Daniel Pipes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Militant Islam: Conversation with Daniel Pipes, Director, Middle East Forum, 2/10/04 by Harry Kreisler

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The Public Arena

At a certain point in your career, you moved away from being a traditional academic to being a commentator. You established the Middle East Forum. I read an account of how that operation started. What exactly is it? When did it start, and what was it trying to achieve?

The Middle East Forum is a think tank, a research institute, founded exactly ten years ago to the month. The goal was, as with most think tanks, to engage in a variety of activities -- publications, media work, behind the scenes [work] in Washington, consulting here and there, having student interns -- a whole range of different activities. Ours, specifically, focused on the Middle East and trying to bring to bear the fruits of scholarship for general consumption, or to put it in slightly different terms, what I've dubbed "applied scholarship" -- taking scholarship and trying to make it useful for the general public.

This is a substantial problem in the United States, because the academy often fails to move beyond its conceptual schemes to enhance public understanding. Obviously, they have the undergraduates, they have the students, they have the graduate students; but the way this seeps into the public debate is very uneven. That must have been a motivation for you to move in this direction.

The think tank is a relatively modern phenomenon. It goes back to the 1920s to the Brookings Institution. It really took off in the 1970s with the Heritage Foundation. We invented the forum. It's very much an American institution; it has now expanded to other parts of the world, but its most powerful and interesting manifestations are here. It is somewhere between the public sphere and the academy. Nearly all of its practitioners come out of the academy, but for one reason or another choose to have primarily a public audience as opposed to primarily an academic audience.

It's a successful institution in that it provides materials that are drawn upon, that are needed, not just by policymakers and journalists, but by the general public. It is striking to see how few in number the think tank specialists are compared to academics in a university, but when it comes to the area of public policy, how disproportionally large their influence is, because they're attuned. Their income [and] their positions depend upon being useful. The university doesn't require that of them. Some university academics are masters of this, but it's by no means part of the job description. It is at a think tank.

How has the web change things for you? I know that you have a website which gets a lot of hits in Middle Eastern studies and so on. Most of your current writings are up on the web. It seems the technology has taken it to a new level.

Definitely. For me, personally, it's had a profound importance. As you mentioned, my website does get a lot of readers, on the order of close to two million a year, which is really quite a number from just my personal archive. I have a mailing list of some 20,000 people who receive my writings, which, again, if one thinks of it in terms of specialist writings, is a substantial number. It has created an opportunity for me to directly reach my readers. I have a weekly column, as you indicated in the introduction, but I also have a weblog, which is a way for me, on my own, to pursue any hobbyhorse and indulge any interest I have. It's quite remarkable how I can mobilize people when there's something that upsets me or close something down, open something up, by virtue of just talking about it on my weblog. So it's a very important tool. Or put another way, our journal, the printed version of Middle East Quarterly has but a fraction of the readership that the Internet version does, to the point that what began as the whole of the journal, namely the paper, is now pretty much an afterthought. I like having it, I plan to continue it, but it's not where my heart and passion are anymore. It's the Internet version.

In a minute I want to talk about some of the ways that you have helped us understand militant Islam. But first, I'd like to talk about another thrust of your work, which has been highly critical of universities and academic scholarship on the Middle East. You're involved in a website forum for criticizing American universities and Middle Eastern Studies, especially. Talk a little about that. This must be also an element in your movement to the public domain.

Campus Watch is a project I started in September of 2002. It has a website, campus-watch.org. It's a compilation of what others are writing about [the Middle East], and in part (less a part), it is our own research on it, plus other features. It is a critique of Middle East Studies at North American universities, Canadian as well as American, and it is a project which seeks, by criticizing my counterparts of the university, to improve the work, the record of Middle East Studies in the United States. The intellectual foundations of this effort were laid by Martin Kramer in a book called Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in the United States, where he shows how they have just not been doing a good job, or they've not been doing a good job. We at Campus Watch are hoping that by both direct critique and answer to it, and by making the general public aware of the problems in this field, that the improvements will follow.

There seem to be two thrusts to your criticism: one is the attitudes that drive some of the academic research. That is, attitudes toward Islam and toward the Middle East that are possibly too positive -- I'm simplifying here -- that there isn't a complexity in some of the work. The other thrust of your efforts, or of this website, seems to be questioning the funding of some of the academic studies.

