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Journal of Democracy 13.3 (2002) 102-108

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Middle East Studies After 9/11

Defending the Discipline

Steve Heydemann

Crisis is the handmaiden of introspection, so it is not surprising that, even as demand for expertise on the Middle East and Islam ballooned after September 11, the attacks also generated a wave of criticism and debate about the state of Middle East studies and its track record in helping to make sense of those awful events. Much of this debate has been internal to the field and motivated by a desire to use hard-won expertise effectively at a moment of extraordinary suffering and loss. As in other moments of crisis, however, specialists have also been targeted by those for whom the attacks underscored the shortcomings of a field that—in their view—did not adequately anticipate what happened. Like the Sinologists who "lost" China and the Sovietologists who missed the collapse of communism, Middle East specialists have been charged with "getting it wrong," with misunderstanding and misrepresenting the region they study.

One recent expression of this view comes in the form of a monograph by Middle East specialist Martin Kramer entitled Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. 1 Though written prior to September 11, after the attacks Kramer's book achieved a certain notoriety for the intensity of its critique, becoming for a time the focal point of heated exchanges in print, at conferences, and on Internet bulletin boards.

Kramer, who holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern studies from Princeton, finds much to criticize about the state of his field, but he finds its track record on the question of democratization to be an especially vivid example [End Page 102] of its misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the Middle East. Academic specialists on the Middle East, he claims, are reflexively sympathetic to Muslims and Arabs. They exaggerate the possibilities for reconciling Islam and democracy. They find potential for democratization where it does not exist, whether in processes of modernization and development or in the emergence of so-called civil societies. For 40 years, scholars of Middle Eastern politics have blindly chased the latest theoretical fad, regardless of its relevance to conditions in the region. As a result, he argues, they have systematically failed to understand the politics and societies of the Middle East, becoming too esoteric in their theoretical concerns to be of value to those responsible for American policy in the region.

Though Kramer's book is severely flawed, 2 the larger question remains: Is his diagnosis of the field accurate? Have we exaggerated the prospects for democratization and misread the state of politics in the Middle East? Are we guilty of uncritically applying inappropriate theories and methods? Have we neglected what really matters in pursuit of theoretical novelty?

The straightforward answer is that these perceptions of the field are misguided. When it comes to the study of democratization and economic reform—especially the past 10 to 15 years' work on the political economy of regime formation and transition—the field has been largely right. The persistence of authoritarianism, not the inevitability of democracy, has been the principal focus of research. The overwhelming sentiment among researchers has been not uncritical optimism about prospects for democratization but a cautious and critical skepticism, verging at times on frank pessimism. 3

Certainly, at the start of the 1990s scholars of the Middle East were anxious to explore the local effects of the changes then transforming the international system, including the possibility of political change from below, and with good reason. No one paying attention to events on the ground—the newfound interest among regimes circa 1990 in the rhetoric of pluralism, markets, and democracy; the growth of social movements around issues ranging from human rights to electoral reform to environmentalism; the increasingly visible signs of exhaustion among existing systems of rule—could have failed to note how the events of 1989 resonated across the Middle East, creating possibilities for change that had seemed quite remote only a few years earlier. Research on civil society, far less prominent in Middle East studies...