years ago.

Dabashi oversaw the conference’s first panel entitled, “The Aftermath of the Election.”  It included Asef Bayat of Leiden University, Ervand Abrahamian of Baruch College, and Shalha Talebi of Arizona State University. Bayat and Abrahamian, to their credit, chose to focus on the Iranian elections and not on foreign policy.

Bayat recalled how the expectations of many of the 1979 revolutionaries were dashed as they watched the government they had fought for go through a “spring of freedom” only to become an authoritarian theocracy. He argued that the “Post-Islamist” Green opposition movement seeks to “rescue [Shi’a Muslim] faith from the pollution of the Islamic state.”

Arabrahamian, whom Dabashi introduced as “perhaps the most distinguished scholar in our field,” compared the intimidation tactics of the current Iranian government to those of the worst dictatorial regimes in history, saying, “the [Iranian] horror stories here dwarf those of the Stalinist and Maoist periods.”

Talebi addressed her remarks to disjointed societal and political issues in Iran. She criticized Abrahamian and Bayat for “only talking about [the crimes of] Stalin and Mao and forgetting about our country, and the Western countries.” She then asked rhetorically, “What about Hitler? What about Nixon?…What about Palestine?”

When a member of the audience voiced his frustration over Talebi’s refusal to stay on subject, Dabashi attacked him.

“I’m the moderator,” Dabashi said.

“Then moderate,” the audience member replied.

Dabashi then went on a long tirade, ending with, “I won’t be the last oriental boy to be told [what to do] by a white guy!”

The following panel was supposed to address Iran’s “International Challenges”, but soon descended into an attack on America’s Middle Eastern policy under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Panel moderator Gary Sick, a former advisor to President Jimmy Carter, offered a contemporary version of the same docile Carter-era policies that provided a major catalyst for the fall of the pro-American Shah and the rise of the Islamic Republic.

Professor Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii suggested that all that America has done in the region has been detrimental to the Iranian people and that the US should “take a few months off [from its involvement in the Middle East] and see what happens.”

Former CIA Agent Judith Yaphe attempted to appease her peers by criticizing the Bush Administration even more forcefully than her co-panelists had. It is indicative that Sick, as the panel’s moderator, felt obligated to tell Yaphe that serving as a CIA agent is “not something to be ashamed of.”

The final panel, entitled “Appraising the Life of the Republic”, was the most engaging and informative of the day, though it still had its share of unsubstantiated claims.

Panel members included Farhang, the Islamic Republic’s first ambassador to the United States, who resigned because of Ayatollah Khomeini’s intransigence during the hostage crisis.

Bulliet of Columbia, another member of the panel, drew parallels between the Islamic and American Revolutions and argued that in its Khomeini-era manifestation the Islamic Republic may have been truly democratic.

“In all fairness, one has to recognize the first three decades of any regime leaving a totalitarian system are fraught with all sorts of problems,” Bulliet said, subsequently comparing Thomas Jefferson’s attempts to try his Vice President, Aaron Burr, as a traitor to the leaders of the Islamic Republic and their Revolutionary Courts conspiring to execute thousands of Iranian dissidents.

Even Farhang could not stomach Bulliet’s statement that Khomeini’s Iran was not totalitarian, responding that “Khomeini was an absolutist,” a “tyrant,” and “more of a Communist than a Shi’a [Muslim].”

Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet of the University of Pennsylvania offered a thoughtful, dispassionate speech, addressing the historic roots of the Islamic Republic and the opposition movement.

Houchang Chehabi of Boston University gave a thought-provoking, humorous assessment of the place of ethnic and religious minorities in the Islamic Republic. Talking directly to his largely Iranian audience, he mocked the notion that Iranians are innately tolerant people because, “Cyrus [the Great] freed the Jews 2,500 years ago.”

Chehabi spoke bluntly about the persecution of Iran’s Baha’i minority, giving examples of crimes, including murders, which have never gone to trial because the victims were Baha’i. He then addressed the biases of “leftist academics” who are “apologists” for the Islamic regime. He chastised these academics’ hypocrisy in ignoring “the deep contacts that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad has with fascists in Europe,” and said that “perhaps prejudice [runs] as deep among the leftists as among the Islamists.” Chehabi’s remark about “leftist academics” was perhaps the most pertinent of the conference, because it challenged many of his co-panelists’ overriding assumption that the policies they espouse are in the best interest of the Iranian people.

Dabashi’s outburst and many of the panelists’ condescension towards America’s role in the region are indicative of the increasing politicization of the field of Middle Eastern studies. This trend threatens to undermine open discourse in university classrooms and to confound government policymakers who would seek out academics for objective information on a complex region.

