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Critique from the Right: The Neo-conservative Assault on Middle East Studies

From: CR: The New Centennial Review
Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 2005
pp. 63-110 | 10.1353/ncr.2005.0034

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CR: The New Centennial Review 5.1 (2005) 63-110

The Neo-conservative Assault on Middle East Studies

Zachary Lockman

New York University, New York

In November 1998, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) organized a special plenary session at its annual meeting to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism. The praise heaped on Said on this occasion for his contribution to the field of Middle East studies was in sharp contrast to the dismay or disdain with which many senior scholars in Middle East and Islamic studies had greeted his book when it first appeared in 1978. This acclaim indicated the extent to which the field had changed, with a great many scholars who were broadly sympathetic to the intellectual thrust (if not to every aspect or detail) of the critiques advanced by Said and others—and in some cases to their politics as well—now holding leadership positions within MESA and in the field as a whole.

Of course, not everyone accepted the critique of Orientalism. A good many scholars of Islam or the Middle East rejected it outright and lamented the fact that "Orientalist" had come to be widely used in a pejorative sense. Others found the whole controversy largely irrelevant to their work, continued much as they had always done, or embraced different ways of making sense of things. These included non-Marxist variants of political economy, for example, John Waterbury's 1983 book, The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes, or Alan Richards and John Waterbury's 1990 A Political Economy of the Middle East: State, Class, and Economic Development, but also one or another of the new games in town. "Rational choice theory" proliferated in American political science in this same period, sporting premises and methods that could not have been more incommensurate with those of colonial discourse analysis, postcolonial theory, poststructuralism, mainstream social science, or even plain old Marxism—though perhaps it had somewhat less impact on political science work on the Middle East than it did elsewhere. Nonetheless, the critique of Orientalism gradually won widespread (if never universal) acceptance among students of the Middle East and Islam, and the rejection of cultural essentialism and of the radical dichotomization of East and West that lay at its heart eventually came to be taken as plain common sense by many in the field.

Despite the widespread acceptance of this critical stance toward classical Orientalism and modernization theory, the question of how to understand and study Islam and predominantly Muslim societies continued to arouse controversy in the 1990s and into the early twenty-first century, in large measure because of developments—in the Middle East in particular and the Muslim world in general—that bore directly on contemporary intellectual, political, and policy concerns. Among other things, scholars had to grapple with the continuing importance of Islam in contemporary Middle Eastern and other predominantly Muslim societies, and more specifically with how best to explain the ability of parties, movements, and regimes that rejected secularism and instead called for the creation of what they deemed a properly Islamic society and state to win the support of, and mobilize, substantial numbers of people. In short, they had to explain the emergence and continuing strength of Islamism, the derivation of a political ideology and practice from the Islamic faith. Whole forests were sacrificed for the paper needed to produce the hundreds of books and thousands of articles and conference papers that were produced on Islam and Islamism from the 1970s onward, amidst ongoing debates about how to interpret and explain this phenomenon—if indeed it could be characterized as a single phenomenon. This is not the place to attempt a comprehensive survey of this vast literature, but I want to outline at least a few key issues.

The "resurgence" of Islam did not pose any great intellectual problem to those who, like Bernard Lewis, regarded Islam as a more or less unchanging and monolithic civilization that continued to govern the minds of its adherents. In an article in the September 1990 issue of Atlantic Monthly Lewis restated, but also elaborated on, his explanation of "The Roots of Muslim...

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