Despite his forays into politics, Richard Pipes was above all a scholar. Young Daniel grew up in a book-lined home in Cambridge where, as his father recounts in his recently published memoir, Vixi, the visitors included Edmund Wilson and Isaiah Berlin. It could not have been a more scholarly milieu, and Daniel evidently soaked it up. In 1967, he began his freshman year at the prestigious university where his father taught, and where afterward he would pursue a PhD in medieval Islamic history.
It was the height of the Vietnam War, and young people everywhere were rebelling--but not Pipes. In April of 1969, his sophomore year, antiwar activists took over the main administrative building at Harvard. The university called in the police. Pipes recalls students gathering in the football stadium to debate the crisis, which dominated campus life for weeks. Pipes's group was among the smallest: He backed Harvard's administration and like his father firmly supported the Vietnam War.
Pipes lost friends that spring. "People with opposing views simply couldn't talk to each other," he told me. Until that point, he'd always thought of himself as a Democrat. By the time George McGovern ran for President against Richard Nixon in 1972, he'd switched over to the GOP.
Yet if Pipes was a budding conservative, he did not strike most people as an ideologue. "Dan at that time was a student," recalls Richard Bulliet, a professor of medieval Islamic history at Columbia University who was teaching at Harvard at the time. "I remember going to the graduation party his parents threw for him. He was a bright guy who wanted to be a medievalist, which is what I am. We got along real well. I don't recall him being political at all."
Pipes's first book, Slave Soldiers and Islam, published in 1981 but the product of field research conducted in Egypt during the 1970s, indeed bears no sign of its author's politics. It is a slender, scholarly work, carefully documented and measured in tone.
By the time Slave Soldiers appeared, however, its author had shifted his attention to other things. As Pipes would later recall, in the late 1970s he abruptly "gave up my claim to be a medievalist and metamorphosed into a historian of the modern Middle East." Pipes says that events on the world stage, in particular the 1979 Iranian Revolution, prompted the change. Bulliet offers another view: "I think Dan made the decision that he was born to be an actor in the world." With the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian hostage crisis, Islam was becoming a hot topic in Washington. And Washington is where Pipes headed. In 1982, shortly after his father entered the Reagan Administration, Pipes did likewise, leaving academia to join the policy planning staff at the State Department.
It was his first excursion into the world of politics, though Pipes apparently spent much of his time in Washington engrossed in a scholarly endeavor, working on his second book, In the Path of God. Published in 1983, the book foreshadows its author's preoccupation with Muslim fundamentalism, whose growing influence Pipes chronicled in dozens of states. It is an impressively wide-ranging work, albeit one marred by a strikingly crude thesis. Islam's resurgence, Pipes argued, was largely a product of the OPEC boom. Once oil prices dropped, he predicted, Islamic fundamentalism would fade away.
It's no sin to be wrong, of course--unless you are a Middle East specialist on Campus Watch's radar screen. These days, Pipes rarely misses an opportunity to ridicule Middle East specialists for their "mistakes," a charge echoed by Martin Kramer, whose recent book, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, argues that academics have so often gotten things wrong that merely mentioning their name "causes eyes to roll" among policy-makers. Kramer lays much of the blame on Edward Said's Orientalism, which he argues led an entire generation of scholars to look for Western causes of the Middle East's problems rather than confront unsettling internal developments.
In this, Kramer is actually following Pipes himself, who in the introduction to In the Path of God criticized Said and defended the traditional Orientalist approach as "the only basis for an analysis of [Islam] in relation to political life." He airily dismissed "the recent profusion of writings by social scientists" examining the Middle East, and complained that Muslim writers in particular "have added relatively little to the study of Islam." Here was a foretaste of the Pipes that would soon grow familiar to readers of his essays and books: a man with a wearying tendency to portray Muslims in general and the Arab world in particular in condescending terms. There was, to be sure, a throat-clearing qualifier--"I respect the Islamic way of life, admire much about it"--but as a reviewer in the Washington Post noted, Pipes "professes respect for Muslims but is frequently contemptuous of them."
