The Trump administration recently threatened to cut federal funding for the Consortium for Middle East Studies (CMES), a program run by Duke University and the University of North Carolina. CMES was accused by the U.S. Department of Education of misusing a federal grant to advance "ideological priorities." Pictured: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons/Ildar Sagdejev)
The Trump administration recently called out and threatened to cut federal funding for the Consortium for Middle East Studies (CMES), a program run by Duke University and the University of North Carolina. CMES was accused by the U.S. Department of Education of misusing a federal grant to advance "ideological priorities" and unfairly promote "the positive aspects of Islam," particularly in comparison to Judaism and Christianity.
The Department of Education summarized its position in an August 29 letter that opens with a reminder that institutions of higher education may receive federal funding via Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965:
The Secretary is authorized--
(i) to make grants to institutions of higher education, or combinations thereof, for the purpose of establishing, strengthening, and operating comprehensive foreign language and area or international studies centers and programs; and
(ii) to make grants to such institutions or combinations for the purpose of establishing, strengthening, and operating a diverse network of undergraduate foreign language and area or international studies centers and programs.
The logic is simple:
"... cultural studies providing historical information about customs and practices in the Middle East and assisting students to understand and navigate the culture of another country, in concert with rigorous foreign language training, could help develop a pool of experts needed to protect U.S. national security and economic stability..."
Having reviewed the Consortium for Middle East Studies' curricula, the Department letter warned that it has "little or no relevance" to federal funding:
"For example, although Iranian art and film may be of subjects of deep intellectual interest ... the sheer volume of such offerings highlights a fundamental misalignment between your choices and Title VI's mandates. Although a conference focused on "Love and Desire in Modem [sic] Iran" and one focused on Middle East film criticism may be relevant in academia, we do not see how these activities support the development of foreign language and international expertise for the benefit of U.S. national security and economic stability. Similarly, the link between the statutory goals and the academic papers referenced in your grant proposal, Amihri Hatun: Performance, Gender-Bending and Subversion in the Early Modern Ottoman Intellectual History, or Radical Love: Teachings from Islamic Mystical Tradition, is patently unclear."
The Department letter further accused the program of projecting and "advance[ing] narrow, particularized views of American social issues" onto the Middle East. It cites a CMES teacher training seminar that described itself as focusing on "issues of multicultural education and equity to build a culture and climate of respect," and "serving LGBTIQ youth in schools, culture and the media, diverse books for the classroom and more."
Just as the program apparently proliferates topics popular on U.S. campuses, but that have no bearing on the realities of the Middle East, so too is there "a startling lack of focus on geography, geopolitical issues, history, and language of the area, as Congress required in Title VI," the Department letter continues. As for those two fields that the grant was primarily designed for, "foreign language instruction and area studies advancing the security and economic stability of the United States have taken 'a back seat' to other priorities at the Duke-UNC CMES."
"... the Duke-UNC CMES offers very little serious instruction preparing individuals to understand the geopolitical challenges to U.S. national security and economic needs but quite a considerable emphasis on advancing ideological priorities."
Significantly but not surprising, the letter further accused CMES of "lack[ing] balance as it offers very few, if any, programs focused on the historic discrimination faced by, and current circumstances of, religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha'is, Yadizis, Kurds, Druze, and others." Instead:
"... there is a considerable emphasis placed on understanding the positive aspects of Islam, while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East. This lack of balance of perspectives is troubling and strongly suggests that Duke-UNC CMES is not meeting legal requirement that National Resource Centers 'provide a full understanding of the areas, regions, or countries' in which the modern foreign language taught is commonly used.'"
Whatever impact the Education Department letter had on CMES, it is a welcome development for several reasons. First, it suggests that the government is paying attention. This is important considering that more than a dozen other Middle East Studies departments — including at Columbia, Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale universities — are also Title VI recipients. All of them can be accused of most, if not all, of the failures cited in the Education Department letter to Duke and North Carolina (perhaps suggesting that the latter two were meant to be an "example" and warning to the rest).
Another benefit of the Department letter is that, although it only concerns Title VI recipients, it made national headlines that may lead to more questions and create more public awareness on the greater issue: that virtually all Middle East Studies departments on campuses everywhere can to varying degrees be accused of focusing on irrelevant and superficial topics, sidelining language skills, whitewashing Islam — in short, indoctrinating students in highly distorted views.
The letter also raises questions concerning the flipside of federal funding — foreign funding. A 2018 report, for instance, found that "elite U.S. universities took more than half a billion dollars" from Saudi Arabia in gifts and donations "between 2011 and 2017." Why would a nation that treats women like chattel, teaches Muslims to hate all non-Muslims, arrests and tortures Christians "plotting to celebrate Christmas" — a nation that has elite units dedicated to apprehending witches and warlocks — become a leading financial supporter of America's liberal arts? The answer is regularly on display: so that recipients can show their gratitude by indoctrinating students in a fictitious Middle East and Islam — both of which are supposed victims of America.
In all spheres of life, education is intimately connected with success — as its opposite, ignorance, is connected with failure. The reason U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has tended towards disaster is arguably because policymakers depend on advisors and analysts who are products of such Middle East studies departments — as are the many scholars and "experts" who insist that Islam is a "religion of peace." Until such time as Middle East Studies teach their topics with objectivity, balance, and above all, honesty, failure is likely to continue dominating America's response.
Raymond Ibrahim, author of the new book, Sword and Scimitar, Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute, a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and a Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.