The Middle East, never far from the scene of world politics, is once again holding center stage. And once again, according to some powerful voices, the conflicts in the region and with the region are “in essence” a result of “age-old” enmities as well as fundamental differences between East and West, between Islam and “Judeo-Christian” civilization. Although now framed within concepts such as “failed states” as well as “freedom,” “democracy,” “rule of law,” and the renewed invocation of “civilization,” “culture,” and “religion” as central problems in the present and future of the region, is familiar. The (perceived) refraction of these traits through the phenomenon of “Islamic terrorism” and its newly global scope, reach, and impact as well as the direct American and European military and political interventions in the region’s states, societies, and economies have specific implications for scholars and others who profess expert knowledge of the region, especially in the human and social sciences.

“Academia becomes mobilized and drawn into the public sphere in particular ways and for specific purposes at times of crisis.”

This situation focuses attention on the type of expertise available on the Middle East—its content, adequacy, and “utility” as evaluated by different actors. Second, it brings to the fore the characteristics of experts and their relationship to those who make policies and govern the forces that have an impact on the region. And third, at a time of heightened polemics and media focus, scholars and experts become—admittedly in partial and incomplete ways—among the shapers of public discussion and opinion. In other words, academia becomes mobilized and drawn into the public sphere in particular ways and for specific purposes at times of crisis.

The university is the site of much of these areas of contestation, in part because the region has long held a deep fascination for US scholars. But the Middle East has also been at the center of ongoing controversy and debates about the relationships between knowledge and power, about the role of the federal government in the production of knowledge, and about ways of knowing “other” cultures and places. Current transformations of the university and the ways in which different forms of knowledge are valorized and institutionalized have a profound impact on the study of the Middle East.

The following essay draws on a long-term study of the production of knowledge on world regions based at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) since 2000 and that focused in part on Middle East expertise in US universities.1 This essay, we hope, will challenge readers to think about the “infrastructures of knowledge”—the disciplinary assumptions, funding structures, geopolitical issues, and more—which have so deeply shaped how scholars approach this critical world region. Specifically, we suggest that the Middle East is at the center of reassessments of the relationship between knowledge and power. The debates that are taking place in the United States over the field of Middle East studies (MES) have implications that go beyond one small field of knowledge production to encompass a much broader range of fields and academic inquiry more generally. At the heart of the matter are issues related to the securitization of academic knowledge in the name of the “national interest,” the challenges arising out of the possibilities of unbounded, transnational fields of scholarship and the future of the university as an institution.

The longue durée

In the past three decades, perceptive and incisive studies on the relationship between knowledge and power with regard to the Middle East, the Orient, and Islam have emerged. Much of this work investigates the colonial period and the ways in which colonial imagination and governance constructed and transformed the peoples, cultures, and societies of the region. While some works trace the relationship between “East” and “West” and the scholarship that accompanied it over longer periods of time,2 most are in-depth studies of particular moments in the connections between colonizer and colonized. These studies encompass a wide variety of topics ranging from the construction of state and nation to gender identities to urban space. The types of knowledge production explored constitute Orientalism writ large: philology, literature, art, ethnology, history, folklore, statistics, architecture, military science, and so on. Central to a conceptual understanding of the region and its objects of study are also the practical arts of politics and domination.

“It is important to link the conceptual apparatus of American Orientalism and its successors to an institutional history of higher education in the United States.”

Much less researched are the ways in which similar relationships, forms of domination, and knowledge production operate in postcolonial situations of continued unequal economic and political power, though one might see significant exceptions to this generalization in gender studies and in the reflexive turn in anthropology. This is not to minimize the ways in which the human and social sciences have incorporated an awareness of the situatedness of all scholarship but rather to note that few scholars have shown an interest in examining how humanistic and social scientific knowledge articulate with national and global political power and economic extraction.3 Among the lacunae is a perspective that emphasizes the long history of studying the Middle East in the United States.4 There are far more works on the practitioners of American Orientalism than on the twentieth-century institutionalization of scholarly interest in the Middle East.5

It is important to link the conceptual apparatus of American Orientalism and its successors to an institutional history of higher education in the United States, particularly how the study of world regions was institutionalized in the university through structural divisions of departments, disciplines, and inter-disciplines. Historical research on the American university emphasizes the mid-nineteenth century and early twentieth century as key periods in the development of the modern organization of knowledge production with the creation of departments and disciplines, the redefinition of the role of intellectuals, and the rise of research methodologies.6

Many of today’s scholarly societies were established during this time and reflected their founders’ broader efforts to establish their authority to categorize and disseminate information. This was also America’s “Golden Age of museums,” when private philanthropists sponsored large-scale collecting expeditions7 and funded the construction of museums as centers of public enlightenment. Founded in this period also were the American Antiquarian Society (1812) and the Smithsonian Institution (1847), as well as early and influential academic centers on the Middle East at elite universities across the United States. Equally important is the nature of the relations between American universities and research institutions and those established by the United States in the Middle East, such as the American University of Beirut, the American University in Cairo, and Roberts College (now Boğaziçi University) in Istanbul.

