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Middle East

Quest for silence
The attack against academics of Middle East origin



Shirin Saeidi
November 25, 2006

A recent article in The Indianapolis Star titled “Middle East Academics Disregard the Quest for Balance” by Pierre M. Atlas, assistant professor of political science and director of the Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College discusses the academic quest for “fair and balanced” scholarship and argues that “Middle East academics” fall short of satisfying this academic requirement because in their discussions of the Israeli/US/Palestinian conflict, “Middle East scholars” do not present a “balanced and fair” depiction of the actual situation.

Atlas argues that during the 40th annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association, scholars from Lebanon argued that the Israeli invasion this past summer can be categorized as “aggression” and Hizbollah’s reaction as “resistance” (never mind that most of the world saw it this way too).  This does not settle well with Dr. Atlas, and he goes on to argue that these scholars are “biased.” This is a common attack against scholars, students, and writers of Middle East origin; however, at its core, such an argument is racist, and in fact, the discussion sheds more light on the orientalist nature of some U.S. academics than on the intellectual integrity of scholars of Middle Eastern origin. 

This position is flawed for endless reasons, so bear with me as I try to decipher it for those so blinded by their nationalism and religious extremism that they openly articulate derogatory statements. The position is as follows: Intellectuals of Middle Eastern origins are inherently “biased” in their discussions of the Israeli/US/Palestinian conflict because somehow they cannot disassociate their Islamic or Arab allegiances from their writing, and hence, their scholarship is always tainted. However, we do not hear this position against Jewish writers who directly and indirectly comment on the same conflict.

For example, no one ever says perhaps Elie Wiesel’s writing should not be taken so seriously because he is a Jew and a Holocaust survivor. In fact, he is viewed as having more insight due to his real life experiences and ethnicity. Producing a special on Israel, the Holocaust, Judaism, or peace and reconciliation? Call Wiesel. Teaching a course on political theory? Assign Hannah Arendt. The allegiances and biases of these writers are not questioned, certainly not in the way scholars of Arab or Islamic origins are scrutinized.

Likewise, we do not hear this position posed against scholars of Anglo-Saxon origin either, who are often more extreme in their attacks against Israel than scholars of Middle East origin. I could name over a dozen of such scholars and human rights activists who have labeled Israel a terrorist state and Hizbollah a resistance movement in American universities, conferences, and even in Congressional hearings. Does this mean that only non-Arab, non-Islamic, non-Middle-Easterners can study the Middle East because Middle Easterners are too emotional to fairly examine their own region?

Furthermore, why are academics of Middle Eastern origin described by their ethnicity? Is it to signify that their allegiance is always with their nation of birth, and hence, their scholarship should be disregarded? Do writers of other nationalities have more of a grasp over Middle East realities than academics from the region? This is a slap in the face to those of us who are truly dedicated to academia and work diligently to produce sound scholarship while understanding the gross human rights violations inflicted by governments in the Middle East. Ignoring our legitimacy promotes a crescendo attack aimed at pushing us out of academic and silencing our voices.

Atlas goes on to state that since no one can possibly have a comprehensive grasp over the “truth” of any situation, then “Middle East academics” should stop presenting their positions in conclusive terms. For example, they should not say that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon was “aggression,” for how can we ever be certain it was? 

Again, this post-modern perspective echoes throughout many American universities, and such a position attempts to present the conflict as a conundrum too complex to be articulated by anyone outside of the IDF, and certainly too subjective for an Arab or Muslim (whether or not he or she actual identifies with these identities or speaks solely from a humanist position. I guess this does not matter when one’s sole purpose is to discredit others’ writing). In philosophical discussions, it is true no one person has a complete grasp of the “truth.”

However, a political conflict that has been documented by the United Nations, human rights organizations, independent writers, NGOs, and the Israeli government itself for over 40 years does not fall into that line of debate. We are not pondering the origins of man or the roots of human sexuality; we are discussing an illegal occupation that sustains its sovereignty through indiscriminate killing of civilians, collective punishment, torture, and sheer terror. As an academic, regardless of my race and ethnicity, it is not my responsibility to ameliorate political realities, to equate the rock throwing of a 12-year-old with its military response, gunfire.

Equating these two situations does not make my writing “fair and balanced;” in fact, such an equation accomplishes quite the contrary. It would be intellectually dishonest and a disgrace to the academic community for me to equate disproportionate realities, for such comparison would insult the core of academic training. Being able to discern the nuances of political conflicts is a heavy burden that separates academic writing from everyday commentary.

However, that argument only flows if one views fostering global understandings and aiding peaceful reconciliation as academic responsibility. If one understands academic responsibility as providing ideological frameworks that sanction genocide and terror, then naturally the above argument does not resonate. Everyone concerned about the political situation in Lebanon or Palestine should work toward dismantling the illegal occupations of these two lands instead of trying to treat reactions to the occupations.  It’s actually quite simple, get off their land and they will stop attacking you. 

In my years of teaching, no one has ever asked me to bolster the perspective of slave owners during America’s slave trade. No one has ever asked me to equate the killing of 500 military officials by Leftist Argentineans during its dirty war with the disappearance of 30,000 students and intellectuals. No one has ever expected me to justify the Holocaust due to the transnational and national dimensions of politics in the Europe of the 1940s.

With those crises, there is the general understanding that dehumanization of an entire group is always wrong, and disproportionate state responses are always wrong. The killing of unarmed civilians is always wrong. However, I have been labeled as “biased” when lecturing on the Israeli/US/Palestinian conflict. The accusation is fueled by both my ethnicity and my refusal to excuse the genocide, which is taking place as I write, in Palestine. 

Nevertheless, many continue to unethically demand that academics of Middle East origin renounce their perspectives in order to promote U.S. foreign policy. They try to discredit us through labeling and name-calling. Perhaps their anger rests someplace else. Perhaps they understand that we are right and are well aware that our writings and activism engenders resistance from Lebanon, to Iraq, and Palestine. Maybe through our inexorable support of human rights, self-determination, and our unapologetic approach, we remind these analysts of the daily resistance that occurs throughout the Middle East. Maybe we exemplify the reality that in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq, or any place else on earth where illegal imperial expansion efforts are underway, there will never be peace without justice. Comment

Shirin Saeidi, adjunct instructor, Department of Public and International Affairs, George Mason University, USA. 

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