MESA - Middle East Studies Association

Letters from MESA Presidents


Letter from the President

Peter Sluglett, National University of Singapore; MESA President, 2013

(appeared in IMES, April 2013, Vol. 35 Issue 1)

A Turbulent Year

Looking back on 2012, which had just ended when I wrote the original draft
of this article, evoked a mixed bag of emotions. In Burma in April 2012, Aung San
Suu Kyi was elected to parliament, as part of what seems so far to be an ineluctable
process of transition to civilian rule. In November, in spite of what media hype
presented as likely to be an extremely close call, Barack Obama was easily reelected President of the United States–an election in which I had a special interest
as a newly minted US citizen, voting for the first time. Neither Israel nor the United
States attacked Iran, a prospect that even seems to be receding, although neither
party has ruled out that scenario entirely. Otherwise, apart from feel-good events
like the Olympics, I am not sure that there was a great deal to celebrate. Others may
disagree, and I will return to this theme later.

For the past year and a half, I have been attached to the Middle East Institute
of the National University of Singapore, living in a lively and vibrant city, very far
from both the United States and the Middle East. It is a pleasant and in some sense
almost effortless place to live–little in the way of the grinding poverty visible in parts
of, say, Cambodia or Indonesia, a friendly and fairly open multi-ethnic society, a
relatively open intellectual environment, and a place where things almost always
work. Five million people are crammed into 274 square miles–so the subway at
rush hour provides a Tokyo-like experience. The National University of Singapore
ranked 40th in the international league table of universities, between the Australian
National University and Washington University in St. Louis in 2011. At some point
in the early 2000s, about 8 per cent of GNP was being funnelled into the university.
The variety and range of food is greater than anything I have experienced anywhere
in the world, and we have barely begun to scratch the surface of what is on offer.
Almost daily rain waters broad lawns and a variety of trees on a very attractive
campus (and one of the oldest public Botanic Gardens in the world), although it takes
time to acclimatize to the humidity.

Most people in Singapore do not know much about the Middle East, although
in a fine display of even-handedness the country has diplomatic relations with
Iran, Israel, Turkey and all Arab countries. Like many other resource-poor
states, Singapore’s main interest in the Middle East is the security of its own and
its neighbours’ oil supplies; the government is clearly concerned about possible
insecurity in the Gulf, events in Iran, the effects of the Arab revolutions, and so
on. A lecture I attended recently by the Deputy Prime Minister began with the
words: “Diplomacy and defence in Singapore are twins”; a small country cannot
threaten others, and Singapore generally maintains good terms with its much larger
neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia. There is a lively cultural life, and Singapore’s
location means that it is less than three hours’ flight away from some particularly
memorable sights, sounds and smells and beaches. I very much enjoy living here.

In general, as Fred Donner’s presidential address made clear, it’s difficult to be
very confident about the future of our field, or as confident as I once was. I am all
too well aware of the difficulties which young people now face in entering this most
enjoyable and satisfying profession, and I wish I could persuade myself that they
will eventually find academic life as relatively straightforward as I have. But I find
myself writing many letters of recommendation for some quite brilliant young people
for the same few positions; the only obvious growth is in security studies, “terrorism studies”, and so on, which have not interested the young people for whom I am writing the letters. Although we have not fallen off the fiscal cliff, I presume that the sequester means that the severe curtailment of Title VI funding will be reversed, which means that enrollments in our field will decline. It seems difficult to convince lawmakers that this yo-yoing of government funding for less commonly taught languages and area studies is against the national interest. The only crumb of comfort I take is that survey courses on Islam or Middle Eastern history are quite widely available at a increasing mass of tertiary institutions all over the United States, and to a comparable extent in Europe. I have little sense of the quality of these courses, but if more people are interested in studying the field, I can only hope
that this will yield dividends in the long run. Funding, of course, is another matter.

Let me go back to my first thought, what we have to be happy about, or celebrate. Late in 2011 I wrote: “Over the last few months I have felt a certain frisson of
excitement as I listen to the news each morning: which seedy dictatorship, princedom, shaykhdom, or kingdom will be the next to feel its people’s wrath? All through the spring of 2011, the new York times devoted a quarter page every day to a round-up of Middle East events, with a couple of sentences on the latest developments in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia,
Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and so on. After some 45 years’ engagement with the Middle East, mostly at academic arm’s length, it is immensely refreshing and exciting to live
through these extraordinary events."

Now, in April 2013, I’m a little less confident. Let me qualify that. Needless to say, I have no nostalgia for the past, the good old days of Ben ‘Ali, or Qadhdhafi,
or Mubarak. They have gone as a result of a series of quite remarkable manifestations of “people power.” And I agree with the sentiment expressed by Sheri Berman in
the latest Foreign Affairs to the effect that all revolutions are messy and take many years to settle down: we are at the beginning, rather than anywhere near the end, of a long period of transition. “There is little reason,” she says, “to expect the Arab world to be a permanent exception to the rules of political development.” It is also the case that the regimes that have come to power over the last year that trouble many of us are the part of the legacy both of the colonial state and of the post-colonial state. Authoritarianism cannot be removed by fiat. That is a perfectly rational and I would guess accurate assessment. After all, the opponents of Mubarak, or Qadhdhafi, or Asad, really only agreed on what they did not want, which was equally true of the ill-assorted coalitions that sprang up to counter the colonial states in Egypt, or Iraq in the 1950s, only to disintegrate within a few months, leaving the armed forces in charge almost everywhere.

The fact is that most of the readers of this newsletter are sitting in relative comfort on campuses far removed from the streets of Cairo, or Tunis, or Damascus. Most
of us don’t have to endure the constant disruptions, or outbursts of anger and hostility, shops closing, school years interrupted, economies not showing any visible signs of improvement, unemployment rates as high as ever, and so on, and so on. Of course we rejoice that the tyrants have been overthrown, we empathize, we try to explain, we want to shelter persecuted academics or graduate students
as best we can. But I recall the dedication in the front of Shaul Bakhash’s book on the Iranian revolution, the Reign of the Ayatollahs, published in 1985, which reads
“…to my Iranian friends, who loved the revolution, not knowing it would not love them back.”

I think that this sentiment may well find an echo among the veterans of Tahrir Square or in Tunis. It does not matter if things have not turned out as we might have
liked, but it does matter if the way things have turned out has succeeded in alienating any sizeable number of those who were prepared to give their all for a better life, a better society.

I suppose the jury will be out on this for a long time.


Letter from the President

Fred M. Donner, University of Chicago; MESA President, 2012

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February 2012, Vol. 34 No. 1)

As 2012 begins we once again hear the unmistakable drumbeats of those preparing themselves—and us—for the next war. With the Iraq war behind us, at least in terms of active military engagement, and with America’s adventure in Afghanistan apparently beginning to wind down, we now see Iran looming as the next target. 
The signs that those who shape American foreign policy are grooming us, as American citizens, to support some kind of attack on Iran are many and unmistakable. They resemble eerily the portents we saw as we were being prepared, in the fall of 2002 and early months of 2003, to support an attack on Iraq. They were already noticeable several years ago, and since then have mounted steadily month by month. These signs include the persistent identification of Iran as the “problem” through alarming news stories, dire reports from murky “think tanks” dealing with foreign policy, and dark comments made by officials of the current administration. They also include sustained efforts to advise Americans of the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program, since the specter of weapons of mass destruction is the surest way to persuade a skeptical electorate that nothing short of war will solve a problem. Then there is the determined effort to marshal international support for sanctions that, inevitably, will fail to have much effect but will provide the necessary fig leaf of justification before moving to the ultimate recourse, war. Finally, we note the brinksmanship over such tactical concerns as the passage of ships through the straits of Hormuz.
Despite these ominous signs, however, war against Iran is not inevitable. The decision will hinge, I believe, on how public debate over the issue unfolds in the year ahead. And it is here that MESA may play a crucial role.

MESA is, of course, a non-political organization dedicated to the pursuit and advancement of rigorous scholarship on the Middle East. It cannot, should not, and does not take any official position on the question of whether America should go to war against Iran. Our organization is open to all scholars, both those who may support such a war and those who oppose it; indeed, MESA must continue to remain open to all points of view if it is to sustain meaningful dialogue on this and other contentious issues of our day, dialogue conducted on the basis of sound information, reasoned deduction, and mutual respect, rather than on the basis of fear, emotionalism, and contempt.  It is for this very reason that MESA is the ideal forum for such dialogue, on Iran or on any contentious issue, and why it is essential that MESA eschew taking an official position as an organization on any issue, even though every one of us, individually, will likely hold strong opinions on them, one way or another.

This does not mean, of course, that MESA must passively watch events as they develop, but otherwise do nothing. MESA’s greatest asset is its membership—you. Collectively, we represent one of the greatest concentrations of culturally aware, historically grounded, and intellectually sophisticated understanding of the Middle East in the United States, and probably in the world. While as an organization MESA takes no position on any political issue, our association can nevertheless insist that public discussions of policies related to the Middle East be based as much as possible on facts, realities, and sober reflection. It is our responsibility, as members of MESA, to help hold our politicians and the press accountable, by presenting the factual information needed to challenge them (or anyone else) when they make public remarks about the Middle East and its peoples that are misleading, bigoted, or simply false—something that, as we all know, happens all too often, especially in an election year such as this one.

Several of my predecessors as MESA President—indeed, maybe most of them—have enjoined you to be bold in sharing your expertise through Op-Ed columns, letters to the editor, public lectures, media appearances, and other vehicles that can bring to the North American public solid knowledge, rather than biased opinion, about the Middle East. I add my voice to theirs, for we should consider such contributions one of the highest forms of service that we can perform, as scholars, both to MESA and to our fellow citizens. Only by keeping the level of public discussion high, and by making sure that facts and not falsehoods provide the supporting evidence in such discussion, will public opinion and government policy on the Middle East have any hope of finding a sound basis. Reasoned debate based on reliable information, not achieving any specific political position, is MESA’s goal.

