Studying the Middle East at the height of US empire reveals the politics of academia.
The consummate image of the scholarly life is that it is defined by the free and impassioned pursuit of ideas. We conduct research and we teach; we produce, question, and impart knowledge. Yet all of us working in colleges and universities know that the life on which we once, perhaps naively, embarked is also filled with politics, much of it quite fraught. Perhaps nowhere is this more salient today than in the field of Middle East studies. In particular, anthropological study focused on this region provides a compelling lens through which to view some of the key stakes in the political struggles of academe and their relation to broader structures of power—particularly as the region has taken center stage in US imperial ambitions.
US global engagements in the Middle East and North Africa has for decades influenced how and why people research and teach about the region.
Those ambitions have, on the one hand, precipitated significantly more interest in funding work on the region and hiring scholars to research and teach about it. On the other hand, since at least the 1970s, academics who research or teach topics against the grain of dominant US national narratives about and interests in the region have faced the prospects of not having their research funded, not being hired, being accused—by parents, students, administrators, and people unassociated with academe or their campus—of bias and even treason in their teaching and public lectures, being targeted by blacklists and hate mail, and even losing their jobs.