After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, journalists, policymakers, and ordinary Americans turned to the university to seek information about the region, and the religion, with which their country had become deeply engaged. That same year, Martin Kramer argued in his book Ivory Towers in the Sand that the entire field of Middle East studies “consistently missed the most important developments in the region” and, worse still, that its practitioners rarely acknowledged their mistakes, but instead “disregarded or distorted the evidence” when it didn’t conform to their understandings. Twenty years later, academia hasn’t changed much. But something else has:
[V]ery little of what the public reads or hears about the Middle East today comes from academics. This is evident in the 9/11 documentaries that have been broadcast in the general media on this twentieth anniversary. Among the quotable talking heads, academics are almost entirely absent. They mostly write for and speak to each other in a narrow circle, or for the slightly wider circle of the farther left.
If one wants more proof, ask this: does anyone in the field, any credentialed professor of Middle Eastern studies, enjoy any broad name-recognition in America? The answer is an obvious “no.” The last one was the late Bernard Lewis. Lewis had two New York Times bestsellers right after 9/11: What Went Wrong and The Crisis of Islam. They were quick, readable syntheses that filled an immediate void and that flew off the shelves.
But Lewis, and to some extent also Fouad Ajami, were the exceptions that proved the rule: the academic study of the Middle East does not produce high-profile public intellectuals. America has not looked to academics for its ideas about the region in a long while.