Revamp Mideast Studies

Harvard must focus its Middle Eastern program on relevant political questions

As Iraq and Middle Eastern terrorism dominate the headlines and preoccupy our nation, Harvard’s Middle East studies program is effectively lacking in the resources to better help us understand this vital region. The program needs to reorganize and modernize its offerings, and shift some focus to the modern era. While it is important to maintain a broad academic spectrum in the program, it is also necessary to maintain relevance to our world.

It is quite shocking that Harvard lacks senior faculty studying modern Middle Eastern politics or modern Islam. What exists instead is a Near Eastern Languages and Civilization department strong in language studies, and scholars focusing on Islam’s Golden Age and medieval period. And while Harvard indeed excels in these areas, the lack of study on the modern Middle East undermines the Harvard’s ability to provide a complete academic approach to the region.

The recent steps taken by Columbia University and New York University to strengthen and modernize their departments shows us that Harvard must not fall behind in this important field of study. Harvard needs to be more aggressive in hiring and retaining scholars of the modern Middle East, despite Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby’s “soft hiring” freeze on new faculty. The College should not have to sacrifice its academic mission and its relevance for budget concerns. It must make the necessary administrative and faculty hires to revamp the program and shift its focus towards the study of the modern region. This way, it can better serve the Harvard community on such pressing issues as the dimensions of Middle East terrorism, the rise of Islamism and the causes of the turmoil that besieges the Middle East region today. Also, these are not fleeting concerns—unfortunately, the Middle East is likely to be a hot political topic for decades to come.

Over the past two years, there has been a sharp increase in the enrollment figures of the few courses about modern Middle East issues. Interest in the Middle East is high on campus, no doubt fueled by a desire to better understand the events shaping the current world scene, and also because employers—especially governmental ones—often actively seek out recruits with an advanced knowledge of the region. Akin to the study of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the study of the Middle East is politically pertinent today and must be strengthened so that Harvard can be well prepared to study the new challenges that face our world.