Through their shared interest in the region, a wide range of individuals moving within these networks formed epistemic communities and interacted with universities in particular ways. The genealogies of scholarship include pivotal scholars and other important figures whose institutional affiliations, personal histories, and academic mobility and professional legacies helped develop research approaches, schools of thought, and intellectual networks. Finally, intellectual canons were formed with seminal books and set curricula on how to approach the study of the Middle East.

Area studies

Currently, MES scholars in the United States labor under multiple and contradictory burdens: combating accusations of “failure,” dealing with increased political scrutiny and attempts to institute an apparatus of surveillance, high demands from students for courses and especially language teaching, high demands for media commentary and for public education and outreach. With 9/11, the war on Iraq, the “war on terror,” the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Arab Spring, and the emergence of the “Islamic State” (ISIS), the political and ideological real-world context greatly determines the shape of the field. However, other factors should also be considered: the size and characteristics of the scholarly community, the representation of disciplines in the field, the university structure, the availability of funding for training and research—all these contribute to the ability of scholars to innovate, to respond to demands for particular kinds of knowledge, and to shape how they deliver this knowledge. So too do the changing conditions of higher education more generally in the United States. The gradual erosion of tenure and the resulting challenges to academic freedom, the emergence of “civility” as a hiring criterion, and the growing power of private donors not only to name buildings and chairs but also to create degree programs all deeply affect US scholars’ ability to produce knowledge and their willingness to take perceived risks or challenge the status quo.

“Three institutional actors—universities, the federal government, and private philanthropic foundations—helped define the field.”

Lockman8 and Mitchell9 detail MES’s beginnings in the United States in the post–World War II era when “area studies” grew as a framework for constructing the kind of knowledge about world regions needed for the new role of the United States as a superpower. They describe how three institutional actors—universities, the federal government, and private philanthropic foundations—helped define the field. The ways in which funding was made available and in which universities organized training created area studies as interdisciplinary fields that emphasized a strong foundation in the language, history, and culture of a world region but gave center stage to the social sciences as the depository of methodological and theoretical skills, which would enable the production of “useful” knowledge.

The social sciences and their professionalization are a product and process of the twentieth century. The works cited above emphasize the “dramatic growth” of area studies and MES especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet it is important to point out that MES remained one of the smallest of the area studies, with much lower numbers of affiliated faculty compared to scholars of Latin America (the largest group), Africa, and certainly Southeast Asia. The number of MES university centers and departments also reflected the small size of this field.

By the 1990s, funding from private foundations sharply decreased (though the same was not true of federal government sources), and there was a turning away by donors as well as some scholars from area studies in general. This reflected two important trends: a methodological turn in the disciplines of economics, political science, and sociology, which led to strong emphasis on quantitative tools and methods that did not require in-depth field research, and the concurrent currency of globalization theories that shifted the emphasis of research and analysis from the local and national terrain to the global level. Universities responded to the shifts in funding and perceived interest and utility by creating new centers and departments of “global” or “international” studies or by focusing on contemporary cross-national themes like the environment, migration, or terrorism rather than regions per se. Area studies centers became increasingly the domain of scholars inclined to produce in-depth, contextual work on particular places rather than to search for universal theories or explanations, which for many social scientists meant a major break with the mainstream scholarship in their disciplines.

MES in the United States (like most of the other area studies) therefore entered the twenty-first century with a somewhat changed configuration from that of the previous four or five decades of its existence. The social sciences were retreating from regional study, while the humanities—and a broader cultural and linguistic turn—were becoming more central to the ways in which the field was defined and developed.

Into the new millennium

Many of the widely accepted certainties of the last decade of the twentieth century have been challenged—if not completely overturned—by global events in the first decade of the new century. In terms of the securitization of knowledge, a great deal has been written in the press and academic newsletters about the worrying trends in the United States: attempts to control the uses of federal funding in MES centers at universities, increased scrutiny of course curricula and of the opinions and activities of faculty members, hindrance of exchanges and visits by international scholars, and establishment of new funding programs and research centers at universities with support from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.

Finally, it is worth noting the establishment, since the 1960s, of a large number of “think tanks” and private as well as governmental special purpose social science and public policy organizations. Such centers often have prodigious outputs but also have the effect of narrowing knowledge to specific and contemporary agendas and outcomes and limiting space for contending perspectives. The question becomes, to what extent can the university maintain itself as a space for a contrasting set of pluralistic, varied, and innovative visions?10

Our contention is that the topic of the future of area studies and MES has been, in the main, treated in rather facile ways through polemics and vested interests, whether within the university or without. We call here for opening up a broader research agenda in the spirit of “field building,” in the best traditions of SSRC. Indeed, we suggest that the questions about the infrastructures of knowledge about the Middle East region introduced at the outset go well beyond the study of any one region. The issues raised by the particular historical conjuncture in the first decade of the new millennium for the relationship between knowledge and power are surely enduring.

This essay is an abridged version of the introduction to Seteney Shami and Cynthia Miller-Idriss, eds., Middle East Studies for the New Millennium: Infrastructures of Knowledge, (SSRC/NYU Press, 2016) and is reprinted with permission from NYU Press.

Posted on December 20, 2016