And it is, of course, not only the question of whether America should, or should not, eventually wage war against Iran on which we must share our knowledge. We should seek to ensure that sound information is brought to bear also on the many other contentious issues that mark today’s Middle East: Israel and Palestine, Turkey and the Armenian and Kurdish questions, the role of Islamists in government in Egypt, Tunisia, and many other countries, the continuing unrest in Syria and what to do about it, human rights restrictions in the Gulf states and elsewhere—all these and many others are questions on which MESA takes no stand officially, but about which many of you know a great deal. Those of you who feel comfortable doing so—and I hope many of you will—owe it to your fellow citizens to speak out on these issues, frequently if possible, forcefully if necessary, bringing the full weight of your expert knowledge and insight to bear on the public discourse. The debates on such issues may be lengthy and unpleasant, but as long as these debates are based to the fullest extent possible on demonstrable facts and sober reflection, we can hope that whatever policy is eventually adopted will be seen in retrospect to have been the best choice available. We owe it to ourselves, to our fellow citizens, and to the peoples of the Middle East to be sure that we supply the essential facts and insights necessary for such informed debate.

It is not merely on matters of contemporary interest, furthermore, that MESA’s membership needs to be heard. Many MESA members—myself included—study mainly the pre-modern Middle East and its cultures. No one expects us to publish Op-Eds on what America’s policy toward the Ottoman Empire should be, or on whether the Abbasid caliph al-Amin or his brother al-Ma’mun has the stronger claim to rule. And we may not feel that we have the expertise to pronounce knowledgeably about current events. But there are many aspects of the Middle East’s history and pre-modern cultures that are still relevant today, knowledge of which is indispensable to sound decision-making even for contemporary issues. Officials and pundits who should certainly know better are on public record with comments that display shocking ignorance of, or that grossly misrepresent, such basic things as the difference between Sunni and Shi’i Islam, the events of World War I and their role in shaping the map of the modern Middle East, the teachings of the Qur’an and Islamic law on a variety of subjects, and countless other things. As academicians, we need to write (and speak), sometimes at least, in a manner that is not academic, but rather designed to communicate to a general audience at least the most basic points about our own area of special knowledge—whether in a book for the general readership, a magazine article, an Op-Ed piece, or a letter to the editor—or an open lecture at a public library, local church, mosque or synagogue. The public, I believe, is thirsty for straightforward, plain-spoken, unbiased, and well-informed presentations on all manner of subjects relating to the Middle East—presentations grounded in fact and not motivated primarily by current political objectives.  From my own limited experience in writing for the general public I have learned that, overwhelmingly, people really appreciate it. And because they appreciate it, they listen. And having listened, they are themselves in a better position to raise questions, to challenge stereotypes and misinformation, and to contribute to well-informed discussion. They sign petitions, make donations, write their Congressmen, and vote. This is why it is so important for MESA, through its members, to reach out to them in whatever ways we can.

So, I encourage all of you now and then to pick the topic with which you feel most comfortable, to leave your technical jargon and footnotes in your study, and to make an effort to share some of your hard-earned knowledge and experience with your fellow citizens in a clear and informative way. This being, as I noted before, a very political year, there is no better and more important time to do so than now.

Letter from the President

Suad Joseph, University of California, Davis; MESA President, 2011

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February 2011, Vol. 33 No. 1)

Presidents often use this annual letter to the membership to address the conditions under which we carry out our research as scholars of the Middle East or the conditions of our organizational lives together within the Middle East Studies Association. However, the January, 2011 events in Tunisia register the immediacy of the focal population of the Middle East that calls for our attention–the youth. The dramas and dilemmas of their futures raise for us questions of what responsibilities we, as scholars of the region, might have toward these youth. These images pop up on our screens, demanding space on scholarly agendas.

The street protests which overthrew the 23-year authoritarian rule of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia on January 14, 2011 appear to have been ignited by the December 17, 2010 self- immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year old street food vendor in Sidi Bouzid. The story quickly spread virally on social media that Mr. Bouazizi was beaten and humiliated by 45-year-old Fadia Hamdi, a female police officer and her fellow officers. His wares, his livelihood, were confiscated, as they had been numerous times before, because he did not have a vending permit (some reports indicate a permit was not required, but bribery of officers was). His mother was reported to assert that it was the public humiliation, not the poverty that led to his suicide. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media flashed updates and clips of the deadly events from street to street as thousands of youthful demonstrators, males and females, confronted police in what was dubbed the “Jasmine Revolution” or as a report called it, the “Twitterized Revolution.”

June 13, 2009 thousands of Iranians, mostly youth, males and females, took to the streets to protest the results of the Iranian presidential elections which they saw as rigged. In one candle-light vigil, over 100,000 protestors mourned those killed in the demonstrations. The protests continued for weeks, with street battles leaving dozens of dead and more wounded. The killing of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, by the Basij, on June 20, captured by amateur video, spread virally as soon as it was posted on YouTube and Facebook. Seen by millions all over the world, the video of Neda’s killing was perhaps the most watched death in history. The young Neda became the human face of the protestors and of the government’s oppressive technologies. Twitter feeds and cell-phone pictures kept the young protesters and the world riveted to the events which came to be called the “Green Revolution” (after the colors of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi) or the “Twitter Revolution” in recognition of the power of social media in mitigating censorship. 

On February 14, 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri was assassinated in a car bomb in Beirut. With fingers pointing at Syrian involvement, tens of thousands of anti-Syrian protesters, mostly youth, males and females, took to the streets on February 21, 2005 to call for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. By March 8, a pro-Syrian demonstration organized by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah drew a crowd of anywhere between .5 to 1.5 million, largely young men and women. On March 14, by some counts, a million demonstrated, again in Beirut, in commemoration of Harriri’s assassination–a non-sectarian turn out that developed into the March 14 movement.  Mainly youthful in compositions, these demonstrations and counter demonstrations continued for weeks and months, as did the assassinations. Sometimes called the “Cedar Revolution” or the “Intifada al-Istiglal” (Independence Uprising), the demonstrations and international pressure led to the withdrawal of 14,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon after an occupation of almost 30 years. Facebook, YouTube and other social media kept the protesters and the world tied to the compelling events on the streets of Beirut–and triggered sympathetic demonstrations of Lebanese in the diaspora. Feeds on social media focused on the young faces of hope, as the overwhelmingly youthful demonstrators dashed themselves into history.

These, and other examples one might give, direct our attention to the authoritarian regimes, the lack of civil society, the suppression of public speech and press, and the corruption in many Middle Eastern governments–all of which are well known. However, they also point us toward the faces in the crowds, the possibilities of their futures, and the technologies they master to navigate their circumstances. They point us to the youth of the Middle East, the conditions of their livelihoods, the institutions facilitating/obstructing education, the doors open/closed for jobs, the avenues open/closed for political engagement. In each of these sites, the stories are disturbing.

Middle Eastern children and youth constitute two-thirds of the populations of almost all Middle Eastern countries. The “youth bulge” refers to the demographic condition facing most of these countries, especially in the Arab world. Adolescence and youth (the ages of 15-29) count over 100 million in the Middle East, over 30% of the population of the region. The main reason contributing to the “youth bulge” is the improved health conditions leading to a decline infant mortality in the 20th century. High fertility with improved infant survivability produced the biggest youth bulge the region has ever known. The growth rate, at about 2% per annum, is higher than the world average of 1.2%. While there is unevenness in the region, the youth bulge will remain for a generation in the region until the expected general decline in fertility manifests itself in a reduction in youth.

In an area of the world that produces critical sources of world wealth, the rates of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and underemployment, and health problems among children and youth are often staggering. Since the early to mid-20th century, when most of these states gained independence, the story of state-making and of nation-building has been a story of failure. Nationalist and pan-nationalist movements have stalled or left their followers disillusioned. Wars and violence have forced many of the young to leave or try to leave their countries.

For over the past half century, the majority of these children and youth have grown up at high-risk, their futures filled with political uncertainty and likely violence. For many youth, the state offers little hope for the future. For many youth their futures are routed through family relations which are themselves complicated as both sites of security and sources of oppression. Many youth have to postpone marriage and family formation (what is called “waithood”). Many are unemployed or underemployed–indeed the highest unemployment rates in most countries are among the youth, averaging 25% for the Middle East as compared to 14% for youth globally. Some are mobilized into militias, resistance movements, or sectarian/religious movements. Islamist movements, which swept through the region since the 1980s, are among a variety of alternatives for some youth who try to claim a vision for their future. Many try to leave their natal countries. Many migrate internally, willingly or reluctantly.

Middle East youth are often seen in global media as violent, radical, religious fanatics and terrorists. Despite the great heterogeneity of the region in religion, in ethnicities, in national cultural histories, the Middle East and the youth of the region are often viewed as Islamic and Islamic fundamentalist. 

Most Middle East youth are just trying to survive, obtain some education, manage a livelihood. A majority of the youth in the region are disillusioned with their political leaders and governments. They focus on their families and their lives. Yet, they are capable of momentous political and social action–as the events in Tunisia, Iran, Lebanon, and other countries demonstrate. Their aspirations can be tapped. Their hopes can be ignited. Their humanity can be stirred to action. And they are using new technologies, the social media, to animate their actions–regardless of their levels of education. For scholars of the Middle East, these events call for us to read them, understand them, translate them beyond the easy and ready-made categories of analysis. 

It is telling that the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian youth whose self-immolation triggered the fall of a political dictator, contended that his suicide was not for a politics or an ideology. It was for dignity. She claims it was the humiliation that he suffered that he could no longer tolerate. The resulting Tunisian protests also appear non-ideological, not driven by Islamists or political parties. They appear to manifest the cry of a human condition, the demand for human integrity, the insistence on openings for futures free of authoritarian regulation–futures which facilitate the possibilities of creative human production. This too, is part of our responsibilities as researchers of the Middle East–to capture the human condition as we describe, analyze, and translate the humanity we have chosen as the focus of our scholarly production. 

