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New Texts Out Now: Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar, Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East

[Cover of Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar, [Cover of Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar, "Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East"]

Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar, Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar (LD & JW): Fundamentally, we chose to write this book because we need a much better on-the-ground understanding of how US domestic politics and foreign policy shapes higher education, including our day to day lives as academics and the choices we make in research, teaching, and public outreach. In our view, Middle East anthropology provides the perfect lens onto these interactions for a variety of reasons that we detail in the book.

There is also a personal, related story of how we came to write this book. A few years ago, we presented a paper about our academic generation’s responses to the attacks and aftermath of 9/11 at a conference at UCLA. The audience response was overwhelmingly encouraging, and several people told us that they would love to see this material as part of a book. This enthusiasm inspired us to expand that paper into a book-length project that encompassed multiple academic generations and a broader set of contextual and political issues. But our interest in the dynamics we write about goes back much further, to immediately after 9/11. We were both graduate students at the time, just finishing our dissertations and entering the job market, and so that event and its aftermath really marked the beginning of our careers as professional anthropologists (as it did for our whole generation). As such, we wanted our main disciplinary institution, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to take a public stand against the racist attacks on Arabs and Muslims in the US, the invasion of Iraq, and the apartheid wall that Israel was building—issues we saw as interrelated and linked to the new “War on Terror.” We formed a Task Force on Middle East Anthropology with several other junior female scholars with the aim of bringing anthropological insights to bear on these matters of public import. One of our actions was to submit a series of resolutions to the AAA condemning Islamophobia, the Iraq War, and the wall. To our dismay, all of these were thwarted by what we, and many of our colleagues, saw as politicized bureaucratic processes.

So part of our motivation for writing this book was to uncover and analyze, in a historically contextualized way, how scholars, and anthropologists in particular, did not or could not take a stand on matters of discrimination and state violence related to the Middle East, as they had regularly done for other world regions. We also wanted to revisit our own understandings of that experience, and especially our assumption that anthropology and anthropologists were apolitical, so our book allowed us to explore what politics might mean for different generations of scholars, in relationship to broader shifts in the academy and in the world around us.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

LD & JW: Anthropology’s Politics is a critical analysis of how national and international political, economic, and social trends since World War II have intimately shaped our everyday lives as academics—with huge consequences for teaching and scholarship. As we show, these trends produce politics of various scales—sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and obstruction of any criticism of the Israeli state—that all of us face in our work in colleges and universities, no matter our discipline, foci, and backgrounds. Using ethnographic and archival analysis, we reveal how US-Middle East relations and US gender and race hierarchies affect scholars across their careers, and in different time periods. We explore such trends in chapters analyzing graduate school experiences, the job market, tenure and promotion, teaching, public engagement, and the activities of disciplinary associations.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

LD & JW: In 2012, we published an Annual Review of Anthropology article that took stock of the major intellectual and theoretical trends in studies of the Middle East since the end of the Cold War. This book is an extension of that work. Instead of focusing on the scholarship itself, in the book we focus on the institutional aspects of how scholarship, and scholarly lives, are produced and shaped. That said, we each also had our own individual paths to this project.

LD: On some level, I became an anthropologist because the field promised to help me understand my personal experiences with US-Middle East interactions. On another level, as an anthropologist, I want to understand how knowledge and understanding about the world is shaped and produced by various discourses, politics, and institutions. My first two books focused on these processes in relation to piety and morality among Shi‘i Muslim Lebanese. And finally, my experiences as a scholar researching, writing, and speaking about the Middle East, and especially about a community that has been consistently associated in the US with terrorism, played a role in bringing me to this book.

JW: My previous work on artists and art worlds in Egypt was fundamentally about how intellectuals engage with institutions, nationalism, and global political economy. I see Anthropology’s Politics as extending those interests into the realm of academia in the United States. Academics in the US, like artists in Egypt, must work in and with a range of institutions from the public to the private, and do so in a context of persistent social hierarchies, state violence, nationalist discourses, and increasing neoliberalization. Writing this book was not only part of my broader interest in intellectuals and institutions. It was also an attempt to reckon with some of the vexed histories of the US academy, a place I call home. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LD & JW: First and foremost, we hope that anyone interested in the state of higher education in the US will find Anthropology’s Politics useful to understanding the impact of politics, writ large and small, on academia. The book will hopefully resonate with the experiences of anthropologists of a variety of world areas and Middle East scholars in a variety of disciplines, as it speaks to issues of knowledge production, academic social practice, and the interrelationships among disciplines, regions, and generational continuities and change.

