Feminist Middle East Studies

By Alyssa A. Lappen
FrontPageMagazine.com | February 17, 2006

It is a sad fact that many feminist academics “have adopted a pro-PLO and pro-terrorist line of thinking.”[1] Middle East Studies specialists are among the worst.

The doyenne of this camp is Duke University’s Miriam Cooke, a professor of Arabic and Women’s Studies. Cooke champions what she calls the “production of knowledge,” especially on the Middle East, not to impart accurate historical information, but “to question structures of power.” Middle East academics must admit that they belong “to a power with definite interests in the Orient.” And students should only ask questions about power, not what is actually being said. They must learn “to ask, Under what circumstances would such an argument–no matter how preposterous–make sense? In what ways does it legitimate certain kinds of cultures while subordinating or outlawing others?” Cooke’s goal is no less than the eradication of Western “imperialism.”

Cooke is a card-carrying member of the “root causes” crowd. In October 2001, she bemoaned the “catastrophic” 9/11 attacks but blamed them on the U.S. The causes dated “back through the Gulf War to the establishment of Israel in 1948.” The U.S. had instigated the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, she alleged, and the “Afghans” (sic) rightly took their revenge. She also comes close to justifying mass murder; the “apparently innocent business of moneymaking in New York City and of policymaking in Washington DC,” seen as criminal elsewhere, had “direct and mostly negative consequences for most of the rest of the world.” There is little “apparent innocence” when it comes to capitalism.

Predictably, Cooke rejects democratization in Iraq. At a March 26, 2003 forum on Iraq‘s future at the John Hope Franklin Center, the then-President of the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies opposed the “U.S. imperialistic project in the region” and suggested instead that fresh wave of Western colonialism was driving Islamism. She pretentiously predicted that “Mourning will follow this war….” Like Shi’ite women “driven out of their homes in southern Iraq in March 1991,” they would “enter refugee camps in Saudi Arabia and then proceed to exilic futures outside the Middle East.” Unfortunately for Cooke’s prognostication skills, no such futures have occurred, although for Shi’ite women this has not turned out too badly.

Cooke’s hyperbole is on display in her statement that Campus Watch “is the Trojan horse whose warriors are already changing the rules of the game not only in Middle East studies but also in the US University as a whole.” She warned that “They threaten to undermine the very foundations of American education,” and compared CW’s goals to Nazi “tailoring of education for specifically national purposes.” Evidently word of Godwin’s Law has not reached Duke.

A kindred spirit, Sarah Shields, is associate history professor at nearby University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Shields teaches Islamic civilization and “topical courses” on Middle East women, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the modern Middle East. “Topical” is usually a code word for “trendy nonsense.”

Her spring 2000 honors course on “A Century of Protest in the Middle East” focused on “struggle and dissent” and featured readings like Intifada, in which Stanford University partisan Joel Beinin described Palestinian violence from 1988 to 1992 as a “strike for peace,” praised “the first martyr of the uprising,” and excused the “small number of violent incidents” against Israelis.[2] Shields, too, described Islamic terrorist groups like Hamas, Taliban, Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood as “Islamic Political Movements.”

Shields’ 2002 course on “Women in the Middle East” was no better. It focused on things that “enable and circumscribe women’s roles and choices,” but assumed an almost entirely Islamic perspective. Readings featured the Qur’an and Hadith (linked from the Islamist Muslim Students’ Association) and Huda’s Homepage, an apology for radical Islam. The class also publicized a conference on Middle Eastern “Social Policy and Family Responses,” organized a “public film festival” and collected “oral histories” from Middle Eastern women in North Carolina. But the only Middle Eastern women discussed were Muslims; Christians, Jews, Zororastrians and others were not worthy of consideration. How the prevalent Arab and Muslim custom of female circumcision “circumscribes” Middle Eastern women is best left to the imagination.

But Shields does not limit her politics to the classroom. In April 2002 she published a maudlin letter to her father (a rabbi) at the radical left CommonDreams website.

“…Jews must never, never, never be silent when injustice occurs, because our silence makes us complicit,” she wrote, adding, “we have become the oppressors.” Her father’s past fights against racism and ghettos in the U.S. were equivalent to that of Palestinian Arabs now. “There are Palestinian terrorists,” she admitted. But she excused them because they were raised “under occupation.” Humiliation gives people “no alternative to violence.” Evidently suicide bombers are simply following Malcolm X’s dictum “by whatever means necessary.”

