Terra Incognita: Deathly silence

The Western academy and tyranny in the Middle East.

In coming years we will all be treated to the “expert” opinion of Western academics that the Egyptian dictatorship was propped up by the West, and that any rise of the Muslim Brotherhood was the “fault” of the US and Israel. Before that happens, it should be recalled that whatever support the West provided Egypt’s government, that collaboration was matched by the Western academy, which has consistently turned a blind eye to tyranny in the Middle East. If the academy and its democracy-loving humanists truly supported democracy, they would have long ago stopped shipping legions of students to these countries, and stopped propping up institutions in the Middle East.
Over the decade I’ve spent at university, there doesn’t seem to have been a dictatorship where students didn’t want to study. Colleagues ventured to Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Morocco to learn Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. They joined the Peace Corps to work in Jordan. They rarely questioned the regimes in which they had chosen to study.
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In Jordan, my friend hid her Star of David necklace so as not to “offend” the local people she was “aiding.” In Yemen, another friend donned the burka to “blend” in to that culture. In one weird incident, American students at the American University in Cairo played dress up; one girl was the “Zionist entity” and the other students dressed as Hamas.
COLLABORATION WITH the regimes’ dictators was par for the course. One champion of study abroad is the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA), which maintains relations with 36 universities and colleges in the US. In 2009-2010 the program received 162 applicants, of which 39 received tuition-sponsored fellowships. Under the website’s “Frequently Asked Questions,” there are no questions alluding to the fact that study-abroad destinations are brutal dictatorships. The fact that local women are killed for ‘honor,’ or that recent studies showed 83 percent of Egyptian women report being sexually harassed in public was not part of the information provided to prospective candidates.
According to CASA’s annual report on Syria, its “cultural program... introduce[ s] students to the host culture and help[s] them interact with Syrians.” As part of the Syrian program there were field trips, visits to the cinema and meetings with actors. There was even a “student-led debate,” although it didn’t touch on politics but rather modern Arabic literary texts.
The list of participants in the program include highly qualified students from elite institutions; Georgetown, Yale and Harvard. So why is it that the best students in Middle Eastern studies are happy to drink dictatorial Kool- Aid in Damascus and Cairo? The answer the universities will provide is that it is best to study Arabic and the Middle East in the Middle East. There is no doubt about that. But the troubling aspect is whether the students who go to these countries ever question the abuses that are the daily fare there.
In her book The Bread of Angels, Stephanie Saldana described study in Damascus. She was taken aback, as I am, by the odd popularity of these dictatorships with American Jewish students. No matter that Syria suppresses its Jewish community, Saldana recalled, “there are so many [American] Jewish foreigners studying in Damascus that they may as well open their own yeshiva.”
They all hide their Jewishness, of course.
Rachel Levine, another Jewish woman who studied in Syria, recalled that “speaking with Syrian nationals about visits to Israel, tuning in to radio stations from the other side of the border or speaking Hebrew are all ill-advised.”
Saldana mentions in her book: “I’m tired of wondering which shopkeeper is watching me for the secret police. I just want something resembling a carefree day.”
IN OCTOBER, Morocco expelled Al Jazeera (Egypt has now followed suit) from the country. Morocco didn’t ban it for collaborating with terrorists, but rather for “irresponsible” reporting. It turns out the Qatar-based station had “tarnished Morocco’s image, downplaying its achievements in development, infrastructure projects, democracy and human rights.” It had “reported critically on poverty in Morocco and on its policies in the Western Sahara [occupied by Morocco in 1975].”
Western media, like the BBC and New York Times, know better than to go off the beaten track; they report that Morocco is a beacon of progress. Western- educated university students do the same as they are funneled in by programs at the universities of Montana, Kentucky and Georgia.
The SIT Study Abroad, which Brandeis offers its students, is “based in the cosmopolitan city of Rabat, [where] students study Arabic and acquire an indepth appreciation of a rich and rapidly changing society in Morocco.”
And to make sure the students don’t experience the fate of the Qatari journalists, they learn about “contemporary development challenges.”
Suffice it to say, the students aren’t going to the Western Sahara to ask about Morocco’s colonization of that country.
Likewise, the overthrow of the Tunisian dictator should remind us all of the blinders that our academic society has long worn regarding dictatorships in the Middle East. In August 2008 the International Geographical Union held its international conference in Tunis. Amid the festivities there was no inkling that the thousands of academics from around the world were being duped by a thuggish regime. You wouldn’t have known it either from the panel discussions at the conference, the field trips or back at the hotels. There wasn’t one discussion among the leading academics about the fact that this was a dictatorship.
But this isn’t surprising. Academics who preach about democracy at home in Europe, the US or Israel tend to have no hesitation about travelling to countries whose rulers do not share their political outlook. Consider the widespread Western academic collaboration with the United Arab Emirates. George Mason University, Michigan State, Harvard Medical School and Boston University all maintain satellite campuses there.
The UAE is a vile dictatorship, an apartheid country where only the 19% who are of Arab-Emirati descent have citizenship, and where millions of foreign workers are forced to slave in substandard conditions building a playground for wealthy Europeans and Saudis. These workers are housed in “work camps” outside the major cities, their passports confiscated, and kept conveniently out of the way so that no one must be bothered by their presence.
My friends who visited the Gulf related that local Emiratis brag about running over Indian and Pakistani foreign workers for fun, or beating their maids. In one of the more heinous reports related by the BBC, a Sri Lankan maid was tortured for months by her employer, who hammered nails into her body. A survey by Colombo University found that a quarter of the 600,000 Sri Lankan women who work as maids abroad had been beaten and raped and/or not received payment. At one employment agency, “the maids are advised not to run away from their employer if they encounter problems, but to maintain a positive attitude.”
Western universities have maintained that same brainwashed positive attitude.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.