We also hope that our book helps colleagues who do not work in the Middle East and are unfamiliar with these political dynamics gain a better understanding of the sorts of roadblocks and attacks many of us have experienced. We want colleagues and administrators to use it in order to better understand how to confront sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination in the academy, as well as the steady and stealthy silencing of critical perspectives and curtailing of academic freedom that continues in these supposedly hallowed spaces of intellectual inquiry. The un-hiring of Steven Salaita alerted many in academe to these processes; our book details the mundane experiences of them.

And finally, we hope that our book becomes part of a crucial intergenerational conversation in anthropology and Middle East studies. By sharing and contextualizing the experiences of generations of scholars who paved the way for our own work (including Anthropology’s Politics) we hope to honor and learn from those histories. And while we hope that students of anthropology and the Middle East read our book, our intention is not to frighten them. We wish that, when we were first establishing our careers, we had a better knowledge of the historical context and production of sexism, racism, and compulsory Zionism in the academy. Our hope for our students is that by historicizing and explaining these dynamics, they will find them less exceptional and therefore more readily confronted.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LD: I’m working on a long-term, interdisciplinary project that explores how ideas and practices related to making kinship, especially through marriage, can push at the constructed boundaries of sectarian or religious identities and communities. And who knows, Jessica and I might have more to say related to anthropology and Middle East studies...

JW: I’m working on a project that explores how aesthetic judgments and practices can mobilize or frustrate revolutionary action, with a focus on Egypt. And yes, surely there will be more writing with Lara...

J: Why anthropology?

LD & JW: Anthropology makes for an especially interesting lens onto broader political and economic issues because there are a number of critical tensions running through the discipline. The professional practice and demographics of anthropology embody both the post-World War II shift in US domestic politics towards an emphasis on civil rights and the inclusion of female and minority perspectives, as well as the backlash against these shifts and the continued reproduction of structural inequalities and discriminations. Many anthropologists think that their discipline should champion the perspectives of the marginalized, yet some of its practitioners have colluded with colonial and state power. Anthropology has become a heavily feminized discipline since the second wave feminist movement and attracts many non-elite scholars, yet it remains largely white, like academia in general. Anthropology is the most resolutely international of the social sciences in its breadth of research sites and privileging of fieldwork done “elsewhere,” yet anthropologists based in the US mainly cite their colleagues working in US institutions. And anthropologists frequently identify as politically-left leaning and critical of capitalism, yet continue to work in increasingly corporatized university environments. Meanwhile, when politicians and media pundits characterize universities as bastions of liberalism that do not teach useful “skills” for social progress or economic success, they often point to anthropology as a primary disciplinary example.

J: How does your book shed light on the recent vote in the AAA on the boycott of Israeli academic institutions?

LD & JW: Taken together, our book and this historic AAA business meeting show how dynamic anthropology is as a discipline. In Anthropology’s Politics, we describe the history of efforts to bring discussion of the Middle East in general, and Palestinian rights more specifically, to the AAA, as well as the history of thwarted efforts to pass resolutions critical of the Israeli state. A great deal of labor, over decades, has gone into bringing the Middle East into the foreground within the discipline of anthropology. And a great deal of struggle has gone into getting the AAA to express support for Palestinian rights, and to treat Palestinians in the way that other groups whose rights have been violated have been treated in Association history.

At the 2015 AAA business meeting, member attendees overwhelmingly voted to put a resolution endorsing an AAA boycott of Israeli academic institutions on the ballot for a full membership vote in spring 2016. Our book predicts the nature of the backlash that the AAA and individual anthropologists are experiencing in the wake of support for the boycott. It shows how these attacks extend back to at least the 1970s and follow predictable patterns. The historical perspective that we provide can reframe our understandings of such backlash and attacks, enabling scholars to understanding them as historically and institutionally constituted and not an isolated response to the boycott or a single vote. Both the fact that this vote took place and the eighty-eight percent majority by which the resolution passed can be seen as signs of a sea-change to which we allude in the book’s conclusion…and we hope the dynamics we describe throughout its pages continue to fade.

