The University of Texas at Austin (UT) boasts a large and, at first glance, thriving Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES). Established in 1960 as an outgrowth of one of America’s largest liberal arts programs, CMES casts a wide net to offer an interdisciplinary program that draws on the expertise of 150 scholars with faculty appointments in 22 traditional academic departments.
Yet this behemoth academic unit, with few exceptions and despite this broad approach, is intellectually homogeneous. Characterized by tendentious, biased, and apologetical scholarship and teaching, such uniformity mirrors the constraints found in other Middle East studies centers nationwide. Collectively, they confirm what Bernard Lewis, the great scholar, observed in his autobiography, Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian (p. 278):
“In Middle Eastern studies, it has become commonplace that certain lines of thought (if that is the right word) must be accepted and applied if one wishes to achieve appointment, promotion and tenure. This kind of enforced orthodoxy can extend even to learned journals and publishing houses and has been used to bring about a level of intellectual conformism unknown for centuries.”
To cite but one example of the internal politicization of the discipline, as a matter of policy, CMES prohibits partisan political groups from speaking on campus. “Having someone come in and grind an axe on their perspective isn’t education,” then-CMES Director Kamran Scot Aghaie told the Daily Texan in 2007. History Professor Clement Henry left no doubt as to which “partisan” groups the department seeks to avoid: “There’s tremendous pressure from Friends of Israel on the academic professional,” he said. Other faculty agreed: “[T]he people advocating for the Israeli position win, in a sense, if they win this demand for balance,” Journalism Professor Robert Jensen added.
As the research below demonstrates, no such constraints deter these professors from presenting ahistorical, one-sided accounts of the Middle East. Whether designing anti-Israel curricula for secondary education, accepting funds from Islamist organizations, teaching from radical sources, or producing scholarship that advances an anti-American, anti-Western agenda, professors in CMES have clearly been hired and promoted with an eye to their ideological purity.
The size and interdisciplinary nature of CMES present difficulties for anyone assessing its quality. Given those complications, and the need to keep this report manageable, we chose eight tenured professors with full-time appointments whose work afforded an accurate snapshot of the program. To capture the faculty’s diverse areas of study and corresponding course offerings, specializations of the professors below include women and gender studies, post-colonialism, terrorism, Islamic studies, the Arab-Israeli conflict, authoritarianism, Egypt, and Iran. Because these fields are common in universities nationwide, including specialists in each of them allows for more accurate comparisons between CMES and Middle East studies programs at peer institutions.
While researching additional professors would certainly add to our body of knowledge about CMES, we do not believe it would change our conclusions significantly.
Politicized Professors at CMES: A Representative Sample
Kamran Scot Aghaie: Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies
There are few apolitical chapters in the story of Kamran Aghaie, who in many ways epitomizes the systemic problems at CMES. On the plus side, he cancelled a commissioned book about women in the Middle East after the anthology’s pro-Palestinian contributors objected to the inclusion of two Jewish Israeli authors while serving as CMES director in 2012. “The unfortunate reality is that in Middle Eastern Studies sometimes politics trumps academic ideals,” Aghaie wrote, insisting that he rejects academic boycotts that discriminate based on race or religion.
More in keeping with his record was his involvement with the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute (TCI). As one of a select few scholars chosen for that ill-fated effort to develop a high school curriculum covering the modern Middle East, Aghaie bears partial responsibility for the biased results: TCI course materials were temporarily pulled from classrooms in 2004 for displaying blatantly anti-Semitic content. High school teachers were instructed to administer “exercises” dividing their students into “advantaged” Jews and “disadvantaged” Palestinian Arabs. Teachers, meanwhile, were expected to play the role of interfering world powers who “intentionally and unfairly side against Arabs to suggest the existence of favoritism to Jews.”
With Aghaie’s help, TCI’s Middle East committee approved texts and interactive materials supporting the debunked assertion that Palestinian Arabs are descended from the Philistines and predated the Jewish presence in the Levant.
Ahistorical presentations dominate Aghaie’s classroom reading list as well. Students enrolled in “ISL 373: Modern Iran” are required to read Ervand Abrahamian’s A History of Modern Iran, which downplays the problems of the Islamic Republic while ascribing overly oppressive qualities to the U.S.-backed Shah’s regime.
