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Journal of Democracy 13.3 (2002) 96-101



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Middle East Studies After 9/11

Time for an Audit

Ibrahim Karawan


Today there is a clear need for fresh discussion of the issues of Middle East studies, Islamism, and democracy. The impact of September 11 is one obvious reason. Then too there is the simple lapse of time. It has been a quarter of a century since Leonard Binder edited a major volume to reassess the field. 1 It was also about a quarter-century ago that Islamist movements made a comeback as significant players in Middle Eastern and Muslim-world politics. So perhaps we are due for an audit of the academic discipline of Middle East studies that would include a reassessment of how well or poorly it has succeeded in its efforts to understand, forecast, and generally make sense of the resurgence and future prospects of Islamist movements.

Since September 11, debates among scholars of the Middle East over the meaning and direction of Islamism have frequently and perhapsunderstandably been rather heated. On one side have been those, like Martin Kramer, who criticize the field of Middle East studies as a set of "ivory towers built on sand," populated by experts whose conceptual confusions and shortcomings prevented them from properly anticipating the willingness and ability of Islamist militants to engage in the massive acts of terror witnessed on September 11. Those attacked by Kramer and his supporters have responded in essence by saying, "You are out to deprive us of our right to express ourselves, and in doing so you are motivated by political considerations."

I hope to go beyond this exchange of claims and counterclaims by shedding light on some key questions. First, we need to examine the link between knowledge and policy. Whether or not a given scholar of [End Page 96] the Middle East aims to give advice concerning what should or should not be U.S. or Western policy toward the region, scholarly arguments over issues such as the state, Islamism, and democratization inescapably have policy implications. Not all scholars in Middle East studies want to devote the bulk of their research efforts to influencing public policy, not least because policy makers have not generally been eager to listen. But scholars play a policy role in a variety of ways. They are often the teachers of those who spend their careers engaged in policy making. And scholars also play a part in shaping public opinion. There are many ways of thinking about the link between knowledge and policy, and the thoughts involved should not be confined to providing options to policy makers in response to the question: "What are the most effective ways of dealing with this or that phenomenon?"

The Limits of Prediction

A second key question is whether prediction constitutes an important task of Middle East and other regional studies. This may set the stage in turn for some wider reflections on the criteria that we can use to determine whether a given field or approach within a field is succeeding or failing. The stress laid on prediction by Kramer and others is somewhat ironic, for there was a time not long ago when the field of Middle East studies was criticized not for being insufficiently practical and predictive but rather for being insufficiently theoretical and conceptual. Over the last decade or so, however, scholars who study the Middle East have made greater conscious efforts to be more clearly theoretical and conceptual. Now it is said that our failures at prediction must be a result of fundamental failures in explanation.

Over the last few months, Martin Kramer has been playing in Middle East studies a role very much like the one that Ken Jowitt played among Sovietologists in the aftermath of the USSR's demise ten years ago, arguing that the field's failure to anticipate a massive event (in the current case, 9/11) was not an accident and reflected not merely a lack of data but a fundamental poverty of ideas. Nor are Middle East studies and Soviet studies the only disciplines where the experts have...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 96-101
Launched on MUSE
2002-07-01
Open Access
No
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