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The War on Academic Freedom | The Nation

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The War on Academic Freedom

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At the end of September, after a torrent of criticism, Campus Watch took down the dossiers and funneled their contents into its "Survey of Institutions," which profiles twenty-four North American universities even more broadly than was the case prior to the revamping of the site.

About the Author

Kristine McNeil
Kristine McNeil is a writer living in Brooklyn.

Pipes's intention is not merely to silence a small cadre of scholars. Martin Kramer, editor of MEF's Middle East Quarterly, laid out the think tank's objectives quite explicitly last year in his book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. The idea is to cut off government Title VI funding to Middle East area studies programs--which was increased after September 11--and redirect it to a new Defense Department program. Called the National Flagship Language Initiative, the new program launched this past April to establish learning centers for Arabic, Farsi and Turkish, among other languages, to support Americans willing to make a "good faith effort" to join the Defense Department, the CIA or a number of other government agencies after graduation.

MESA opposes the program on the grounds that its association with the Defense Department and the CIA potentially endangers the safety and institutional access of students studying abroad, and favors programs administered through the Department of Education.

Despite his claims of "not seeking to derail anyone's career," as he recently assured a university audience, Pipes aims for that and much more. Ruining people's careers may be only the tip of the iceberg. If he succeeds in smearing scholars by pressuring university administrations, students and their parents, and eliminating their sources of funding, some in the academy fear that Campus Watch eventually may try to offer allegations and support to John Ashcroft's Justice Department with the aim of having their targets charged with crimes punishable under the USA Patriot Act.

As Queens College professor Ammiel Alcalay notes, "Once you create a climate in which any kind of oppositional thinking is suspect, you can push that further and begin to see where people's work has appeared, if they've written a check to a charitable organization, done a fundraiser, visited a country, written something that has been quoted out of context, etc. There are myriad ways."

History professor Zachary Lockman, of New York University's Middle East studies department, believes that Campus Watch's primary goals are to stifle debate on Iraq,the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and US policy toward Islamist movements, and to discredit their opponents in the academy by branding them soft on terrorism. In a letter to Pipes and Kramer, he wrote, "Though I'd watched you two in action for many years, I never thought you'd stoop quite this low, to such a crude effort to undermine the integrity and norms of academic life and achieve by innuendo, misinformation and implied threat what you could not achieve by reason and free intellectual exchange."

But opposition to Campus Watch's efforts in the academy is growing. On October 23 Professor Amy Newhall, MESA's executive director, announced that the organization will work with the American Association of University Professors' recently formed Committee on Academic Freedom in a Time of Crisis, set up to investigate harassment of scholars and disruption of academic freedom. And at its upcoming annual conference, MESA is expected to pass a resolution condemning Campus Watch, similar to the one it unanimously endorsed 18 years ago censuring the efforts of the ADL and AIPAC.

Both Esposito and Lockman are very pleased with the support they and their colleagues have been shown since the lists were posted. Many of the academics who wrote asking to be added to Pipes's list are untenured, potentially placing their jobs at risk, thus underscoring their commitment to fight Pipes's distortions. "I think there are a lot of people who have a good sense that this is an attack on everyone," Lockman says. "Many of us learned from McCarthyism. If it's Middle East studies this year, it will be something else the next."

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