Harvard Struggles with Islamic and Middle Eastern Scholarship


Institutional centers and academic departments at the world’s richest university remain quiet.

With all its capital, intellectual and physical, Harvard is not just a university. It is an idea, potent and exciting; a force, sharp and unforgiving, that alters civilizations and shapes dialogue.

Islam and the Middle East does not seem to be among them.

The Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), the premier research center on campus to support research and teaching on the Middle East, serves as an example. Established in 1954, the CMES was the first of its kind in the United States and is widely recognized as having the “one of the largest and most distinguished concentrations of Islamic scholars in the world,” as per its own website. The Middle East, as we call it today, was where Islam took birth and evolved over the centuries; the study of Islamic philosophy and theology is closely connected with the study of the Middle East.

The CMES may fast be losing this distinction. Sam*, a third year PhD student in the department, does not consider the CMES to be a space conducive to world-changing research.

“When I came here, the first thing I remember learning is that the Center was in debt,” Sam says. According to him, breakfasts aimed at increasing camaraderie amongst Middle Eastern Studies students had to be temporarily discontinued, and were only resumed in 2015. Karen Daley, the Financial Associate for the CMES declined to discuss the finances of the Center.

Even then, he says the space is not a space where “everybody goes to, or, hangs out”. Sam, who did his Masters at another competitive private university, sees the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at his former university as a study in contrast.

“Students from the Near Eastern Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies, from all these different fields, went there for lunch and the professors would be there too,” he says. “It was a space where people could get together.” At that center, professors would often put on socials; the Harvard center, Sam says, does not organize more than one a semester, if at all.

Sam is not the only one to notice these incongruities. With Harvard come expectations: expectations to disburse information, shape dialogue, to really lead the change. The CMES, which houses scholars conducting provocative research on some of the most contentious topics of Islam, may not be doing nearly enough to spur dialogue in the Cambridge area.

Alex*, a visiting scholar from the Middle East, felt that the center is not playing active enough a role in the broader community. “By comparison, I think it can do a lot more in terms of outreach activities, as I believe there is a genuine hunger for information about the region among the wider Cambridge/Boston public,” Alex quipped.

This malaise is not in fact limited to the CMES: it extends across different social sciences departments.

The history department, for example, lacks a focused Middle East historian with the exception of Roy Mottahedeh, a historian of medieval Islam. Mottahedeh is retiring this year, and he may be replaced by a non-Islamic historian since his endowed Chair is not linked specifically to Islamic history. Roger Owen, one of the most prominent historians of the Middle East, retired in 2012; three years on, his chair still lies vacant. Khaled Fahmy, a visiting professor from Cairo, has been roped in to fill Owen’s chair for the year.

“It is so important to understand the history of the Middle East to understand why Islam came to be the way it is, to understand what’s going on today. It has big implications for inter-civilizational dialogue and mutual understanding dialogue,” Sam says. Yet, he alleges that the department, made up largely of American and European historians, does not see the Middle Eastern historians as scholars of “history proper”. Scholars of the Middle East, he says, often play second fiddle to Western historians when it comes to grants, funding and department resources.

In fact, in 2014, the History department excluded the entirety of joint History and Middle Eastern Studies graduate students from a mailing list about department events and opportunities. It is unclear whether the exclusion was deliberate or accidental; regardless, to Sam and others, it was indicative of their standing within the department.

Sam alleges, in fact that there were several “well qualified tenure-track scholars” who were turned away despite the gaping vacancies. He admits to hearing “unsubstantiated claims” that one of the scholars may have been turned down because he was a Palestinian. “He expressed views disagreeing with Israel’s actions and one or more people on his committee were Jewish and did not agree with his views,” he says.

Matters of tenure are all hearsay, of course. Chair of the History Department, David Armitage, said that the Department could not reach a consensus amongst the “outstanding junior candidates” they interviewed two years ago, and is awaiting authorization from the administration. This administrative decision may be taken only by June or July 2016, at the earliest.

“At this volatile moment, there could hardly be a more pressing need than historical understanding of the Middle East,” Armitage said. He admitted that there were also other “competing needs” within the departments that he could not reveal; the need for a Middle Eastern historian would have to be balanced against these needs. He also could not commit to Roy Mottahedeh being replaced by an Islamic historian.

But even when Islamic scholars are placed on equal footing, they are subject to other pressures. “It is much easier to get funding for research proposals that look at Islam or the Islamic world from a military perspective than from non-military perspectives,” says Tim*, a PhD student in another social sciences department. There were Tim said, “off limit areas” in his department when it came to questioning mainstream or confessional Islamic sources, or shedding light on historical things that “don’t conform to the mainstream Islamic narrative.”

Gary Urton, Chair of the Anthropology department, was quick to reject such claims. “I would be very surprised to meet anyone who has faced those pushbacks,” he says. The anthropology department is specifically looking for off-beat scholars, he said, as he went on to outline the department’s long winding search for a Thai anthropologist.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals interviewed.


Aditya Agarwal ’17 (adityaagarwal@college.harvard.edu) will continue the coverage of this discussion.