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Eyal Press | The Nation | April 22, 2004 [from the May 10, 2004 issue]
Daniel Pipes was a busy man in the days following September 11, 2001. The Philadelphia-based foreign policy analyst and commentator on terrorism and Islam first learned that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center when a local television producer called to invite him to the station for an interview. Over the next twelve months, Pipes would appear on 110 television and 450 radio shows. His op-eds graced the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. The New York Post signed him up as a columnist. The Philadelphia Inquirer described him as "smoking-hot."
It was not always thus.
Pipes, 54, had labored in comparative obscurity during the 1990s, writing a series of books and articles that advanced a hard line on Arab countries from Syria to Saudi Arabia to Iran, and darkly warning that Muslim-Americans posed a threat to the United States. Back then, these were not popular topics on the talk-show circuit. Pipes indeed seemed destined to share the fate of his old friend Steven Emerson, another self-styled terrorism expert, who gained notoriety in the immediate aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing for suggesting that it bore a "Middle Eastern trait." Pipes himself echoed this, telling USA Today that the bombing showed that the West was "under attack" and that fundamentalists "are targeting us."
The words of a demagogue, or of a prophet ahead of his time? To a growing circle of conservative admirers, Pipes is the latter. The Forward recently named him one of the nation's fifty most influential American Jews. Last year President Bush overrode objections from Muslim-American groups in appointing Pipes to the US Institute of Peace, a federal agency whose mandate is to promote the "peaceful resolution of international conflicts," despite the fact that Pipes has long dismissed the very idea of peaceful resolution ("diplomacy rarely ends conflicts," he had written a year earlier).
But Pipes's biggest impact has not come from analyzing foreign affairs. It has come from pointing a finger at a purported fifth column lurking in a place conservatives have long suspected of harboring one: academia. Two years ago Pipes launched Campus Watch, an organization whose stated purpose is to expose the analytical failures and political bias of the field of Middle Eastern studies. The group's first act was to post McCarthy-style "dossiers" on the Internet singling out eight professors critical of American and Israeli policies. When more than a hundred scholars contacted Campus Watch to request that they be added to the list in a gesture of solidarity, Pipes obliged, labeling them "apologists for suicide bombings and militant Islam."
As the latter phrase suggests, when Pipes criticizes scholars, he doesn't just take issue with their arguments. He impugns their motives, tossing out labels like "self-hating" and "anti-American," and lifting quotes out of context to portray his targets as closet sympathizers with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Pipes writes columns titled "Profs Who Hate America." "Why do American academics so often despise their own country while finding excuses for repressive and dangerous regimes?" he wrote in the lead-up to the Iraq war, which he heartily backed, mocking scholars for failing to see that Saddam Hussein posed an "imminent threat" to America.
In Pipes's view, universities these days are overrun by extremists who are reflexively hostile to the United States and Israel, blind to the dangers of Islamic terrorism and intolerant of students who dare to veer from the party line. Although Pipes is not wrong that some Middle Eastern scholars underestimated the danger of militant Islam during the 1990s, his portrait of the field as a whole is nothing if not extreme itself. Yet, with the help of Martin Kramer, who edits the journal Pipes founded, Middle East Quarterly, and Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and contributing editor at National Review Online, Pipes has succeeded in popularizing this view.
His grievances have been aired on everything from MSNBC to NPR. The Washington Post ran a front-page story on the issue. College newspapers across the country have published bristling exchanges about Middle Eastern studies. The debate has even reverberated in Congress, where pending legislation would create an advisory board of government appointees to oversee the government-funded area studies programs responsible for teaching thousands of students about the Middle East each year. The goal of the legislation is to insure that Middle Eastern studies programs "represent the full range of views," as opposed to the "one-sided criticisms of American foreign policy" Stanley Kurtz complained about in recent testimony before the House of Representatives.
This might seem like an odd time to be policing the academy in search of scholars too critical of Washington's approach to the Middle East, given the chaos now enveloping Iraq, which numerous academic scholars foresaw. And Pipes's vituperative attacks have not made him a terribly popular figure on many campuses these days. Last fall, I watched him deliver a speech at Yale. Pipes showed up flanked by security guards, who whisked him out the door after the speech and a brief question-and-answer session. Nearly half the students in the audience arrived with a black cloth over their mouths to protest Campus Watch's threat to academic freedom.
