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American Scholars in Arab World Face Backlash from Iraq War - 2003-05-12

“I think that there’s no question that on aggregate, this is the worst period of time for American academics in a long, long time if ever in that part of the world,” says Ken Menkhaus, associate professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina. His research focuses on humanitarian relief, peacekeeping and conflict resolution in Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

“It probably varies a bit from country to country, but in my corner of the Middle East, in the Horn of Africa, it is not a hospitable environment at all. We had a lot more good will after 9/11. We have no good will now. It’s almost a poisoned chalice to be pro-American in that part of the world, and even to be seen as cooperating with American academics is a little bit dicier than it used to be,” he says.

Professor Menkhaus will be in southern Somalia this summer on a European Union-funded research project to study Islamic charities in the region and to what extent they are filling the gap that collapsed states have left.

“This kind of field work is very important because we don’t know that much about what Islamic charity organizations do. So the more we know about them from a humanitarian and development point of view, the better,” he says. “That’s going to be much, more difficult now because the organizations are going to be very suspicious of Western researchers. And it’s a sensitive topic. There are a handful of Islamic aid agencies that are misused, used as fronts for radical groups, and they would be especially sensitive obviously to a Westerner poking around.”

Professor Menkhaus says he is still planning to go into the field because he has established contacts there and earned their trust. He concedes that for his own security he will have to rely on local Somali research assistants and intermediaries more than in the past. But Ken Menkhaus is lucky. Other American scholars and academics have been forced to cancel their projects since local governments fear they cannot guarantee their safety.

Rudolf Dornemann is a field archaeologist with forty years experience in Syria and Jordan. This summer he was planning to travel to Syria for an archaeological dig, a site where he and his team have been working since 1993. In the days following the fall of Baghdad, the Bush Administration issued a tough warning to Syria not to harbor Iraqi fugitives and to cooperate with the United States or face some kind of retaliation

“I expect that it’s just too uncomfortable for us to be out there with what’s going on in Iraq. We don’t really know what the aftermath of the war will be, and we still aren’t too sure what our Pentagon and State Department are planning in the area right now,” he says. “So with the uncertainty, it’s just not worth being in harm’s way. So we’re sort of holding it for a year, and then we hope next summer to continue our plans with just a year’s hiatus and hopefully not more than that.”

With four decades’ experience in the region, Professor Dornemann has encountered anti-Americanism before.

“Occasionally when we’ve been visiting some of the antiquities site on the weekend, we’ve had some grumbling or some people looking funny at us,” he says. “But even last summer, when we thought it would be kind of dicey it was kind of funny. We had people visiting the souk (market) in Allepo, and there were many anti-American posters in the souk. But on the other hand, the shopkeepers didn’t really want to lose any business. So they made sure that they tried to block these posters so they wouldn’t offend these Americans coming through and they’d still get the business.”

Still doubts remain about safety levels for Americans in the region. David McCreery is professor of religious studies with a focus on Syria and Palestine at Willamette University in Oregon. He also heads the committee of archaeological policy for the American Schools of Oriental Research. He says there are 25 projects engaged in fieldwork in the region. Of those 25, only eight to 12 will actually be in the field this summer due to uncertainty about safety issues and difficulty obtaining funds.

“In most cases, it’s not the project directors who are that concerned, since most of our project directors have been working in the Middle East for decades and have very good and strong friendships,” he says. “But many of their universities are worried about liability issues both for their faculty members and their students. There are a number of issues that work in here. The other one is funding. Most archaeological excavations are very much dependent, either on funding agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities or the National Science Foundation or corporate or individual gifts.”

However, security concerns haven’t stopped all fieldwork or study abroad. In fact, individual Americans may still be welcome in the region. A group of ten university students from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire are currently studying in Fez, Morocco. In an electronic journal they are keeping, one student talks of an encounter with a local shopkeeper:

After talking in a bit of broken Arabic, then some French and finally, English, we introduced ourselves. Mohammed was incredibly intrigued that I wanted to study Arabic and wanted to know more about my studies as time went on. In light of all the anti-Bush sentiment around the world and the Middle East in general, it amazes me how friendly and welcoming Moroccans are to American students. I cannot count the number of times that I’ve been welcomed to Morocco by strangers on the street. I must say that I was nervous to come due to the situation in Iraq, but am constantly surprised by how friendly Moroccans are.

“You hear people say often that there is rising anti-Americanism in the Arab or Islamic world. I would want to define that anti-Americanism,” says Willamette’s David McCreery, who lived in Amman, Jordan from 1981 to 1988.

“I think there certainly is growing resentment of American foreign policy in the Arab world and throughout the Islamic world as well. What I’ve been struck with over the last thirty years, that’s how long I’ve been working various archaeological projects in the Middle East, is that although there’s always been a fairly strong resentment of American official foreign policy, especially foreign policy towards the Middle East, there’s really not that much anti-Americanism directed towards individual Americans,” Professor McCreery says.

Whatever the reaction, Americans still need to go abroad. Davidson College’s Ken Menkhaus says learning about the Arab and Muslim world is more crucial now than ever before.

“One of the dilemmas of our situation in the aftermath of both 9/11 and now even more so with the war in Iraq is that at the very moment in time when the United States and the West most needs to understand the Arab World and the Islamic World, we are in the worst position to actually go and conduct research there because of the very high levels of suspicion and high levels of anti-Americanism. And I think that’s going to handicap us in both the war on terrorism and in building a post-war coalition in the Middle East,” he says.

Scholars of the Arab world say that due to the turmoil in the region, they are prepared for the worst. But even with emotions running at an all-time high, they expect people to continue to distinguish U.S. government policy from American individuals engaged in scholarly research and the exchange of ideas.