American academia may be principal casualty of Sept. 11 

There has been much talk recently of the “hidden victims” of the Sept. 11 atrocities. The discussion at the moment centers mainly around Muslims living in the West who continue to pay a heavy price in their freedoms, opportunities and peace of mind since many started to treat them as the “enemy within.” However, the biggest casualty of Sept. 11 may yet turn out to be the American academic world. Many overseas students have either canceled their plans to go to the US or found it difficult to obtain visas.

US universities are at the cutting edge thanks to generous funding and to the influx of hundreds of thousands of overseas students. At some American universities tuition fees can add up to the equivalent of 20 years’ wages of the average family in many Third World countries. Few can afford these fees unless they are on government grants or have very rich parents. Many, however, work to fund their studies. This accounts for the irregularities in their visas, which have become the loophole through which US law enforcement agencies began to mete out treatment to some students reminiscent of the situation in their home countries — often worse.

These students are now seeking alternative educational pastures in the Arab world or Europe. A Saudi newspaper recently reported that over 150 Saudi airline pilots have been unable to obtain visas to train in the United States, prompting the authorities to proceed with crash plans to establish a flight school in Jeddah and to send pilots to other training facilities, mainly in Britain. This is good news for Saudi Arabia and Britain, but bad news for America. Many flight schools and universities will soon feel the pinch.

But this might not be the most serious problem for US universities. A more sinister and serious threat looms in the form of rising right-wing McCarthyism. Hard-liners began to trumpet the old accusation that American universities are hotbeds of left-wing radicalism, and even, God forbid, of anti-Americanism. Led by voices as influential as that of Vice-President Dick Cheney’s wife Lynne, right-wing activists have been leading a campaign to “purge” universities of these “devious” tendencies. This drive can easily dovetail with racist tendencies that decry the presence of “foreign” staff in American universities (even though many of these are in fact US citizens).

One of the most prominent casualties of this trend has been Professor Sami Al-Arian, a computer scientist and a US citizen who was recently sacked from his post at the University of South Florida for reasons that had to do mainly with his alleged political views and affiliations. The firing led to strong protests from professional associations representing academics and shows the seriousness of the problem.

Other groups are using the cover of the anti-terrorist attack to fight academic battles they had fought and lost fair and square, as in the case of the ongoing contest over the issue of “Orientalism.” The discipline received a devastating blow with the 1978 publication of Edward Said’s seminal work “Orientalism.” Like all great works, Said’s derived its power not merely from its hard-hitting arguments, but from embodying the spirit of the times. Orientalism, as the handmaiden of European colonialism and the purest embodiment of crass Eurocentrism, had died a good death long before Said delivered his coup de grace.

Said had only pointed to what was clearly obvious. He was the child who reminded everybody that the emperor’s imagined clothes did not exist.

The naked emperor, however, is not that convinced. The Orientalists are now fighting back. Recently, one such prominent Orientalist, Martin Kramer of the Moshe Dayan Center in Tel Aviv, published a polemical rejoinder to the anti-Orientalists. The publication of his book, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, coincided opportunely with the Sept. 11 attacks. In it, he railed against American academics for having failed to predict the terrorist threat and for trying to paint a benign picture of the Muslim world.

In what amounts to a refutation of this thesis through a reduction to absurdity, the National Review journal last December published an article by Stanley Kurtz entitled Exposing Esposito: How the academy infected intelligence. It accused Professor John Esposito — a prominent expert on Islam who teaches at Georgetown University — of having been the main culprit in the intelligence failure that allowed Sept. 11 to happen. According to this intrepid analyst, the State Department failed to heed warnings from the Sudanese authorities because State’s “conventional wisdom” cautioned against any dealings with Sudan. Conventional wisdom, the analyst adds, has been influenced by men like Esposito, who have hoodwinked State.

Apart from the tendentious and brazen character of this allegation, the author also contradicts himself by saying earlier that Esposito had been advising the State Department to keep its lines of communications open with Islamists (and these include the rulers of Sudan). It would appear then that the State Department’s failure was caused by refusing to listen to Esposito, not the reverse.

In truth, the “conventional wisdom” at the State Department at the time did favor dealing with Sudan. It was hawks outside it, mainly in Congress, the CIA and the National Security Council, who overruled the State Department’s view that the embassy in Sudan and lines of communication with Khartoum should be kept open. This would make people like Kurtz the guilty party in the intelligence failure.

These campaigners want to bring the shutters down and close the American mind even more. Kurtz recommends manipulation of state funding for education to reward those who peddle and reconfirm the existing prejudices of certain interest groups. In other words, the findings of scientific research are to be determined in advance, in the same way as the CIA and other hawkish agencies chose to close their eyes and minds to valuable information.

It has to be said, of course, that it is not the task of universities to provide intelligence. There are other agencies that are allocated colossal funds to do this. If there was failure, it was theirs. Universities have a completely different function in which keeping an open mind is indispensable. Come to think of it, intelligence agencies could also benefit from that virtue.

Abdelwahab El-Affendi is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.