Letter from the President

Roger M.A. Allen, University of Pennsylvania; MESA President, 2010

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February 2010, Vol. 32 No. 1)

As I write these words to you in early December 2009, I have just listened to President Obama’s speech at West Point Military Academy in which he laid out his rationale for sending more troops to Afghanistan. I do not propose to debate the many issues involved here, but merely to point out that one thing he clearly recognized in his remarks (and one that reflects my own experiences thus far as President-Elect of MESA) is that political debate in this country has become regrettably polarized. Debate, in and of itself, is of course part of the bread-and-butter of academic life, but the volume of noise being created by groups and individuals on the extremes of the American political spectrum, particularly in certain media outlets and via the internet, seems to have succeeded in diminishing the role of, or at least the public concern with, that central space in which reasoned debate may occur. And it is there, needless to say, and in discussions of the Middle East region specifically, that MESA’s valuable role should reside. As if to confirm this impression of mine, the same week brings me news of renewed attacks on our colleagues at Columbia University, to which has now been added Rutgers University in New Jersey, involving an investigation of the New York-based Alavi Foundation and its alleged links to the government of Iran.

This all sounds depressingly familiar (not least in the context of recent issues at UCLA), but the President’s speeches, the one in Cairo a few months ago and the other on Afghanistan of December 1st, 2009, both strongly suggest that the quest for common ground within which issues can be debated by reasonable people with different views is essential to the maintenance of the fabric of American society and, of more relevance to MESA, to the promulgation of a new set of policies towards the Middle Eastern region and its many and varied nation-states. When certain Americans can apparently see fit to propose a linkage between the words “Barak” and the Semitic word for “lightning” (barq) and thence to the concept of “Satan,” blissfully ignorant of the fact that two separate Semitic consonants are involved, and, more recently, can cite the text of one of the nastiest psalms in the Hebrew Bible, Psalm 109, and its v. 8 in particular (“Let his days be few; and let another take his office”) in “blessing” the President of the United States, we obviously have to keep plugging as best we can, however challenging the task of confronting such attitudes may be. Here I can do no better than quote from last year’s letter from my predecessor, MESA’s past-president, Virginia Aksan: she urged us all “to assume more public roles and use our expertise to inform; to defend vigorously the right to access of information and to freedom of speech as the basis of a democratic society….” She went on to praise the work of MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom. While many of that important committee’s investigations are focused on the Middle East region itself, the very existence of a sub-committee that deals with issues in the United States and Canada is surely a reflection of the ways in which those very rights and freedoms to which she draws our attention are sometimes being challenged, more often than not in the cause of a particular political agenda.

Rather than dwell yet further on these broader elements of difference, I much prefer to stay focused on MESA as an organization. At this particular point in the year (early December) I find it considerably easier to do that because I am still basking in the memories of yet another wonderful annual conference, held this year in Boston (and I can still recollect the sense of invigoration that I felt after attending my very first MESA conference in 1969!). This year’s conference, it seems to me, reflected the features of all the others that I have attended over previous decades. With its enormous wealth of panels, thematic discussions, and special sessions focusing on the different countries and languages of the Middle East region and adopting an equally large variety of themes and theoretical approaches, it is already a feast for the mind. If we add to that the opportunity to greet old friends and colleagues and to make new ones, as well as the occasion to survey the output of our field in book and media form, then it becomes a means whereby we may all feel renewed and energized. And that is not even to mention the aerobic effects of the new and obviously very popular dance-floor during the post-Presidential-speech reception (in which I myself participated for a full ten minutes before bequeathing the floor to a younger generation…!)

The variety of varieties that I have just alluded to includes within its purview another notion, that of diversity. Whereas the concept of polarization to which I referred above implies a deliberate and orchestrated push towards two poles—in other words, away from a central space, diversity acknowledges that there are, that there must be, differences, but that those points of difference are not only to be respected but also to be seriously debated within a central space that is implicit in any celebration of the notion of diversity. It is in such a context, it seems to me, that MESA as an organization is a priceless asset. As such, it needs to be cherished; and, if that sounds a bit mushy, then I will rephrase it by pointing out that it is thus the charge of the duly elected Governing Board and officers of the Association to do all they can to ensure that MESA not only continues but that it thrives.

Within such a frame of reference I would now like to address two issues that were very much the concern of your MESA Governing Board at the recent meetings in Boston. While they can be separated, there is a real sense in which they are interlinked, and it will surprise no one, I suspect, to learn that they both concern finances in one way or another—although each raises other important issues for the future. As we all know and indeed enjoy, MESA is now a very large aggregation of Middle East specialists, although we still cannot rival in conference numbers the figures boasted by our colleagues in history, modern languages, religion, anthropology, and the like. One feature of such conferences now, and presumably one that will only increase as time goes by, is the use of technology in making presentations. We are now living in what seems to be a transitional period in which the purely textual (if one may refer to older methods of research-paper delivery that way!) is being enhanced or even supplanted by reference to the visual. Such modes of presentation are no longer the preserve of disciplines such as art-history which have long recognized such adjuncts as essential to any lecture. The availability and frequent use of such computer-based programs as Power-Point implies that the widespread availability of technology will move (is already moving?) to a point at which it will be unusual for it not to be used (and I attended more than one session in Boston recently, as most of you probably did as well, where such was the case). And therein lies the financial rub, as it were, in that it turns out that the costs of renting technological facilities joins the sale of alcohol as a major money-maker for hotels. Recent MESA conferences have seen us paying up to $40,000 for technology alone, although, by following fairly “Draconian” procedures regarding technology-usage in 2009, we have reduced the amount to about $15,000. Even so, that remains an amount that cannot be sustained unless the entire financial basis upon which the annual conference of MESA is founded is to be reconsidered. So here indeed is an issue where modernity and advances in technology confront financial realities. In a nutshell, is the future of technology to be reflected in an increase to be imposed upon the membership as a whole (either through membership fees or through registration costs for the annual conference) or is it rather to be imposed upon the increasingly large number of individual members of MESA who choose to make use of such (currently expensive) technology in their presentations to the conference?

The other financial issue is one that has confronted the Governing Board as a consequence of the choice of hotel for the 2010 conference in San Diego. The membership has already been polled for its opinions on that topic. Since the results of that process have already been published, I do not wish to explore the issues further here, but merely to consider some of the broader corollaries of the situation. I wish to begin by pointing out that our incredibly hard-working and loyal executive staff spends a good deal of time endeavoring to make sure that the costs of our annual conferences remain with the reach of the budgets of its members, whether claimed from universities or based on personal funds. In order to obtain favorable hotel rates, that implies that reservations for future meeting-sites have to be made many years in advance. Furthermore, because of the increasing size of MESA as an organization and thus of attendance at its annual conferences, MESA is forced to commit increasingly large guarantees in order to reserve such space and facilities. In such a context, it is obviously possible that, at any moment right up until the week of any particular MESA conference, some decision may be made locally or nationally, some action may be taken—a strike of workers, a call for a boycott, and so on—that may impact upon the location for the MESA conference selected many years earlier. When the issue of California’s Proposition 8 and responses to it came up with regard to the 2010 meeting of MESA in San Diego, the Board took the unusual step of conducting a poll of the membership. Fully 71% of those members of MESA who responded said that we should meet in San Diego and in the hotel where we had a contractual obligation of $98,000 (which, now that we are within the year in question, has risen to $300,000). However, many respondents went beyond that to note that MESA should adhere to its primary mission and not adopt specific positions on controversial issues. In a previous paragraph of this letter, I spoke in positive terms about the values of diversity, but it is surely that very diversity, in this case involving opinions about a wide variety of issues—gay rights, abortion, the environment…the list could go on, that makes it virtually impossible for the views of MESA’s entire membership to be encapsulated in any single decision of such a kind. That said, I will express my own personal sense, one that is, I am sure, shared by all of us, that it is the absolute right of every individual member of our Association to make their own judgment in the light of any circumstances that may arise in connection with a particular site or hotel and to come to whatever conclusions they see fit.

In closing I would like—on December 6th, 2009—to wish you all the very best for the year 2010 and to express the hope that I will see you in San Diego next November.

"Taking Stock" Letter from the President

Virginia Aksan, McMaster University; MESA President, 2009

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February 2009, Vol. 31 No. 1)

The quite unexpected (dare I say miraculous) election of Obama could represent a profound turning point for the United States, not just on the matter of race, but also on the matter of American exceptionalism, i.e., the refusal to recognize that our extraordinary prosperity results from an unparalleled militarization of destructive power across the globe. Middle East Centers are already sponsoring seminars on the new international climate under a visionary (and recessionary) president. It behooves the rest us to take the time to reconsider the map of Middle East scholarship; to take stock as well of what we owe to students, colleagues and the community as the world reshapes itself, with what I optimistically hope will be America’s participatory rather than hegemonic impulse

Since 2001, MESA presidents have urged the membership to become more actively engaged with contemporary issues: to assume more public roles and use our expertise to inform; to defend vigorously the right to access to information and to freedom of speech as the basis a democratic society, and to recognize the immense contribution that our own Committee on Academic Freedom (with the help of the Academic Freedom Fund) performs for us in its vigilance about abuses to the MESA intellectual (university) communities here and abroad.  While I cannot claim to be particularly politically active, I have always assumed that university citizenship obligated me to be engaged with such questions. Constructive social criticism and participation in governance is an explicit part of our responsibilities on our campuses. The need for all of us to reaffirm that is just as acute as ever.