Question the funding is a very minor part of our work. It's mostly engagement in the battle of ideas. It's not so much [that these departments are] sympathetic to the Middle East -- no problem with that -- as [they're] sympathetic to the radical forces, anti-American forces. The general rule of thumb would seem to be, in Middle Eastern studies (and not just Middle Eastern studies, but other areas as well), that whoever is hostile to the United States deserves defending, and whoever is friendly to the United States deserves critique. And it's not just that, which is already a problem, but that it is so widespread, and there's so few voices on the other side. There is a near consensus, or there is a consensus but it's not absolute, that the opponents of the United States need defending, whether it be the Islamic Republic of Iran or militant Islam in general, or the Palestinians or the Libyan government. Whereas, the powers that are friendly to the United States, be it the Turkish government, the Israeli government, or, say, the opposition in Iran, get a lot of criticism.

Beyond that, there's an apologetic quality that difficult subjects such as jihad are not dealt with in a straightforward and reliable fashion, which is of great importance at a time like this when we're at war with people who are motivated by jihad, that have "jihad" in the title of their organizations. Another problem is that the really tough and useful subjects are not being brought up. Say, the barbarism of the Saddam Hussein regime, the biography of Osama bin Laden, the resurrection of chattel slavery in the Sudan, Muslim anti-Semitism, the suppression of Berber rights in North Africa. These are vital questions and they're not being dealt with.

There is a fine line here, and I want to raise this. On the one hand, we have the traditional notion of academic freedom, which has been important for the university. On the other hand, that freedom was questioned during the McCarthy period in ways that threatened the academic freedom and autonomy of the university. How do you answer charges that at a certain point such an endeavor crosses over, driven by patriotic good intentions, to undermine that basic principle of the university?

The key point is that Joseph McCarthy was chairman of a powerful Senate committee and he could threaten to put people in jail. We are a small think tank that engages in critique, that is taking advantage of its freedom of speech.

I find it mildly preposterous to compare us to the U.S. government. We have no powers of coercion. We're not interested in anyone losing his job. We're not interested in any form of problems for the people we're critiquing. We're engaged in intellectual debate. I find it odd that I, for one, can be dumped on in all sorts of ways, critiqued in all sorts of ways, but when I turn around and critique, this is out of bounds, this is McCarthyism. No, it's not. What I say to those I criticize is, "Get used to it. You're in the public eye. You're speaking in the media. You're writing in public. You're public figures. The materials I have are not from firsthand conversations; they're from the public record. Get used to it." Politicians and intellectuals and others in the public eye have their chance at bat and they have their chance in the outfield, too, and "Get used to it." I have no sympathy whatsoever for this bellyaching and special pleading.

Plus, there's a lot of dissimulation. I can't tell you how many people have claimed that because we have mentioned them, they were subjected to a barrage of spamming and spoofing. If it's happened, I regret it and condemn it, to be sure; but I have yet to see any proof of this. I've repeatedly asked for documentation. One professor, because I'd mentioned him in an article -- just mentioned, criticized him for going to Iraq and helping the Iraqi regime prepare to fight the United States -- he claimed because of this he had to leave the United States and go to Canada. Well, I did a little research and found that actually three weeks before he made this claim he had written, in public, on the Internet, that he was leaving the United States for job-related reasons. So it's very hard to take this seriously as an intellectual defense.

In looking at some of your work, I got the sense that often what you had written appeared to be more extreme than it actually was when you read at the text. Tell me a little about writing for public advocacy, building on a body of scholarship. It's a challenge because the kind of language and words you would use in scholarship won't get the attention of the policymaker or the cable news station in the way a more fiery discourse does -- but a fiery discourse which may not go as far as the fire seems to lead!

I've often found it to be the case that because I have a reputation, that people read into what I say. For example, just today I received a note in response to a weblog item in which I noted that ... Well, today was the day that the French Parliament passed a law banning the woman's headscarf in the French school system. And I noted that the Prime Minister of France had indicated that there was more to come and that there would be laws against -- or somehow implying, it wasn't clear -- husbands who don't allow their wives to be examined by a male doctor. I don't what he had in mind. But I just noted this. And then I went on to say that while the situation in France is somewhat eccentric, still it is at the forefront of discussing and debating these issues and will probably have an influence elsewhere. I didn't endorse it. I didn't condemn it. I just noted this very interesting, to me, a very interesting fact that the prime minister of France was planning to look at the relationship between a doctor and a female patient, and a female patient's husband. This is a new area.

I got a note arguing with me for endorsing this. I put on it, "I didn't endorse this." But it's assumed that I endorsed this. I'm very careful, often, not to endorse -- just to comment and note. I do, for sure, have opinions, but not on everything. I don't have a formed opinion on this. I don't know where it's going. So I find over and over again that people read into what I say, rather than pay close attention to what I do say.

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