In a Middle East Quarterly (MEQ) review of this book, Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy complains that Abrahamian spends “less than two pages” on the Iran-Iraq War, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iranians, while obsessing over the Shah’s military buildup preceding the conflict. “The basic left-wing view about Iran is that Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was truly evil while the Islamic Republic is a mixed bag,” Clawson writes, adding that Abrahamian’s book is “firmly situated in this paradigm, almost to the point of parody.”
Aghaie’s students are fed a similarly biased account of Iran’s history with another assigned text, Nikki R. Keddie’s Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, a post-revolution assessment of the Islamic Republic that MEQ editor Michael Rubin calls “wrong-headed, even dishonest” for the kid-glove treatment of such leaders as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Keddie reserves “a mere four sentences” to describe the bloody political purge which accompanied Khomeini’s consolidation of power.
Jason Brownlee: Associate Professor of Government and Middle Eastern Studies
Jason Brownlee shares his colleague’s pro-Islamist, anti-Western biases. A specialist on authoritarian regimes, Brownlee drafted a letter to President Barack Obama in 2011, signed by hundreds of scholars, demanding that the U.S. support the Egyptian uprising to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak.
In his book Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance, Brownlee describes Egypt leading up to Mubarak’s ouster as “an autocratic security state that supports a U.S.-led regional order built around Israeli security and the projection of U.S. influence over the Persian Gulf.”
In a Foreign Policy essay titled “Morsi takes Manhattan, but Washington’s another story,” Brownlee laments the U.S. policy of opposing democratically-elected Islamist parties such as the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria and Hamas in the Palestinian Territories. Reflecting on what he calls ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s “democratic bona fides,” Brownlee notes that “Morsi shares with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan a lifetime of involvement in his country’s leading moderate Islamist movement.” As any objective observer of Turkish politics knows, Erdoğan is a hard core Islamist whose goal is the re-Islamization of Turkish society.
With a history steeped in violence that continued through Morsi’s brief authoritarian reign, the Muslim Brotherhood can hardly be called “moderate.” Moreover, the elections accompanying Morsi’s political rise occurred under military rule and were anything but free and fair. Writing for National Review, Daniel Pipes and Cynthia Farahat demonstrate how Egypt’s Islamist parties gained power through “local election deceits” and other irregularities
Denise Spellberg: Professor of History
While Aghaie and Brownlee stump for Islamist regimes, other CMES faculty are concerned with presenting a whitewashed image of Islam that blends well with contemporary Western morals. That is precisely why historian Denise Spellberg threatened in 2008 to sue publishing giant Random House if her name was in any way associated with an historical romance novel that recounted the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s sexual relationship with his nine-year-old child-bride Aisha. Spellberg disparaged Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina as “hideous, stupid, and pornographic” and warned that the controversial work of fiction could precipitate violent unrest throughout the Middle East, prompting Random House to cancel the book’s scheduled publication. (It was published later that year by Beaufort Books).
While Spellberg asserted her “right to critique those who abuse the past,” she exhibits a lack of respect for historical accuracy in her own research. In Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, she takes great historical liberties in suggesting that Jefferson’s ownership of a Qur’an signifies an endorsement of its principles. Despite advocating for religious pluralism, Jefferson’s descriptions of Muslims were never flattering.
The San Francisco Chronicle called Spellberg’s book “a step toward inclusiveness in the ongoing construction of American history,” a superficial standard used to rewrite history to satisfy a progressive worldview. For “writing Muslims back into our nation’s founding narrative,” Spellberg was awarded the 2014 I-CAIR Faith in Freedom Award from the Cleveland, Ohio chapter of the Council American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim Brotherhood front group with ties to Islamist terrorist networks.
“Despite having different motivations, Liberal-progressives and Islamists both share the common goal of turning our founding fathers into advocates of multiculturalism,” wrote Bruce Cornibe of Counter Jihad. Spellberg’s oeuvre is part of that ongoing effort.