Some find political activism especially difficult in our field since 2001, but there are other disturbing trends at American universities which also require our vigilance. Not just the concerted attack on university “liberalism,” or “political correctness,” but also the corporatization of university administrations, including the marketing of an imagined education (and campus) in places such as Dubai’s International Academic Centre or Qatar’s Education City. Tenure and academic freedom are utterly irrelevant (a nuisance) to a world of contracts, online MBAs and virtual universities. We are on the edge of a precipice as a society, one which likely involves an economic and intellectual paradigm shift of considerable force, or at least a pause in the endgame to take stock. How to do that is a harder question. It could begin with a self examination: most of us have a passion for our particular subject, but do we really think about audience and influence beyond our own like-minded colleagues?  How often do we turn down the risky encounters or even the not so risky because “it is not our subject?” How often do we resist new approaches to over-worked topics, and wax nostalgic about our particular subfield and its special language, to the exclusion of generalizing the story?   Taking stock could continue by thinking about the absences in our curriculum. Extraordinary shifts are occurring in the location, consolidation and accessibility of information on the internet which we all take for granted but fail to interrogate as it seeps into our classrooms and research agendas.  Who will be controlling that knowledge and how will it be disseminated? What will the curriculum in liberal arts colleges look like in twenty years, and how will the Middle East be part of it?  What kind of resources will be needed to make it happen? And who will pay for them? Everything is marketable in the new knowledge economy. The web remains both a place for all kinds of collaborative efforts, such as AMEEL (Arabic and Middle Eastern Electronic Library) at Yale University Library or Harvard’s Historians of the Ottoman Empire project, but equally a source of concern about oversight and loss of individual and professional autonomy.  We need to be much more proactive in the construction and critique of the internet world.

There is no question but that current events and the new global order have had an impact on our disciplines. A quick glance at the MESA program for 2008 reveals just how cross-disciplinary, transnational, and broadly comparative we are becoming. The new map of the Middle East triangulates the Levant, North Africa and the Gulf, addresses thematic commonalities of Arabic, Turkish and Iranian societies; draws in the wider web of Central and South Asia into a Eurasian network; enlarges the Braudelian Mediterranean (and Europe) as historical subjects, and legitimates the study of Muslim societies, new media, global cultures, violence, memory and reconstruction in vigorous and exciting ways. The “war on terror,” in spite of, or because of the poisonous public discourse, has created new openings on campuses for the study of Middle Eastern languages, pre-modern history, religion and cultures.  We are a healthy, growing community of scholars whose internet skills, native linguistic range and global sophistication are inspiring, but we need to take charge of how these new directions translate into our research agendas, the classroom, and the street. The Board always welcomes suggestions about special sessions on evolving campus environments; on new research initiatives or new methodologies for the Boston meeting and beyond.

Finally, taking stock also means asking what role MESA plays in helping us to rethinking our obligations as academics in today’s world. Ours is an umbrella organization which runs a skeletal operation with great efficiency and dedication. Your colleagues sit on boards, serve on committees, write letters, and edit journals and bulletins on your behalf. Amy Newhall serves as our advocate with like-minded organizations, vigilant about the preservation of federal funding levels which underwrite U.S. Middle East Centers, the American Research Centers abroad, and the granting agencies which support individual research. The Secretariat staff mounts an annual meeting with an eye to making it intellectually stimulating, affordable and comfortable. In the best of times, finances are stretched thin, and certainly will not be helped by the deepening recession. I beseech you, on behalf of the Board, to have patience in the next little while as the financial impact of the recession becomes clear, to serve willingly when asked, and to remember, as you renew your membership or pay your annual meeting fee, to contribute whatever more you can to your MESA activity of choice.

Letter from the President

Mervat Hatem, Howard University; MESA President, 2008

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February 2008, Vol. 30 No. 1)

Since 2002 all MESA Presidents have addressed the hostile climate for academics and the political turmoil of our post-9/11 times in their February Newsletter articles. Although I find myself equally drawn to this topic and compelled by events of the past year which illustrate the continuing assault on universities, and the ongoing public devaluation of our area of study, I think it is time to reflect on a few important things that deserve our attention and acclamation. These things may point toward avenues for action -whether as an association or as individuals.

First on my list of positive indicators: the robust state of the field. MESA's membership was at an all time high in 2007 (2780) as was the number of panel and paper submissions to the program committee. Mark Lowder, MESA's Assistant Director and Conference Planner, describes Montreal as "the largest meeting in terms of the number of submissions received and the final number of panels on the program." In other words, despite our gloomy environment and in the face of attacks, scholarly activity and scholarly exchange continue to increase! Similarly, signs point to a rise in communal participation among the membership. For example, MESA recently established a Student Travel Grant fund supported by donations from members. Your response was swift and generous: while MESA gave four $250 travel grants in 2006, it provided ten for Montreal in 2007. MESA members don't just look out for their students however; they also pay attention to the needs of their colleagues and other academics in the US and abroad. 

This leads me to the second on my list of things to celebrate: the dedication of members of MESA's longstanding Committee on Academic Freedom. Through that committee, MESA continues to defend the rights of students and faculty world-wide. In 2005, the committee expanded its domain of work to include the infringement on academic freedom in North America. The committee now consists of two subcommittees, one devoted to the MENA region and one to North America. Last year the committee as a whole sent twenty four interventions: seventeen to MENA government leaders; seven to US institutions and government officials. CAF-MENA letters protest denial of access to education, infringements on rights of association and free debate on campuses and in the public sphere. They defend the rights of Middle Eastern and international researchers to conduct research in the region and protest harassment or worse practices by the state. CAF-NA letters call attention to the hostile conditions facing those that work on Middle East studies in the US. They protest the withdrawal of invitations to various public intellectuals who work in the field of Middle East studies because of the politicization of the field and its scholarship. For US Middle East scholars whose research was deemed controversial because it was critical of Israel, CAF-NA letters have urged institutions to depoliticize the tenure process. Undermining peer-review processes of academic institutions endangers the principles of academic freedom in the US and affects us all. 

CAF-NA has expanded its work to consider the issue of ideological exclusion. It has written to US officials protesting the denial of visas to scholars from the Middle East as well as those who work in other parts of the world. Notable scholars like Tariq Ramadan have been proscribed from teaching in the US, addressing US audiences or attending professional conferences here. MESA has worked with civil liberties organizations to challenge this practice in US courts but, unfortunately, without success. (The most recent ACLU/AAR suit was denied by the court as reported 12/20/07.) 

CAF members volunteer enormous amounts of precious time (and we all know how over committed we all have become) researching, preparing, discussing and revising letters and statements. Even so, as Laurie Brand, Chair of CAF reported, "we know that the cases we learn of constitute only the tip of the iceberg." I encourage MESA members to think about ways you can help with this important but time consuming service.

I want to conclude by suggesting various avenues that the membership can pursue to help the association in its various activities. I can offer two suggestions, which I believe can help us continue some of the activities that I mentioned in this letter. For the members, who are inclined to provide financial support to MESA and its various activities, it would be extremely helpful to support the Committee on Academic Freedom which is doing outstanding work on a shoestring budget. The money could go to the hiring of research assistants, interns and even a half time professional person to collect data on different cases, develop a data base to use when contacted by civil liberties organization and other related activities. Secondly, it would be great to hear from you about cases in which scholars who work on the Middle East or Middle East scholars have been harassed or denied visas so that we can keep track of what is happening to our membership here and overseas. It would be ideal to develop a database of these incidents so that we can speak with confidence to decision makers about the conditions under which some of us operate. In the present climate of fear, members can report these cases anonymously and then the Committee on Academic Freedom can investigate it on its own. Members may have other ideas about what MESA should be doing or how it can do more. Please feel free to write us with some of your ideas in the hope that we can increase the efficacy of the association.  

Amy Newhall, the executive director of MESA, contributed information about MESA's varied activities that appear in this letter.

The Price of Ignorance

Zachary Lockman, New York University; MESA President, 2007

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February 2007, Vol. 29 No. 1)

As I write these lines, in the first days of 2007, the situation in much of the region on which we as MESA members focus is very grim, and at the moment there seems little prospect that things will turn for the better any time soon. The results of last November’s congressional elections indicate that a great many Americans have come to believe that something has gone very wrong with the course the U.S. government has pursued in Iraq over the past three and a half years. But beyond a growing desire to extricate the United States from the worst consequences of the catastrophe it has helped to create there, there are as yet few signs of any broader understanding that a thorough rethinking of this country’s policies in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world is urgently needed. 

Sadly, it is also clear that despite the time and effort that many of us have devoted to sharing our expertise with the public through a variety of means, including books, articles, op-ed essays, public lectures and forums, blogs, teacher-training workshops and so on, too many Americans – including not a few of those directly involved in shaping and implementing this country’s Middle East policy – remain profoundly ignorant (or grossly misinformed) about the histories, beliefs, lives and aspirations of the peoples at the receiving end of American power in that region. 

This was recently driven home once again when Jeff Stein, national security editor at the Congressional Quarterly, asked a number of senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials, and members of Congress, if they could explain the difference between Sunnis and Shi‘is. After all, Stein asked in an op-ed piece published in The New York Times on October 17, 2006, “wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants?” Despite the deepening sectarian conflict in Iraq and the salience of Sunni-Shi‘i relations elsewhere, however, most of those Stein queried could not provide anything resembling an accurate response.

How might one best explain the deeply distressing fact that such people have not felt it essential to learn all they could about the Middle East and Islam? Answers might include willful ignorance, an ideologically-driven rejection of “reality-based” knowledge, the severe case of historical amnesia from which our society suffers, and the blindness to what is actually going on that overweening power can generate in those who possess it – at least until things go disastrously wrong, as they now unmistakably have. At the same time, as others have pointed out, the attacks that we have witnessed in recent years on scholars of the Middle East and Islam, as well as on academic organizations like MESA and on institutions of higher education, can be understood as attacks on expertise, on research-based knowledge and on the free and open exchange of ideas which fosters such knowledge. The ultimate goal of these attacks is, of course, to further a specific political agenda and intimidate (and if possible silence) those who might, on the basis of their knowledge and experience, speak out against it.

Though recent U.S. policy failures in the Middle East may have made such assaults somewhat less frequent and virulent in recent months, it is clear that academic freedom and civil liberties remain under threat in this country. That is why MESA has recently reorganized its academic freedom work – to my mind, probably our organization’s most important public activity, and one in which all members should take considerable pride. Henceforth, one subcommittee of the (renamed) Committee on Academic Freedom will continue MESA’s longstanding commitment to defending academic freedom in the Middle East and North Africa, while a separate subcommittee will focus on threats to academic freedom in the United States and Canada. MESA’s work in this latter domain is supported by the newly-launched Academic Freedom Fund, to which tax-deductible donations are most welcome.

