Monday, December 27, 2004

Gilles Kepel on Middle East Studies

Gilles Kepel writes on the state of Middle East studies in American campuses.
It seems that he shares my increasing scepticism on the value of work made by Edward Said and Bernard Lewis, the Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai of the field:
...the masters themselves have become increasingly political, making forays into domains further from the supply lines of their original expertise - comparative literature on the one hand, history on the other.
I never trust Said or his disciples, believing as I do, that the study of opera libretti or novels is as indispensible to international relations as grand pianos are for rock-climbing. Neither do I think that analysing the language used by scholars of the Middle East to uncover hidden assumptions of racism and imperialism will tell us anything useful: If anything, the prejudice is almost certainly much stronger coming back the other way. By refusing to put the material factors - economics, geography, oil and armies - centre-stage and refusing to take the ideologies of the region seriously in their own right, Said and company are condemning themselves to playing futile academic parlour games.

On the other hand, I'm cautious about Lewis, who in his eighties, has his best years long behind him. I've read some of his books, but I'm never convinced that his sources are either up to date or more than a canary peck of the available information.

The bunfight over Tariq Ramadan's visa, which Kepel mentions, is one indicator of the vastly polarised state of the whole field. Another is the controversies linked to Juan Cole, who now finds himself being sued by the Middle East Media Monitoring Institute, after alleging bias in its work, accusing it of having murky funding and, in another use of an increasingly common code-word, of promoting "Likud" views. Paul Rogers lost my respect when he compared this to Germany in the thirties in his lecture at Birkbeck on 11th November.