Power Revolving Doors

Power Revolving Doors

 The Shaping of American Perception of Middle East Studies

(Middle East Studies In The USA After 9/11: Academia, Think Tanks and Media in the Struggle)

Published April 2013
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Preamble vii


Studying the Middle East in the USA: Historical Background 1


What is the use of Middle East studies? The battle between liberals and conservatives on the campus.Systematic self-questioning (11) The field since 9/11 (15) Debate and partisanship (16) 11


MESA inside views: Rashid Khalidi (21) Joel Beinin (25) Lisa Anderson(36) Laurie A. Brand (43) 21


MESA outside views: Questioning OrientalismStanley Kurtz (56) Martin Kramer (65) Bernard Lewis (69) Malcom Kerr (74) Irfan Habib (78) Daniel Pipes and N.B. Atkine (80) 49


The Core of the debate: HR3077 and other bills International Studies in Higher Education Act (93) Impact of September 11 on the Campus (97) What to do of the debate?(105) 93


The funds of the controversy 107


Digression on science and power 113


Think Tanks in the battle 123


Post-9/11 foreign studies: A need for more experts (141) 133


The power of the media: The mind managers (145)Press freedom (152) 145


Corporate America: Connections between media, businesses and education (157) News Corporation(165) Time Warner (167) 155


To conclude: Corporations, Media, and Academia connections 173
Bibliography 179



Everything started with a controversy between Conservatives and Liberals in the Bush II years, about Middle East Studies. The shock of 9/11 made many people look toward the community of Middle East experts with such questions as: why did they not predict what happened? Why were they unable to warn us? What is the use of these studies anyway? Etc…

However, when one follows thoroughly the debate, one realizes that the kind of problems it raised, could not get convincing answers, without linking what happened inside the campus with ideas and persons in other organizations and institutions, like Think Tanks and media corporations… Yet, the latter themselves are not really as autonomous as it seems at the first sight. Thus, the whole system of academic and media production is directly and indirectly connected to the  broad economic and financial infrastructure, and such is also the case of the political-legal system. The way the entire system works is what we call the revolving doors of power in the USA. This is also the main hypothesis that this study seeks to scrutinize and validate.

This study shows that to answer the questions of the debate about Middle East studies in the USA, without linking them to the structural tools that contribute in shaping the American mind and the making of foreign policy, would be just amputating the facts from their normal context.  It shows that these structural tools happen to be also the revolving doors of power in the USA.


1- Studying the Middle East  in the United States


Historical Background


The history of Middle East ([1]) scholarship in the United States is part of the history of the American universities themselves, even though some scholars link it to the missionary activity. In fact, the missionaries acted through the educational institutions.

Thus, Mazen Mutabbaghani notes that, “The missionaries were the first group with a particular interest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (…) The Near East studies started because of the interest the Protestant missionaries accorded to them, when they founded the American University in Beirut, another university with the same name in Cairo, and Roberts College in Istanbul.”([2]) The author observes that when the Americans realized in the late  Fifties of the last century “the slow growth of their linguistic studies and that without such studies they would not be able to understand the world, they adopted the National Defense Education Act, to help in creating the (…) regional studies centers.”([3])

Indeed, it is within academic institutions that were created the first departments of Oriental Studies. Thus, any in-depth debate on the Middle East would send one ipso facto to cross-referring this history. The designations have diversified, but the subject remains the same: whether you say Middle East, Near East or Oriental studies, we still know it is a specialty related to a specific region, though yet difficult to define geographically, geo-politically or using any other criterion. In any case, American universities are always proud to show their seniority within the scope of these studies. A few examples will enlighten us more on this subject.

