It was ten years ago this week, on September 18, 2002, that Campus Watch—a project of the Middle East Forum that reviews and critiques Middle East studies in North America with an aim to improving them—opened its doors. The response was instantaneous: the Middle East studies establishment, long unused to outside scrutiny, recoiled in horror at the prospect of accountability and proclaimed themselves martyrs. Declaring “solidarity” with eight academics Campus Watch (CW) had identified as apologists for Palestinian violence or militant Islam, over 100 faculty and graduate students, most from fields other than Middle East studies, requested to be listed on the CW website. Thus was born the “Solidarity with Apologists” list and more importantly, the preposterous conceit that outside criticism of academia is a form of “McCarthyist” censorship.
Such delusions continue to this day in the form of mischaracterizations, name-calling, smears, caricatures, and false claims of victimhood; indeed, CW now has a “Setting the Record Straight” section to respond to the deluge. Meanwhile, opponents refuse to treat seriously the five problems the CW mission statement sets out to address: analytical failures, the mixing of politics with scholarship, intolerance of alternative views, apologetics, and the abuse of power over students.
Nonetheless, they now know that their discipline’s long record of radicalism and indoctrination is well known off-campus to parents, students, legislators, and donors. Its sustained critique has put the Middle East studies establishment on the defensive in a way that almost certainly wouldn’t have been accomplished by more general critics of higher education, whose attention is spread across all disciplines as well as administrative matters and finances. Campus Watch’s relentlessness has proved a great asset.
One of the most significant indicators of CW’s impact is the backhanded endorsements from Middle East studies academics. Being cited on CW’s website has become a bragging rite, with University of California, Los Angeles history professor Gabriel Piterberg even claiming as much before it was true, while the specter of CW “spies” (that is, contributors who attend public lectures and write about them for CW) haunts lecture halls, leading professors and audience members alike to publicly reference CW in ominous terms. There’s also the possibility of being ridiculed in CW’s prominently displayed “Howler of the Month.”
CW is certainly not alone in its efforts to challenge academia’s status quo, considering organizations such as the National Association of Scholars, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and the Manhattan Institute, and books such as Middle East scholar Martin Kramer’s seminal Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America and president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME)Richard Cravatts’s Genocidal Liberalism: The University’s Jihad Against Israel & Jews. Moreover, CW, building on the work of Stanley Kurtz and Martin Kramer to pass legislation that requires federally-funded Middle East centers to offer a diversity of opinion in their outreach activities, plans to bring those centers to account.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, for as we’ve seen time and time again, the advice of “experts” on the Middle East, both via policymakers and the media, has thwarted the nation’s understanding in the region. Whether it be the mistaken belief that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has the capacity for moderation; that Israel is the root cause of instability in the region; that Iran and its proxy Hezbollahwill undertake honest negotiations;that Islamist Turkey and Tunisia are models of governance; that the rise of Islamism in the wake of the “Arab Spring” is negligible; or that “Islamophobia” is what’s ailing the Muslim world—all such misapprehensions can be traced back to the field of Middle East studies. And these are the people responsible for educating the next generation.
Despite this wealth of evidence, challenges remain in educating the public about the obvious and clear importance of Middle East studies to today’s world. Many either view it as an esoteric, difficult, and peculiar field or fail to understand the relationship between academe as an ideas generator whose bad advice is lapped up by the mainstream media, State Department, and other organs of government. Legacy media, largely hostile to critiques of higher education beyond complaints of rises in tuition rates, don’t appreciate critiques of their academic allies and often ignore the work of CW and most other reformist organizations or individuals.
Within academia itself, where career-tenured faculty rule, a generational shift must occur before longstanding reform can take place. On the occasion of CW’s fifth anniversary, Middle East Forum president and CW founder Daniel Pipes wrote the following:
It will take time, but there are grounds for optimism about Middle East studies, which underwent a seismic shift in the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities. That event led to a surge in enrollments and attracted a new sort of student to the field, one less marginal politically and more publicly ambitious. As this post-9/11 cohort wends its way through the system, expect to see significant improvements.
Campus Watch will be there to welcome them. With luck, its mission will be accomplished, and it can then close its doors.
Five years later, CW is still open for business, demonstrating that much work remains to be done, but also that Campus Watch is a force to be reckoned with.
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