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Fear and Trembling at the Annual MESA Meeting

By Cinnamon Stillwell
Campus Watch
November 29, 2007

At the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in Montreal earlier this month, fear and trembling were the order of the day.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education article, "Mideast Scholars, Meeting in Montreal, Worry About a Splinter Group and Academic Freedom," the leading lights of Middle East studies are feeling both "besieged" and "blessed" by the post-9/11 increase in attention to their field. Being forced to contend with the twin horrors of outside criticism and competition from groups such as the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) must indeed be taking their toll on the delicate sensibilities of these poor, beleaguered academics.

MESA's "Committee on Academic Freedom" is aflutter with cases where the "freedom of scholars" is threatened. Among these, members cite "travel restrictions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, speech crackdowns in Turkey, and blasphemy lawsuits against professors in Kuwait" in the same breath as "concerns over the American reception of John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt's controversial book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy." Who needs foreign government suppression when the encroachments of free speech are at hand?

Luckily, MESA members escaped from the "impression of U.S. inhospitality toward Middle Eastern scholars" by meeting in the more welcoming environs of Canada. I hear the ice hockey's pretty good this time of year as well.

MESA president and professor of Middle Eastern studies and history at New York University Zachary Lockman took issue with MESA critics, who, he claimed, "call the many Muslims in its membership Islamic apologists by default." The problem is, at least when it comes to Campus Watch, this has never been the case. But why let facts stand in the way of unremitting paranoia?

Nevertheless, Lockman seemed to be onto something when he noted that, for MESA critics, "it is still and always 1978…and all of us continue to be Edward Said's slavish acolytes."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

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