Middle East Studies, Changing for the Better

Highly impressed by the post-9/11 and post-Iraq cohort to enter the field of Middle East studies, I have been predicting for years that by about 2015 the field will begin evolving in a more mainstream direction. The eccentrics and extremists of yesteryear who dominate academic studies of the region will be replaced by individuals with a greater dose of common sense and ambition.

Today, for the first time that I am aware, someone within the field has gone public with this same observation. Mark Lynch of George Washington University focuses on one important aspect of this transformation, "a flood [of] smart, young veterans" back from Iraq especially but also Afghanistan. Lynch notes some of the differences between them and traditional students:

When they enter academic programs, these veterans will (and already do) bring a great deal of on-the-ground experience to the classroom and to their research. Many will (and do) enter their programs with far more advanced language skills than did earlier generations of students, although perhaps with more familiarity with colloquial spoken dialects than with Modern Standard Arabic (reversing a common traditional pattern). Their point of reference will be (and is) Iraq and the Gulf, not Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, or other areas where a great number of current faculty began their encounters with the region. And they will have much greater familiarity and comfort with military and security issues than do many currently in the field.

Lynch finds that the officers "are all over the map politically and in terms of their intellectual aspirations" and doubts that their main effect on the field will be to push it to the right. Instead, he expects them to bring a bias toward "pragmatism and empiricism, and against any kind of ideological doctrines."

Comments: (1) That prospect sounds great to me. I look forward to the point when pragmatic academics reign and Campus Watch can close down, its work accomplished. (2) Returning veterans are just one-half the story. The other is the larger and more varied cadre of non-military students going into the field as a result of 9/11, individuals who just a decade ago would have shunned it. Their orientation has less to do with Iraq and more to do with Islam. (July 29, 2009)

Aug. 4, 2009 update: For responses from other specialists, see both the comments at Lynch’s article and Scott Jaschik, "Shift in Middle East Studies? " at InsideHigherEd.com. Plus Lynch provides more reactions at "Changing Middle East Studies, part 2 ."

Daniel Pipes

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Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of several books, including Militant Islam Reaches America and In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power (Transaction Publishers), from which this column derives.

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