Yet as one longtime Middle East hand who knows Pipes told me, those expecting Pipes to tone down his criticisms will likely be disappointed, for he carefully calculates what he says. "He's extreme, yes, but for a reason--to push the debate to the right. And it's been effective, no question."
Indeed, arguably Pipes's greatest achievement has been to capitalize on the fears generated by 9/11 in order to cast doubt on the motives and agenda of an entire profession--while keeping his own ideological agenda largely obscured from view.
In early January, I met Pipes on the tenth floor of a glass-and-steel highrise in downtown Philadelphia, headquarters of the Middle East Forum, the think tank he founded in 1994 to "promote American interests" in the region. Pipes is a tall man with a close-cropped beard and a lanky, basketball player's build. For all the venom in his writings, in person he is disarmingly soft-spoken and subdued. Throughout our interview in his corner office, decorated with a framed copy of the letter from President Bush nominating him to the US Institute of Peace, he spoke quietly, pausing frequently to rephrase his views. On television, Pipes affects the same cool dispassion, rarely raising his voice, even more rarely getting flustered. It's a style some believe he has cultivated to lend his pronouncements an understated--hence reasonable--air. "Dan has a sort of Svengali-like ability to portray a situation calmly but in the direst of terms," says Ian Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who has debated him in the past.
One subject Pipes did not wish to discuss was his personal life. Yet his background is of more than passing relevance to anyone wishing to understand his worldview. He is the elder son of Richard Pipes, the renowned Sovietologist at Harvard who left an important mark on the politics of the cold war--and perhaps the current era as well. In the early 1980s Richard Pipes ran the Eastern European and Soviet Affairs desk at the National Security Council. Before that, he served as chairman of "Team B," a group of intelligence analysts brought together in 1975 by then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush. In a manner strikingly similar to that of the neoconservatives who recently dismissed more cautious estimates about Iraq, Team B's members scorned what they considered the timidity of the intelligence establishment, which at the time was supporting détente with the Soviet Union. Based on what Richard Pipes himself termed "soft evidence," Team B's members hyped the Soviet threat. One of its young weapons analysts was Paul Wolfowitz. The Defense Secretary at the time was Donald Rumsfeld; the Chief of Staff, Dick Cheney.
Despite his forays into politics, Richard Pipes was above all a scholar. Young Daniel grew up in a book-lined home in Cambridge where, as his father recounts in his recently published memoir, Vixi, the visitors included Edmund Wilson and Isaiah Berlin. It could not have been a more scholarly milieu, and Daniel evidently soaked it up. In 1967, he began his freshman year at the prestigious university where his father taught, and where afterward he would pursue a PhD in medieval Islamic history.
It was the height of the Vietnam War, and young people everywhere were rebelling--but not Pipes. In April of 1969, his sophomore year, antiwar activists took over the main administrative building at Harvard. The university called in the police. Pipes recalls students gathering in the football stadium to debate the crisis, which dominated campus life for weeks. Pipes's group was among the smallest: He backed Harvard's administration and like his father firmly supported the Vietnam War.
Pipes lost friends that spring. "People with opposing views simply couldn't talk to each other," he told me. Until that point, he'd always thought of himself as a Democrat. By the time George McGovern ran for President against Richard Nixon in 1972, he'd switched over to the GOP.
Yet if Pipes was a budding conservative, he did not strike most people as an ideologue. "Dan at that time was a student," recalls Richard Bulliet, a professor of medieval Islamic history at Columbia University who was teaching at Harvard at the time. "I remember going to the graduation party his parents threw for him. He was a bright guy who wanted to be a medievalist, which is what I am. We got along real well. I don't recall him being political at all."
Pipes's first book, Slave Soldiers and Islam, published in 1981 but the product of field research conducted in Egypt during the 1970s, indeed bears no sign of its author's politics. It is a slender, scholarly work, carefully documented and measured in tone.
By the time Slave Soldiers appeared, however, its author had shifted his attention to other things. As Pipes would later recall, in the late 1970s he abruptly "gave up my claim to be a medievalist and metamorphosed into a historian of the modern Middle East." Pipes says that events on the world stage, in particular the 1979 Iranian Revolution, prompted the change. Bulliet offers another view: "I think Dan made the decision that he was born to be an actor in the world." With the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian hostage crisis, Islam was becoming a hot topic in Washington. And Washington is where Pipes headed. In 1982, shortly after his father entered the Reagan Administration, Pipes did likewise, leaving academia to join the policy planning staff at the State Department.