Threats to, and assaults on, academic freedom and civil liberties affect all of us, as scholars and teachers and as citizens or residents of the United States. My colleagues and I at New York University have felt this acutely, since one of our graduate students, Mohamed Yousry, was targeted for prosecution after September 11th in a case that raises some very disturbing issues. 

Mohamed came to the United States from Egypt some 25 years ago and eventually became an American citizen. When I first met him, in 1995, he was already a graduate student at NYU, paying his fees and supporting his family by driving a taxi and by working as a translator for journalists and lawyers. One of the lawyers who hired Mohamed to translate was Lynne Stewart, among whose clients was Shaykh ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman, the former spiritual guide of Egypt’s Gama‘a Islamiyya who in 1996 was sentenced to life in federal prison for involvement in a conspiracy to blow up New York City institutions and landmarks.

When Mohamed began to discuss possible doctoral dissertation topics with me and my colleagues in the late 1990s, we encouraged him to work on a political biography of ‘Abd al-Rahman, partly because his employment as a translator for Stewart gave him unique access to the imprisoned cleric and to valuable source materials. Though a lifelong secularist and democrat who rejects ‘Abd al-Rahman’s extremist understanding of Islam, Mohamed started gathering material on ‘Abd al-Rahman for his dissertation, and even interviewed him about his ideas and political career during government-authorized prison visits with Stewart. 

Mohamed’s diligence as a translator and as a researcher would cost him dearly. In April 2002 Mohamed was arrested, along with Stewart and one of her paralegals, and the three were accused of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. The government claimed that by making public a statement from ‘Abd al-Rahman back in 2000, Stewart had not only violated government regulations denying certain prisoners access to the media but had also abetted terrorism – though no act of violence ever resulted from ‘Abd al-Rahman’s statement. 

In any case, whatever Stewart may have done, it is hard to see why Mohamed should be held responsible for her actions: as a government-approved translator he was never even asked to sign the regulations Stewart was accused of violating, and he had no reason to question the lawfulness of his employer’s instructions. During the trial prosecutors made contradictory arguments: they insinuated that Mohamed had knowingly broken the law in order to further his scholarly research, and even that he was an acolyte of ‘Abd al-Rahman, but they also acknowledged that Mohamed had never advocated violence or Islamist extremism. My guess is that the real reason they went after Mohamed was to get Stewart: she knew no Arabic and ‘Abd al-Rahman knew little English, so without including Mohamed in the alleged conspiracy they wouldn’t have had much of a case. Whatever the explanation, it seems clear that both Stewart and Mohamed are victims of the kind of excessive prosecutorial zeal we have seen all too much of since September 11, 2001.

Mohamed was convicted along with Stewart in February 2005, and the government asked that he be sent to prison for 20 years. Last October, however, in a clear rebuke to the Justice Department, the judge sentenced Mohamed to 20 months in prison (Stewart got 28 months, instead of the 30 years the prosecution had sought) and allowed the two to remain free pending appeals. Naturally, Mohamed continues to hope that he will eventually be vindicated and that the ordeal he and his family have been put through will finally come to an end.

Many lawyers have rallied to Stewart’s defense, because they believe the government targeted her in order to deter other lawyers from zealously defending clients accused of terrorism, and because they feel that her case raises serious constitutional issues. Mohamed’s prosecution raises somewhat different, though equally troubling, questions. Should a translator be sent to prison for following his employer’s instructions, especially when the prosecution failed to prove that he intended to break any law? Can a graduate student’s dissertation research reasonably be construed as contributing to a conspiracy to help terrorists? If Mohamed’s conviction is allowed to stand, we may well see other translators prosecuted for doing their jobs, and other scholars facing jail terms for conducting research on controversial issues. That would turn a travesty of justice into a very dangerous precedent and undermine some of the core values we profess to cherish, including academic freedom. It would also weaken our ability to understand and effectively deal with the very movements and ideologies the U.S. government claims to be combating by trying to send Mohamed Yousry to prison.

The lesson I draw from Mohamed’s case is that for all of us in MESA, both as individuals and as stakeholders in a wide range of institutions, our ability to pursue our vocations as scholars and educators today crucially depends on the vigorous defense of rights and freedoms that most of us long assumed that we could take for granted. That in turn means (and here I merely repeat what several of my predecessors have said much more eloquently) that we all need to find more effective ways of helping those outside academia acquire a better understanding not only of the part of the world with which we are so deeply engaged, but also of why academic freedom is so vital to democratic life.

The Importance of Being Heard

Juan Cole, University of Michigan; MESA President, 2006

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February 2006, Vol. 28 No. 1)

An ongoing set of global crises has beset the area of the world in which we specialize, interlinking it powerfully with the United States and Canada. The small cohort of Middle East specialists in North America finds itself working in an increasingly politicized environment, in which we must compete, as intellectuals conveying our insights on the Middle East to the public, with politicians, talk show hosts, televangelists, Washington lobbyists and paid-for talking heads.

The information environment has been polluted by the intersection of political power and big media. While money, power and journalism have all along been intertwined in modern history, we only recently have witnessed the rise of a cable television news network that is explicitly a mouthpiece for an American political party, the editors of which dictate a political line in morning memoranda to their journalists. The Big Lie has become a common technique of persuasion on the part of top politicians. Among the prime things about which the Big Lies are now told is the Middle East, its history, culture and peoples. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld commented on the charge that then President Clinton had lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, saying, “Lying about sex? Everyone lies about sex! Without lies there would not be any sex!” It might equally well be said that without lies, there would not be any wars.

This political turbulence, and the often distressing news from the region, should not distract us from our central mission, which is conducting primary research and subjecting it to a reasoned analysis that will push forward the academic understanding of this part of the world. All of us are in this field because that sort of research and attaining that sort of understanding, deeply gratify us. The joys of such subjects as early modern historiography, Sufi metaphysics, contemporary Arabic literature, Persian miniatures, or Cold War diplomacy, drive most of our members most of the time. Most of us were already incredibly busy with our research, writing, and, well, lives, before the crisis hit, and have little time to spare serious thought for the day’s headlines.

Yet without wishing to add to anyone’s burdens, I fear I must draw our attention to a growing responsibility that calls out to MESA members, of writing about contemporary affairs for the public. Most MESA academics speak to audiences in their towns and cities about the Middle East. Many have devoted a great deal of time to outreach, both on campus and among high school and other teachers, religious congregations, and associations of the retired. Such talks are an extremely important contribution to civil society, and in the aggregate have a significant impact. The American public has an enormous thirst for knowledge about the region we study, and our members have been self-sacrificing about giving of their weekends and leisure time to meet that need.

Nevertheless, it is important to write it down, and to publish it as an opinion piece or op-ed. It is important to publish such items on an ongoing basis. A search of Lexis Nexis will reveal that relatively few MESA members regularly weigh in with opinion on current affairs in the nation’s newspapers and magazines. Not all of our members will feel comfortable doing so. Specialists in the Ottoman Empire may question whether their background entitles them to address contemporary events. Literature specialists or those in art history may entertain similar sentiments. I am not arguing that the obligation is an individual one. It is a collective duty, to be discharged by the membership as a whole.

For those tempted to pursue this path, it is worth pointing out that if they do not write generally for the public about the region, others will, who are far less qualified. Major newspapers routinely publish ruminations on Iraq or Afghanistan by persons who know no Middle Eastern languages and have only a shaky grasp of the history of the region. At a time when the president of the United States has a view on Muslim theories of the caliphate in history, an Ottomanist is far ahead of the game.

I do not mean to minimize the difficulties of breaking in to this sort of writing. Newspaper and magazine opinion pieces are often as hard to publish as fiction. Pieces submitted “blind” or “over the transom” go into what is called the “slush pile,” often to be read by junior editorial assistants. Only if the piece catches their eyes will the pass it up to an editor who might decide to publish it. One heartbreak of attempting this sort of publication is the discovery that our academic credentials mean nothing in the journalistic world. Indeed, enough editors and journalists seem to have been scarred by exposure as undergraduates to particularly abstruse lectures by some of their professors that there is often an assumption that academics are incapable of writing clearly and concisely.

Writing opinion pieces, moreover, is a learned skill rather than being intuitive. It is hard to remember that one may only make one key point in an essay. It is difficult to get complex concepts across in only 700 words (the optimum length for a newspaper op-ed). It is no easy task to make complicated social or religious ideas and customs clear to often insular American audiences. It is hard to remember that specialized academic technical terms should be avoided or clearly explained. Writing clearly and concisely is much harder than writing complexly about one’s specialization at some length.

The only way to overcome these obstacles, however, is to commit to regularly producing opinion pieces, and regularly submitting them. The internet has opened many venues for such writing. For historians within MESA, the History News Network is a welcoming place to publish historically-grounded opinion pieces, and it is widely read. There are many internet public affairs journals eager for contributions, from Alternet to Truthout. Some authors maintain weblogs powered by software such as or, where they can regularly post op-eds. These are at least good practice and assured of publication, even if getting a substantial audience is not easy. Your local newspaper, and the nearest metropolitan newspaper, are also good markets to try. National newspapers such as the Christian Science Monitor and USA Today are often looking for experts. It may not be possible to start out in the Washington Post or the New York Times, but it is certainly possible to lay the ground for a debut in such a prominent editorial page.

It may be daunting to think of making time for this endeavor. But 700 words can be written in a relatively short period of time, and committing to one such essay a week or every other week is not overly onerous. The American public is being assiduously misinformed about the Middle East, about Islam, and about Muslim culture. Some media personalities are deliberately smearing Middle Easterners. Others are misinformed and nursing a grudge from September 11. The advances we make in our understanding of the region are not having their full impact if they are locked up in academic journals or reported only in forbidding academic prose. A key principle of political liberalism (in the classic sense) is that information maximization is always a good thing. But this maxim implies that the information itself is real information, and solidly grounded, not prevarication and propaganda. If we do not seek a public voice, and we hear only the latter in our media, we cannot complain.

