Yoav di Capua sat at the head of a large table in Jones Hall, a wood-paneled room in the building home to the University's Department of Near Eastern Studies. A portrait of Phillip Hitti, the man who founded the University's Program in Near Eastern studies in the 1920s, hung over a group of professors and graduate students.
Given di Capua's slim, unassuming figure and soft voice, he didn't seem to be a man who would cause much trouble.
On that day in May 2004, di Capua, an Israeli graduate student, was taking one of his final steps toward a Princeton Ph.D.: the oral defense of his dissertation. It is a historiographical analysis of native accounts of modern Egyptian history — an atypical approach for the Princeton NES department.
It was the end of a long, controversial tenure for him at the University. Described by one senior NES professor as the department's "self-anointed black sheep," di Capua had made a name for himself by criticizing the department's traditionalist approach to its work. In one instance, he and several other graduate students in 1999 protested the appointment of an assistant NES professor, Michael Doran GS '97, to the dean of the faculty.
Toward the end of discussion in May, as the questioning shifted to the way Middle Eastern Studies historians approach the region, the room exploded. Di Capua's soft voice filled with frustration as he yelled, "What I'm talking about is the right to write this kind of history in the department!"
"What are you talking about!" professor Sukru Hanioglu shouted back. The room was lined with people, graduate students sitting on desks, professors standing in the back. Their eyes, previously wandering, focused. "What are you talking about?" Hanioglu said again. "This is not the place to talk about such things! I'm done."
Di Capua's continual criticisms of the department came to an end on that late spring day after he received his doctorate and left. But the confrontation — scholarly, political, cultural — continues among faculty members.
Interviews with more than 20 professors and officials involved with the field at Princeton and elsewhere indicate that the Princeton NES department is seen by some scholars as isolated, increasingly out-of-touch and politicized.
Those critical of the department point to two problems.
Some believe that the perceived intellectual approach of several of he department's key scholars — Orientalism, a controversial method of studying the Middle East — is antiquated and objectionable. Others believe that the dominance of the conservative political leanings of the department's two most vocal professors — Bernard Lewis, an emeritus professor, and Doran, an assistant professor — shuns other political voices in Princeton NES. Still others believe that these two factors cannot be separated.
The status of the department has drawn concern from the Tilghman administration and other faculty because of fears that any negative perceptions will dissuade new faculty members and students, both undergraduate and graduate, from joining the department. In September, the dean of the faculty's office began a departmental review, which will include a study of the department made by outside scholars who will report back to Nassau Hall on what changes, if any, should be made.
Senior officials frame the inquiry as seeking to ensure that the department continues to live up to the longstanding prominence it has had in academia.
"It's a great department that needs to rebuild itself," said a senior Nassau Hall official who asked not to be named.
Nassau Hall officials declined to be interviewed on the record for this article. It seems the administration is attempting a delicate balance when articulating positions on the department; fearful of drawing any conclusions before the departmental review report is issued, all administration comments have been laced with strands of cautious optimism even as officials quietly express concerns.
Professors believe the importance of Princeton NES cannot be underestimated as the University seeks to reaffirm its position as a premiere hub of scholarship in medieval Middle Eastern languages and literature and a post-Sept. 11, 2001 Middle East.
The resurgence around the country of interest in the Middle East comes at a critical time in the department's own history: several senior professors are due to retire within the next five years and there is already a search running to fill an open faculty post.
At the same time, Michael Cook, a senior NES professor, said the department suffers from a "serious structural weakness" in the modern Middle East because the department has only junior faculty working on that area.
An island in an ocean
Khalid Fahmy, a modern Middle Eastern historian, spent several years at Princeton NES before leaving for a job at New York University in 1999. Among faculty members with ties to the department, Fahmy, now tenured, is most open about his impressions of the department.
"I went to Princeton thinking that this is a good place for me to develop intellectually and to share my knowledge," he said. "After five years of Princeton, I discovered that this is not what the department stands for."
Fahmy's criticisms epitomize the concerns scholars express about the department's scholarly approach and methods.
The discussion about scholarly approach revolves around Orientalism, itself an extremely controversial notion. It is usually understood as an approach to study what used to be termed the "Orient" — now separated into the Middle East and East Asia — through a study of the region's legal, cultural and religious texts.
Hitti, the man whose portrait hangs in Jones Hall, was an Orientalist. But since his time, the concept of Orientalism has changed and is now widely seen as hostile to the region. That view is personified in Lewis, a member of the department since 1974, critics say.
"Lewis is of course the doyen of Middle East studies," said Joel Beinin '70, a Stanford University Middle East history professor and former president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). "If you want to pick a name that symbolizes that intellectual approach, it's him."
