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The War on Academic Freedom | The Nation

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The War on Academic Freedom

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The year since Congress passed the USA Patriot Act has brought an ever-growing enemies list from our nation's thought police. First there was Senator Joseph Lieberman and Lynne Cheney's American Council of Trustees and Alumni report unveiled last November--"Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It." The forty-three-page document purports to advocate the preservation of academic freedom and dissent while being all about suppressing both when the views expressed conflict with blind support for US foreign policy.

About the Author

Kristine McNeil
Kristine McNeil is a writer living in Brooklyn.

In attempting to smear dozens of "unpatriotic" professors, the organization laid the foundation for the Middle East Forum's recent blacklisting project, Campus Watch--a website that hopes to do for students and professors what Project TIPS would have done for mail carriers and plumbers.

Based in Philadelphia and headed by anti-Arab propagandist Daniel Pipes, Campus Watch unleashed an Internet firestorm in late September, when it posted "dossiers" on eight scholars who have had the audacity to criticize US foreign policy and the Israeli occupation. As a gesture of solidarity, more than 100 academics subsequently contacted the Middle East Forum asking to be added to the list. In response, Pipes has since posted 146 new names, all identified as supporters of "apologists for suicide bombings and militant Islam." He also claims "most of the writers are academics from fields other than Middle East studies (and so are not qualified to judge the work of the academics we listed)." By this standard, he is similarly unqualified, as he is not a professor and his PhD was earned in medieval history. Of the Campus Watch eight, seven are modernists. Hamid Dabashi of Columbia teaches and writes about both medieval and modern Iranian social history.

Naming the names of academics critical of Israeli policy has a history spanning more than two decades. In 1979 the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) formed its Political Leadership Development Program, which "educates and trains young leaders in pro-Israel political advocacy," enlisting hundreds of college students to collect information on pro-Palestinian professors and student organizations. By 1983 the program had attracted more than 5,000 students on 350 campuses in all fifty states. The next year the findings were published as The AIPAC College Guide: Exposing the Anti-Israel Campaign on Campus,which surveyed 100 campuses and instructed students on how best to counter a "steady diet of anti-Israel vituperation." Around the same time, the Anti-Defamation League covertly distributed a twenty-one-page booklet containing "background information on pro-Arab sympathizers active on college campuses" who "use their anti-Zionism as merely a guise for their deeply felt anti-Semitism."

As with redbaiting during the 1950s, the leaders of these current attacks are exploiting the fear and anxiety the American public feels about enemies abroad in order to advance their own political agenda. Now with access to the Internet, Pipes and his supporters have been able to expand their attacks into a virtually limitless campaign of harassment and intimidation. Since the dossiers were first posted, the targeted professors have been inundated with hostile spam, rendering their e-mail accounts almost useless, and most have been victims of "spoofing," in which their identities are stolen and thousands of offensive e-mail messages sent out in their names. More than one scholar has received telephone death threats. When University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole reported that he and his colleagues had been disabled by thousands of hate messages a day since their dossiers were posted, Pipes claimed to be shocked, shocked! at the response his website has elicited. "If Professor Cole has in fact been subject to such harassment, Campus Watch joins him in demanding that whoever stands behind this reprehensible behavior cease immediately," he told the History News Network, but he has yet to post a statement on the site.

The Campus Watch site is a showcase for the signature distortions on which Pipes has built his twenty-five-year career. He twists words, quotes people out of context and stretches the truth to suit his purpose. John Esposito, director of Georgetown's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and an expert on militant Islam, is depicted as a Hamas apologist and blamed, without evidence, for the State Department's decision to refuse crucial Sudanese intelligence on Osama bin Laden before September 11. Joseph Massad, an assistant professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia, is maligned for signing a letter to the editor of the Columbia Spectator in defense of Edward Said in 2000. The letter, co-signed by Columbia colleagues Hamid Dabashi (a fellow blacklistee) and the late Magda Al-Nowaihi, is presented as self-evident in its taint. Stanford history professor and Middle East Studies Association (MESA) president Joel Beinin (not on the list but singled out elsewhere on the site) is quoted completely out of context and said to blame "US foreign policy for the attacks of September 11, 2001, rather than militant Islam."

Aside from the dossiers, the site's McCarthyite "Keep Us Informed" section has provoked the most outrage, as it encourages students to inform on their professors, rather than challenge them openly as part of the academic process. Pipes contends that "American scholars of the Middle East, to varying degrees, reject the views of most Americans and the enduring policies of the US government about the Middle East.... Campus Watch seeks to reverse the damage already caused by the activist/scholars on American campuses. We see this as an ongoing effort, one that should continue so long as the problem exists." He describes MESA as a "left-leaning" mafia offering only "groupthink." The fact that MESA and Middle East studies departments include Arabs and Arab-Americans studying their own region is a particular outrage to Pipes: "Middle East studies in the United States has become the preserve of Middle Eastern Arabs, who have brought their views with them. Membership in the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the main scholarly association, is now 50 percent of Middle Eastern origin. Though American citizens, many of these scholars actively disassociate themselves from the United States, sometimes even in public."

Pipes is notorious in the academy for calling fundamentalist Muslims "barbarians" and "potential killers" in a 2001 National Review article and accusing them of scheming to "replace the [US] Constitution with the Koran," in a similar piece in Insight on the News. Along these lines, a 1990 National Review article insisted that "Western European societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene.... All immigrants bring exotic customs and attitudes, but Muslim customs are more troublesome than most." In addition to running the Middle East Forum, serving on a Defense Department antiterrorism task force and writing columns for the Jerusalem and New York Post, Pipes is also a regular contributor to the website of Gamla, an organization founded by former Israeli military officers and settlers that endorses the ethnic cleansing of every Palestinian as "the only possible solution" to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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.

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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