The Academy and the Cartoon Controversy

Nearly 50 years ago, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which included a provision that funded programs in the history and culture of East Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. The government’s decision was not altruistic. Washington hoped that the new area studies programs would provide insight when future crises emerged in the non-Western world.

Helping us understand the current cartoon controversy would seem like the kind of situation for which Congress created the NDEA. By any criteria, the reaction of Middle Eastern governments has been wildly disproportionate to the alleged offense. At least four regimes in the region have withdrawn their ambassadors from Denmark. Syrian security forces stood by as mobs “spontaneously” torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus. And anti-Danish boycotts have “spontaneously” emerged in several Middle Eastern nations, most notably Saudi Arabia.

Those hoping for insight from Middle East Studies specialists, however, will be sorely disappointed. Last year’s events at Columbia, which featured credible allegations of anti-Israel bias in the classrooms of several Middle East Studies professors, provided only the highest-profile example of a field whose faculty too often seem to view demonizing Israel as an academic responsibility. Israel can’t be blamed for the current controversy. But that hasn’t stopped many of the academy’s experts on the Middle East from using the controversy to recycle their customary critiques.

Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor and president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), contended that “Westerners cannot feel the pain of Muslims in this instance,” since “the party doing the injuring is first-world, and the injured have a long history of being ruled, oppressed and marginalized.” In Muslim culture, lampooning the Prophet is taboo, just as in the United States, the “injuries and unspoken hierarchies of race are what cannot be attacked,” since we will not tolerate “any act that might bring into question the superiority of so-called white people in their own territory.” Anyone who has spent ten minutes on a college campus lately, where critiques of U.S. society along lines of race, class, and gender are omnipresent, would recognize the absurdity of Cole’s statement.

Mark LeVine, a Middle East Studies professor at the University of California, Irvine, described the publication of the cartoons as an attempt by Europeans “to show who’s boss … a way of saying to Muslims, ‘Look, you want to live here, this is what you’re going to have to put up with.’” In 2003, Britain’s Political Cartoon Society named as “cartoon of the year” a drawing of Ariel Sharon biting off the bloodied head of a Palestinian child. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. degree to determine whether the likes of LeVine would consider this action part a European-wide plot to show Israel “who’s boss”—or, rather, an acceptable political satire.

Such clichéd responses from the MESA establishment are especially unfortunate in this instance, since the questions posed by the cartoon controversy have no easy answers. Around 15 million Muslims currently live in Western Europe. Many newer Muslim immigrants, disproportionately young and male, subscribe to a fundamentalist version of Islam at odds with the region’s tradition of tolerance. In recent years, the Netherlands has experienced not only the murders of politician Pim Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, but also a pattern of attacks on gays by young Muslim immigrants. Last year’s riots by French Muslims demonstrated the failure of France’s assimilationist policies. And the chilling signs at last week’s protest by British Muslims proved that the London subway bombings have not eliminated support for radical Islam in Britain.

To what extent should Europe, in the name of promoting tolerance and multiculturalism, tolerate ideas whose adherents have proven intolerant? How can the United States—as it must—provide the Danish government with full-fledged American diplomatic, economic, and moral support without further alienating the Islamic world?

These questions are not academic. Nor, unfortunately, are we likely to find answers to them from within the academy.

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