Some of the worst, most misleading, departments of Middle Eastern studies are at schools deemed — in the U.S. News & World Report pecking order — the most “prestigious.” Columbia, for example. Practically from soup to nuts. Who would wish to hire someone coming out of the Columbia program, someone that is who was taught by, inter alia, Hamid Dabashi, Joseph Massad, Rashid Khalidi, Lisa Abu-Lughod, Zainab Bahrani, George Saliba, not to mention Gary Sick and Lisa Anderson?
As possibly the only person in the world to have read everything written in English by Hamid Dabashi, I can grimly report that his primitive notion of scholarship, the laborious piling on of details, never given shape, never subject to analysis, never endowed with any significance, makes him one of the greatest embarrassments of Columbia today, the school where Jacques Barzun once taught, once administered. Simultaneously cheer yourself up and depress yourself: simply google “Hamid Dabashi” and “Edward Said,” in order to read the former’s treacly tribute to the latter, in the style of assorted Odes to Stalin.
Go ahead. Google. Read. Laugh. Cry.
Then there are the Apologists Lite at Yale, which actually thought seriously about appointing Juan Cole, although, to its credit, decided not to do so. At Harvard, meanwhile, that Palestinian groupie, the egregious Roger Owen, who was once a lowly lecturer at St. Antony’s, has managed somehow to wangle an appointment as that appetizing thing, the “A. J. Meyer Professor of Middle East Economics.” (A. J. Meyer himself was — see J. B. Kelly — hardly a major scholar of the Middle East; the chair is one more reflection of oil money.) Owen has sensed the way things are going and come out with a perfectly standard biography of Lord Cromer, which in the new environment helps him to re-position and re-package himself (just like Richard Bulliet, who is now delivering lectures not on the coming confluence of Islam and Christianity, but rather on cotton growing). These are not Sami al-Arians. Careers and careerism even before the “Palestinians” and Islam.
What value can such a word as “prestigious” conceivably have, when an English department may be “good” and a History department deplorable, or vice-versa, in the same institution? And what does it mean to say that a “department” is good or bad, except as a general statement that the non-spouters of nonsense outnumber the spouters, but not much more than that? In the end, the individual teacher, his elan and knowledge, is what counts the most.
It is not all darkness. Here and there Bat Ye’or’s books are assigned Very much here and there. One assumes that parts of one or another may be assigned. In the war colleges some are using this or that book — and no doubt, it will be harder and harder to ignore her, as her book Eurabia continues to look not like fantasy but every day more like a modest description of an even more horrific reality. Bernard Lewis, as far as I know, has never given her a boost, and there is reason to believe that in the past he has actually belittled her as “polemical,” without feeling the need for more.
Lewis’s anthology (done with Benjamin Braude, who teaches at Boston College, and who according to reports becomes deeply disturbed when others focus on Islam as the explanation for the behavior of Muslims) on Jews and Christians in the Ottoman Empire does contain Joseph Hacker’s uncompromising discussion of the difficulties faced by Jews. One wonders if Lewis was happy with that contribution, or distinctly uneasy. Those who assign chapters from that book in various courses on “Islam and the West” (Maria Rosa Menocal is often included), seldom assign the article by Hacker. In his attempt in “The Middle East: the Last 2000 Years” at haute vulgarisation, Bernard Lewis offers that intended common reader, out of some 400 pages, three paragraphs, two of them exculpatory, on the treatment of non-Muslims under Islam. In other words, the fate of tens of millions of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, in the Middle East (and North Africa, ordinarily treated now as part of that Middle East) under Islam is mentioned glancingly. Nothing about the many disabilities save for the hastily mentioned Jizyah. Nothing about forced conversions (Shah Abbas with Armenians and Jews, Copts in the 12th century). Nothing about massacres overnight. Just a paragraph or two.
Sometimes just a paragraph or two can speak volumes. As it does here, but not in the way that Lewis would wish. But such is what garners “prestige” in these latter days.