The Middle East Studies at Princeton University go back to 1899, when Howard Crosby Butler organized the first expedition in Syria and Anatolia. But the Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures (later called Oriental Studies) was created in 1927, and chaired by Harold H. Bender. “In 1944 Philippe K. Hitti succeeded Bender as chairman, serving until 1954 (…) The Program in Near Eastern Studies was reorganized as a separate interdisciplinary curriculum, emphasizing the social sciences, administered by a committee of representatives from the departments of economics, history, and politics, along with the department of oriental languages and literatures. The Program undertook to meet the lack of teacher-scholars in the sociology and politics of the Near East, by providing language study and research opportunities in the area …”  ([4])

The department called The Middle East and Islamic Studies at New York University claims “a long and distinguished history, which may well have begun with the university’s founding in 1831.”([5]) We are thus informed that since 1837, Arabic, Syriac, Persian, Hebrew and Ethiopic, were being taught as Oriental languages. However, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures (NELL), was established in 1966.

The University of Berkeley (California) claims that its program of Middle East Studies is more than a hundred years old. “But the establishment of CMES, as a federally funded National Resource Center (NRC), in 1965 greatly increased its importance as an area of study, and in 1979 CMES was reorganized as a fully independent interdisciplinary and interdepartmental unit. Finally in 1989, the UC Regents recognized CMES as an Organized Research Unit, and placed it within the then newly created Deanship of International and Area Studies.”  ([6])

Teaching at the Center for Near Eastern Studies at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) has begun began in 1957 with just four scholars. “From a core of four scholars in 1957,”  says the presentation, “the faculty corps involved in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at UCLA has grown to include more than 60 individuals across the humanities, social sciences and professional fields.” ([7])

The University of Texas (Austin) prides itself for a long history of academic focus on the Middle East. Its Center for Middle Eastern Studies was set up in 1960 and offers some 300 Middle East languages and area studies courses each year.([8])

The University of Chicago states that its Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), which focuses on the region stretching from Morocco to Kazakhstan, was established in 1965. “The CMES has been supported by the Divisions of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago and by grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the Mellon Foundation for more than thirty years.”([9])

The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University was founded in 1954. “It was the first center of its kind in the United States,” says the presentation, although it is not clear in what consists its uniqueness compared to other centers. “The Center’s original mandate covered both the classical and modern aspects of the region, but as is reflected in its endeavors today, its interests soon grew to include Islamic societies and cultures worldwide.”([10])

1954 was also the year that witnessed the foundation of the Middle East Institute, at Columbia University, which claims that it “has helped to set the national pace in developing an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the Middle East, from the rise of Islam to the present, with a primary focus on the 19th and 20th centuries. Fostering an inter-regional and multi-disciplinary approach to the region, the Institute focuses on the Arab countries, Armenia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Central Asia, and Muslim Diaspora communities.”([11])

There is also the American Oriental Society, which proclaims its founding year in 1842, which makes of this institution the oldest American learned society devoted to Eastern civilizations.([12])

Nevertheless, although there are many other respectable Centers and Departments of Middle Eastern Studies, which I cannot mention, for I don’t intend to give an inventory account, but just a few examples to clarify the following argumentation, one of the most interested universities in the Middle East Studies is certainly Yale, which claims that it started them since the 18th century.([13]) Indeed, Benjamin R. Foster noted that the history of biblical and Near Eastern Semitic languages study in America could be divided into eight main phases:

1) The colonial phase in which biblical studies were honored in New England in accordance with rules established by Cambridge, Oxford and the Scottish universities;

2) The first period of the republic (1780-1815) during which the biblical studies in schools declined apart from those of a few scholars;

3) The revival of Hebrew and the beginning of wider Oriental Studies (1815-1860). This period was characterized by: a) the professionalization into a Germanic style of the biblical philology under the leadership of Moses Stuart (1760-1852), Edward Robinson (1794-1863) and others; and b) the creation of secularized Oriental Studies by Edward Salisbury (1814-1901);

4) An interim period during which the Indo-European philology dominated oriental studies, whereas the Semitic languages were a minor aspect of teaching theology (1860-1880);

5) The integration of the Semitic studies as a graduating discipline in the U.S. higher education programs;

6) Late in the 19th century, programs of archaeological research began to be developed and research institutes on the Middle East created;

7) A new U.S. professionalism enhanced by the immigration and the integration of German academics claims its independence vis-à-vis the German models after 1914;

8) Increasing interest in “regional studies,” contemporary languages and civilizations of the Middle East, partly as a consequence of World War II and the new U.S strategic position in the post-war period, although some modest initiatives date back to 1902. This last phase rolled away from the old tradition focusing on philology and the interpretation of the classical texts, and gave preference to forms of spoken languages of the Middle East, highlighting in some cases anthropological, socio-political or economic expertise over linguistic proficiency.