Excerpts from Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East

From Chapter Two: Making it Through Graduate School

Steven Salaita. Nadia Abu El-Haj. Joseph Massad. Norman Finkelstein. Thomas Abowd. These names signal to many scholars the potential consequences of writing and teaching about the Middle East and North Africa in the United States. External community organizations, sometimes cooperating with people on campus, targeted these academics for taking anti-Zionist political positions, being assumed to take such positions, being Palestinian, simply asking scholarly questions that call Zionist assumptions into question, or some combination thereof. Two of these scholars are anthropologists. Tom Abowd was denied a routine contract renewal after being attacked for speaking at a campus event related to Palestine. Nadia Abu El-Haj faced significant public pressure on her (eventually successful) tenure case because her scholarship asked questions that threatened Zionist nationalist truths. Both these cases highlight the ways in which academics’ backgrounds, scholarship, and politics converge, especially around Palestine. They are also, to our knowledge, the only two cases where anthropologists have come under such pronounced, persistent, and in Abowd’s case, successful, assault.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of our interlocutors have not personally experienced such menacing opposition to their tenure or retention, they still expressed apprehension, a sense that working on the region was a “minefield,” and fears that they could easily be targeted by right-wing and/or Zionist organizations because of their teaching, public lectures, or research, and that their institutions would not necessarily protect them. These stories are enough to send chills down a graduate student’s spine. One person described this fear as “knowing that people who fall on the wrong side can suffer in their careers.” The few scholars who have not had any difficulties on the job market or been harassed for their scholarship or teaching know of others who have had these experiences. Situations like those of Abu El-Haj or Abowd exacerbate those fears in part because anthropologists believe that anthropology is different from other fields. Many anthropologists view themselves as progressive, if not at least liberal, and are consistently surprised when their disciplinary colleagues present (perhaps unwittingly) conservative positions on the region. This is especially true for scholars who espouse anti-Zionism as part of their progressive outlook. So it was particularly disturbing to many MENA anthropologists when politically motivated charges arose from intradisciplinary contexts. We expect such allegations from people in other disciplines, the common phrasing goes, but not from our own. Indeed, anthropology is not immune to compulsory Zionism in the academy, and many fear that if they criticize Israel, they will be called an anti-Semite and/or a self-hating Jew and then suffer career consequences.

The fact that levels of apprehension are greater than actual experiences of job denial or loss does not mean that our colleagues are imagining things. Less dramatic but pervasive experiences impacted career trajectories. Abowd and Abu El-Haj are important not because they are exceptional, but because they represent extreme versions of common experiences. Global politics have combined with national, local, and institutional forces (including sexism, racism, and economic pressures on higher education) to affect careers materially in terms of access to the discipline and regional fieldsites, relationships with advisors, experiences on the job market, tenure battles, and ability to obtain research funding. These material effects had significant consequences for many anthropologists’ professional lives, as did politically motivated complaints and attacks against their work in the classroom or in public lectures.

The general climate of fear as well as racist and sexist pressures impacted scholars during periods of career vulnerability such as graduate school and the job market, the focus of this chapter, and the tenure process, a subject of the next. In these moments, academics learned that they must cultivate various modes of self-protection in order to continue their work without major conflict or upheaval. Throughout their careers, they then apply these strategies, which include self-monitoring and self-censorship. From graduate school onward, many MENA scholars decline to research, lecture, write, teach, or speak to colleagues about certain topics or do so only in ways marked by extreme politesse and a set of precautionary measures. They politely navigate faculty sexism and racism in graduate school and on the job market, add preemptive clauses on syllabi about unauthorized recording or the academic benefit of encountering opposing perspectives, ghostwrite when addressing sensitive topics, and avoid communicating personal views on social media. These practices contradict the principles of both the First Amendment and academic freedom as colleges and universities claim to promote them. Furthermore, they are at odds with producing scholarship and cultivating critical thinking skills in our students. By examining this case of MENA anthropology, we see very clearly a set of key tensions at the core of anthropology and academic practice more generally.