The late Edward Said '57, who completed his undergraduate work in English at Princeton, became the most vocal critic of the Orientalist approach and sought to discredit it as externalist, anti-Arab and promoting a view that discouraged comparisons between the Orient and the Occident, or the West, as cultural equals.
"The real difference is questions about how they approach the region they study," said Ussama Makdisi GS '97, who is a nephew of Said and now a Rice University assistant professor. In contrast to the Orientalist method, Said encouraged a less hostile approach, Makdisi explained. "I don't mean sympathy, but empathy, in a general sort of humanistic fashion."
"The funny thing is that a lot of people writing about the Middle East in 2003 and 2004 are writing as if they're writing in the 19th century: talking about 'the Muslim' and 'Muslim peril' and 'the roots of Muslim rage,'" he said. "[Orientalist-type scholars talk about] a centralized Muslim civilization as if there's one Muslim civilization which has failed to adapt to modernity. It's ridiculous."
Fahmy, the professor who chose to leave Princeton for NYU, said he felt that he was uncomfortably caught up in the debate during his time in the department without room to use any scholarly approach but Lewis-influenced methods.
"The department does not stand for serious comparative work," Fahmy said. "Anything that is not old-fashioned scholarship is dismissed as flippant, not serious, postmodernist."
"Some Middle East studies experts at Princeton, as elsewhere in the [United States], however, are making choices which clearly indicate their interests lie in an extremely narrow understanding of the Middle East," Makdisi said.
Another professor, a graduate of the department who asked not to be named, described the animosity more bluntly: "If you mention Edward Said near Jones Hall, steam would come out of the building."
Some of these criticisms about the department's scholarly approach ring true — but not negatively so — for Cook, who studies ancient Islamic history.
"The people out there are quite right; we are rather old-fashioned," he said. "We really don't have anyone who talks like a postmodernist." But the point for Cook is that such "old-fashioned" scholarship remains, in the department's view, the most credible way of writing history.
Beinin, the Stanford professor, said critics see Orientalism as "traditionalist, unimaginative, defending, out-of-date." But he said supporters of Said's views are seen as "too polemical, too political, [and] too influenced by intellectual fashions of the moment."
At the same time, some academics dispute the black-and-white characterization of the field as an Orientalist — or "Lewisian" — mindset in opposition to a "Saidian" or postmodern one.
"You can argue that Bernard Lewis had enormous influence and that Said had an influence, but I don't see it that way," said Rashid Khalidi, whose chair at Columbia University is named the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies.
Not a single professor interviewed for this article identified himself as an "Orientalist" or "Saidianist," though generalizations persist: Princeton as "Orientalist" or "Lewisian," with the University of California-Berkeley, Columbia and NYU "Saidian." Schools like the University of Chicago are seen as in-between.
In the view of some Princeton faculty, Said's views have dominated outside Princeton and a few other schools. Doran argued that while "there is no Bernard Lewis camp . . . the Saidians have completely locked up academia."
Lewis and Said were engaged in a longstanding and bitter academic debate that began after Said published "Orientalism," his critique of the method, in 1979. Despite several requests, Lewis declined to comment for this article. Said, a Columbia English professor, died in 2003.
Politics and its effect
Carl Brown was sitting in his cubicle at 41 Williams St., home to the Princeton University Press, the Program in Teacher Preparation and the offices of the University's retired professors. The blue cardigan and wool trousers he wore offered a charming anachronism to the rest of the place: a Pentium 4, flat-screen monitor and laser-jet printer rested in the background.
"I knew Edward Said pretty well," Brown, 76, said. The two received their doctoral degrees at Harvard University before Brown moved to Princeton NES in 1966, where he was a professor until 1993.
"We're old crocks," he joked of the trio: Said, Lewis and himself.
Brown has been privy to the department's inner-workings longer than anyone else. He arrived at Princeton NES a full eight years before Lewis.
His interest in the region began when he was a Foreign Service officer in the Sudan in the 1950s. Frustrated by his country's lack of knowledge of the Near East and surrounding regions, Brown set out to get a Ph.D. and then return. He never did. Instead, he came to Princeton and became a scholar of U.S. diplomatic history in the Middle East.
"Something you really dedicated your life to and something you really love, you can always see the warts on the faces," he said. "I wanted to believe was not the case — that there're this many people who are talking the way they're talking."
"Princeton was stereotyped as a place where Arabs could be at ease and happy when Hitti was around in the '20s," Brown said. "Princeton is now stereotyped as a place where an Israeli will be happy, maybe a Turk. Is there some truth in that? Well, there's always a bit."
Brown put it too mildly for one professor with a degree from Princeton NES.
"The Arab-Israeli divide goes right through that department, and everyone knows that," the professor said.