2- What is the use of Middle East Studies?

The battle between liberals and conservatives on the Campus


Systematic self-questioning


On the one hand, those among the scholars specialized in the Middle East, who do not give priority, from time to time, to question their own interest in the field, (e.g., why am I concerned by this area and not something else?  What motivates me precisely for these studies?) may eventually miss something very important: if they are teachers, they cannot go through their work without an honest, objective self-distancing self-criticism.

Understandably, they have received a training enabling them to fulfill their mission. Nevertheless, all along their career, they have to think over the objectives and the means, since a successive interaction with the students as well as academia, requires a continual self-questioning about the best methods to help students acquire knowledge and progress.

On the other hand, some others having accomplished fairly extensive research on issues related to the Middle East, often deliver the finished output of their work on certain topics related to sociology, anthropology, linguistics, politics, etc., without feeling the need to provide us with considerations on their motivations, or the general purpose of their work. This failure actually undermined the whole field traditionally called “Orientalism.” It raised criticism against some of its major contributors, and opened up the way for questioning the patent and latent connections between scholarship and the purposes of some Western governments. Orientalism became a suspicious activity, and many scholars distanced themselves from the label, although they remained working in the same field.

Some would contend that doing research, whatever the field or the specialty, does not compel the researcher into giving his (her) reasons publicly, let alone commit him(her)self to a specific purpose, unless the finality of the research requires it. True; science, in its strict sense, has no need for such speculations. Yet, this scarcity of explicit exposure of choices and motivations do not annihilate them, though. They still would remain hidden somewhere, in the distance between the mind and the output, between the output and the social and political reality. Anyway, we rarely embark today upon a research project that may take some time to be completed, without a good reason. Some may reveal their reasons, and some would leave them for a guess between the lines, while others feel committed to making of them a subject of reflection. This attitude reminds one of the surgeon who, before starting a surgery, is keen on examining the tools he needs to use. We have therefore on the one hand, the proposed subject matter of the research, and on the other, the reflection on the methods and tools, as well as the options.

The second example that seems most appropriate in this context, and very much related to our own research field, is that of all the experts in communication, information and intelligence who, in order to reach objective and unbiased results, believe necessary to begin first by examining what could possibly distort their approach and put them on a wrong path. As an important part of any communication follows psychological footpaths, as the language itself is a function of the mind and the psyche, as the interlocutors and the communication channels are also a subject-matter of behavior, some experts advise the examination of cognitive processes and the submission of the reasoning rationale to the control of the behavioral science.

I will not focus on this aspect of reflection, but it is well because it must be accorded the importance it deserves that it is evoked here. Whenever it is necessary, it is recommendable then to pass the information on various discourses and observations across this filter.([14])



The field since 9/11


It should be noted that since September 11, 2001, the studies of the Arabic language, Islam and the Middle East have gone through a significant revival in the United States. This interest is not only a popular concern,([15]) but also a governmental. The US State Department has actually announced new measures to encourage young students to register in the departments of oriental languages and civilizations, usually called: Middle-East Studies. Constant announces on the Website of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC) used to promote the studies of Middle Eastern languages, for example, by providing students with scholarships and grants. This was part of The National Security Language Initiative (NSLI) launched by the State Department. Students of diverse disciplines and majors have been encouraged to apply, especially as The Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) institutes provide them with fully-funded intensive courses of seven to ten weeks, in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Indonesian, Punjabi, Hindi, Azerbaijani, Bangla/Bengali, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian languages.([16])


Debate and partisanship


The fact that the debate on the Middle East raises a heated controversy is not new. However, the fact that this very debate splits the elite in the American universities into two main groups, following the lines of partisan division deserves attention. It seems that the extreme tension and polarization that have always pushed Western and Middle Eastern social groups to climb to the battlements, hardly spared the academic community in the United States. However, to this polarization due to the conditions and configuration of the international arena and the regional theaters, should be added another that is singular to the American society, and which can be schematically reduced to two main poles, gathering around them different revolving elements: Conservatives on the one hand, and Liberals on the other.

