Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Conventional wisdom among scholars of the Middle East is that the September 11, 2001 attacks left behind a threatening professional environment. Graduate students and faculty alike speak of hostile infiltrators in their classrooms, inevitably bitter tenure battles and the self-censorship that both can produce. At the same time, in the aftermath of September 11 Middle East scholars anticipated that the perennially spotty job market might improve.

Our research for Anthropology’s Politics, a book project under contract with Stanford University Press, thus far confirms that scholars have in fact gained new “opportunities” during the past decade, but with government agencies or NGOs rather than in academe, where tenure-track jobs (as in most fields) have become scarcer. Our data also shows that scholars employed at universities, particularly those without tenure, labor under greater surveillance and suspicion. While trepidation about this climate is general to Middle East anthropologists regardless of specialty, the vast majority of actual incidents have been related to scholars’ analysis of the conflict in Israel-Palestine.

Time and time again, in our interviews with anthropologists of the Middle East, they describe their jobs as “a minefield.” They may have problems explaining research on politically sensitive topics to their universities’ institutional review boards; they may see their grant funding denied or withdrawn; they may encounter prejudice among colleagues on hiring and tenure committees; and they may experience conflict with students when presenting critical perspectives on the US-led “war on terror.” Whether or not their difficulties were expressly tied to politics, faculty frequently linked their personal stories to the political climate. One person described the resulting fear as “knowing that people who fall on the wrong side can suffer in their careers.”

Scholars are increasingly worried about losing access to field sites and control over the use of their work. The new “security” orientation of the study of the Middle East and Islam has led to more frequent invitations from government agencies, Washington think tanks and military subcontractors. These invitations often make anthropologists nervous, as they do not want to be identified with US Middle East policy or have their insights employed in its formulation.

But when it comes to tangibly negative effects on careers and academic freedom, Palestine — not the “war on terror” — is the enduring issue. “The word on the street” in graduate school, many anthropologists say, is that “if you work on Palestine you will never get a job,” at least not in the United States. Indeed, Palestine frequently rose as a specter in anthropologists’ job interviews in the 2000s. In the words of one Palestine scholar, “It’s not what I said, it’s the subject I work on…. People don’t want to open themselves up to controversy — once the word Palestine is there, people say, ‘Why do we want to make everyone upset?’” Even scholars who research other countries were often questioned about their politics on Palestine during campus visits, sometimes point blank.

Quantitatively, we have found that Palestine is the number-one cause of persecution of faculty in the classroom, despite anthropologists’ assumption that everyone is at risk in the post-September 11 political climate. Many whose research does not focus on Palestine avoid it in their teaching, in part because they feel “on less sure ground,” but also due to worries about classroom consequences. Well-publicized right-wing attacks — from inside and outside the discipline — foment this atmosphere of apprehension. On Campus Watch, the most robust of the conservative websites that collects reports on scholars of the Middle East, the vast majority of the articles about Middle East anthropology or anthropologists concern Israel-Palestine. The question of Palestine also dominates the websites Discover the Network and Students for Academic Freedom, both sponsored by right-wing activist David Horowitz. This focus is not a post-September 11 phenomenon, but a continuation of decades of concerted agitation against those speaking out about Palestinian rights. There does, however, seem to be a difference in the scale and organization of the attacks, which are facilitated by the Internet and other new media, and have been strengthened by the deeper Islamophobia of the post-September 11 era.

Nevertheless, there were in fact more job opportunities for Middle East anthropologists in the 2000s than in the preceding decade. Our quantitative analysis shows, however, that the increase paled in comparison to increases in fields such as history, political science and religious studies — presumably because those disciplines are thought to provide bird’s-eye views of the region or explanations for the September 11 events. At the same time, the US government has presumed that anthropology is able to provide on-the-ground information useful for counter-terrorism, and thus anthropologists are heavily recruited to staff “Human Terrain Systems” or other military projects that depend on local knowledge. The recruitment efforts have met with little success, as they run up against the anthropological Code of Ethics and anthropologists’ political sensibilities, both of which prohibit such collaboration. The 2009 version of the Code of Ethics, currently under revision, clearly states that it is a set of guidelines for anthropologists rather than a binding document that adjudicates violations for its members. It states that “anthropological researchers must ensure that they do not harm the safety, dignity or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research or perform other professional activities, or who might reasonably be thought to be affected by their research.” The vast majority of anthropologists understand providing information to the US military to contradict this tenet of the code.

September 11 affected scholarly life by pushing many scholars to speak publicly about the Middle East and Islam. In this regard, the “war on terror” is viewed as both opportunity and danger-filled obligation, an ambivalence perfectly captured in one anthropologist’s phrase, “poisoned chalice.” While a few resisted sipping from this cup, explaining that their scholarly work was not so conventionally political, most felt that they faced an ethical imperative to correct stereotypes and dispel misunderstandings — even if they became subject to slander and libel.

September 11 also shaped scholars’ choices of field site and topic. Many anthropologists continue to shy away from Israel-Palestine. Some have begun to work on US military engagement in the region. Others have moved toward studies of Islam, although many anthropologists express concern that religion has come to stand in for the Middle East in the academy as it has in public discourse. It remains to be seen what impact the “Arab spring” might have on this trend.

In general, Middle East anthropologists share other Middle East scholars’ sense that American institutions of higher education have become battlegrounds pitting defenders of academic freedom against defenders of various state policies, particularly those of Israel. The explosion of media outlets and the corporatization of universities in the 2000s have created a feeling that off-campus forces have more power today than in the past to shape scholarly discourse. Even scholars with tenure often find civic engagement unpleasant, not because they do not want to speak to the public, but because uninformed political opinion often trumps fact-based discussion in these forums. Those without tenure, especially those whose specialties or views generate controversy, have to fear for their job security as well. Those who call for eliminating tenure would do well to recognize that such a move might diminish the supply of in-depth knowledge of the Middle East to the American public.

How to cite this article:

Jessica Winegar, Lara Deeb "The September 11 Effect on Anthropology," Middle East Report 261 (Winter 2011).
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