Faegheh Shirazi: Professor of Middle Eastern Studies
As with Spellberg, Faegheh Shirazi attempts an ahistorical reconciliation of Islam with contemporary liberalism. Railing against Iran’s conservative theocratic institutions, Shirazi cherry picks scripture to support a progressive and feminist interpretation of Islam. For instance, in Velvet Jihad: Muslim Women’s Quiet Resistance to Islamic Fundamentalism, Shirazi endorses lesbianism because, unlike homosexual conduct between men, the Qur’an does not explicitly forbid sex between women. However, Shirazi ignores the Hadith, or the teachings of the prophet, which prohibits homosexual relationships between Muslim women. Likewise, to rationalize why unmarried couples should be permitted to dance, Shirazi cites an ambiguous, wholly irrelevant Qur’anic passage about human perfection.
Shirazi teaches a course called “ISL 372: Veiling In The Muslim World.”Not surprisingly, her 2003 book, The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture, provides insights into her teaching on this topic. In his review of the book, Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes found Shirazi’s research dreadfully uninspiring, a banal study of the veil which recycles platitudes about Western man’s lustful perception of the garment as a symbol of “woman’s willingness to partake in male fantasies.” Pipes accuses Shirazi of “rehash[ing] the obvious” and failing to contribute “to the store of human understanding than would be hoped for from six years of research.”
Hina Azam: Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies
Hina Azam stands out among her colleagues as an unbiased, apolitical scholar. She teaches courses on Islamic law, Middle East religions, and Islamic feminism. During a 2008 Muslim Student Awareness Network (MSAN) conference at Stanford, Azam argued convincingly that Islamic tradition “has adapted the scriptural sources and informed Muslim social practices in ways that are oppressive toward women.” Although she grants that the Qur’an prescribes a few rights to women, these are undone by scriptural interpretations and varying social norms and traditions.
Unlike Shirazi and other Muslim apologists, Azam — who has been compared to reformers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali — does not seek to radically reinterpret Islamic scripture to conform to a modern egalitarian worldview. Indeed, she promotes research from Muslim feminist-scholars like Ayesha Chaudhry and Aysha Hidayatullah who reject outright any exegesis that seeks to rationalize wife-beating.
Titles in her expansive reading list for “MES 386: Islamic Feminism” include the anthology Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism. Despite the editorship of Duke scholar Omid Safi, an apologist for Islamism, the book offers a straightforward account of problems endemic to Muslim societies, from the festering conservatism among American Muslim students to Islam’s treatment of homosexuality as a sin.
Samy Ayoub: Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies
Samy Ayoub was the recipient of a grant from the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), an Islamist think tank that seeks the “Islamization of knowledge” by replacing the use of reason and the natural law in scientific and other inquiries with Islamic traditions of scholarship. IIIT is identified in Muslim Brotherhood documents as one of “our organizations and the organizations of our friends,” and its offices were raided by an anti-terrorism task force in 2003. U.S. Customs Service Special Agent David Kane subsequently testified in a sworn affidavit that IIIT co-founder Jamal Barzinji was “not only closely affiliated with PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] . . . but also with Hamas,” referring to two terrorist outfits operating in Israel.
Ayoub teaches a seminar called “Islamic Law and Political Violence,” where he directs students to read Faisal Devji’s Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity. Devji has acquired a reputation in his research for revering terrorist leaders and conflating militant Islam with humanitarian action.
In her devastating review of Landscapes of Jihad, religious studies professor Noga Hartmann was uneasy with the author’s conclusions: “Devji’s final assertion (pp. 163-64), that Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are real revolutionaries, is odd. It suggests, misleadingly, that Bin Laden is not only the most notorious Islamic terrorist today, but that he is really a hero, truly mystical, monotheistic, and revolutionary leader,” Hartmann writes. “This erroneous framework confuses readers, who must abandon their common sense perceptions of terror, violence, democracy, and militancy to consent to his theory.”
Benjamin Claude Brower, Associate Professor of Middle East Studies
In “MES 380: Post Colonial Europe,” Brower assigns his students a disturbing collection of fiercely anti-imperialist and blatantly anti-Semitic manifestos. Among them is Houria Bouteldja’s Whites, Jews, and Us: Towards a Politics of Revolutionary Love, an unapologetically racist treatise on leftist “decolonial theory” that has been denounced by critics for promoting hate. Decolonial differs from postcolonial, says Bouteldja, because “decolonization has yet to be finished.”
