Benjamin Baird and Winfield Myers
The University of Texas at Austin (UT) boasts a large and, at first glance, thriving Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES). Established in 1960 as an outgrowth of one of America’s largest liberal arts programs, CMES casts a wide net to offer an interdisciplinary program that draws on the expertise of 150 scholars with faculty appointments in 22 traditional academic departments.
Yet this behemoth academic unit, with few exceptions and despite this broad approach, is intellectually homogeneous. Characterized by tendentious, biased, and apologetical scholarship and teaching, such uniformity mirrors the constraints found in other Middle East studies centers nationwide. Collectively, they confirm what Bernard Lewis, the great scholar, observed in his autobiography, Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian (p. 278):
In Middle Eastern studies, it has become commonplace that certain lines of thought (if that is the right word) must be accepted and applied if one wishes to achieve appointment, promotion and tenure. This kind of enforced orthodoxy can extend even to learned journals and publishing houses and has been used to bring about a level of intellectual conformism unknown for centuries.
To cite but one example of the internal politicization of the discipline, as a matter of policy, CMES prohibits partisan political groups from speaking on campus. “Having someone come in and grind an axe on their perspective isn’t education,” then-CMES Director Kamran Scot Aghaie told the Daily Texan in 2007. History Professor Clement Henry left no doubt as to which “partisan” groups the department seeks to avoid: “There’s tremendous pressure from Friends of Israel on the academic professional,” he said. Other faculty agreed: “[T]he people advocating for the Israeli position win, in a sense, if they win this demand for balance,” Journalism Professor Robert Jensen added.
As the research below demonstrates, no such constraints deter these professors from presenting ahistorical, one-sided accounts of the Middle East. Whether designing anti-Israel curricula for secondary education, accepting funds from Islamist organizations, teaching from radical sources, or producing scholarship that advances an anti-American, anti-Western agenda, professors in CMES have clearly been hired and promoted with an eye to their ideological purity.
The size and interdisciplinary nature of CMES present difficulties for anyone assessing its quality. Given those complications, and the need to keep this report manageable, we chose eight tenured professors with full-time appointments whose work afforded an accurate snapshot of the program. To capture the faculty’s diverse areas of study and corresponding course offerings, specializations of the professors below include women and gender studies, post-colonialism, terrorism, Islamic studies, the Arab-Israeli conflict, authoritarianism, Egypt, and Iran. Because these fields are common in universities nationwide, including specialists in each of them allows for more accurate comparisons between CMES and Middle East studies programs at peer institutions.
While researching additional professors would certainly add to our body of knowledge about CMES, we do not believe it would change our conclusions significantly.