In These Times…

Ali Banuazizi, Boston College; MESA President, 2005

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, May 2005, Vol. 27 No. 2)

A deep paradox besets the field of Middle Eastern studies and the pre-eminent association that represents it in North America these days. On the one hand, there is a wide recognition of the critical need for expert knowledge and deeper understanding of the Middle East and the Muslim world as the United States faces its most vexing, intractable, and high-stake challenges in this vast region, especially at a time when America’s relations with the people of the region are fraught with misperceptions, distrust, and hostility. Whether it is in the arena of human rights, democratization, political reform, religious extremism, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation; in coping with the consequences of an ill-conceived war; or helping the Palestinians and Israelis achieve a durable peace, the Middle East continues to be at center-stage of the U.S. foreign policy concerns. At the level of the public, too, one sees a surge of interest in the Middle East, particularly since the tragic events of September 11th, reflected in the much wider readership of books about the region, in the extensive mass-media coverage, and in the remarkable popularity of courses on Middle Eastern languages, cultures, and politics on our college campuses.
On the other hand, precisely at such a time of national need and public interest, the field of Middle Eastern studies and many of its practitioners are facing a barrage of criticisms, accusations of ideological bias and distortion of the truth, mediocrity, and irrelevance to the nation’s foreign policy goals. There have been even accusations that scholars in the field failed to foretell threats to the nation’s security by religious extremists—confusing the function of scholarship with that of intelligence gathering and analysis. Skeptical about the academy’s own ability to conduct its business of teaching and research with the requisite objectivity and independence, there have been several legislative initiatives at the state and federal levels to establish monitoring mechanisms to ensure “balance and fairness” at publicly funded programs of Middle Eastern studies and presumably similar programs focused on other world regions. Others in this crusade, less patient, and more zealous in their cause, have seen fit to encourage academic vigilantism on campuses to watch, report, and if necessary to intimidate scholars who present “biased,” “anti-American,” “pro-Islamic,” or “pro-Palestinian” views in their class lectures, in public statements outside their institutions, or in their writings. Often, these charges, as well as any criticism of current Israeli policies, are described as being anti-Israel and therefore, until proven otherwise, ipso facto “anti-Semitic.” Not surprisingly, such smear tactics and confrontations have begun to threaten the rights of free speech and inquiry and, if not contained, could potentially undermine the integrity of our academic institutions.

Insofar as the substantive criticisms came from those who see serious flaws and biases in the dominant paradigms or the prevailing political sentiments in our field, they can do no harm and may indeed stimulate critical debates, which in the long run could be highly beneficial. Many of our members will remember that, a generation ago, our association was criticized for being too supportive of the status quo in the Middle East, unresponsive to gender issues, and oblivious to the economic inequalities and the political oppression that characterized many Middle Eastern societies. A decade later, MESA, like other area-studies associations, was faulted for marginalizing the study of the Middle East and thus making it less susceptible to the intellectual and methodological rigors of discipline-based inquiry. Both of these critiques seem to have given way in recent years to other concerns. The key difference between our field’s former critics and those who proudly declare themselves to be MESA’s nemesis today is the latter’s willingness to stoop to the level of ad hominem attacks, defamation, and intimidation.

Aside from the problem of tactics, what many of MESA’s current detractors have managed to do, unwittingly or deliberately, is to locate the association’s mission and scholarly concerns within the very narrow confines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, contemporary Middle Eastern politics, and, more recently, the U.S.-led war on Islamic extremism and terrorism. While all these concerns are certainly important in their own right, they do not represent the professional or scholarly interests of many—perhaps even the majority—of our members. Indeed, any attempt to place our association in one or another ideological straitjacket is clearly a misrepresentation of the facts. Simply put, MESA has never spoken with a single voice on the Arab-Israeli conflict, on the war on terrorism, on the invasion of Iraq, or any other major American foreign policy issue. And hopefully it never will.

What MESA does, with enviable distinction and effectiveness, is to promote scholarship on the Middle East and Islam through its publication of a flagship journal and bulletin, by holding annual meetings that are attended by thousands of young and well-established scholars and students, and by recognizing genuine scholarly achievement through its various award programs. It performs a watchdog function on ethical issues. And, finally, it has steadfastly stood for and defended freedom of expression and inquiry for scholars and public intellectuals in the region and, of recent, in the United States.

As a well-established association that will be celebrating its 40th anniversary next year, we have the esprit de corps, the intellectual resources, and the organizational capacity to absorb and take to heart constructive criticisms of our ways and our scholarship, and, when needed, to rebut ill-intended accusations. Our real strength as a mature professional association, I believe, is demonstrated by our ability to welcome and accommodate colleagues with diverse perspectives on the critical issues that we face. These are goals that MESA and those of us privileged to serve it as directors and staff members will continue to pursue—not because we have been prompted to do so by our detractors, but out of our own sense of professionalism and commitment to an open and vibrant association for all those in the field of Middle Eastern studies.

Letter from the President

Laurie Brand, University of Southern California; MESA President, 2004

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February, 2004, Vol. 26 No. 1)

I was on sabbatical in Beirut when I learned that I had been elected to serve as MESA’s president for 2004. In an atmosphere still clearly marked by the implications for our field of September 11, 2001 and with the clouds of the coming war in Iraq clearly gathering, I was aware of the tremendous responsibility that serving MESA at this juncture represented.

As an organization, we currently confront a number of key issues. Academic freedom, and the threat to it posed by the “international higher education advisory board” as proposed by HR 3077 and discussed by Amy Newhall in the last newsletter is one. On that front, I am encouraged by the growing number of universities that have begun to mobilize against this provision. For those of you in the academy who have not contacted the relevant office in your college or university, I strongly urge you to make your voices heard clearly, effectively and soon on this issue. You might also directly convey your opinion to your own senators and to members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (

Another issue relates to the situation in Iraq. Many of our members have, in their individual capacities, been active participants in the public discussion of the war and the current occupation. In terms of MESA’s activities, last April, the board drafted a statement expressing concern regarding the terrible damage and losses suffered by Iraqi libraries and archives. On another front, CAFMENA members are currently involved in a discussion regarding a possible expansion or development of its role in examining and defending academic freedom in the context of the rebuilding of the Iraqi university system. The means by which we can best support our Iraqi colleagues as they struggle to adjust to the new realities is an important topic that deserves further, considered exploration by the MESA board and by our members.

Both MESA’s response to threats to academic freedom and to the unfolding situation in Iraq are driven by our sense of mission. There is no more serious or basic issue than examining and perhaps rethinking who we are and what we do. It is therefore quite appropriate that an initiative that has been in process for sometime–a reconsideration of the mission statement–is coming to fruition during this period of major challenges. On behalf of the secretariat and the board, I would like to thank the large number of you who took the time to respond to the proposed new statement, which was first presented at the meeting in Anchorage. While we cannot gauge the feelings of those from whom we have not heard, we have assumed that those who have responded have done so out of strong conviction, one way or another. Most of the responses have been supportive of the draft, with many suggesting minor language changes or additions. Others have expressed concern with one or more issue that they felt the new statement clouded, ignored or misrepresented. We have now in effect tabulated the suggestions and concerns, reworked the mission statement, and included it in this newsletter (February 2004) on page 4.

As president of this community of students, scholars, and practitioners, I am concerned that our mission statement reflect both the range of MESA’s activities as well as the broad base of our membership. That said, a mission statement is intended to be a short, concise expression of identity and purpose; it should “translate the organization’s purpose into action.”

The secretariat has prepared a descriptive paragraph to precede the mission statement that will respond to a number of the concerns raised by the membership that could not be accommodated in the statement itself. We ask you all to look at the new, slightly altered language carefully, and then cast your vote along with your choices for the 2004 Nominating Committee.

Here, I would like to address briefly several issues raised by the responses you have forwarded. The first concerns the backdrop to the reconsideration of the original statement. It was not, as some messages have suggested, triggered by the events of 9/11 or their aftermath in the US. The origins of this move may be found in thinking which began at the secretariat in response to two factors. The first was a set of statistics indicating that membership numbers had begun to decline. The second was the approach of the 40th anniversary of MESA’s founding. The initial mission statement was drafted in 1966 and has not been altered since, despite the fact that in the interim, much has changed, in the academy itself, in its relationship to other educational and governmental institutions, in the various parts of the region we all study, as well as in the activities undertaken by our association. There was a feeling therefore that developments in MESA and among its members had moved beyond the existing statement which, as a number of you have commented, was somewhat inward-looking. While not sacrificing the basic and primary commitment to scholarship, greater emphasis needed to be placed on the diverse professional backgrounds of MESA’s membership, and on the expansion of functions and services provided by the organization and its members. We believe that the new statement better captures the inclusion that has in fact been a hallmark of what has long seemed to me an amazing community of dedicated and talented colleagues.

The second issue is that of the concern raised by those who responded to the removal of the phrase “private, non-profit, and non-political organization.” In the version initially presented to you, this was excised for reasons of economy of language, although we intended to include it in the descriptive paragraph about MESA. Given your thoughtful responses, it seems not only appropriate but quite important that language about MESA’s non-political purpose be reintroduced in the mission statement. For those of you who expressed concern, let me assure you that while each of us certainly has our own political preferences which we should feel free to express in the various institutions and activities in which we engage, there is no desire on the part of the board to turn MESA into a political organization. MESA will continue to advocate for academic freedom both here and abroad through CAFMENA. In addition, in the future as in the past, issues of major political/social/economic/cultural import will arise about which we may organize panels and roundtables at the annual meeting. This is quite proper and a natural extension of our desire to contribute to scholarly debate. Some of our members will also engage in public exchanges or in discussions in other fora on issues of the day: again, it is perfectly befitting of students, scholars and practitioners in an open society to contribute their expertise when they find it appropriate. But none of this implies that as an organization we will seek to endorse political positions or play a political role. This, quite simply, is not part of MESA’s mission.

