Originally published in the JHU Politik on April 22, 2013.
Two weeks ago, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum addressed a crowd of students at the Foreign Affairs Symposium. His invitation was unwelcome to those aware of his views on LGBTQ issues, women’s rights, and—broadly speaking—science. However, one of the most disturbing aspects of his speech was his half-hour lecture on “Islam” and the Middle East, which was, by all informed accounts, profoundly inane. In a discursive climate already prone to gross distortions, stereotypes and omissions about Islam and the Muslim world, that this man was brought to speak authoritatively on “foreign affairs” should be taken seriously—especially given how Hopkins fails to provide students an adequate academic environment to seek alternative, reliable information.
Despite numerous complaints over the years about the lack of a Middle East Studies curriculum, this school still lacks any specialized Middle East Studies professor, let alone a coherent program. We offer an ample variety of courses on the U.S. and Europe, and programs in Latin American, Jewish, East Asian, and Africana Studies, yet for the region stretching between North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, there is nothing organized.
Eight years ago, student Francesca Hansen wrote an op-ed for the News-Letter lambasting the administration for disregarding this part of the world. She notes that, back then, Hopkins had one professor of Middle Eastern politics, Waleed Hazbun. However, he eventually left to teach in Lebanon. This exemplifies a reoccurring problem: we hire only one scholar to cover an entire region, but when they leave, an academic void results for entire areas of the globe.
Now, courses that focus on the Middle East arise sporadically, most often taught by our excellent graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. I was also drawn to our anthropology department for its inclusion of scholars and courses on Islam and Muslim societies. However, the availability of courses falling under “Middle East Studies” has been variable and unreliable, and although I highly value and encourage studying anthropology, it cannot substitute for a background in history and politics. While we can foster a degree of awareness outside the classroom, any student knows that independent literature reviews or following the “right people” on Twitter cannot replace the educational experience that comes from a college course.
Hopkins students are definitely interested in the Middle East. Whenever a course even tangentially related to the region is offered, it quickly acquires a waitlist during registration. Additionally, this winter my peers and I received overwhelming support when we petitioned to allow graduate student Andrew Bush to teach a course on “Muslim Societies and Modern States.” There are dozens of students studying Arabic right now, yet they likely will not be able to take courses where they can learn about countries that actually speak the language.
Last semester, the Arab Students’ Organization hosted an event on the Arab Spring, notable not only because they struggled to find Hopkins scholars specialized enough in this region to speak on the subject, but because they nonetheless drew a full crowd. Further, there are now four student groups organizing around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but no Middle East department to contextualize their activism. Quite a few students have transferred schools because Hopkins cannot deliver on this. When I voiced my concerns to political science professor Steven David last year, he noted that many Hopkins students study abroad in Middle Eastern countries, often seeking that elusive Middle East specialization. But not everyone is fortunate enough to study abroad, and is it really a solution to Hopkins’ inadequacy to defer our students’ education to other institutions?
Hopkins has a renowned International Studies program: its structure, flexibility, and the theoretical and analytical tools it provides are exceptional. But if students want to learn about the Middle East, a region where their country has had a troublesome foreign policy for decades; where we are seeing an unprecedented era of change, revolution, conflict, and crisis; where the U.S. has been at war for as long as we can remember; and where the threat of future war often looms, the Political Science and History departments at Hopkins cannot provide that, and the administration in general is totally reluctant to change that. Yet, given the broader context, that is an inexcusable shame.