Bouteldja consistently refers to Israel as “the Jews,” or “the weaponized wing of the West,” and denies Israel’s right to exist. In the name of a global struggle against white elitism, Bouteldja asserts, “If a black women is raped by a black man,” the victim should avoid alerting the police “to protect the black community.” That one of her heroes of decolonial politics is former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – for stating “there are no homosexuals in Iran” at Columbia University in 2007 – demonstrates her comfort with anti-Semitic, homophobic propaganda.
Studying Bouteldja should desensitize Brower’s students for more of the same. Another assigned work, The End of Jewish Modernity by Enzo Traverso, argues that contemporary Jews have fully integrated with Western society. As part of the modern global power structure, therefore, Jews have evolved from oppressed to oppressor, and anti-Semitism has been supplanted by anti-Muslim hate. Writing for Fathom, Philip Spencer calls Traverso’s analysis “yet another example of a widespread failure on the part of many on the Left today to think seriously about and respond to antisemitism.”
The syllabus includes Joan Wallach Scott’s Sex and Secularism, which offers Brower’s students a much-needed reprieve from their professor’s anti-Semitic curriculum, but only to shift the criticism to secular liberalism. Scott argues that secularism is used by white Christians to assert their superiority over other cultures. Furthermore, Scott believes that secular societies are inherently opposed to gender equality and only adopted egalitarian reform to demonize political Islam.
Mohammad Mohammad, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies
Mohammad has spent much of his career teaching Arabic linguistics, but as the CMES resident Palestinian expatriate, he is also responsible for the course “MEL 321: Palestine & Palestinians.” Unfortunately, Mohammed eschews evidence-based scholarship and relies upon emotional appeals to portray Palestinians as the perpetual victims of Zionist expansion. His assigned readings present a distorted, ahistorical view of the issues.
Among these is the late Edward Said’s The Palestinian Question. A World Affairs Journal reviewer called Said’s book “a full-throated polemic,” wherein “The Jews were the aggressors; and the Palestinians their victims – on all counts and with little nuance.”
“There is nothing in Palestinian history, absolutely nothing at all to rival the record of Zionist terror,” Said wrote. If the Palestinians bear any responsibility for their present condition, he argued, they “were driven to” violence by the Israelis, who “literally produced, manufactured . . . the ‘terrorist.’”
Adhering to this anti-Israel paradigm, Mohammad assigns Walid Khalidi’s Before Their Diaspora. Even Benny Morris, the Jewish Israeli historian who is consistently sympathetic to pro-Palestinian historiography, criticizes Khalidi for depicting Palestinians “as a blameless society shambling towards tragedy” and as “objects rather than subjects, done upon and by rather than doing.” Morris charges Khalidi with perpetuating “a major distortion … clearly meant to deceive” when he accused the Jewish Haganah of ethnic cleansing in 1947.
Mohammed uses the medium of film to buttress his written course materials. Paradise Now is the fictional story of two Palestinian suicide bombers who, preferring “death to inferiority,” strap bombs to themselves and blow up an Israeli civilian bus. “[E]ven if there is no explicit vindication of attacks against Israelis, what else is one to make of a film that treats suicide bombers as sympathetic victims, with no attention paid to their actual victims?” asks The Jerusalem Post.
While UT-Austin’s CMES professors lack the level of fame (and notoriety) accorded to such radicals as Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi, UC Berkeley’s Hatem Bazian, or Georgetown University’s John Esposito, it is nevertheless well within the mainstream of the American Middle East studies establishment these three represent. This lesser attention is attributable more to the mainstream media’s reliance upon nearby elite coastal institutions for news than on any marked political differences at Texas. Biases that characterize the work of a Kamran Scot Aghaie or Samy Ayoub are comparable to those of just about any university’s MES faculty. Unfortunately, the far-left ideology dominating contemporary academe rewards professors and administrators for creating an atmosphere in which politicized disciplines are the norm.
Benjamin Baird is an Islamist Watch Writing Fellow for the Middle East Forum, a graduate of Middle Eastern studies from the American Military University, and a member of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa.
Winfield Myers is director of academic affairs and director of Campus Watch at the Middle East Forum.
This report was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.