Asmea aims to attract centrist scholars such as Mr. Mabry, and its conference dealt with matters that are clearly off-limits at MESA unless approached from an anti-American and anti-Israeli perspective: terrorism and suicide-bombing, for instance. In point of fact, however, relatively few of the 250 attendees last weekend were scholars at universities. Many were members of the military, defense specialists, think-tank researchers and free-lance writers. The presence of the defense contingent was understandable: In today’s highly politicized academic climate, many scholarly societies forbid their members to consult for the U.S. military or intelligence services. The scholarship of Asmea’s members may be the government’s only academic resource for information useful in current Mideast conflicts.
That many of the papers at Asmea’s first annual meeting had a distinct “know your enemy” cast suggests that Asmea might end up just as politicized as MESA, except in the opposite direction. Such a result could turn off scholars who are sick of MESA’s ideological drum-beating but who are too liberal to join an organization that could turn out to be as closely affiliated with the right as MESA is with the left. It doesn’t help that Mr. Lewis and Asmea’s vice chairman, Fouad Ajami, the director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, have been vocal supporters of the Iraq war. Messrs. Lewis and Ajami are entitled to such an opinion but the academic climate in which they operate is unforgiving of deviants. Finally, the fact that Asmea refuses to disclose the sources for its original funding might send the message that there are some notorious conservatives behind the group.
“Balance of Power: A New Group Counters Leftist Agitprop in Middle East Studies,” WSJ, Friday 2 May, 2008.
A few thoughts: (1) The fact that so many members of the freelance, defense and intelligence communities were present says that the Association has a political orientation to boot. Lewis has for years argued that research on the Middle East, and other regions, should be useful, that it should compliment the work of governments and various other institutional bodies. Research should not simply be for research’s sake. The idea that ASMEA will be anything other than a “counterbalance” to MESA is a joke. (2) Anytime scholars or reporters complain that an organization or department is “politicized” they really mean that either their politics are not favored or that their work has been shunned, rightly or wrongly, because it challenged fundamental assumptions within their discipline. While the issue about MESA types using the Arab-Israeli issue a kind of litmus test is certainly true, at least in part, the formation of a parallel organization whose purpose is to provide an outlet for conservatives does not necessarily advance the cause of those who wish to study the region aside from the Palestinian/Israeli fault-line. In fact, it very well could (and probably will) alienate those looking to study North Africa, minorities, classical history, and other facets of the disciple which may or may not be of immediate strategic relevance, importance, or interest to the left or right. There is no evidence from any of the statements put out by conference participants or the panels that indicates that it is anything other than a right-leaning version of MESA, its left-wing counterpart (a description I am not all together comfortable applying to MESA; it ranges from apolitical to the obviously leftist; ASMEA seems to have a more military focus).