I am writing in connection with Eugene Rogan’s article, “No Debate: Middle East Studies in Europe,” which appeared in Middle East Report 205 (October-December 1997). Below, I comment on aspects of that article and contrast several others with the experience expressed in Lisa Hajjar and Steve Niva’s article. I highlight an omission from the issue as a whole.
The impact that Middle East-sourced funding and involvement of official representatives of regional governments in academic fora was overlooked in these two reports, yet it is one that could dramatically change the differing agendas within and the nature of the field of Middle East studies.
Rogan’s article does explain why the field of Middle East studies in Europe is not as disparate or riven as it seems to be in the US. He recounts factors such as the region’s proximity, the longer history of involvement, the impact of resident communities, the presence in European capitals of various Middle Eastern dissidents, opposition politicians and aspects of the current establishment and these are important. Indeed, in light of these, some Europeans and their political leaders have become de facto actors in the Middle East, and their streets occasional battlegrounds. It is for these reasons that Rogan observes that Middle East affairs can be “domestic issues” in Europe.
Because the European academy is less colored by superpower rivalries than the US and the relationship between government and the academy is very different in Europe there is still little consonance between national political strategy and mainstream currents in Middle East studies government funding has not been perceived as fostering political domination but rather serious European scholarship. However, we still have elements of what Niva and Hajjar, quoting Bruce Cumings, refer to as the “state/intelligence/foundation nexus.” As long as we have states and their “security interests” we will always have these institutional influences. They are probably the second largest employers of Middle Eastern studies graduates after the academy itself.
It remains, however, that funding and its structure is key to the field’s survival. This raises the issue of how Middle East studies explains itself to local foundations, the taxpaying public and regional funders. While Europe has not recently had anything to rival the US’s 1958 Title VI of the National Defense Education Act, we — in Britain at any rate — have seen massive growth in funding from parts of the Middle East, notably from the Gulf states and, to a lesser extent, Turkey. This official support for specific chairs and types of research activities has served to refocus the field not only on certain areas but in certain, occasionally uncritical, ways. This has, in tum, served to limit debate and the scope of scholarship on a range of subjects, especially regional politics and religion. In this regard, an article in the last issue could have commented on the recent reaction by California and Los Angeles-based Armenian groups to the prospect of a Turkish government paid chair in Turkish Studies at UCLA, with the implication that Armenian concerns over events between 1917 and 1919 would be ignored, let alone Kurdish, Greek, water or other issues. What of the Gulf funding at Exeter and Durham Universities in Britain? How has that impacted on scholarship there? Again in Britain, Manchester University was, for a long time, a recipient of high-paying overseas post-graduate students from Turkey, paid for by both the Religious Affairs Foundation (Diyanet Isleri Vakfi) and the Higher Education Council (YOK, or the Yuksek Ogretim Kurulu). Going even further back, what were the implications of Shah Reza Pahlavi’s construction of a Persian studies library at Wadham College, Oxford? What of academic positions provided for by explicitly Zionist sources?
Just as we recognize the implications of Western government or foundation funding and the agendas they set, we must recognize that Middle Eastern-connected money carries an agenda, too. This, coupled with the involvement of formal representatives of regional governments at Middle East studies lectures, debates and conferences, is turning the field, in certain areas, on its head. It has moved from being a sometime mouthpiece of the Western, imperialist state to a sometime respectable mouthpiece for certain, varying regional interests. The Turkish ambassador to London, for example, regularly attends academic events, questioning speakers according to that government’s agenda.
Such officials’ involvement can, however, be welcomed in the context of wider involvement of actors from and representing the region. Increasing indigenization or multinationalization of Middle East studies must be welcomed: we can only benefit from the wider analysis this kind of growth brings. Indeed, in Britain there are significant numbers of Middle Easterners involved in Middle East studies and, unlike the scenario described in Hajjar and Niva, quoting De Atkine and Pipes, this does not seem to have caused the dissent that seems to have occurred in the US.
However, if Middle East studies does not manage to secure a wide base of funding — which can include both regional and local sources — then the scope of debate could well be curtailed, especially where local foundations and regional governments are involved.
Hajjar and Niva’s conclusion is, it must be stressed, as true in Europe as in the US: Progressive scholars need to “exploit the porous boundaries between the academy and the political sphere.” The globalization of the Middle East studies field can only deepen the quality of debate and research, as long as broad-based funding is in place. Oppositional academics can indeed play a more public role in influencing the wider public and by extension the affairs of state. Such a profile-raising process can also help secure the funding required to allow the academy to set its own agenda, without undue interference from either regional governments or sources that may compromise free academic inquiry and pursuit. It is a goal that we all must strive toward. Keep up the good work!