Lion's Den: Middle East studies in upheaval

I devoted myself 30 years ago to proving that Islam profoundly shapes the political attitudes of Muslims.

July 5, 2011 23:00
4 minute read.
Daniel Pipes

Daniel Pipes. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The academic study of the Middle East and Islam by Americans is changing in fundamental ways. I offer some thoughts based on 42 years of personal observation.

From Western offense to Islamic offense: Muslim relations with Christians divide into four long periods: from Muhammad’s hijra to the First Crusade, 622-1099, during which Islam expanded at Christian expense; to the second siege of Vienna, 1099-1683, which saw a mix of Muslim advances (e.g., Anatolia) and retreats (Iberia); to the Arab oil boycott, 1683- 1973, with Christians on the offensive; and since 1973, with Muslims on the offensive.

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When I entered the Middle East and Islam field in 1969, Americans looked almost exclusively at the West’s impact on modern Muslims; today, the Muslim impact on the West features almost as prominently, from American slavery to the problems of Malmö, Sweden.

From Arab to Muslim: Books on “The Arabs,” “the Arab world,” “Arab politics,” “Arab nationalism” and “Arab socialism” flew off the presses during my student years. With time, however, the hollowness of the modern concept of Arabs became evident. I was one of those who argued for Islam as the defining factor, devoting myself 30 years ago to proving that “Islam profoundly shapes the political attitudes of Muslims.”

Met with skepticism back then, this understanding has now become so blindingly self evident that lists no fewer than 3,077 items in English on jihad.

From critical to apologetic writing: Little did I know, but taking up Islamic history when I did meant slipping in before the deluge of revisionism. Back in 1969, scholars respected Islamic civilization while usually (but not always) maintaining a proudly Western outlook.

Symbolic of old-fashioned learning, my first Middle East history professor assigned us Julius Wellhausen’s study, Das arabische Reich und sein Sturz (in English translation, to be sure), published in 1902.

Then came the revolution. Martin Kramer ascribes the changes in Middle East studies to the publication of Orientalism by Edward Said in 1978; I see it more resulting from the sharp leftward turn of universities. Whatever the cause, the field descended into revisionist, apologetic, jargon-laden, error-prone Third-Worldism.

The old masters dropped out of syllabi. The Hartford Seminary rapidly turned from being the premier Protestant seminary for missions to the Muslim world into an institution promoting Islamization. The academic understanding of jihad epitomizes this transformation: In a single generation, jihad went from being interpreted as aggressive warfare to moral self-improvement. And academics took their biased and shoddy work into government.

Academic work has sometimes become a near-parody of itself, with “specialists” “proving” such absurdities as: Ancient Israeli history is a creation of modern Zionist propaganda, the Islamist movement failed by 1992, water imperatives drive the Arab-Israeli conflict, and homosexuals do not exist in the Middle East.

As the maudlin eulogies to Said suggest, many remain in his malign thrall.

Kramer subjected Middle East studies to its first sustained critique in 2001.

From public indifference to engagement: The Middle East was politically prominent well before 2001, thanks to Cold War tensions, oil exports, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Iranian revolution. But American popular interest remained modest until 9/11 and the subsequent Afghan and Iraqi wars. That surge of interest led to a wide awareness about the inadequacy of academic work. With the help of sophisticated critiques like Kramer’s, plus organizations like Campus Watch, the public has become actively involved in opposing radical Middle East “specialists” – for example, through activism to deny them tenure. One finds no parallel in other fields.

From trendy to retro: Another response to this failure consists of authors – often from outside the academy – harking back to pre- 1980 scholarship to understand the region. Ibn Warraq, a pseudonymous ex-Muslim, published a sequence of books on the life of Muhammad, the origins of the Koran, its variants and meaning, all of them premised on generations-old writings. Andrew Bostom, a medical researcher, anthologized significant portions of pre-1980 scholarship on jihad and anti-Semitism. Historian Efraim Karsh wrote Islamic Imperialism, which argues that Islam’s expansionist tendencies have driven the religion ever since Muhammad’s wars.

These “old-fashioned” books are yet few in number compared to the revisionist cascade, but they mark a revival of ideas and themes that once appeared moribund. Their reappearance, along with the emerging presence of promising new scholars, signals that a sound understanding of the Middle East and Islam may yet return.

The writer ( is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

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