A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Threat(s) to Middle East Area Studies (Yet Again)

As I sit in a Washington with many government services shut down, after months of living under a Federal sequester that has cut funding to the bone, it is hardly cheering to encounter this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:  "Area-Studies Centers are Vital but Vulnerable." Area studies have always been something of an odd man out in traditional academia, often dependent on government funds and targeted where it was believed threats might emerge. (And I doubt if I need to note my personal biases as I work for an area studies think tank and edit an area studies journal.)

Since World War II (when the need for understanding foreign languages and cultures became obvious, especially in the Pacific Theater), and especially in the Cold War, Federal support for area studies increased enormously, with emphasis on strategic languages and foreign cultures (Russian and Chinese foremost among them, but Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages received attention). With some in traditional academia suspicious of any government funding (another Cold War survival) and all government funding under periodic fire, area studies has always had to fight for survival.

When the Soviet Union dissolved and Francis Fukuyama announced The End of History, area studies weren't needed anymore. The US Defense Intelligence Agency, for one, cut back its Middle East area studies sharply, and it was not alone. Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, history started up again with a jolt, and a decade later we had 9/11 and everyone was crying out for Pushtu speakers (as long as they weren't actual Pashtuns: it takes too long for the security clearance).

The irony of course has long been that, though the government wants lots of speakers of foreign languages and experts on foreign cultures, their advice on actual policy never quite reaches the policy-making level.

So here we are again, and area studies are threatened again.

But as a companion piece to the Chronicle article linked above, Middle East Area Studies is threatened from another direction: the closing of foreign studies opportunities due to regional turbulence. This article from Mada Masr last month deals with the decision by the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) to move its students from the American University in Cairo to Amman after the July coup, and also the moves by other language programs such as Middlebury's to cancel their Egyptian operations for the year and/or move them elsewhere, often Amman. Cairo is "the mother of the world", with thousands of years of history; Amman has history, too, but it isn't Cairo.

The death of a young American English teacher based in Alexandria and working for AMIDEAST spurred much of this reaction (or overreaction?), but other issues (growing anti-Americanism and xenophobia, Egypt's crackdown on NGOs) add to the pressures. Second warning of bias: besides working for the Middle East Institute today I was a CASA Fellow and later also a Fellow of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), so I hate to see the programs that helped form my knowledge and experience of that country and its language under threat. Even without the personal investment, I hate to see the next generation of Middle East Studies students deprived of the opportunities we had.

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