These feminist stars of Middle East studies unfortunately have plenty of company. Stanford Humanities Teaching Fellow Rochelle Davis hopes to eviscerate Israel’s right to Jerusalem. In a chapter of Jerusalem 1948: The Arab Neighborhoods and their Fate in the War entitled “The Growth of the Western Communities, 1917-1948,” Davis noted that the British “relinquished what had become a vibrant and cosmopolitan city to be ravaged [and] divided in the 1948 War over Palestine.” She bemoaned the fate of 30,000 Arabs who fled western Jerusalem, their property loss, subsequent poverty and separation from Jerusalem’s rich cultural life. Davis ignores the premeditated local and international Arab attack on Israel the moment the state declared independence. This inconvenient fact alone negates the notion that “1948 Jerusalem” is open for negotiation to Palestinian Arabs. One must also wonder about the real sources of Jerusalem’s cosmopolitanism.

At Brown University’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, 2005-2006 post-doctoral fellow Lori Allen is ostensibly an anthropologist but finds her calling in bashing Israel full-time. The very title of her current project, “A Genealogy of Suffering: Human Rights and the Holocaust in the Formation of Palestinian Nationalism,” drips with disdain for Jewish suffering, and perversely implies that Palestinian Arabs have been submitted to a Holocaust at Jewish hands. In 2002, Allen issued a similar defamation in Counterpunch: After watching Israeli soldiers arrest several Palestinians, she wrote: “It is impossible not to be reminded of similar scenes that I know of only from pictures, books, and movies. I hear the echoes of the voices of those who said then: “I didn’t know what was happening, I didn’t think it would be this bad, I didn’t know what to do.” This ritual invocation of the Holocaust is as flat as it is fraudulent.

Not to be outdone is Deborah Starr, who in 2001 joined Cornell University as Assistant Professor of Near Eastern studies, specializing in Jewish Studies. She too organized a ditzy seminar for the 2005 Middle East Studies Association meeting, on “The Mediterranean Memory Trade” and has signed her share of anti-Israel and anti-American petitions: On July 18, 2002, Starr signed an “Open letter from American Jews to our Government that ran in the New York Times. It called for two national states, partition along the pre-1967 borders, Israeli evacuation of all “settlements in the occupied territories” renunciation by both sides of any further territorial claims and blamed the U.S. “for the current tragic impasse, by virtue of our massive economic and military support for the Israeli government: $500 per Israeli citizen per year. It also demanded that the U.S. “make continued aid conditional on Israeli acceptance of an internationally agreed two-state settlement.” One wonders what her view is now that Hamas has declared that it will never recognize Israel.

In February 2003 with the Cornell Forum for Justice and Peace, Starr opposed the Iraq war in a petition that described the impending war as “the gravest danger faced by the U.S. in more than a generation,” and “a humanitarian catastrophe and a constitutional crisis.” It falsely accused the U.S. of having a goal of “US military domination of the world” and called the War on Terror an assault on “traditional conceptions of civil liberties.” Significantly, it called for the abuse of the classroom; signatories consigned to “make class time available” to discuss Iraq issues, “emphasizing …the ramifications of the current crisis.” Parents of Cornell students must have been especially pleased.

Feminism was intended to remove shackles. In the case of Middle East Studies, however, feminists have succeeded in adding more of the same, becoming as biased and tendentious as the boys.

[Editor’s note: Alyssa A. Lappen wrote this piece for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum designed to critique and improve Middle East Studies].

[1] Chesler, Phyllis, The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom (2005), pp. 102-103.
[2] Beinin, Joel, “From Land Day to Peace Day and Beyond,” Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising Against the Israeli Occupation (1989, Beinin, ed with Lochman, Zachary), pp. 205-216.

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Alyssa A. Lappen is a U.S.-based investigative journalist. She is the former Managing Editor at the Leeb Group (2012-2017); a former Senior Fellow of the American Center for Democracy (2005-2008); and a former Senior Editor of Institutional Investor (1993-1999), Working Woman (1991-1993) and Corporate Finance (1991). She served six of her 12 years at Forbes (1978-1990) as an Associate Editor. Ms. Lappen was also a staff reporter at The New Haven Register (1975-1977). During a decade as a freelance, her work appeared in Big Peace, Pajamas Media, Front Page Magazine, American Thinker, Right Side News, Family Security Matters, the Washington Times and many other Internet and print journals. Ms. Lappen also contributed to the Terror Finance Blog, among others. She supports the right of journalists worldwide to write without fear or restriction on politics, governments, international affairs, terrorism, terror financing and religious support for terrorism, among other subjects. Ms. Lappen is also an accomplished poet. Her first full-length collection, The Minstrel's Song, was published by Cross-Cultural Communications in April 2015. Her poems have been published in the 2nd 2007 edition of Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust and both 2007 issues of Wales' award-winning Seventh Quarry: Swansea Poetry Magazine. Dozens of her poems have appeared in print and online literary journals and books. She won the 2000 annual Ruah: A Journal of Spiritual Poetry chapbook award and has received a Harvard Summer Poetry Prize and several honorable mentions.

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