Sam Husseini, who works with Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), recently gave us a glimpse into the bizarre and incestuous world inhabited by the mainstream media and the Middle East experts they parade before us. Sam has made available a transcript from a $250-a-ticket New York City fundraiser held by the Jerusalem Foundation in early June to help resettle Soviet Jews in Jerusalem. The main event, a panel chaired by CBS news anchor Dan Rather, featured Henry Kissinger, a CBS board member and frequent on-air pontificator, and Fouad Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies and CBS news consultant, whom Rather introduced as “one of our in-house wise men.” New Republic owner Martin Peretz opened the evening session and US News & World Report editor/owner Mortimer Zuckerman made the concluding appeal for donations. Both Peretz and Zuckerman are notorious for their hardline pro-Israeli views.
Kissinger epitomized the elevated tone of the evening when he declared that “you can’t really believe anything an Arab says.” Neither Rather nor Ajami offered any objection to this slur. For his part, Ajami stressed Arab political culture’s incompatibility with democracy. “I’ve never really wanted elections in any Arab or Muslim country,” he admitted. Recalling a visit he made with an Israeli “expert” to a Bedouin encampment, Ajami joked that “I insisted on only one thing — that I be spared the ceremony of eating with a Bedouin.” When Ajami proclaimed Arab nationalism “the most deadly ideology in the world,” Rather queried how “fundamental Mohammedanism fit into this.” At another point Rather emotionally expressed fear of the threat to Jerusalem from an Arab “population explosion.” CBS has a justified reputation as the most pro-Israeli and right-wing of the major networks, but this event marked a new low.
Back in the 1950s, the US government launched an effort to promote the study of the politics, history and languages of various regions of the world. The agenda was clear: Anxious to preserve (or extend) US hegemony in what was then coming to be called the Third World, the intelligence, military and policymaking institutions of the state desperately needed cadre who knew “strategic” languages (among them Arabic and Persian) and could help shape and implement policy for and in those critical regions. It was out of this Cold War conjuncture that most of this country’s Middle East studies centers emerged, supported by federal funding through programs such as the National Defense Foreign Language fellowships (renamed the Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships during the Carter years). Not a few of those who benefited from this federal largesse ended up opposing US policy, of course; but in Middle East studies as in similar fields, the production and dissemination of academic knowledge about the region has nonetheless been strongly influenced by the agenda and concerns of those officials and institutions in charge of the projection of US power over the region.
Despite the end of the Cold War, and the opportunity to separate federal funding for the study of the Middle East from policy concerns, Congress is currently finalizing the National Security Education Act. This act sets up a trust fund to promote undergraduate and graduate international studies programs, including Middle East programs, and will infuse a lot of new cash into Middle East studies, not a bad thing in itself. But the National Security Education Program (NSEP) is to be situated within the Department of Defense, and on its board will sit representatives of the secretary of defense, the director of the CIA and other such luminaries, who along with a number of scholars will set program priorities.
Numerous area studies organizations, including the Middle East Studies Association (which once used to be rather cozy with the intelligence agencies), have protested this arrangement. The Association of African Studies Programs has actually declared a moratorium on soliciting or receiving NSEA funds until the Act is amended so as to ensure that scholars, and not generals, spymasters and imperial technocrats, set academic priorities and goals. Despite these objections, it is expected that NSEP money will begin flowing in 1993.
Secularist Egyptians were stunned by the June 7 assassination of Farag Fawda, one of the country’s most outspoken critics of the politicization of Islam, who was gunned down on the streets of Cairo by a radical Islamist hit team. Fawda had long argued that by officially promoting Islam, refusing to democratize and suppressing open debate about the role of religion in Egyptian society, the Mubarak regime was playing into the hands of Islamist forces. While some fellow secularists felt Fawda’s tactics were not always effective, his murder tragically underscored his larger point. Egypt has witnessed a flare-up of sectarian violence in recent months, including an Islamist attack on Christian villagers near Asyout and sporadic clashes between armed militants and security forces. There are fears that the level of violence may increase further with the return of the “Afghans” — the thousands of Egyptians and other Arabs who volunteered to fight the Soviet army and its local allies in Afghanistan and are now coming back to escalate the struggle on the home front.
Egypt’s culture wars have continued in less deadly forms as well. Islamist activists in Egypt recently called for the demolition of the Cairo Tower, an observation tower on Gezira island in the center of the capital, on the grounds that it resembles a giant phallus and is therefore detrimental to public morality. This is not the first time the similarity has been noted: The Tower used to carry the nickname “Roosevelt’s erection,” after notorious CIA operator Kermit Roosevelt, who helped engineer the 1953 coup against the Mossadeq government in Iran. The story goes that President Gamal Abdel Nasser funded construction of the tower with a large sum of money offered him as a bribe by the CIA, thereby manifesting his rejection of US domination.