HRS International

Letter from Washington

Utterly soul-crushing: I can conceive of no better phrase to summarize my experience with American University's Middle Eastern Studies program. While I am roughly two-thirds finished with the program, I don't think that I have it within me to complete it: it's too demoralizing. I am a man who cherishes his mind and his values, and I have concluded that they are simply better-spent elsewhere. I simply cannot actively participate in a system dedicated to undercutting our civilization.

by Alex Knepper

What one young American has learned as a student of Middle Eastern Studies. First, some background: American University is fairly consistently ranked by the Princeton Review as having the most politically active campus in the country. We’re occasionally knocked out by an Ivy League school, but if one wishes to take the temperature of the political climate on American campuses, he can do little better than AU. A disproportionate number of our graduates go on to work on the Hill, in political media, in the Peace Corps, and in the bureaucracy. Our graduate programs for International Relations and Political Science are world-class. And, quite frankly, if you can’t name the Treasury Secretary and the Senate Pro Temp on this campus, you’re a loser.Before dropping the International Relations program, I completed several timely courses: Contemporary Islam & International Relations, Contemporary Middle East, Introduction to Middle Eastern History, Elementary Arabic I & II, and general classes on International Relations Research Methods, Eastern Religions, Cross-Cultural Communication, and World Politics. Taken as a whole, the university is a sort of madhouse, tyrannized by «theory.» In the course on research methods, more time was devoted to an overview of ‘post-colonialist theory’ than to research databases, which went all but unutilized. While statistical inference was not discussed, there were smatterings of information about feminism, Marxism, queer theory, and postmodernism. But wait! — we’ve not yet run the gamut of -isms. The Cross-Cultural Communication class introduced students to trendy post-structuralism and something called ‘cultural imperialism.’ (This was when we weren’t busy debating the burning question of whether it’s insulting to refer to the United States as «America,» given the existence of Central America.) The common thread: hatred of the Great Tradition of Western civilization.*The theme of the department is guilt. Someone not acquainted with Islamic history and theology will walk into the program a know-nothing and walk out of it virulently anti-American and an unadulterated Islamophile. The academics claim to have moved beyond simple «black-and-white, good-and-evil» narratives, but in actuality, they’ve simply flipped the coin from heads to tails: they believe in good and evil, alright — they’ve just reversed the players. America and Israel are the Great and Little Satans, and Arab Muslims are oppressed and subjugated at the hands of Western Domination and post-colonialist anguish. The class on Contemporary Islam is exactly what one would expect from a present-day university: the syllabus’ opening statement declared that the course’s goal is «to investigate the concept of the ‘other’ in ‘Western’ [in quotation marks!] perceptions of the Muslim Middle East, to understand the…flows of power that have influenced societies in the contemporary Middle East, [and] to assess how Muslim societies and thinkers have reacted to international flows of power.» For those of you not acquainted with doublespeak, this means: we’re going to study the evils of imperialism, colonialism, and Western domination — and how these three themes are responsible for everything bad in the Middle East. The readings did not disappoint. The ideological underpinnings of the selections ranged from far-left to Marxist. Prominent writers included Jean-Paul Sartre, Marxist educational theorist Paulo Freire, professional whitewasher John Esposito, and the old standby, Edward Said. The weekly headings included: «The Construction of the Other,» «Shifts In Power and Western Domination,» (no quotes for ‘Western’ when it’s presented in a negative context) «Islam, the Colonial, and the Post-Colonial Condition, Parts I, II, and III,» «Islam and Contemporary Gender Debates,» and «The Media and Public Discourse on Islam.».»Also discussed at some length was Sayyid Qutb — who we were taught subscribed to a certain form of rationalism, within his «personal» apparatus of reason. Tossing aside all Enlightenment ideals of minority rights and religious tolerance, the professor clearly implied that an Islamic state modeled after a Qutbian vision might be appropriate for Egypt — if «the people» will it, of course. Freedom for me, but not for thee! When I pointed out that this was a purely faith-based system, not grounded in empirical or rational claims of any kind, I was dismissed with «whose reason?» With those words, we have a snapshot of the state of the contemporary university. The system that was expanded to educate man and free him from tutelage is now actively employing people who do not hold reason as a lodestar, who do not see any more intrinsic value in a system that values rationality than a system that operates by faith and whims, and believe that logic is a mere social construction. I did reply. «The reason that corresponds to the identifiable facts of reality, that allows for individual choice rather than power-lust, and that holds tolerance as a social value,» I said. But it was fruitless — in the contemporary university, reason is just a mask for Western domination. *The professor used an entire class period to screen the ghastly BBC documentary «The Power of Nightmares,» which juxtaposes American neoconservatives with jihadists. On the final day, when a student asked him what his personal opinion was about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he bluntly declared that he believed Zionism to be a form of racism and that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was to «empower the people.» And of course, the long-term threat to Europe is not radical Islam, but wicked fascists like Geert Wilders.Perhaps most tellingly, two class periods were left