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Switch to Forum Live View The Middle East Studies Mess: Causes and Consequences
3 years ago  ::  Jul 04, 2015 - 6:58PM #1
Posts: 19,045

looking at the world through the prism of reality - it is sort of refreshing

The Middle East Studies Mess: Causes and Consequences

The Middle East is in chaos. After four years of Syrian civil war, there are now more refugees and displaced persons seeking to escape violence than at any point since World War II. Libya and Yemen are in chaos. The Islamic State has both revived medieval notions of the caliphate and returned such practices as slavery, beheadings, and crucifixions to the headlines.

Turkey, once celebrated both as a bridge between East and West and more recently as proof of the compatibility of political Islam and democracy, slides down the path to Islamist autocracy. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and Iran's path to nuclear weapons seems assured as Western leaders - including Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop - retreat on long-standing principles. Sectarian struggle threatens to set the entire region alight. Indeed, from Algeria to Afghanistan, it seems that the only bastion of stability is Israel.
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after preaching for decades that Israel and perhaps the United States were at the root of regional problems, it now is evident that Israel is the only truly stable oasis in the greater Middle East and North Africa.

To understand how narrow and polemical academic conventional wisdom about the region has become, look no further than Australian National University Professor Amin Saikal. Throughout his career, he has at times appeared to internalise regional conspiracy theories.


In a 2004 Sydney Morning-Herald op-ed, for example, Saikal embraced the fringe conspiracy theory that a small cabal of neoconservatives hijacked American policy. While he was unreservedly critical of the US-led invasion of Iraq, his real animus appeared to be American support for Israel in its existential struggle against rejectionist Arab states and terrorist groups like Hamas, whose charter openly endorses genocide.

He was not alone. In the aftermath of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, the (now late) Macquarie University professor Andrew Vincent was unapologetic in his and the Australian academic community's pro-Hezbollah orientation. He also whitewashed al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents as merely "local opposition." Cultural equivalence and moral inversion became academic manna for a generation of Macquarie students.
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In June 2011, I participated in a small conference at Melbourne's Latrobe University on "The Obama Middle East Peace Initiative: Lessons Learnt and Implications for a Dialogical Roadmap for Peace." It remains the most polemical academic conference I have experienced in my 20-year career. One scholar advocated for a one-state solution, academic code for Israel's eradication. No other area studies discipline contemplates eradication of existing states. Roundtable participants regularly interrupted speakers with applause when they embraced the Palestinian cause, and boos when they addressed Israel as a normal, legitimate state.
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Why has Middle East studies diverged so greatly from reality and become an exercise in radical political self-affirmation? Almost 15 years ago, Israeli-American scholar Martin Kramer penned a thoughtful assessment of Middle Eastern Studies in which he traced the descent of Middle East studies as an academic discipline to its embrace of Edward Said's theories. The irony here, of course, was that Said was not a Middle East scholar but rather a literary critic. Few people who citeOrientalism, perhaps the most influential Middle East studies book in the last century, have ever read it closely. If they had, they would cringe at Said's error of both fact and logic. Quite simply, the reason why Said remains so popular on campuses from Washington to Wollongong is because he justified prioritising politics above scholarly rigour. No longer would radical professors need to prove truth; they could just assert it and make it so. Up was down, wrong was right, and power was original sin.
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Australian and American academics also almost universally preach dialogue as a cost-free policy. This too is nonsense. Both Obama's and Bishop's outreach to Iran has achieved little but bolstering a theocratic dictatorship while shaking decades-long alliances with moderate Arab states. Never before - not in 1967, not in 1979 - has the Middle East been so torn asunder.

Universities may see themselves as bastions of knowledge and intellectualism, but they have long since forfeited this role. Instead, they have become repositories for theories long since discarded in the region and that bear little resemblance to reality today. The more professors prioritise theory over fact, the more they will condemn themselves to irrelevance. Unfortunately, when policymakers embrace blindly their untested conventional wisdom, the consequences can be far worse.

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Moderated by Jcarlinbn on Jul 05, 2015 - 04:07PM
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