It was his first excursion into the world of politics, though Pipes apparently spent much of his time in Washington engrossed in a scholarly endeavor, working on his second book, In the Path of God. Published in 1983, the book foreshadows its author's preoccupation with Muslim fundamentalism, whose growing influence Pipes chronicled in dozens of states. It is an impressively wide-ranging work, albeit one marred by a strikingly crude thesis. Islam's resurgence, Pipes argued, was largely a product of the OPEC boom. Once oil prices dropped, he predicted, Islamic fundamentalism would fade away.
It's no sin to be wrong, of course--unless you are a Middle East specialist on Campus Watch's radar screen. These days, Pipes rarely misses an opportunity to ridicule Middle East specialists for their "mistakes," a charge echoed by Martin Kramer, whose recent book, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, argues that academics have so often gotten things wrong that merely mentioning their name "causes eyes to roll" among policy-makers. Kramer lays much of the blame on Edward Said's Orientalism, which he argues led an entire generation of scholars to look for Western causes of the Middle East's problems rather than confront unsettling internal developments.
In this, Kramer is actually following Pipes himself, who in the introduction to In the Path of God criticized Said and defended the traditional Orientalist approach as "the only basis for an analysis of [Islam] in relation to political life." He airily dismissed "the recent profusion of writings by social scientists" examining the Middle East, and complained that Muslim writers in particular "have added relatively little to the study of Islam." Here was a foretaste of the Pipes that would soon grow familiar to readers of his essays and books: a man with a wearying tendency to portray Muslims in general and the Arab world in particular in condescending terms. There was, to be sure, a throat-clearing qualifier--"I respect the Islamic way of life, admire much about it"--but as a reviewer in the Washington Post noted, Pipes "professes respect for Muslims but is frequently contemptuous of them."
After leaving the State Department in 1983, Pipes continued teaching at various universities. But he failed to land a tenure-track job, and would produce little original scholarship in the years to come, instead churning out dozens of essays on topical subjects--terrorism, Israel, the Rushdie Affair--for publications such as Commentary and The National Interest. The range was impressive, and Pipes wrote with clarity and panache, yet he often strayed into territory about which he had little expertise. In 1984, for example, he reviewed From Time Immemorial, a book on the Zionist settlement of Palestine by Joan Peters, in Commentary. Peters's thesis--that Palestine was "uninhabited" until Jews began settling there--was demolished by reviewers such as Albert Hourani, Norman Finkelstein and Yehoshua Porath, all of whom exposed the book as a crude pastiche of plagiarized references and deliberately twisted facts.
Pipes, however, found the work "startling" in its insight, praising Peters's "historical detective work." The lacerating critic who today impugns scholars for their anti-Israel bias detected no bias here. "Many of those who now consider themselves Palestinian refugees were either immigrants themselves before 1948 or the children of immigrants," he said. "This historical fact reduces their claim to the land of Israel."
It was not the first time Pipes's attention would be drawn to Israel, nor would it be the last. In 1981 he complained in Commentary about Westerners who obsessively tracked "the minutiae of housing on the West Bank, electricity company ownership in Jerusalem, use of Jordan River water," merely to shed negative light on Jews. Three years later, he took aim at the media for its coverage of the Lebanon War, again because it made Israel look bad. By 1988, his attention had shifted to the prospect of a Palestinian state, which he warned in a New York Times editorial would be a "nightmare" for its intended beneficiaries. Statehood "would hurt Arabs far more than Israelis," Pipes insisted, since the Palestinians would suffer under the repression of a terrorist organization, the PLO.
Pipes is not, as some allege, an uncritical supporter of Israel: With admirable consistency, he favors phasing out US aid to Israel on conservative grounds ("I oppose the dole for both individuals and states," he told me). Generally, though, Pipes criticizes the Israeli government for being too soft on the Palestinians, whose treachery appears to be limitless in his eyes. Consider his reaction to a "targeted" assassination by an Israeli warplane in the Gaza Strip two years ago that destroyed three residential buildings and killed fifteen civilians (150 more were injured). "It's a tragedy," Pipes allowed on CNN, but went on to insist that "the Palestinians have the moral opprobrium here," since they were not "playing fair" by allowing a target to blend into a civilian area.