In the liberal camp, we could find people like: the late Edward Said and Hisham Sharabi, Rashid Khalidi, Juan Cole, Lisa Anderson, etc… In the conservative camp, there were people who have also made a political reputation, such as: Fareed Zakaria, Francis Fukuyama, Joshua Muravchik, Daniel Pipes, etc…

To consider the US policy in the Middle East without referring to the debate raging in the intellectual spheres, would be like amputating the analysis of an essential tool for understanding what was going on. I will then rely basically on the opinions and analyses provided by American academics who, whether in the wake of September 11, 2001 or before this event, raised the most pertinent issues. I may add that while this debate has been since the beginning nationwide, insofar as it concerns the elite involved with Middle East studies, it does not seem to have received the same reception in all the journals and specialized press. I try here to follow its echoes wherever it seemed most influential or most profound.


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[1] The term “Middle East” in this study is used for convenience, regardless of whether the author agrees on it or not. I have already made a critical analysis of this term in my book: The Bush II Years in the Middle East (2000-2008): A case study in the sociology of international relations. CS/Middle East Studies Book, (Charleston, SC. USA: 2012.)

[2] Mazen Mutabbaghani, Studies in Contemporary American Orientalism (in Arabic) Buhuth fil-istishraq- al-amariki-al-mu’asir. 1999. Saudi Arabia, p.26.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See more on this URL: http://etcweb.princeton.edu/CampusWWW/Companion/near_eastern_studies.html (accessed November 1, 2012).

[5] « NELL originally included faculty specializing in Hebrew and Judaic studies, but in 1986 the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies was established as a separate department. For some years NYU’s Program in Religious Studies also operated under the aegis of NELL. To better reflect its changing composition and orientation, the department changed its name to Middle Eastern Studies during the 1995-96 academic year. In 2004, in recognition of the developing scholarly range of its faculty, its name was changed once again, to Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies – abbreviated as MEIS.” URL :  http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/mideast/index.html (accessed November 1, 2012).

[6] See the Center for Middle Eastern Studies; URL: http://cmes.berkeley.edu/mission

[7] See more on this URL:  http://www.international.ucla.edu/cnes/people/faculty.asp (accessed November 1, 2012).

[9] See more on this URL: http://cmes.uchicago.edu/page/about-us (accessed November 12, 2012).

[10] “Founded in 1954 to further the systematic study of a vital, but largely unknown, part of the world.” See more on this URL : http://cmes.hmdc.harvard.edu/about/history (accessed November 1, 2012).

[11] See more on this URL: http://www.mei.columbia.edu/ (accessed November 1, 2012).

[12]« The encouragement of basic research in the languages and literatures of Asia has always been central in its tradition. This tradition has come to include such subjects as philology, literary criticism, textual criticism, paleography, epigraphy, linguistics, biography, archaeology, and the history of the intellectual and imaginative aspects of Oriental civilizations, especially of philosophy, religion, folklore and art. The scope of the Society’s purpose is not limited by temporal boundaries…” URL: http://www.umich.edu/~aos/ (accessed November 1, 2012). It publishes the Journal of American Oriental Society.

[13] Benjamin R. Foster, “Yale and the Study of Near Eastern Languages in America, 1770-1930,” Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Yale University.  URL : http://www.yale.edu/macmillan/cmes/publications.htm (accessed November 1, 2012).

[14] I refer thus to cognitive and social psychology, cognitive and psycho-sociology, behaviorism… whose output in discursive analysis is complementary to varied methods of analyzing quantitative data. Useless to say that any analysis of the Middle East issues without these precautions would amount to cover a political discourse with a pseudo-scientific luster, or deliver a journalistic report burdened with a jargon borrowed from social sciences.

[15]The sales of books related to Islam and the Middle East in Western countries have obviously increased in the period following immediately 9/11, according to some surveys. The increase in books’ sales was particularly noticeable for the translated Koran.