Finally, the issue of geographic scope. Numerous comments came in response to the change in the new language from “the study of the Middle East, North Africa and the Islamic World,” to “the Middle East and its peoples.” Again, I would stress that the primary, indeed the sole, motive here concerns producing a concise statement. As someone who works on North Africa, let me assure the members who wrote expressing concern that the removal of an explicit reference to that part of the region was not meant to imply a narrowing of geographic focus. I was actually surprised that no one expressed dismay at the lack of mention of “the Gulf.” And as for those who wanted explicit reference to the Islamic world, I must say it is a term I have never liked–although as president I do not hold veto power–but it also strikes me as partially redundant. Are the Middle East and North Africa not part of this same “Islamic world”? And if one mentions by name one subregion, why not all of them? If one insists upon naming North Africa, then others have just as reasonable a case for insisting upon Central Asia, the Balkans, al-Andalus and so on. My point is simply that the term “Middle East” serves as a convenient, if imperfect, short hand for the area(s) we study, the boundaries of which we all understand to be far-ranging and flexible.

I want to thank all of you who have participated in this process. It is a testament, I believe, to how important this organization is to us that people have taken the reconsideration of the mission statement so seriously. This is not just an “academic” exercise, but rather one of rethinking and reframing identity and purpose. It is a pleasure for me to have this opportunity to serve as president and contribute to MESA’s continuing growth and development.

Letter from the President

Lisa Anderson, Columbia University; MESA President 2003

(The following article by Lisa Anderson appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February, 2003)

On December 24, 2002, my hometown newspaper, The New York Times, observed in an editorial on the Middle East that they could not recall “a more dispiriting time.”

Indeed. As the year of the first anniversary of September 11th drew to a close, there was much to be dispirited about in the Middle East and, for students of the Middle East, in the United States as well. Despite considerable discussion of “road maps” out of the bloody Israeli-Palestinian impasse, the Bush Administration had revealed its intention to rewrite the map of the entire area, beginning with a long-anticipated attack on Iraq. The assault on the region itself was accompanied by an offensive against the associated US area studies community, represented in the university-based Title VI National Resource Centers on the Middle East and by the Middle East Studies Association.

Both within the region and within the area studies scholarship, there was in fact much to criticize. In the region itself, decades of despotism, once fed by Cold War imperatives, had been continued as if by inertia while most of the rest of the world embraced, or at least reluctantly acceded to, recognition of human rights and associated political and economic institutions. After brief flirtations with liberalized politics and economies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of the regimes of the region cynically, and more or less openly, traded acquiescence in internationally-sanctioned agreements for promises of international support and a free hand at home. The 1990s were not a time of much development in the Middle East; indeed, apart from AIDS-ravaged sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East recorded the lowest growth rate in the world--and the total tally for growth in the twenty-five years ending in 2000 appears to have been negative. The impact of these developments on cultural life in the region was corrosive, as decades of overbearing censorship and underfunded universities and research institutions depleted and fragmented the region’s intellectual landscape.

 This was an ugly picture and, to be candid, few American scholars of the Middle East did much to advertise it. Thousands of individually rational decisions, as my political science colleagues might observe, contributed to a collective abdication of responsibility. In the social sciences, graduate students who wanted jobs and junior faculty who wanted tenure mimicked their colleagues in other areas and looked for flickers of electoral politics and glimmers of economic privatization--the currency of post-Cold War social science--and neglected the stubborn durability of the authoritarian regimes and a corresponding growth of popular alienation and despair. More senior scholars, pained by the demoralization in the region and its neglect in their disciplines, suspended active research agendas in favor of administrative assignments in their universities. (I know whereof I speak.) In the humanities, many scholars who sustained engagement with colleagues in their disciplines and in the region were reluctant to jeopardize access to visas and research authorizations; in their excessive caution, they failed to speak out about the often appalling circumstances of their friends and colleagues there. And finally, of course, we all wanted to protect and preserve what little space those very colleagues in the region enjoyed to conduct research and publish their scholarship, and we avoided saying things that might endanger them. Over my more than decade-long association with Human Rights Watch, I have been astonished by the number of my colleagues who expressed private admiration for the organization’s work but refused to lend their name to it, worried that by associating themselves with an organization that might be critical of local governments, they would compromise their research access, or those of their friends and colleagues.  

These were all understandable impulses but, ultimately, they allowed others--from our disciplinary colleagues to newly powerful non-academic think tanks and advocacy organizations--to shape our research agendas and exploit our work for purposes we would not recognize, much less endorse. In helping to resist these temptations, it should be noted, MESA as an institution served its members rather well. It provided a forum in the Annual Meeting at which scholars could discuss issues of import in the region, as opposed to in the disciplines in which most of its members operated. In establishing the Committee on Academic Freedom, MESA both served to publicize some of the abuses of the region’s governments and to express solidarity with our colleagues in the region. What MESA did not do, however, was set research agendas or advocate public policies.

 While few of us would dispute our right to choose individually what we work on and how we deploy our expertise, in the current climate, it is not clear that MESA will adequately serve its members or its academic project if it retains a modest definition of its mission. If we are, as the bylaws say, to “promote high standards of scholarship and instruction, ...facilitate communication among scholars through meetings and publications,... and promote cooperation among persons and organizations concerned with the scholarly study of the Middle East,” we may have to become more assertive as an organization. Let me suggest why.

Among the critiques of the Middle East studies community was that, as the notorious Campus Watch website put it, “Middle East studies in the United States has become the preserve of Middle Eastern Arabs, who have brought their views with them.” Claiming that half of MESA’s membership is “of Middle Eastern origin,” the website argues that “though American citizens, many of these scholars actively disassociate themselves from the United States...” This assertion is stunning in the audacity of its bigotry. It is difficult to imagine that any other group could be so characterized: could one say that American citizens of, say, Chinese, or Argentine, or Greek or Ukranian origin who pursue scholarly research about, or even continue care about politics in, the country of their birth are “disassociating themselves from the United States?” Hardly.

The reason this sort of intolerance is even possible is the current political climate in the United States. The “war on terror” launched in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th has provided a permissive environment for other remarkable displays of narrow-mindedness and intolerance as well as an erosion of rights. Christian religious figures with major followings have appeared on network TV programs to announce that the Prophet Muhammad was a terrorist and to argue that Islam is an intrinsically violent religion. The Immigration and Naturalization Service requires foreign nationals from a wide variety of Arab and Muslim countries (or even nationals from other countries, like Canada, who may have been born in such Arab or Muslim countries) to report for special fingerprinting, photographing and interrogations. Just this semester, my school at Columbia University failed to enroll a newly admitted student because she, a British national born in Libya, was unable to obtain a visa in time to start the semester.

Whether or not it is true that half of MESA’s members are “of Middle Eastern origin,” we have a special responsibility to ensure that our members, our students and our colleagues are not treated like enemy aliens, their religions maligned and motives impugned.

As important as this attack on individuals on the basis of their religion, national origin, or other personal attributes, however, is the threat to our collective scholarly integrity posed by the critiques of our works from policy advocates who wish to dictate the range of respectable political conclusions. The focus on the personal characteristics of the members of MESA, loathsome as it is, heralds an even more dangerous effort to undermine the standing of the scholarly community as a whole.

We need to be able to acknowledge the failings of our work without embarrassment–remember that no bench scientist is afraid to report negative experimental results–but we must also assertively deploy our unparalleled expertise to provide insight and understanding of the Middle East. As scholars, we must actively uphold rights to freedom of information, association, expression, in the United States and around the world, for our members and our colleagues. Scientific and scholarly exchange should not be impeded and dissemination of ideas must be respected, or all of us, regardless of our “national origin” will be impoverished as scholars and citizens. To do this, we must not only advocate for these rights but we must also exercise them, contributing to the development and dissemination of such ideas and welcoming the debate they engender.

For some of us this may mean testifying before Congress or writing op-ed pieces in the newspapers or appearing on television as “talking heads.” For others, it will be organizing campus debates, community seminars and public demonstrations. Whatever we do, we must recognize that this is not a time to be intimidated or complacent. If we abdicate our responsibilities as citizens, we undermine our standing as scholars and teachers.

If MESA is to accomplish its purposes in this difficult time, we must devise ways to support and defend our members both individually and as a scholarly community, and we must encourage and celebrate participation in vigorous public debates about the policies of governments throughout the region as well as here at home. The only thing more dispiriting than the politics of recent months has been the eerie silence in the very intellectual and policy circles which should be actively and intimately engaged in debates over our future, professional and political, in the United States and in the Middle East.

Letter from the President

Joel Beinin, Stanford University; MESA President, 2002

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, May, 2002)

Our scholarly community has been subjected to multiple pressures since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Some of us have been investigated by agencies of the federal government. Others have been subjected to profiling and special treatment while traveling on normal business. Some of us have feared for the physical safety of our families because of the attacks on “Middle Eastern-looking” people by xenophobic “patriots” in several communities throughout the country. Several university administrations have failed to defend normal standards of academic freedom and free speech and either criticized or taken actions against those who have attempted to engage in a critical debate over the meaning and appropriate response to the events.

Another set of pressures has resulted from the extraordinary demand for the expertise of MESA members–both in the academy and among the general public. Our membership has responded generously, by addressing a wide array of forums–speaking and writing in the mass media, lecturing on university campuses, to K-12 public school teachers, and to the general public. The outreach programs of the Title VI Middle East centers have been heavily utilized.

Many MESA members have long complained, correctly in my opinion, that much of the American public is woefully ignorant about the most basic aspects of Islam and the Middle East. Everyone now agrees that such ignorance is a luxury our society can no longer afford. It is awkward and shameful that sharply increased enrollments in courses with Islamic or Middle Eastern content, new faculty appointments, and broader attention to the areas of concern to MESA members have been prompted by disaster - as though Muslim and Middle Eastern societies and cultures were not otherwise worthy of attention and study. Nonetheless, after 9/11/01, it should be much easier to justify the need for Middle East area studies and in-depth knowledge of Islam, Middle Eastern and Central Asian languages and cultures, and related topics.