"Not everyone is politically involved and there are some excellent scholars in that department," the professor added. "But you either have to be — you'll never see a memo on this — but looking at the people who come to the fore, and the people who leave, you either have to be on the Israeli side of things or you have to keep your mouth shut."
But Cook rejected the opinion that the department was closed to views that aren't conservative and pro-Israel.
"We have two people in the department who make a lot of noise. It so happens that both of them are on the American right," he said, referring to Lewis and Doran.
Lewis has advised Vice President Dick Cheney and was invited to teach some White House staffers about issues in the Middle East in 2001. He was also a strong advocate of Ahmed Chalabi, the Bush administration's early candidate to head the Iraqi provisional government.
Doran has made several trips abroad on behalf of the U.S. government and has lectured at several intelligence agencies. This past week, he was in Bahrain attending a conference where he consulted with Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command.
In the realm of interdepartmental cooperation, Doran, regarded as an excellent teacher who consistently fills classrooms, has become a lightning rod for conflict.
He is known for his close relationship with Lewis, who is listed as a reference on Doran's curriculum vitae.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Doran gained much public recognition for his work on Saudi Arabia. A self-described "September-12th Republican," he has often been invited to comment by the news media as an expert on Saudi Arabia, al-Qaida and terrorism.
The scholars who criticize Princeton NES are especially critical of Doran and his scholarship. They said their concern is with its quality and approach, though Doran said politics is the issue.
Last spring, the University delayed a decision on granting Doran tenure after he received a tenure bid from Brandeis University. He will come up for tenure again next year. Several history professors said they consider a decision to tenure or not to tenure him a litmus test for future cooperation between Princeton NES and the history department. If Doran is tenured, two history professors said relations between the departments could be severely damaged.
"We don't want him," one senior history professor said. "[In the future, are] we going to be mutually supportive or are they going to be antagonistic?"
There is no problem in the way the departments are organized that would preclude cooperation between history and NES, Cook said.
Rather "what you have is a number of people . . . who have very strong negative views about us," he said. "It's a regrettable fact of life that faculty, like other people, sometimes feud. But when senior faculty do that, they should leave junior faculty out of it."
For Doran, the politics of Middle Eastern studies have resonated on a personal level. In interviews for this article, numerous scholars strongly criticized Doran and his scholarship, though their claims are not mentioned here because of the inability to verify their charges.
But Doran said these criticisms are all creative ways of attacking his legitimacy as a scholar and the department's legitimacy as an excellent center for scholarship.
"These conspiracy theories are serving a couple of interests," he said. "They don't want to admit that I have a legitimate intellectual point of view, so any success I get in the world has to be a result of some nefarious force behind the scenes. I'm willing to debate any of these people about any of my major ideas in public at any place of their choosing. And I'm perfectly confident of my ability to make a good showing. That is the way academics should deal with their disagreements."
Cook said Doran suffers criticism because of his outspokenness and involvement in public policy, adding, "If you get out there and make a lot of noise, you've got flack coming at you irrespective of what the noise is."
Doran argued that he is in the minority with his views, saying that Princeton NES is not a conservative department. What sets it apart from other parts of the academy, however, is its openness to conservative minority views, he said.
"In terms of my case, I think . . . the attempt to associate the Department of Near Eastern Studies with my politics is ludicrous. Nobody in the department agrees with my politics, and they respect my right to have those politics," Doran said.
"Middle Eastern studies in America is like a huge McDonald's chain," he continued. "You go to any one of the major centers and they're all flipping the same burgers. If we can have one center that's flipping a different burger, it's good for humanity and it's good for Princeton."
Martin Kramer GS '81, who has argued that Said-influenced views have dominated schools, used a similar metaphor for Princeton.
"I think [Princeton NES] has different emphases from Columbia and New York University, and why shouldn't it? I favor diversity across the network of Middle East studies," Kramer said in an email message. "I wouldn't put a label on what's different about Princeton, and I suspect not everything at Princeton is different. But it has a few senior people whom I remember as independent-minded and who weren't easily swayed by rapid turnover in academic fashions."
Brown, who was Doran's doctoral thesis advisor, is convinced opposition to Doran stems from his politics.
"I certainly buy the argument that the people attacking [Columbia University professor] Joseph Massad and Mike Doran — quite a different bunch — are attacking them because of their politics. There's no denying that," he said.
But separating scholarly approach and politics is impossible, according to some scholars.
"The political [and scholarly] things are tied together intrinsically," said Makdisi, the Rice professor. "I don't think you can separate the two when it comes to the history and politics of the Middle East."
In recent weeks, after the release of a documentary movie and articles written in the New York Daily News, Massad and others at Columbia have come under attack for allegedly anti-Semitic remarks and intimidation of pro-Israeli students. Though adamantly denied by the professors involved, the criticism of the academy being too pro-Arab is nothing new.
