BY PETER N. KIRSTEIN
Professor Iymen Chehade, Columbia College Chicago, and I are members of Illinois AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. We are appearing on a panel in Chicago that is sponsored by the United Nations Association as part of their Global Conflicts Resolution series. The panel is April 13 in Chicago’s Loop and this is a link to the event. We will be addressing academic freedom and Middle East Studies, as well as other aspects of Israel’s occupation and blockade of the West Bank and Gaza respectively. Mr Chehade was engaged in a nationally covered academic freedom case when one of his sections of the Israel-Palestinian conflict was removed following the showing of the Academy Award-nominated documentary, 5 Broken Cameras. A student complained the film was not “balanced.” I showed the stirring film this semester, and Professor Chehade was a guest speaker in the next class!
Other panelists are Dr. Wajeeh Abu-Zareah, NBC Correspondent, Gaza and Kalman Resnick, JD, Immigration Attorney. As we have seen in the Norman Finkelstein and Steven Salaita cases, persecution arising from Islamophobia, may lead to efforts to marginalise non-white victims of colonialism, by regulating the academic narrative. Controlling or punishing pedagogy that defies the power structure in this country is palpable and is especially acute in Middle East Studies,
This semester I offered a new course: The United States and the Middle East: At Home and Abroad. It traversed through various curriculum committees, but lo and behold, it was accepted as a General Education requirement as an Interdisciplinary Seminar. One of the disciplines–hate the word because I am very undisciplined in the search for the truth–is history, the other is pedagogy. I have devoted about half the class to Israel-Palestine, the Bush criminal wars, and the other half to the academic freedom struggle in proffering Middle East studies. This is a portion of the syllabus that readers may find of interest:
The course is being offered for the first time and will assess the history of the Middle East with emphasis on America’s role in this region. Because of the vast nature of this enterprise, the course will begin with the arrival of Muslims to America, but focus its time period from the end of World War I and the beginnings of European and US penetration of the area with the demise of the Ottoman Empire, to the current period. The course will assess the various actions of Presidents Truman through Obama from the recognition of the State of Israel in 1948 through the use of drone warfare under Obama. Much of the course will focus on the Israel/Palestinian conflict which is the single most significant component of the modern history of the region. However, the so-called “War on Terror” with its escapades into Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya will also be assessed. Other aspects of this course will focus on the Iran-nuclear question. These topics will be the history component of the course.
The course counts as an Interdisciplinary Seminar and this entails two distinct disciplines or subject areas of study. History and the other deals with the politics of pedagogy (teaching) within academia that attempt to define how the Middle East should be taught. Many professors have been coerced, sanctioned, silenced and persecuted for offering courses on the topics covered in this syllabus. We need to see starkly that what you learn in a classroom may come with great sacrifice as one generation attempts to free itself from the chains of the past. There was a time when women’s history, African-American history and gender history were considered taboo subjects. Today the Middle East is not taboo but developing certain pathways to the search for the truth might be. So we will examine the general phenomenon with specific case studies of prominent scholars or programmes that have been affected by the tumult in the Middle East and the politicisation of education, NOT by professors, but by special interest groups, lobbyists and crusaders for a narrative that is acceptable to them.
The Gen Ed programme wants folks to take an IDS to enhance the integration of learning. Well integration is always good, to be sure, and in this case it is really a requirement to have a course that is cross-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary in content. Most courses are, at least in the humanities and social sciences to begin with. Yet this course is rather dramatically pursuing this due to the integration of war, politics, and university issues that so dramatically inform the US-Middle East relationship. I have not taught a course other than Hiroshima and the Nuclear Age where I have such intimate knowledge of the subject matter which in this case is the educational-pedagogy component. I am certainly an expert on the academic freedom side of this course, and in my role as vice president of the American Association of University Professor (Ill), have defended many professors who are Middle Eastern and/or Middle East specialists.
Professors should bring in their experiences, biases, passions, prejudices, beliefs into the classroom. The intent is not to restrict debate but expand it. The goal is not to preach but to profess: there is a difference. The objective is not to proselytize but to search for the truth with purpose and conviction. I have very strong feelings about this subject matter and want you to share yours with me regardless of the outcomes in terms of positions held. I don’t believe one can fully understand the US role in the Middle East without exploring both the domestic and external affairs dimensions!