Last week, the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) held its annual conference in San Antonio, Texas. American, Canadian, French, Dutch, German, British, Irish, Moroccan, Egyptian, Lebanese, Spanish, Indonesian, Turkish, Israeli, and Iraqi scholars and students from disciplines as varied as anthropology, comparative literature, political science, history, media studies, and art came together for four days to share knowledge, browse a tremendous book exhibit, watch films, and reconnect with colleagues and friends. Given the grim state of most of the Middle East at present, one might assume that bringing together a critical mass of people with deep professional and personal ties to the region would be a recipe for glum and tense conversations, and there was a smattering of those, but for the most part, the mood at the conference was joyful.
I’ve been a member of MESA since 1991, and always look forward to the annual meeting. Middle East studies is a fairly small and close-knit community compared to mammoth organizations like the American Political Science Association and the American Historical Association. MESA meetings are much smaller in scale and friendlier, featuring a dance party, many receptions, and fun gatherings. It’s exciting to meet, in person, people you’ve only known as names printed on book covers or as photos on Facebook. The meetings provide a great opportunity to connect with scholars from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Since the election of Donald Trump and the Muslim travel ban, though, many of our colleagues can’t obtain visas to come to the meetings, a sad fact noted by MESA president Dr. Judith Tucker of Georgetown University’s History Department, who noted that the organization has lost about 400 members over the last two years, most from the Middle East and Europe, who feel frustrated and defeated that they cannot participate fully and freely in intellectual exchange.
The theme of this year’s meeting was “Without Borders: The Global Middle East, Then and Now,” and the venue in Texas, a border state infamous for controversies over immigration from Mexico and Central America, added an extra dimension of relevance to the theme. Walking around San Antonio, I noted the impact of Spanish culture in the city’s architecture, and Spanish architecture certainly owes a lot to Spain’s Islamic history and heritage. In addition, MESA is also working to foster regional comparative studies, particularly with scholars from Latin America.
Obviously, the existence of fields, discourses, and institutions devoted to the study of distinct geographic regions is a vestige of the Cold War and the United States government’s desire to build a cadre of scholars capable of understanding and explaining dynamics in key geostrategic regions during the long U.S.-U.S.S.R. stand-off. As indicated in the meeting’s theme, though, globalization’s effects have chipped away at the illusion that world regions and cultures are distinct, separate, and territorially bounded. Nowadays, the frameworks for thinking and writing about the Middle East emphasize political economy, hybridity, the circulation of ideas, people, and material throughout the world; the common threats of climate change, neoliberal exploitation, and authoritarianism; and draw markedly from post-colonial and post-modern theories. Thirty years ago, Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism was controversial. Now, Said’s brilliant theorizations provide much of the groundwork for Middle East Studies broadly defined. There is also more interdisciplinary work now. The panel I organized, for instance, “Revisiting Arab Cities: Interdisciplinary Itineraries,” featured geographers, political scientists, anthropologists, and development agency experts. The voices of young people, marginalized groups, minorities, and diverse genders are increasingly audible in both scholarly participation as well as the topics of study.
Despite the joy of seeing old friends and hearing about new research, a dark thread ran through the conference: so much of the Middle East has been destroyed, so many people killed and displaced, and so many scholars can no longer travel to the region to do research, teach, and coordinate with colleagues, whether as a result of Trump’s travel ban, the hazards of war zones, or Israeli bans on activist scholars (I am not allowed back into Israel, where I did my doctoral dissertation on Nazareth’s municipal politics). The American Institute for Yemeni Studies gathering was particularly somber this year. Three decades ago, scholars of Lebanon mourned the country’s fate in the final years of the civil war. Now, one cannot talk with Palestinian, Iraqi, Syrian, Yemeni, or Turkish colleagues without feeling deep sorrow and anxiety about the future. Interestingly, some Arab colleagues sympathetically noted that we in the U.S. now have our own authoritarian regime to contend with after the 2016 elections. Indeed, widely shared alarm over Trump’s policies seemed to mute political and professional tensions evident in past meetings. America’s participation in the Middle East’s suffering is patent and enraging, and many people expressed disgust and outrage, publicly and privately, towards Saudi Arabia in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and the ongoing vicious onslaught on Yemen. Debates over Syria and the future of Bashar Al-Assad, though, were few and far between compared to past meetings.
One of the liveliest discussions at the annual business meeting centered on whether MESA should continue accepting funding from ARAMCO, not only because of Saudi Arabia’s authorship of the carnage in Yemen and Khashoggi’s gruesome disappearance, but also because of its role as the main fossil fuel producer on a planet threatened by global climate change. This year’s recipient of the MESA award for Academic Freedom was Saudi scholar and women’s rights activist Dr. Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi, currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.
MESA encourages its members to be public intellectuals and activists, not just researchers. This is most clearly modeled by the organization’s Committee on Academic Freedom, which is divided into subcommittees focusing on rights abuses in the United States and the Middle East respectively. This committee had a very busy year, advocating on behalf of the release of Dr. al-Fassi, countering the deceptive discourses of Trump’s travel ban, and publishing a resource guide for college and university leaders dealing with the repressive and oppressive actions of “Canary Mission,” a pro-Zionist political organization that engages in defamatory attacks on college students and professors advocating for Palestinian rights in U.S. universities. The previously anonymous leaders and funders of Canary Mission were recently exposed, and the organization’s influence now appears to be waning.
Perhaps the most illustrative example of the globalization of Middle East Studies and the dynamic intersection between media, politics, and scholarship is another case that the Committee on Academic Freedom has been following, that of the nearly 16,000 documents, known as “The ISIS Files”, that New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi stole from Iraq for use by her newspaper without permission from any Iraqi authorities. The case touches upon the politics of intellectual property in a global age of digitized materials, as well as the provenance of such materials and the relationship between archives, national identity, and collective memory. Deeming the acquisition and use of these materials unethical and illegal, MESA has drawn needed attention to the politics of knowledge production, the ethics of publishing names of vulnerable individuals, and the colonial mentality that Americans are entitled to take whatever they want from other countries.
The ISIS files have now ended up at George Washington University in a cooperative venture between the New York Times and the university’s Program on Extremism, with the aim of creating a publically accessible archive. The Committee on Academic Freedom registered MESA’s concern that Ms. Callimachi, a journalist with no academic training, and a clear penchant for cutting ethical corners, will be a “non-resident fellow” at George Washington University and will help oversee the digitization and sharing of the files she illegally took from Iraq. Noting that Ms. Callimachi does not know Arabic, the Committee questioned how rigorously the Program on Extremism would attend to ethical, moral, and legal implications of sharing these materials. MESA, and all who are concerned with academic integrity and research ethics, will continue to follow this case of global concern closely.