open to student suggestions. My suggestion — to read the primary texts of Islamist organizations such as Hamas — was by far the most popular among the student body, but was never incorporated into the curriculum. Instead, we spent more time discussing gender issues, and how they relate to «Orientalism.»I guess I’m an Orientalist. When I pointed out that the burqa exists out of a sense of sexual shame on the part of Muslim women, the professor and much of the class laughed at me. «It’s true, though,» I said, «whether you want to laugh or not. In Islam, the onus is placed on the woman to hide herself so that men don’t have to be tempted, lest their sexual desires get out of control.» The professor countered that women who «choose» to wear the burqa might think that Western women are the ones who are truly oppressed, since they are asked to be sexy. Even the class seemed to side with me, though, when I pointed out that the difference between sharia law and Western civilization was the element of individual choice. *I encountered Said’s Orientalism in four of my classes. I was not once assigned the Qur’an.As any serious student of Islam will know, the reasons for this are obvious. No humane person can read the Qur’an without becoming aghast at its bloodlust. Flip to a random page in the Qur’an, and you’re likely to find at least one sentence outlining the grim fate that Allah has in store for the infidel. If you’re lucky, you might stumble onto something more tender-hearted, such as the idea that Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs. The magic incantation — «out of context!» — doesn’t even work on these passages: in what possible context does bloodlust and anti-Semitism look even vaguely appropriate? We don’t study the hadith, either. In my Middle Eastern History course, we briefly discussed Bukhari and Muslim — but not their contents. We never discussed Muhammad’s farewell speech, the details of his marriage to Aisha, or his imperial conquests (Islam just mysteriously spreads throughout Arabia and North Africa). We’re always told about the Golden Age of Islam, though. What made it golden — mostly Greek and Roman innovation — is not revealed. We’re not told about Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali, and the importance of who won that battle for the Islamic mind. We’re certainly never t
old about Islam’s attempted imperialist conquest of Europe. The jizya is mentioned, but only in the context of how wonderful life was for Jews compared to life in Christian Europe. We’re not told that this is a permanent fixture of Islam, not a historical remnant. Indeed, everything ugly about Islam today seems to be either a historical remnant or a leftover from Western imperialism. And if it can’t be given a nice gloss, it’s also part of Christianity: in that same history class, we were shown various quotes from the Bible and the Qur’an, including Jesus’ proclamation that he came «not to bring peace, but to bring a sword.» I am not a believer, and I do not particularly sympathize with the ethics of Jesus, but I knew enough to call bull: «Isn’t this a quote from a parable about how disciples of Jesus will become alienated from their friends and family?» The professor said that it’s illustrative that I would find it to be out of context, and that people often take violent passages of the Qur’an out of context. «But Muhammad was a warlord,» I countered. «According to Islamic history, he commanded armies, took over cities and killed people. The Jesus of Christianity lived his entire life without ever harming another individual. You’ve got to look to their different histories.» Even the professor did not have a response to this.*Why does the university operate in this systematically dishonest way? Why do professors actively cover up what they know to be true?I have no definitive answer — there are probably many reasons — but certain ideas come to mind:1) The 60’s Takeover. Professor Larry Schweikart, the author of A Patriot’s History of the United States, notes that all of life is political to leftist activists. They actively pressed their political agenda in the university, which was consciously captured as a bastion for their ideas, while gentlemen of the old school, used to neutrality, sat back and let it happen. Neutral historians are not natural political fighters. Leftism, in all of its forms, sees every action has having political content.2) The Tyranny of Theory. Everything truly innovative in the realm of philosophical theory has probably already been said. To be original in the philosophical realm, one must become more and more outlandish. This is what has given rise to deconstruction, existential nihilism, and postmodernism, for instance. Most people have moved beyond «theory» — indeed, liberal theory has mostly been implemented to a satisfactory degree — and have moved into the realm of doing. This is why a dearth of capitalist thought existed in the early 1900’s and was only revived starting in the 1940s with Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. Theory, naturally, is usually propagated only to fill a void. Most people are concerned with thinking in order to live — not vice-versa.While this is natural, abstract thought holds a very important place in preserving modernity. As Ronald Reagan famously put it: freedom is always only one generation away from extinction. Every generation needs its small army of Hayeks, Milton Friedmans, Ayn Rands, Russell Kirks, and William F. Buckleys to keep the torch of the Western tradition alive. But where are the new, pro-Western intellectuals of this generation?I see a unique situation emerging if Western civilization is to survive and flourish: its intellectual future must come from a new breed of self-made man — the self-made intellectual. We live in an era where the Great Books are available to all, where instant analysis from all angles is available online, and contact with other scholars and intelligent laymen can be nearly instantaneous. All that is required is a passion for ideas and a willingness to think. As far as I can discern, the university has abandoned the fight for cultural survival. A new, self-made army of young intellectuals must pick up and carry the torch.Alex Knepper can be contacted at