Since September 11, we’ve heard a lot about the “intelligence failures” that left the United States unprepared for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These failures were not simply the result of poor espionage or of bureaucratic incompetence. They reflected a deeper failure to understand a region and its historical wounds, a number of which–though not all–were inflicted by the Western powers. The future of America’s profoundly strained relations with the Arab and Muslim world depends, to a great extent, on educating the public. Yet the very people who are in a position to perform this vital task have instead found themselves under siege from extremist pressure groups and craven politicians. Their crime? Challenging the nostrums of those formidable authorities on the Arab world, George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon.
The suppression of “anti-American” dissent, a disconcerting feature of political life since the Bush Administration took power, has been most sharply felt on college campuses. One of the first signs of a chill appeared three years ago, when the president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, assailed left-wing criticism of Israel’s occupation as “anti-semitic in effect, if not in intent.” (Summers later invoked his allegedly nonsexist “intent”–and academic freedom–following the outcry over his suggestion that women weren’t genetically equipped to compete with men in the sciences.) Since then, the chill has assumed the trappings of an inquisition against academic critics of US Middle East policy. Some, like the Geneva-based Islamist scholar Tariq Ramadan, who was invited to teach at Notre Dame, have been prevented from entering the country; others have received death threats; still others have seen their reputations impugned, their careers devastated. The inquisition’s leaders are right-wing crusaders like Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer, Charles Jacobs and David Horowitz, who are orchestrating high-profile campaigns against universities and advocating repressive legislation with the aim of overturning the very academic freedom they claim to be defending. The foot soldiers are undergraduate zealots who would rather fire their professors than be exposed to an unfamiliar point of view.
The main battleground, as Scott Sherman reports in the current issue, is Columbia University, where, in a campaign of vilification that has drawn hardly a word of criticism from the university’s president, Lee Bollinger, a Boston-based outfit known as the David Project has accused three professors of Middle Eastern origin of intimidating Jewish students. The latest target is the director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute, Rashid Khalidi, a distinguished Palestinian-American historian and a longstanding contributor to The Nation. In late February the New York City Board of Education, under pressure from Jewish groups and from Congressman Anthony Weiner–a mayoral hopeful and ally of the David Project–announced that Khalidi would be purged from the K-12 teaching development program, owing to criticisms he had made of Israel, though his past participation in the program had aroused no controversy at all.
The targeting of Khalidi is perhaps most revealing of the movement’s larger aims, since he is a redoubtable Palestinian moderate. For Israel’s occupation he has had harsh words, but he has also had harsh words for the Palestinian leadership, and he openly concedes that most Arab governments have “a much worse track record with respect to democracy than…Israel.” Khalidi’s most recent book, Resurrecting Empire, has earned praise from conservative political scientist John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz–hardly radicals. Khalidi is no Ward Churchill. And yet it is likely his very moderation that most infuriates his adversaries.