After leaving the State Department in 1983, Pipes continued teaching at various universities. But he failed to land a tenure-track job, and would produce little original scholarship in the years to come, instead churning out dozens of essays on topical subjects--terrorism, Israel, the Rushdie Affair--for publications such as Commentary and The National Interest. The range was impressive, and Pipes wrote with clarity and panache, yet he often strayed into territory about which he had little expertise. In 1984, for example, he reviewed From Time Immemorial, a book on the Zionist settlement of Palestine by Joan Peters, in Commentary. Peters's thesis--that Palestine was "uninhabited" until Jews began settling there--was demolished by reviewers such as Albert Hourani, Norman Finkelstein and Yehoshua Porath, all of whom exposed the book as a crude pastiche of plagiarized references and deliberately twisted facts.
Pipes, however, found the work "startling" in its insight, praising Peters's "historical detective work." The lacerating critic who today impugns scholars for their anti-Israel bias detected no bias here. "Many of those who now consider themselves Palestinian refugees were either immigrants themselves before 1948 or the children of immigrants," he said. "This historical fact reduces their claim to the land of Israel."
It was not the first time Pipes's attention would be drawn to Israel, nor would it be the last. In 1981 he complained in Commentary about Westerners who obsessively tracked "the minutiae of housing on the West Bank, electricity company ownership in Jerusalem, use of Jordan River water," merely to shed negative light on Jews. Three years later, he took aim at the media for its coverage of the Lebanon War, again because it made Israel look bad. By 1988, his attention had shifted to the prospect of a Palestinian state, which he warned in a New York Times editorial would be a "nightmare" for its intended beneficiaries. Statehood "would hurt Arabs far more than Israelis," Pipes insisted, since the Palestinians would suffer under the repression of a terrorist organization, the PLO.
Pipes is not, as some allege, an uncritical supporter of Israel: With admirable consistency, he favors phasing out US aid to Israel on conservative grounds ("I oppose the dole for both individuals and states," he told me). Generally, though, Pipes criticizes the Israeli government for being too soft on the Palestinians, whose treachery appears to be limitless in his eyes. Consider his reaction to a "targeted" assassination by an Israeli warplane in the Gaza Strip two years ago that destroyed three residential buildings and killed fifteen civilians (150 more were injured). "It's a tragedy," Pipes allowed on CNN, but went on to insist that "the Palestinians have the moral opprobrium here," since they were not "playing fair" by allowing a target to blend into a civilian area.
Pipes has repeatedly called for Israel to crush the Palestinians--for their own good, he emphasizes--while simultaneously accusing scholars like the widely respected Rashid Khalidi of being apologists for violence. "After 9/11," Pipes wrote as co-author of a New York Post column, "[Khalidi] admonished the media to drop its 'hysteria about suicide bombers.'" What Khalidi actually said was, "Israel has killed three times as many innocent civilians as have Palestinians, for all the media hysteria about suicide bombers." Note how, by parsing the quote, Pipes made Khalidi seem not only like an apologist for suicide bombers, whom he has repeatedly condemned, but a man callously indifferent to the victims of 9/11.
"One of the things Pipes means when he accuses scholars of supporting terrorism is that we object to his characterization of all Palestinians as terrorists," says Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan who landed on Campus Watch's hit list. "Pipes goes on television and says the Palestinians have completely rejected Israel's right to exist, even though polling data show that a majority on both sides would trade land for peace. Pipes knows this--he's very well informed--but he ignores it because it's propaganda, and he's a good propagandist."
There are, to be sure, rigidly anti-Zionist scholars out there, just as there are fervently pro-Israeli ones. But few specialists who study the Arab-Israeli conflict see the matter as one-sidedly as Pipes does. During our interview, I asked whether Israel bore any responsibility for the current situation in the occupied territories. "Sure, it exists," he said. What of the settlements, which have expanded so massively in recent years? "Not terribly significant." Had he been to the occupied territories recently? Pipes paused.
"Not of late, no."
"Not a friendly place, no."