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Lawrence puts his hand in the flame of a match after lighting a cigarette.
POTTER: Ow! It damn well hurts.
LAWRENCE: Certainly, it hurts!
POTTER: Well, what’s the trick then?
LAWRENCE: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

–“Lawrence of Arabia,” the film.

By Barry Rubin

Engaging in Middle East studies, as Lawrence says about putting your hand in a flame, hurts. The trick “is not minding that it hurts” and trying to do a good job of it.

I’m trying to understand the history of Middle East studies in some of its bizarre twists and turns. This has become an important issue now that U.S. (and European) policies in the region have become so ignorant, ridiculous, and even suicidal. Why is the analysis of the region so badly done?

Let me begin with a story I’ve never told before. One day when I was a graduate student at Georgetown University about 35 years ago, I was sitting in the library. Professor Carroll Quigley walked up to me. Quigley was the best professor in the university, a living legend.

Bill Clinton later said that Quigley was his favorite teacher. I understand why and he really taught me a lot also. All honor to his memory. Remind me to tell you some day why he was so great and how he taught me to be a proper political analyst and historian.

He was a European historian who taught a remarkable–then mandatory–two-semester course on Western Civilization. The lack of courses like that are one of the main reasons for the decline of universities in America today. Quigley had no interest whatsoever in the Middle East.

At that moment, I was honored that he’d even speak to me though I’d worked hard in his modern history class and was prouder of my “A” there than any other grade I received in college. He told me that he’d been participating in the meetings to establish a new Center on Contemporary Arab Studies.

Referring to the academics dealing with the Middle East at Georgetown, Quigley remarked, “They certainly don’t like your people.” He went on to explain that their big selling idea as a way to get money from Arab governments was that if they called the project “contemporary Arab studies” they’d never need to mention Israel, except to say how awful it was.

To be fair to Georgetown, its president, Father Timothy  Healy S. J., returned a donation from the Libyan government because of that regime’s repressive nature. One of my professors who had held the endowed chair paid for by Muammar Qadhafi, responded by calling Healy a “Jesuit Zionist.”

From the 1950s until the 1980s generally in academia–and in think tank and government circles until very recently–Middle East studies and analysis was dominated by “national interest” people who were Realists. They put the main emphasis on maintaining good relations with relatively more moderate Arab governments in order to promote Western interests, contain the USSR and combat radical anti-American regimes (Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq, Syria, Libya) and later the revolutionary Islamists.

These people were often good scholars and well-informed people. They also tended to be anti-Israel precisely because they thought that country made it more difficult for them to achieve their goals (good relations with Arab regimes, quiet in the region, defeat of radical forces, popularity of America). But I could agree with them on most subjects and certainly  respected their work. They produced many good books.

Then came the young more radicalized generation entranced with Edward Said. The transition from the Realist pro-Americans to the radical anti-Americans was well-presented in Martin Kramer’s Ivy Towers Built on Sand.  When I first read it, I joked to Martin that this was my life story. Three anecdotes from experience:

–Before I ever published anything so nobody really knew my views, I applied (for the first and last time) for a teaching position at a major university. In the interview, one of the professors screamed at me: “How do you think you could possibly present the narrative of the Palestinian people!” The only conceivable reason for him doing that was his ethnic interpretation of my last name.

–The time when a graduate student went to his professor (whose name is very well known) and said he would like to do a dissertation on radical Islamic thought only to be told  that radical Islamic thought was a “Zionist invention” and that no such dissertation would be permitted in his department.

–The scene I witnessed at a Middle East Studies Association national conference about 35 years ago when a junior academic had just finished presenting a paper attributing the entire Lebanese civil war to Zionist machinations. Professor Malcolm Kerr (a stalwart “first generation” type, great scholar, and no friend of Israel) stood up and said: “I must be a member of that dying generation who still think you have to have evidence before making an assertion.” I remember his exact words because Kerr, who loved Lebanon, would later be murdered by Islamist terrorists there.

There were three differences between those two generations:

1. The first loved America (the same applies to European counterparts toward their own countries) and believed that its interests were legitimate and worthy of support.

The radicals hate their country and think it evil and imperialistic, having no regard for its interests. Actually, they side with its enemies. (They may deny this to you but I’ve been in enough private conversations and conferences to know that it’s true.)