This imposes an enormous responsibility on us as individuals and as a scholarly association. MESA represents the largest repository of expertise on the topics relevant to understanding the historical, political, cultural, and religious background to the events of 9/11/01 and the complex of issues in which they are embedded. Of course, we do not share a single understanding of these matters, nor should we. But we should all stretch ourselves to take up the challenges of this exceptional time and play an active role as public intellectuals, offering our expertise and different understandings and contributing to an informed public debate about the issues. One way to do so is to respond to the invitation of the Pacific News Service to submit brief news, analysis, and opinion articles. Information about how to do so click here.

A third set of pressures since 9/11/01 has been the frenzied attack on MESA as a whole and several of our most eminent members in particular. Mean-spirited and ad hominem assertions of nefarious motives and absurd conspiracies have been advanced based on little or no evidence. Politically motivated and highly distorted accounts of what it is that MESA and its members do and why they do it have been used to justify an explicit call on Congress to cut funding for Title VI Middle East centers.

Fortunately, Congress has not only declined to follow this advice, it has actually increased the budget for international education and foreign language studies by record amounts. In FY 2002 Title VI and Fulbright-Hays 102(b)(6) programs will receive $20.5 million in new funding, an increase of 26%. This includes $5.4 million to double the number of Foreign Language Area Studies fellowships (from roughly 215 to 430) to students pursuing advanced training in Arabic, Azeri, Persian/Dari, Pashto, Tajik, Uzbek, Urdu and other languages spoken in Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and Russia/Eastern Europe. A supplemental $3.4 million is allocated to existing National Resource Centers specializing in Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and Russia/Eastern Europe, and to establish four new centers in these areas. In addition, $1 million is budgeted to establish three new language resource centers, specializing in Central Asia, the Middle East, or South Asia. This is excellent news for MESA and for the future of area studies more generally; and there is good reason to hope that this trend will continue.

This infusion of new funds suggests that announcements of the demise of area studies were a bit exaggerated. Several MESA past-presidents have correctly noted that Middle East and other area studies did, and continue to, have a tendency towards narrow description, ghettoization, and even obscurantism. Middle East studies in particular and area studies in general continue to be at risk at some institutions, especially public universities with severe funding constraints. But both the Congressional infusion of new funds and the public demand for reliable information about the context of 9/11/01 demonstrate that there is simply no substitute for detailed and contextualized knowledges of specific regions – including their languages, histories, and cultures. No solid comparative or conceptual understandings of the world–past or present–can be built without this foundation.

The current conjuncture suggests new and exciting research agendas which are both intellectually substantial and of considerable public interest. One of these is the comparative study of regions within the Islamic cultural zone. Such studies would reinforce a point that many MESA members have been making before and after 9/11/01—that the Islamic tradition embraces a great variety of practices and intellectual currents. They would bring attention to regions outside the Middle East where the great majority of the world’s Muslims live today while maintaining the significance of the Middle East as the historic (and in some respects contemporary) heartland of Islam. This is certainly not the only topic with both public relevance and attractiveness to funders. A group of faculty at my own university has recently received a Mellon Foundation grant for a seminar on “Settlement, Race, and Sovereignty in North America, South Africa, and Israel/Palestine.” Other teaching and research agendas that are both innovative and relevant to contemporary concerns can easily be imagined. I encourage MESA members to respond to the unusual circumstances post 9/11/01 with as much energy and creativity as can be mustered.

Letter from the President

R. Stephen Humphreys, University of California, Santa Barbara; MESA President, 2001

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, Volume 23, no. 2 May, 2001)

Many of the problems confronting Middle Eastern studies are specific to that field. One thinks first of all of the persistent territorial, ethnic, and religious conflicts that blight the lives of so many in the region, but even apart from these grave matters of life and death, scholarship in and on the region confronts a host of obstacles: poor libraries, inaccessible archives, tortuous procedures to obtain research permits, etc. Such issues are all too familiar to most of us, and we have become fairly adept in overcoming or at least compensating for them. Obviously we desperately want to see the kinds of structural changes that would ameliorate research conditions, and each of us needs to work, patiently and tactfully, with his or her colleagues in the Middle East to help bring these changes about. Equally obviously, many of these changes cannot begin to happen until the region’s endemic political tensions are resolved or mitigated. In that effort, the great majority of us can expect to play only a very small part, however expert we are and however strongly we feel.

Beyond such region-specific challenges, however, Middle Eastern studies faces others that are common to every field of scholarship and teaching within the American academy. These include rapid change (not always for the better) in the nature of scholarly publication, fluctuating levels of federal support and degrees of involvement (ranging from indifference to serious interference), the growing number of part-time faculty in many universities, the promise and threat of distance-learning, the increasing sense of consumerism and entitlement among our students. Everyone will produce his own list of worries.

Among all these, I find myself increasingly preoccupied by issues of copyright. Rules that were once clear, or at least seemed well established and little questioned, are now up for grabs. In the humanities and social sciences, the endeavors of most scholars made very little money for anyone. Hence neither authors nor their institutions worried too much about copyright issues. Except for a very few spectacularly successful textbooks, royalties and subsidiary rights were exiguous at best. External grants were carefully keyed to one’s academic salary and so produced little additional income (except for “summer money” and some travel expenses) to the scholars who obtained them. Even the most talented teachers could only reach an audience made up of the students on their own campus. The financial reward for extensive research and publication or (on a far smaller scale) for outstanding teaching was a nice merit raise – an add-on of a few percent to the salary one was already making. The real reward within this system was prestige and the esteem, or perhaps the jealousy, of one’s colleagues.

All this is changing very rapidly. The Internet throws all the traditional understandings of fair use, first purchase, and ownership into confusion. On-line publication is very different from the traditional printed journal or codex; it is paid for differently and accessed differently. What does that mean for the standard publishers’ contracts that we have so mindlessly signed for so many generations, in the sure and certain knowledge that there was really no money in it for anyone. Perhaps a graver matter, some universities have begun to ask whether their faculty are in some sense producing work for hire – that is, whether a university has some claim to the scholarly publications and teaching products (including classroom “performances”) of its faculty. After all, faculty members are hired to teach certain subjects and do research in certain fields of inquiry, and they carry out these tasks in large part with university resources, on university property. Needless to say, the legal issues in all of this are novel, exceedingly ambiguous, and strongly contested. They will become the stuff of our professional lives in a very few years. I cannot begin to deal with them in this letter, but I think it essential to call attention to them, and to ask whether MESA – already active in some many professional arenas – has a useful contribution to make to the debate.

Letter from the President

Responding to the Needs of a Diverse Membership

Jere L. Bacharach, University of Washington, MESA President, 2000

One challenge facing your MESA Board of Directors is to reflect the diverse views of an organization of over 2,600 members while giving clear guidelines to an exceptional staff lead by Executive Director Anne Betteridge, currently on leave, and Acting Executive Director Mark Lowder. An example from our recent spring meeting will illustrate my point.

At the 1999 annual meeting a few individuals and exhibitors expressed to me very serious reservations about their ability to attend the 2003 meeting planned for Anchorage. 

Although a small majority of members had voted for Anchorage over Minneapolis in 1998 and the MESA membership had been informed of the decision in the August 1998 MESA Newsletter, and even though no one had voiced reservations before we signed a contract, I nevertheless asked the MESA office to revisit the issue.

By the time the Board met, extensive information on comparative costs, travel possibilities, and penalties for breaking the contract were available for all Board members. MESA will spend much less on the Anchorage meeting than one in San Francisco, Minneapolis, or most other U.S. cities: audio-visual rental rates are approximately one-third lower, food & beverage rates about one-half lower, set-up rates for exhibitors one-half or more lower, lodging for MESA staff and board members three-fourths lower, and Anchorage has no sales tax with room rates significantly lower than what we can find for 2003 in the contiguous 48 states.

The negative factors for Anchorage include the cost of flying to Alaska, which appears to be about $100 to $150 more than a flight from the east coast to many western U.S. cities (as long as a Saturday night is included), and the time it takes to get there. Projecting an attendance significantly lower than any non-D.C. meeting, the estimated net profits for MESA before paying a penalty would be within $10,000 of our San Francisco meeting and above a number of others because costs would be so low. In addition, if we negated our commitment to Anchorage, MESA could owe a cancellation fee as high as $35,000. 

Given these considerations, the Board unanimously reconfirmed our decision to be in Alaska in 2003 and we hope as many of you as possible will plan to join us.

Recognizing that a better and faster exchange of information is needed, MESA has instituted two e-mail list services. The first includes MESA’s almost 50 institutional members from AUC and AUB to the Universities of Virginia and Washington. Each institution designates one or more individuals as their correspondents on the list. A second list is for over 30 organizations affiliated with MESA, including the Society for Armenian Studies and the Turkish Studies Association. We hope that the institutional members and affiliated organizations will share information circulated on the listserv with their members. For example, we sent out an announcement that the preliminary MESA 2000 program was available on the MESA web site so that we could get appropriate feedback before the final version was printed.

Another issue on which we would like member input involves submission of individual papers versus pre-organized panels for our annual meeting. The problem is that the program committee finds that more and more of its time is spent trying to put together panels from the accepted papers. For the 2000 annual meeting, three hundred papers were in pre-organized panels and, in most cases, the only decision was to accept or reject them. On the other hand, two hundred individual papers or 83% of those proposed for the Orlando meeting had to be put into panels. To deal with this massive organizational issue the MESA Board is seriously considering restricting the submission of individual papers to graduate students while requiring all others to be in pre-organized panels. Before we put this in place, why not share your views on the matter? Please write directly to Mark Lowder or e-mail him at so that we have your input before our fall meeting.

I find I brag about MESA’s responsiveness to changes in the many disciplines and fields associated with our membership. The annual program and publications—IJMES and MESA Bulletin—serve as a record of these changes. I am particularly proud of the increasing participation of female scholars, specialists resident outside the U.S. and Canada, and individuals whose names reflect Middle Eastern origins. The geographic boundaries of what we include in our studies and programs have expanded into Central Asia, Europe and other regions. In addition, more and more panels and publications reflect interdisciplinary or multi-disciplinary approaches to an ever-growing range of issues. To sustain this record and improve upon it, two things are needed from you – your input and your financial support. I hope you will be active on both fronts.

 Start of Page