Brendan Goldman is a senior at New York University majoring in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, and an intern at the Middle East Forum. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

  • Robert Bernier

    Western medias.
    In the west we have the fear factor. Jews do not issue fatwas, attend violent protests, scream obscenities and threats, outfit suicide bombers, hijack airliners, kidnap foreigners, launch terrorist raids and blow up buildings. This obviously puts them at a distinct disadvantage with the Western media, political classes and large segments of the general public who cringe before the menace of Muslim reprisals for perceived offences. Islamic terrorists have carried out more than 13028 deadly Terror Attacks since 9/11. As to the facts : http://israelagainstterror.blogspot.com/2009/05

  • Robert Bernier

    Hatred of Jews is easier to develop than liking for Palestinians.
    Israel’s enemies made anti-Zionism almost a religion on the Left, especially on college campuses. Hatred of Jews is easier to develop and sustain than liking for Palestinians, (something that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has found effective to exploit.) Jew-hatred is inextricably bound up with the anti-Zionism of the Palestinians, the Arab nations, and the Iranians. And as anti-Semitism has been compared to a virus, is it surprising that it has also affected many of the Western supporters of the Middle Eastern anti-Zionist cause? More about the “poor oppressed Palestinians” at : http://israelagainstterror.blogspot.com/2008/01

  • andyFree

    Don't know about Jews, but I can tell you about Israel – world's first aircraft hi-jacking (as national policy, by use of their jets!) in Dec 1954 to recover 5 arrested spies.

    And introduced every other form of terrorism (except suicide-bombing) to the Middle-Eastern.

    First use of bombs in cafes, 1937, buses 1937, drive-by terror shootings 1937/38 and 47/48 (Morris, Righteous Victims, p681.), market-place, 1938, ship 1940, over 200 Jews killed by Stern Gang, hotel 1946 (92 dead, terrorist goes on to be Israeli Prime Minister), suitcase bombing 1946, ambulance-mining 1946, car-bomb 1946, letter-bomb 1947 (in London), parcel bomb 1947 (London), reprisal murder of hostages 1947, truck-bomb 1948.

    Use of biological weapons 1948 and world's first and by far the most credible nuclear threats.

  • tlwinslow

    Both Jews and Muslims have a common mindset that life is about a God in a Book, but the Muslim God is a horrible Ass Clown who lives in a cave and orders his true believers to spread and enforce his slave-like cult by force, which makes it an enemy of the world. Poor Persia could have become the world leader in Science until Islam took it over and kept it down, and now Iran's people just aren't knowledgeable enough to finally throw Islam off and get with it, so look what they got.

    Study Islam's history free with the Historyscoper and see what Persia could have been at http://go.to/islamhistory

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    I don't think there is even a possibility of seeing progress in the region until everyone starts taking some responsibility. No one's hands are completely clean and saying Iran is in fine shape because the revolution was only a short time ago is simply a cop out.

  • PAthena

    The name of Persia, which had been “Persia” for around 3000 years was changed to “Iran” by the father of the last Shah in 1937, derived from the name of the group “Aryas” (root of the word “Aryan,” as in the old term “Indo-Aryan” languages, now called “Indo-European”), to show his solidarity with Adolf Hitler and his promoting of the “Aryan race.” I hope that the dissidents will change the name back to “Persia.”

  • RHG

    Why is this trash in my country?

  • tlwinslow

    That's what I meant. The name Iran sucks eggplant doesn't it?

  • golemman

    andyFree – Take a pill, man…..

  • henrypercy

    Read the Tahrir Ol Vasileh of Khomeini…
    He advocate sodomizing babies and copulating with animals.
    No wonder muslims are called goat f**kers!


    Tehran's hospitals are filled with dying little girls,
    victims of their muslim parents or neighbors.

    Muslims are not humans, not animals or insects.
    They are not even toxic vegetals, they are viruses
    spawned from hell or from outer space!

  • quranist

    The Neocons as a Hostile Conservative (!) Elite

    January 24,2008

    I haven't read Jacob Heilbrunn's book on the neocons yet, but I'm not sure I need to after seeing Philip Weiss's review. Weiss's review makes it clear that Heilbrunn's book corroborates several of the themes in my writing on the neocons and on Jewish intellectual and political movements generally.

    First, neoconservatism is a Jewish movement. That should have been clear to everyone by now, but references to the Jewish basis of the movement have been noticeably missing from much of the mainstream media, to the point that Bill Kristol was introduced as a columnist at the New York Times as simply a “conservative.” This is critical because the neocons have now become the conservative establishment. When Kristol (or Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity) hold forth at Fox News, most people have no idea that they are tuning into the public face of a fundamentally Jewish movement that elbowed out more traditional conservatives.

    Secondly, Jewish neocons not only have a strong Jewish identity, they also have strong Jewish interests. This is obvious from their involvement in pro-Israel activism, their personal relationships with Israeli leaders, and close ties with other Jews and with the wider Jewish community. In fact, I have argued that the neocons are more strongly identified as Jews than the mainstream liberal/left Jews — that the neocons form the vanguard of the Jewish community. After all, neocons were the first segment of the Jewish community to strongly condemn the USSR, both for its domestic anti-Semitism and for its alliances with Arab governments. Prominent neocons like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz began their political careers by making alliances with Cold War hawks like Henry Jackson This was at a time when the Jewish left was prominently involved in defending the USSR, apparently blind to the fact that the status of Jews as an elite in the USSR had changed greatly following World War II.