2. The first generation believed in professional ethics and high levels of scholarship. My professor Hisham Sharabi, who supported radical Palestinian terror groups, would never think of punishing me for my differing opinions.

He even had me design his course on Arab political thought and joked to one of his Arab proteges, “Barry was the best student I ever had. Where did I go wrong?” Today, his equivalent would do everything possible to ensure that I never obtained a degree at all and no doubt would refer to me as a “racist, imperialist swine,” or some similar phrase of contemporary academic jargon.

The radical generation believes in neither professional ethics or scholarly standards and would do anything to promote their ideology, indoctrinate students, and ensure that those of different views would never get their degrees or jobs.  I could tell many anecdotes to demonstrate this point.

One amazing thing is that I cannot think of a single book of value on any subject regarding the Middle East produced by these hundreds of tenured radicals. Recently a university granted a professorship to a radical political activist who has never written a book and falsely accused a brave, pro-democratic Arab dissident of doing something that helped a dictatorship arrest and torture him.

3. The first generation disliked Israel.

The radical generation hates Israel so much that foam comes out of their mouths when they deal with it at all. They are consciously propagandists against its very existence and don’t feel the slightest need to even pretend to be balanced.

Today, we are in an era when the old group of scholars has almost totally disappeared. The romance with Edward Said, the radical Arab nationalist narrative, and even revolutionary Islamism has spread to mainstream journalism and even government.

But they face an interesting problem. Wouldn’t one expect semi-Marxist leftist progressives, or whatever they want to call themselves, thunder against the reactionary, clerical-fascist Islamists who want to mislead the toiling masses? Why do we keep hearing that the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizballah, and Syria’s regime are great people who are no threat to anyone, even that it would be either okay or a good thing for them to gain power?

This is baffling. Where can we find the staunch advocates of the Palestinian Authority who condemn Hamas? Where are the champions of Arab leftists or liberals who view Islamists as the enemy?

Well, of course, there are plenty of alliances between leftists and Islamists nowadays despite the fact that they supposedly disagree on everything except hating the West and Israel. Those points of consensus seem to be sufficient. With no radical leftist movements of any important anywhere in the Middle East, the academics have to turn to revolutionary Islamism for their vicarious thrill of being rebels.

The late Professor Fred Halliday, who I liked and respected though we often differed, was one of the last of that first generation. I teased him once that his typewriter–which shows how long I knew him–had a strange defect that made it type the word “imperialism” every time he finished writing the word “American.”

But Fred told me about an event that changed his life.

Like most of the left (and many others) then, Fred discounted the importance of the Islamists. In his book about Iran, published just before the 1978 revolution, he only mentioned Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once. Now, Fred was in Tehran on his way to visit the leftist newspaper established after the shah’s fall. He had many friends who worked there.

When he arrived at the building, however, he found scores of Islamic Revolutionary Guards looting the place and arresting the staff. The newspaper was closed down, his friends tortured and imprisoned. Fred never forgot this experience and became a life-long enemy of the revolutionary Islamists.

Then, too, Fred believed in academic standards transcending ideological politics. When the London School of Economics, where he taught, proposed taking money from Qadhafi, Fred wrote a memorandum arguing persuasively against the idea. Of course, he was ignored. Still, he’s the kind of Middle East scholar that used to exist.

A friend who was for many years the U.S. army’s leading specialist on the region explained why American policymakers didn’t listen to Middle East experts. Among the reasons given is that they were always wrong, didn’t understand foreign policy decisionmaking, had little regard for U.S. interests.

Unfortunately, now people like White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan and National Security staff member Samantha Powers are quite influential, while other “experts” fill the airwaves and news columns with ideas like the Muslim Brotherhood being moderate and the Israel-Palestinian peace process being on the verge of success if only Israel is sufficiently bashed.

Moreover, it’s been scarcely noticed that among Middle Eastern-origin professors and students at North American universities, the old-style nationalists or liberals have largely disappeared. The revolutionary Islamists tend to dominate, a fact that I first learned from a Palestinian nationalist student wearing a very large kafiya who was thoroughly disgusted by the enthusiasm for Hamas.

I’m nostalgic for that previous generation of liberal scholars and even the more thoughtful leftists of the past. We’ve gone steeply downhill since then.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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