Vigilance in the Classroom and in Curricular Programming

MENA anthropologists developed a variety of pedagogical techniques to avoid the aforementioned conflicts, including cultivating a nonconfrontational teaching style, ensuring that all students had an opportunity to speak in class, adding protective addenda to their syllabi, and avoiding certain topics. Junior scholars expressed feeling especially vulnerable because they lacked the protection of tenure and did not yet feel skilled at dealing with classroom conflict. They often took great care to avoid being targeted by student spies. Many added language to their syllabi forbidding unauthorized recording of class lectures; others included sections detailing guidelines for class discussions involving different political perspectives or emphasizing the importance of referring to course readings in those discussions. A few reported actively watching for moles in their classes, and most vigilantly refrained from expressing their personal political views in class, while allowing students to do so….Most distressingly, several scholars said they felt intense disincentives to teach about MENA at all because of the labor required to create a smooth classroom experience.

Disincentives and cautious pedagogical strategies were especially pertinent when it came to Israel-Palestine; scholars were far more wary of teaching it than topics like Islam or the Iraq war. Many who had not conducted fieldwork in Israel or the occupied Palestinian territories, but who had expertise in the relevant anthropological scholarship, expressed extreme reluctance to teach it. Junior scholars were especially scared; several said that they would “never” teach about Israel-Palestine, even if they felt knowledgeable about the subject matter. One declared, “I simply will not teach a class about Israel and Palestine, even though that’s a country that I have considerable knowledge in and expertise on. I just won’t do it. It’s not worth the trouble.” A tenured scholar who regularly teaches about Iraq and Afghanistan said that she has “a clear sense that when it comes to Israel-Palestine, you watch out, you make sure you don’t say things that will get you into trouble….With the exception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I never monitor myself in class. I only monitor myself in that one issue, which I think everybody has to do.” In all, over ten anthropologists trained in the 1990s and several others trained in the 2000s said that they steered clear of teaching about Israel-Palestine in any of their courses, some even after gaining tenure.

Faculty who did venture to teach about Palestine-Israel carefully honed additional strategies to avoid problems. These included addressing issues in historical rather than contemporary terms as much as possible, presenting quantitative data (like numbers of deaths on each side) and allowing students to notice differences themselves, focusing on facts or theory, or only teaching the subject in seminars with large workloads to encourage students who were registering solely as spies to drop the class. They also perfected a nonconfrontational classroom style, consistently saying things like “it’s a major tragedy for both peoples” or starting semesters by deconstructing concepts like “balance” and “objectivity” to preempt criticism.


One example in particular highlights the ways that administrators frequently put scholars in catch-22 situations—a practice that contributed to our interlocutors’ general sentiment that they would receive no administrative support if push came to shove, so they needed to protect themselves preemptively. An anthropologist was tasked with bringing Arabic language courses to campus and establishing a Middle East Studies program, in what became an arduous process. Administrators stipulated that in order to hire an Arabic instructor, the institution simultaneously had to hire a Hebrew instructor. They also questioned the search committee’s judgments about native Arabic speakers, asking whether they would be able to teach the language and conveying (in the strong impression of our interlocutor) “the hidden [negative] message that they might be Muslims.” As this untenured anthropologist worked to develop Middle East Studies, the Judaic Studies program chair warned them, in an effort to be helpful, to “not pursue this too much because you will be challenged.” The dean later suggested that alumni would discontinue their donations if they thought Middle East Studies was “a gateway to Islamic Studies.” The anthropologist eventually postponed the project until after tenure because it was “such a hot potato for us and became so toxic.” Another of our interlocutors faced similar accusations that the Middle East Studies program she was building for her institution was an Islamic Studies program in sheep’s clothing. Such misrepresentations occur with alarming ease.

[Excerpted from Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar, Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East, by permission of the authors. © 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved. By permission of the publisher, Stanford University Press. No other use is permitted without the prior permission of the publisher. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.] 

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