A Gulf in Our Middle East Studies

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 10/9

More than fifty American college campuses are home to a Middle East or Islamic Studies Center. These centers go by different names—Georgetown University has the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, for example, while its close neighbor George Mason University houses the AbuSulayman Center for Global Islamic Studies—but they all purport to educate students in the history, language, and culture of the Arab world.

In practice, many of these centers have adopted a different mission: advancing the gospel of progressive political ideology. The scholars at these centers spend their time bemoaning “Western oppression” and dismissing any criticism of Middle Eastern cultures or religions as biased. Issues such as the Israel–Palestine debate are recast as battles for “indigenous rights,” while those who advocate for anything other than open borders are decried as xenophobic. To make matters worse, many of the centers are supported by taxpayer dollars—funds that were allocated to the centers due to their supposed relevance to America’s national security interests.

The National Association of Scholars’ new report Hijacked: The Capture of America’s Middle East Studies Centers traces the rise and fall of these centers, illustrating how they came to shift their focus from policy-relevant research to politically motivated propaganda. The report provides eight case studies of centers at prominent universities and examines their curricula and programming, as well as their ties to foreign donors and governments.

NAS initiated this project as part of our continued effort to uncover foreign influence in American higher education and to reorient our universities toward the American national interest, rather than that of our adversaries. We first took on Chinese influence, exposing our seemingly innocuous Confucius Institutes in Outsourced to China (2017) and their hidden-in-plain-sight replacements in After Confucius Institutes (2022).

Now, Hijacked reveals the foreign funding sources that keep the lights on and the propaganda-machine running at many of America’s Middle East Studies Centers (MESCs). But what is even more concerning than the massive amounts of foreign funding flowing into MESCs is the fact that most of them engage in strong anti-American messaging regardless of their funding source. In fact, the report finds that “centers with little to no foreign involvement teach and research with the same extensive bias as those with significant foreign involvement” and that the most harmful materials produced by the centers are subsidized by the U.S. government, not foreign donors.

This doesn’t mean that foreign influence isn’t a concern at American MESCs; it simply means that they are further gone than we originally thought.

MESCs’ deep-rooted bias allows their foreign sponsors to remain hidden behind the scenes, confident that their interests will be advanced without their direct intervention. As report author Neetu Arnold explains,

It is no surprise that foreign governments and individuals fund these centers. But foreign sponsors rarely need to exercise active influence, for the faculty and staff willingly do their bidding unasked. Donors can thus take a hands-off approach, leaving almost no paper trail other than a dollar amount and a few signatures. The funding still serves their interests: continued production of biased material that promotes the political interests of the donors.

The solution, Arnold says, is not to dismantle MESCs or to eliminate area studies programs at American universities. It’s to reorient them toward their original purpose:

Serious changes must be made to restore the rigorous study of Islam and the Middle East. When Middle East studies returns to its roots, American students will receive the robust Middle East education that they desire—and that American taxpayers deserve.

The Middle East remains a key region for America’s national security interests, and its nations and peoples have a storied history worth studying. But as long as America’s Middle East Studies Centers are more interested in advancing their ideological agenda than promoting meaningful scholarship and instruction, they are not deserving of our taxpayer dollars.

Until next week.

P. S. Be sure to read Arnold’s op-ed on National Resource Centers published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Mariam Soliman, Public Domain

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