An Interview with David Silverstein

Ashley Thorne

A few months ago we announced the exciting news about a new organization, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). We also highlighted ASMEA’s upcoming conference, which will take place October 22-24 in Washington, D.C. By way of further introducing the Association, we asked ASMEA’s executive director David Silverstein for an interview to be published on the NAS website. He graciously agreed; below are his responses to our questions.  

Be sure to check out ASMEA’s website, www.asmeascholars.org, to learn more about the Association and to register for the October conference.

 

NAS: You are the executive director for the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). ASMEA describes itself as “a new academic society dedicated to promoting the highest standards of research and teaching in Middle Eastern and African studies, and related fields.” Can you tell me a little bit about when and why ASMEA was founded?

Silverstein: ASMEA was created in October 2007 following a series of conversations with our founding chairman, Professor Bernard Lewis, about the corrosive effects of post-modernism and political correctness in higher education in general, and Middle Eastern and African studies in particular. In its broadest sense, our mission is to restore academic freedom and integrity to our once proud disciplines. We do this by promoting high standards of research and teaching, and by providing scholars and students with the opportunities they need to freely discuss and debate topics of interest, publish and present their research, and advance in the Academy. 

 

NAS: How does ASMEA differ from the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) and the African Studies Association (ASA)? Would you expect, for example, that scholars who attend the ASMEA conference in Washington in October will also attend the ASA meeting in New Orleans or the MESA meeting in Boston in November? 

Silverstein: ASMEA resembles MESA and ASA only in that we cover the same disciplines. While we have no relationship with either group we do share some members with both. In fact, we frequently encounter new members who tell us that they joined MESA/ASA for lack of alternatives or that they maintain their memberships with them only because they are the dominant organizations and remain important for networking and professional advancement. These ASMEA members can and do attend the events of all three associations. If our members believe that they can derive some benefit from participating in other conferences then we encourage them to do so and hope they will share whatever insights they gain with the rest of our members.

Unlike MESA and ASA, we do not promote an “orthodox” version of our subjects. Similarly, the Association does not engage in political efforts, maintains no political litmus tests for members, and enforces no limits on honest scholarship. ASMEA requires its members only to dedicate themselves to the search for objective truth.

ASMEA also differs from MESA/ASA in that we take a multi-disciplinary approach to our subjects in the hope that it will promote intellectual diversity and a true marketplace of ideas. In fact, our members come from over thirty different academic disciplines and they all speak to our regions from their own unique perspectives.

 

NAS: The Chairman of ASMEA is Bernard Lewis and ASMEA’s Academic Council includes a who’s who of international scholars who are usually seen as outside the prevailing orthodoxies of African and Middle East studies. Does ASMEA’s Academic Council represent scholarly dissent from orthodoxies such as Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and the thesis that Western scholars have treated Africa as “the heart of darkness?” Is there a better way to describe ASMEA’s intellectual outlook?

Silverstein: ASMEA maintains no institutional outlook on any theory relating to the study of our regions. We eschew politics or prescribed views on any subject, and, as a consequence, do not dissent or assent as an institution to any view. However, I think it is fair to say that the members of the Academic Council all agree that our disciplines have suffered for too long under the constrictive yoke of political correctness and post-modernism as well as post-colonial theory. They also would disagree with the notion advanced by the supporters of these theories that one cannot study “other peoples’ history” unless he is from Africa or the Middle East. They would instead subscribe to Professor Lewis’ quip on the subject: “If Westerners cannot legitimately study the history of Africa or the Middle East then only fish can study marine biology.”

 

NAS: Does ASMEA have a position on the war in Iraq or a perspective on Islam?

Silverstein: ASMEA takes no position on either of these subjects although our individual members hotly debate them among themselves. The diversity of views expressed by our members on these subjects tells us that we are doing something right—no one is afraid to speak his mind on these hot-button topics at our conferences.

 

NAS: What is your own background with the study of the Middle East and Africa, and how did you get involved with ASMEA?

Silverstein: A confluence of events led me to become involved with ASMEA. After many years in Washington, D.C. as a think tank and congressional staffer focusing on foreign affairs and national security issues, I became frustrated by the inability of official Washington to comprehend our regions (perhaps I was the slow learner). At a meeting in Turkey with members of the General Staff I heard one senior officer describe the importance of education in fomenting terrorist violence and countering PKK and other groups’ indoctrination efforts. Last, I had an opportunity to work directly with a number of professors and found that even the best of them suffered limits on their teaching and research because of the prevailing political winds and this spurred my interest in higher education reform. Following several conversations with Professor Lewis, I accepted the challenge of building ASMEA and helping to improve our fields of study for the benefit of all.

 

NAS: Does ASMEA have any campus-based programs? Publications? What’s in the future for the organization? 

Silverstein: In terms of publications, we hope to have the first edition of the Journal of the Middle East and Africa published early next year and we are accepting abstracts for the first edition of the journal. We publish a newsletter that features opinion pieces and book reviews by our members. And, our first book, Political Islam from Muhammad to Ahmadinejad, will be available in the next few weeks.

As we ramp up our capabilities we will provide an interactive website where members can debate issues, stage more symposia and seminars, create a video database of leading scholars (the first installment featuring Professor Lewis and Professor Ajami will be available shortly), provide more research grants, and generally create services that will support and advance our members’ interests.

 

NAS: Have you run into opposition on campus?

Silverstein: We have encountered some resistance in the form of snide comments on websites and in news articles, and we sometimes encounter outright hostility when we talk to prospective members on campus. For the most part, the partisans of political correctness are too certain of their righteousness to bother with us.

 

NAS: ASMEA has a conference coming up in October—we hear there are still seats left. What issues will be addressed at the conference?

Silverstein: We still have seats available at our annual conference October 22-24 at the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel in Washington, D.C. We also have a few rooms available at a discount rate to NAS members.

The conference begins with a catered reception/open bar and a book-signing and presentation by Professor Lewis on Thursday evening (10/22). On Friday (10/23) the conference will have seven panels and four individual presentations. The latter include presentations by former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton; Dr. Gerard Prunier of the CNRS; Ambassador Dennis Ross; and, General Kip Ward, commander of AFRICOM. On Saturday (10/24) we will stage 8 panels.

The subjects of the panels are as diverse as the membership and include Iran, North Africa, Islam in West Africa, Markets and Corruption in Africa, Piracy, Terrorism, and others. One panel that should be of particular interest is sponsored by the Marine Corps University. Tasked with educating Marines and other service members at the graduate level, the MCU panel seeks new ways to work with academics (as a matter of policy ASA declines to work with the military and MESA members have been among the military’s loudest critics on Iraq).

If that isn’t enough, the reception, breakfast on both days and the keynote luncheon are all included in the price of admission ($50 for scholars, $30 for students).

 

NAS: Why should a person join ASMEA?

Silverstein: Scholars and students from any related discipline or interested others who want to advance their knowledge about the Middle East and Africa in an environment where ideas are debated freely should join our ranks (free through 2009) and attend our conference. Members’ personal politics count for nothing with ASMEA—the merits of an individual’s ideas are what matters.

NAS pioneered the movement to restore academic freedom and we consider ourselves as a small part of that larger effort. As we grow, develop new services, and begin to change our disciplines we think our members will benefit directly in terms of career advancement and intellectual stimulation. We look forward to welcoming any honest scholar or student to ASMEA.

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