Campus Watch, an organization that "monitors Middle Eastern studies on campus," has led the criticism of the left-wing political takeover of the academy.
But Princeton NES has been praised by Campus Watch. With five professors on its "recommended professors" list, including Doran and Cook, Princeton tops all other schools.
Daniel Pipes, the organization's founder, said in an email message that the department has so many names on his list because of its "traditional, less politicized" approach.
To Brown, Campus Watch is no better than the people who have criticized Doran.
"They're basically trying to discredit people who have political positions that they consider deplorable," he said. "I don't want to sound like I'm so above all of this, but I have become so beaten down with age, that I can see both sides of it . . . Maybe we all are politicized. It's almost a sliding scale. Would I be happier if Mike's lectures integrated a bit more of my interpretation of the modern Middle East? Yeah, of course, I would. I just don't think that's the proper criterion that I can use."
Among the most serious accusations made about Princeton NES is its inability to work with other departments at the University.
"It's not willing to build bridges with other departments, whether history, or sociology, or anthropology, or all the other areas we deal with," said Fahmy, the professor now at NYU. There, he works in an institute run out of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs that coordinates a Middle East Center that draws on faculty from different departments.
"Has the Department of Near Eastern Studies sort of turned in on itself and refused to try and reach out and cooperate with other components in the university?" Brown asks. The answer: "Possibly."
Brown previously served as chair of the department and, at other times, director of the Program in Near Eastern Studies. The program, though related to the department, is separate in that it attempts to muster all NES-related faculty members from all departments and act as the interdisciplinary center for the study of the Middle East at Princeton.
Increasingly, senior professors from other departments have opted to leave the Program's committee or scale back their involvement in it, Brown said.
"I don't know what's going on there, but I have the feeling that this was something that was avoidable and it would have certainly been better [to see them involved]," Brown said, adding that he "fervently" wished that they could give the department a "piece of their mind as often" as they cared to.
Brown has approached new assistant professors Amaney Jamal in politics and James McDougall in history about working in the program. Jamal studies political systems of the Middle East and McDougall Islam in North Africa and the Near East. But for assistant professors, such as Jamal and McDougall, there seem to be structural problems preventing their active participation.
"If you're a nontenured professor, messing around with a program or an interdepartmental mentality is not as important for the next hurdle — tenure — as is hanging in there with your department," Brown said. "There is a built-in structural difficulty getting everybody who is involved in the Near East working together, and I accept that."
That does not explain why more senior faculty are not involved in the program, though.
"The fundamental point is that there is no structural reason why there should be bad relations between [Princeton NES] and the history department," Cook said. "It just comes down to a matter of certain individuals."
Still, the history department maintains that its effort to hire its own scholars in Islamic studies was not influenced by Princeton NES or Doran's bid, said former history chair Robert Tignor, who added that he has no intention to marginalize Princeton NES.
"I don't think we were trying to do that," Tignor said. "A first-rate history department ought to have a scholar in our ranks who could teach and do research in modern Islam."
At the same time, he acknowledged that the distinction between history and Princeton NES is being blurred.
"We're fudging it more and more at the edges," Tignor said.
Princeton NES department chair Andras Hamori said that he is "pleased" with the addition of Near Eastern scholars to the history department. He said such additions encourage cooperation, as students will inevitably take advantage of resources in both departments.
Furthermore, there is no reason his department would not work with others at the University. "From both the intellectual and financial perspectives, interdepartmental cooperation is essential," Hamori said.
Though she has been quoted in the 'Prince' as supporting the recruitment of new Middle Eastern scholars, Dean of the Wilson School Anne-Marie Slaughter declined requests for comment, saying she was too new to Princeton to comment on the subject of Middle Eastern studies.
Brown noted that Princeton NES's relationship with the Wilson School has actually improved thanks to Doran and his emphasis on U.S. foreign policy.
At the same time, interaction and interdisciplinary cooperation can be overrated. "There's a certain rhetoric on this campus that takes this interaction too far," Cook said. "You end up with everybody running around talking to other people and not doing anything on their own."
But for some academics, the problem of how Middle Eastern studies departments are organized is a broader one. The original purpose, the creation of area-specific knowledge in the aftermath of the World Wars, remains limited.
"I'm not sure that these kinds of departments are the best way to organize the study of the Near East," said Columbia professor Khalidi.
Nevertheless, the time to look at these issues could not be more pressing, professors said.
Interest in Near Eastern Studies is higher than ever — thanks to "Uncle Osama, the great patron of Middle Eastern studies in this country, people with energy and intelligence are going to gravitate towards this field," Cook said.
"It could not be more sensitive than now. It has to be done properly," Fahmy said. "The discipline is what matters. The discipline that will train specialists in this very important part of the world. Princeton is a very important place."
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