(November 19, 2021 / JNS) For the participants, the annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) represented a bulwark against academic elitism and the suppression of divergent ideas in their field. Meeting in a small family group of around 130 college and university professors from around the world – with more remote members due to travel restrictions and lingering hesitation over COVID – ASMEA met at JW Marriott Georgetown in Washington from Saturday to Monday again share ideas in person.
The topics covered in the research presentations during the conference varied in their level of controversy, but many of the attendees often spoke about the treatment of their ideas and academic research in their daily lives, with some openly admitting to being considered outcasts. because they refuse to accept the orthodoxy which has dominated academic thought on the Middle East since the British Arabist scholars of the 20th century. A situation made worse by worrying and growing ideological intolerance in research universities in the name of political correctness.
Part of this orthodoxy is the prevailing belief that the Middle East would have been problem-free had Israel not been forcibly imposed on the Arab-dominated region by European colonial powers and criticism of terrorism, anti-Semitism and the general dysfunction of nations in the region should be excused as a logical response.
Another motivation for ASMEA attendees was to avoid politicization at other conferences that tend to espouse anti-Israel and anti-Western sentiments. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has often been cited with frustration by academics as an example. MESA has strong support for the BDS movement. In May, after terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip rained more than 4,000 rockets at civilian areas of Israel and were met by a military response from Israel, the MESA board issued a statement. statement in favor of the Palestinian people against the Israeli government, calling its actions apartheid but without mentioning the actions of groups like Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the 11-day conflict.
On November 10, MESA approved a statement from the Academia for Equality condemning Israel’s declaration of six Palestinian nonprofits as sponsors of terrorism.
Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of ASMEA, said that from its inception, ASMEA was created to counter MESA.
“If you had to categorize from the point of view of a school of thought, our association follows [Bernard] Lewis and [Fouad] Ajami and the people who follow MESA follow the Edward Said school of thought, ”he said. “So there is a lot more of a very strong, I would say, pro-Palestinian element in MESA’s narrative. “
Lewis, a British-born Jewish professor of Middle Eastern studies at Princeton University and Ajami, a Lebanese-born professor and scholar at the Hoover Institution, co-founded ASMEA in 2007 to counter anti- sentiments. Israelis and anti-Americans in the MESA. . Both were supporters of the 2001 Iraq war.
The following year, they held their first conference, which hosted up to 350 participants before the coronavirus pandemic.
Most of the attendees at this conference were acolytes of Lewis and Ajami, and generally defined themselves as ideologically center-right. Zionism was freely discussed and not ridiculed as racism.
The two deceased founders were honored in separate ceremonies. A panel was assembled at the start of the conference to talk about Ajami, which included his widow and students. The next day, Lewis was honored with the creation of an award and the selection of winners from the submitted papers.
“A candle of light in a dark place”
Yet few were willing to speak officially with the media to criticize the academy or MESA – some fearing repercussions on their profession and others wanting to let their research speak for itself, rather than join the rivalry. politicized between organizations and possibly reveal their bias. .
“I have been attending ASMEA conferences for six years as a non-scholar,” said one participant who requested to remain anonymous. “ASMEA is the last bastion of objective and productive academic research in the Middle East. ASMEA is holding a candle of light in a very dark place.
Romirowsky said that it takes a lot of courage to defend a point of view and that many participants faced intolerance for expressing views that diverge from orthodoxy.
“We want to give people the opportunity to share, to share their ideas, to share their work, and that’s what we’re here for,” he said. “We all support the exchange of ideas and the free speech of ideas. I think it’s healthy for the academy to have a much better balance, and I think if we can provide another balanced perspective on the region then we all agree.
Topics included analyzes of academic freedom, modern anti-Semitism, terrorism, foreign policy between Israel and its neighbors, as well as US foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa. Some presenters also pointed out how anti-Israel biases and Arabism have long infiltrated the wings of US government foreign policy.
On Saturday evening, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Schenker, spoke about US-Lebanese relations.
“If the Biden administration decides that it is not going to appoint, it is not going to sanction, it is not going to attack Hezbollah in any way because it is making a nuclear deal with Iran … it ‘s is not going to help the region. It is certainly not going to help the people with whom we share values in Lebanon, ”replied Schenker, the Taube principal researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy when asked after his speech why American foreign policy has gone so far. has now been ineffective in stopping Hezbollah despite investments in Lebanon.
The keynote speaker for the event at Sunday lunch was former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, who spoke in detail about what he believes to be the advent of “Al Qaeda 3.0. After the recent withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan.
“Important for national security”
Many researchers have commended ASMEA for helping to publish their research, be it publications in peer-reviewed journals or books, complaining about the difficulties faced by traditional academic publishers in large universities whose academic councils, they said, were dominated by left-wing ideologues. . They traded stories of rejection and where they found the best editors while they mingled or had lunch.
One of the keynote speakers on the last day of the conference highlighted the problem.
Eliezer Tauber, professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, spoke of the difficulties encountered in getting his book on the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948 in the United States published.
His book, The massacre that never existed: the myth of Deir Yassin and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, which included field research indicating the absence of such a massacre, is accepted by Israelis, Palestinians and academics around the world, he said. What happened in the battle that led to the capture of the city by the Irgun in 1948, according to Tauber’s book, was embellished by the Arab rulers of the time in order to compel neighboring countries to send armies and help the nascent Palestinian Arabs.
Although it was quickly published as a Hebrew translation, it took years for it to appear in its original language, English.
He cited some of the rejection letters he received from publishers, including top universities. While all agreed on the merits of Tauber’s research, most responded that the issue was just too controversial.
“Everyone agreed on the many strengths of the book, [but] the consensus was that the book would only ignite the debate where positions have hardened, ”wrote one administrator in a letter to Tauber.
For long-time participant Christine Sixta-Rinehart and professor at the University of South Carolina Palmetto College, Schenker and Haqqani’s speeches were inspiring.
Sixta-Rinehart said more than some other academic societies, ASMEA cultivates first-hand knowledge of the areas it covers, encouraging academics to learn about cultures and languages.
“There are a lot of different points of view, and the stock market has more depth. People have more understanding; they have more real world experience with subjects and countries. They are speakers of the language. So I think the best way to put it is that there is a greater breadth and depth of knowledge by the presenters, ”she said.
She said many of the speakers at the conference were experts in the field, rather than experts in quantitative international relations who largely lack experience in the field.
“Most of the area studies programs across the country have been killed,” she explained. “So those of us who still do regional studies believe it because it is important for national security – that you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, and that you know what a Kurd is and what it means to be part of Kurdistan. I think we’re losing that. I think regional studies have to come back.
ASMEA’s focus on the region provided Sixta-Rinehart with the connections to conduct its own primary source research.
“When I need someone to help me get on the ground in Iraq, Israel or anywhere, I go to ASMEA because those contacts are there,” she said. “They know who the military are there and the regions are studying people. They have diplomats who come and go. If I need something real I will see my contacts at ASMEA because they have always helped me. It’s actually pretty amazing what some of these people can achieve.