    And the neocons are notorious for their strong ties to the most extreme racialist and nationalist segments of Israeli society — elements that the mainstream liberal/left Jewish community probably wishes would disappear or at least be less visible. (Hence the uproar over Christiane Amanpour's God's Jewish Warriors.) Indeed, the Jewish liberal/left has a huge blind spot, continuing to pursue its leftist multicultural agenda in the U.S. while ignoring the fact that the organized Jewish community is deeply complicit in dispossessing the Palestinians and erecting a racialist, apartheid state in Israel. As Weiss has noted elsewhere, “Steve Rabinowitz, Clinton friend, told me this year that if anyone did a study of how much [Democrat] money comes from Jews, it would fuel conspiracy theories.” The Jewish liberal/left lavishly supports Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but makes no attempt to wrest control of the pro-Israel lobby from the hands of what James Petras terms the “reactionary minority of American Jews” who head the major American Jewish organizations.

    But more interestingly, Heilbrunn points to the “lifelong antipathy toward the patrician class among the neocons … [that] prompted them to create their own parallel establishment.” In this regard, the neocons are entirely within the American Jewish mainstream. As I noted in a previous blog (also commenting on Philip Weiss), “Jews have become an elite, but an elite that does not identify with its subjects — a hostile, estranged but very wealthy elite that still sees themselves as outsiders.” And along with the American Jewish mainstream, the neocons have been vital players in the establishment of a variety of policies opposed to the interests and attitudes of the American majority, most egregiously unrestricted immigration which has successfully altered the ethnic composition of the country. Indeed, neoconservative Ben Wattenberg famously wrote that “The non-Europeanization of America is heartening news of an almost transcendental quality.”

    This hostility toward the traditional peoples and culture of America among people calling themselves conservatives is striking — the antithesis of normal and natural conservative tendencies. As Sam Francis noted, what the neocons dislike about traditional conservatives is simply that they “are conservative at all”:

    There are countless stories of how neoconservatives have succeeded in entering conservative institutions, forcing out or demoting traditional conservatives, and changing the positions and philosophy of such institutions in neoconservative directions…. Writers like M. E. Bradford, Joseph Sobran, Pat Buchanan, and Russell Kirk, and institutions like Chronicles, the Rockford Institute, the Philadelphia Society, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute have been among the most respected and distinguished names in American conservatism. The dedication of their neoconservative enemies to driving them out of the movement they have taken over and demonizing them as marginal and dangerous figures has no legitimate basis in reality. It is clear evidence of the ulterior aspirations of those behind neoconservatism to dominate and subvert American conservatism from its original purposes and agenda and turn it to other purposes…. What neoconservatives really dislike about their “allies” among traditional conservatives is simply the fact that the conservatives are conservatives at all—that they support “this notion of a Christian civilization,” as Midge Decter put it, that they oppose mass immigration, … that they entertain doubts or strong disagreement over American foreign policy in the Middle East, that they oppose reckless involvement in foreign wars and foreign entanglements, and that, in company with the Founding Fathers of the United States, they reject the concept of a pure democracy and the belief that the United States is or should evolve toward it.

    Francis, S. (2004). The neoconservative subversion. In B. Nelson (ed.), “Neoconservatism.” Occasional Papers of the Conservative Citizens’ Foundation, Issue Number Six, 6–12. St. Louis: Conservative Citizens’ Foundation, p. 9.

    That the New York Times can call Kristol a conservative without shame or irony is a striking commentary on the death of American conservatism.

    Rest of article

    Hmm, I wonder why nobody says that in the mainstream media.

  • garyfouse

    Sounds like a typical academic forum on the Middle East. Further evidence of the idiotic leftist control of our universities.

  • henrypercy

    The concept “Neo-con” is, like the “human caused global warming”,
    the 9/11 trufers conspiracy, the swine flu, the Alar craze,
    the false toxicity of asbestos(as virulent as gravel)
    the imaginary product of the sick minds of muslims, of neo-nazis,
    their leftist cousins and greedy trial lawyers…

    Muslim stoning:

    Latest Offerings from the Religion of Peace
    “He who fights that Islam should be superior fights in Allah's cause”
    Muhammad, prophet of Islam

    2009.12.19 (Narathiwat, Thailand) – Three Buddhists are incinerated when Muslim insurgents blow up a gas tank next to their truck.
    2009.12.18 (Haripur, Pakistan) – A man and his wife are among three killed in their home by suspected Islamic hardliners.
    2009.12.18 (Pulwama, India) – Two people are dragged from their homes and murdered by Mujahideen.
    2009.12.18 (Sulaimaniyah, Iraq) – A civilian is gunned down on his doorstep by Muslim terrorists.
    2009.12.18 (Mogadishu, Somalia) – Two civilians are killed when a mortar fired by suspected Islamic militia strikes a house.
    2009.12.18 (Lower Dir, Pakistan) – Children are among fifteen people blown to bits a mosque by a Shahid suicide bomber.

  • henrypercy

    Typical Islam…after the stoning:


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