Middle East Studies: More Intellectual Diversity, or Better Public Outreach?

4 November 2021, 1301 EDT

Middle East scholars Marc Lynch and Shibley Telhami recently released the results of the new Middle East Scholar Barometer. They surveyed Middle East experts (including me) on many issues in the region. The goal of this, as they described in a Monkeycage piece, was to provide insights into the Middle East and recommendations for the Biden Administration.

But I was interested in it for another reason: what does it tell us about Middle East Studies itself? Does it suggest the field is rich and progressing, or in need of an intellectual shakeup? Has the field been able to effectively communicate its findings to the general public?

Why this matters

The field has been debating its intellectual diversity for decades. Edward Said’s Orientalism was in part an attack on the narrow set of assumptions that drove research into the region. And the backlash to Said, led by people like Martin Kramer, involved accusations that he replaced one narrow orthodoxy with another.

I’ve always been a peripheral member of the Middle East studies field, but that in part demonstrates the problem. I teach on the Middle East and my book and articles often deal with the Middle East; however, I study topics–Islamism, terrorism–that the field tends to downplay or criticize.

The results of the survey can thus suggest who is right, and how worried Middle East studies should be.

What the questions tell us

One way to determine this is to look at the responses to the questions. Do they indicate near-uniformity among Middle East studies scholars, a potential sign of group think? Or was there variation in responses, suggesting debate in the field?

Gratifyingly, we see a good amount of variation in responses (which I define as no single response gaining more than 55%) on numerous questions.

Middle East studies scholars disagree on a lot about the Middle East today. That may be frustrating to policymakers and media (not to mention students) but is a sign of a good research program.

Many questions had no clear majority. On the question of whether the Arab Spring is over or continuing, scholars were divided. This was also the case for predictions of US power ten years from now, and the influence of global powers. There was also significant variation in which country Middle East scholars believed had the most influence in the region.

Many other questions had a bare majority. Only 52% believed peace was impossible between Israel and Palestine. Only 54% believed the Arab Spring mattered but was not transformational. 54% believed global powers’ influence is split in the region, while a large minority saw America still as the dominant power.

This suggests to me that Middle East studies scholars disagree on a lot about the Middle East today. That may be frustrating to policymakers and media (not to mention students) but is a sign of a good research program. Competing views force scholars to defend their theories and question their assumptions, not merely repeat them unchallenged.

Near Unanimity on Israel and Iran

The situation is different when it comes to Israel and Iran.

On Israel, 59% of scholars believe the situation of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza is “akin to Apartheid.” And the most likely outcome on this issue, according to 77% of scholars, is the same.

Similarly, 75% of scholars think that Iran is less likely to get a nuclear weapon if America returns to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal negotiated under the Obama Administration. Likewise, 67% think the best approach to Iran is to immediately return to the deal.

What’s going on?

This could mean one of two things.

One is a lack of intellectual diversity. Middle East studies tends to be critical of Israeli policies; one could argue that leads scholars to view it in the worst possible lens. And Middle East studies scholars tend to be politically liberal, which leaves them confident in the power of international diplomacy to resolve nuclear tensions.

But one could argue this instead represents the very same progress in the research program I noted above. That is, maybe Middle East studies scholars have explored the issues thoroughly and arrived at these conclusions. Just because everyone agrees on something doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

I’m not going to be able to resolve these questions in a blog post, but I would argue that–even if the consensus among Middle East studies scholars is accurate–it’s still a problem. This is due to the fact that the general public disagrees.

On the areas of consensus Middle East studies scholars should do some soul-searching. They may need to assess one of Said’s continuing legacies, a wariness and antagonism towards policy relevance for fear of supporting US interests.

According to a May 2021 Gallup poll, 75% of Americans view Israel favorably, and 58% sympathize with Israel more so than the Palestinians. There are signs that support for Israel is softening, but only among younger and liberal Americans. Younger adults are less likely to sympathize with Israel than older adults; there is a similar partisan split. Likewise, Democrats are increasingly likely to think America should put more pressure on Israel to resolve the conflict; previously, they were split on whether pressure needed to be applied to Israel or Palestinians.

On the Iran deal, the Chicago Council conducted a poll of Americans and Iranians in March 2021. They found that 60% of Americans and 51% of Iranians supported the deal. Yet, there is a stark partisan divide in America. In Iran many were skeptical that America would fulfill its obligations even if it returned to the deal. Similarly, Iranians were split over whether returning to the deal would resolve other problems.

What does this tell us? It suggests a significant divide between what Middle East studies scholars think and what the general public (in this case in America and Iran) believe. Even though criticism of Israel is growing in America, it is mainly among liberals; thus, any policy impact of Middle East studies scholarship depends on Democrats being in power. Similarly, while Middle East studies scholars think the JCPOA is the solution to US-Iranian tensions, Americans and Iranians are more skeptical.

The disconnect between Middle East studies experts’ views and those of the public indicates that Middle East studies as a field has not done an effective job translating its research into arguments that can convince the general public.

(There was also a significant majority who agreed that American influence has declined. That is also out of sync with US public opinion, but is a little harder to parse so I left it out here)

What should we do?

On the question of intellectual diversity in Middle East studies, I think the field should be gratified. I found more diversity than I was expecting. I would like to see, maybe in future waves of this survey, questions on which issues are most important or which approaches to the region are most valid. We may see less diversity there.

In terms of the areas of consensus–Israel and Iran–Middle East studies scholars need to do some soul-searching. If they believe they are right, then they need to figure out better ways to engage with the general public. The Monkeycage, where these results were posted is one good outlet. I’ve written there on Middle East topics. Initiatives like Bridging the Gap could help (I’m a proud alum). But Middle East studies may need to assess one of Said’s continuing legacies, a wariness and antagonism towards policy relevance for fear of supporting US interests.