During my final year as an undergraduate student in Canada, I took a class taught by a professor whose monograph–which was required reading–argued that conflict, partisanship, and oppression in the Middle East were fundamentally attributed to tribalism. One lecture focused on honor killings as distinct from, and worse than, other kinds of domestic homicide because they were symptomatic of a violent (Arab/Islamic) culture. At another point in the semester, the professor suggested that Arab states should be thankful that they are in such close proximity to a democracy like Israel. It was in the context of conducting research for this class that I discovered Campus Watch, a project associated with the Middle East Forum that provides critiques of the discipline of Middle East studies in North American universities. Campus Watch highlights five main problems plaguing the discipline today: “analytical failures, the mixing of politics with scholarship, intolerance of alternative views, apologetics, and the abuse of power over students.” Initially thinking that I had stumbled upon a project that sought to combat the kind of offensive and deeply essentialist views that were being espoused in this classroom, I soon realized that this professor might have been just the kind of academic that Campus Watch lauded.
Campus Watch warns its readers against the “almost monolithically leftist” orientation of Middle East scholarship while, consistently deriding the work of scholars such as Columbia University’s own Lila Abu-Lughod, Hamid Dabashi, Rashid Khalidi, Joseph Massad, and a number of others, many of whom form the core faculty at MESAAS. Abu-Lughod, known for her scholarship on the “dynamics of gender and the question of women’s rights in the Middle East,” has been referred to by Campus Watch as “allegedly feminist” because, her work reflects a kind of feminism that challenges modernizing and colonial discourses by suggesting that non-Western feminists undermine their own needs by adhering to Western ideas of feminism.
What kind of danger does Campus Watch present to the discipline of Middle East studies? It advocates for a retrograde paradigm shift that rejects the possibility of more nuanced discourses on the complex and diverse Middle Eastern, Arab, and Islamic landscapes. Instead, it relies heavily upon harmful essentialisms and hyperbolic rhetoric that, as Steven Salaita notes in the January 2008 issue of Arab Studies Quarterly, “[capitalizes] on particular forms of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, using those sentiments to rationalize and justify the sort of restrictions they favor.” For example, Campus Watch featured on its website an article originally published in the politically far-right Front Page Magazine entitled “Hamas’s Academic Cheerleaders” which targets a number of scholars, including Columbia faculty, and disingenuously conflates criticism of Israel’s racist and discriminatory policies and support for Palestinian liberation with endorsing Hamas. Campus Watch consistently accuses those who challenge the colonial aspects of the Israeli state of being anti-Semitic and similarly accuses those who wish to combat Islamophobia of being apologists for jihad and terrorist violence.
Campus Watch seeks to delegitimize voices within the discipline of Middle Eastern studies that attempt to enrich our understanding of the region by illuminating perspectives that exist outside of hegemonic Orientalist discourses. It is crucial that we, as the next generation of scholars in regional studies, remain unmoved and continue to challenge problematic and reductive notions of culture and modernity within our respective fields.
Marianna Reis is an MA student at Columbia University. Her research interests include Palestinian identity, diaspora, and cinema. She is currently conducting research on representations of identity in political cartoons featured in Palestinian newspapers during the First and Second Intifadas.