The Middle East Studies Establishment vs. Walid Phares
When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced last month that Walid Phares -- a Lebanese-American Christian, adjunct professor of jihadist global strategies at the National Defense University, and former Middle East studies professor at Florida Atlantic University -- would be a special adviser on the Middle East and North Africa, it elicited howls of fury from the usual suspects. Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) -- an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation Hamas funding case and the chief Islamist organ in the U.S. -- sent a letter to the Romney campaign stating CAIR's predictable objections, while publications such as the Daily Beast, Salon.com, and Mother Jones followed suit with error-filled hit pieces.
Phares's moral clarity on Islamism and jihadism do not sit well with those who would rather engage in apologetics and obstructionism. This explains why his fiercest opponents have included some of the worst from the field of Middle East studies.
California State University, Stanislaus political science professor and "Angry Arab" blogger As'ad AbuKhalil, writing for Salon.com, blamed Phares's appointment on "the Israel lobby and its affiliates," claimed that his "writings are only relevant to Zionist discourse and polemics," and concluded that "when the appointment of Israeli experts on terrorism is not possible, a man like Phares is the second best choice."
AbuKhalil's hostility towards Israel -- and hence, towards anyone who isn't an anti-Zionist fanatic -- is well-established. He accused President Obama, of all people, of giving "free reign to the Zionist lobby" in a 2010 Al Jazeera television interview. Speaking in April 2011, he ranted:
[N]ever will we recognize the Zionist State of Israel! ... The Arab World will never prosper until the Zionist regime is removed! ... We celebrate the demise of Israel; yes, Israel, your days are truly numbered!
AbuKhalil paints Phares's early years in Lebanon as those of a right-wing, Christian militant -- charges that have been repeated by many of Phares's opponents, despite being debunked on numerous occasions. Yet it turns out that AbuKhalil may have questionable allegiances of his own. According to John Hajjar at Family Security Matters, AbuKhalil "is known in the Lebanese and Middle Eastern American communities as the mouthpiece of [Hezbollah secretary general] Hassan Nasrallah in the world of petrodollar-funded Middle East studies."
Ebrahim Moosa, associate professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, told the Daily Beast's McKay Coppins that Phares "is hostile to Muslims and Romney has adopted an expert who is going to alienate him from a good section of the voting public." This coming from a man who downplayed the dangers of Saudi funding for higher education by telling the Charlotte Observer in February 2010 that "Wahhabism is like the Baptists; it's kind of a denomination of sorts that started out in Saudi Arabia." Similarly, Moosa, speaking at a University of California, Berkeley workshop in May 2011, and as described by journalist Stephen Schwartz, "defended Deobandism, the madrassa-based radical ideology that inspires the Taliban."
Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill who was quoted in the same Daily Beast article, declared the Phares appointment a "pathetic reflection on Governor Romney to have surrounded himself with such a person for advice on the Middle East and Islam" and likened it "to turning to [former KKK leader] David Duke to get advice on race relations."
Safi is accustomed to making these sorts of inflammatory accusations. In a 2005 Belief.net article, Safi labeled the isolated prisoner abuse at Abu Graib prison in Iraq "a continuation of twenty years of American foreign policy centered on dehumanizing Muslims." In April 2010, he falsely claimed that Islam scholar Robert Spencer "threatened me and my family with death" in a Facebook message. The recipient's Facebook account was later disabled with no explanation, and although Spencer called Safi out for defamation, Safi never retracted the claim, nor did the university take action.
In fact, Phares's views are not hostile to Muslims, nor biased toward Israel. Rather, Phares is a scholar who advocates pluralism as the most effective means of triumphing over extremism, tribalism, and Islamic supremacism in the Middle East. He also calls out those in the West, and particularly in academia, who would point the finger at America, Israel, Christians, and Jews. This may be why, as claimed by AbuKhalil at Salon.com, "Phares has not been seen in Middle East Studies conferences for many years." The Middle East studies establishment -- and especially its leading body, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) -- is not particularly welcoming to academics who stray from the post-colonial, Edward Said-originated Orientalist narrative.
As Phares put it in his 2007 book, The War of Ideas: Jihadism Against Democracy:
In the West, the central battlefields over the perception of the world remain academic and educational... Even as the war with Jihadism is raging in the real world, and America is facing off with the most dangerous enemy infiltration it has ever known, the bulk of its students are being educated today by an elite that refuses to teach the real history and politics of the jihadists.
Fortunately, we have academics such as Phares himself and alternatives to MESA such as the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), for which he often lectures, to help turn the tide. The usual suspects should indeed be afraid.