Pipes has repeatedly called for Israel to crush the Palestinians--for their own good, he emphasizes--while simultaneously accusing scholars like the widely respected Rashid Khalidi of being apologists for violence. "After 9/11," Pipes wrote as co-author of a New York Post column, "[Khalidi] admonished the media to drop its 'hysteria about suicide bombers.'" What Khalidi actually said was, "Israel has killed three times as many innocent civilians as have Palestinians, for all the media hysteria about suicide bombers." Note how, by parsing the quote, Pipes made Khalidi seem not only like an apologist for suicide bombers, whom he has repeatedly condemned, but a man callously indifferent to the victims of 9/11.
"One of the things Pipes means when he accuses scholars of supporting terrorism is that we object to his characterization of all Palestinians as terrorists," says Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan who landed on Campus Watch's hit list. "Pipes goes on television and says the Palestinians have completely rejected Israel's right to exist, even though polling data show that a majority on both sides would trade land for peace. Pipes knows this--he's very well informed--but he ignores it because it's propaganda, and he's a good propagandist."
There are, to be sure, rigidly anti-Zionist scholars out there, just as there are fervently pro-Israeli ones. But few specialists who study the Arab-Israeli conflict see the matter as one-sidedly as Pipes does. During our interview, I asked whether Israel bore any responsibility for the current situation in the occupied territories. "Sure, it exists," he said. What of the settlements, which have expanded so massively in recent years? "Not terribly significant." Had he been to the occupied territories recently? Pipes paused.
"Not of late, no."
"Not a friendly place, no."
By the mid-1980s, Pipes had settled in Philadelphia and assumed the directorship of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank out of which the Middle East Forum would eventually emerge. While there, he served as editor of the think tank's journal, Orbis, which in 1988 published "The Baghdad Alternative." The article, by Laurie Mylroie, advocated bolstering US ties to Saddam Hussein. There is little doubt Pipes agreed with her thesis; a year earlier, he co-wrote an article with Mylroie in The New Republic, "Back Iraq," that also argued for a US alliance with Saddam--the man whom George H.W. Bush would soon be likening to Hitler--as a counter to Iran.
You might think this memory would discourage Pipes from accusing others of failing to recognize Saddam's atrocities. You would be wrong. Amazingly, Pipes and his followers do just that. Academics who opposed the recent war in Iraq "don't look at the repression of Saddam Hussein's Iraq," Pipes stated in a speech last November. Actually, while Pipes was airing arguments in his journal for stronger military ties to Iraq--at a time when Saddam was gassing his own people--scholars were producing books like Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship, a 1988 study whose authors expressed "revulsion and horror" at the "barbaric activities" of the dictatorship.
Iraq was not, in fact, one of Pipes's primary concerns during the 1990s. His preoccupations lay closer to home. This was a period when conservatives were searching about for a cause as galvanizing as the cold war had been--and when more and more Muslim immigrants began settling in the West. Might this represent the next great threat? In 1990 Pipes wrote a cover story for National Review, "The Muslims Are Coming! The Muslims Are Coming!" in which he argued against the alarmist view. Even so, he did foresee certain problems. "Fears of a Muslim influx have more substance than the worry about jihad," Pipes wrote. "West European societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and not exactly maintaining Germanic standards of hygiene."
As the 1990s wore on, Pipes seemed increasingly obsessed with the growing threat that Muslim immigrants posed, a peril he portrayed in lurid terms. "Muslims who hate America, and especially Jews therein, are growing in numbers and reach, enjoying the protections afforded by the rule of law and the indulgence of a benevolent, pluralist society," he wrote in a 1999 article in the Forward. "The real and present danger [to Jews] is by no means the pro-Israel Christian Coalition but the rabidly anti-Semitic Muslim Arab Youth Association."
The attacks of September 11 proved one thing: Militant Islam was indeed a threat. But did it confirm Pipes's broader views on terrorism and Islam? Pipes's backers certainly thought so. According to Jerry Sorkin, who for years served on the board of the Middle East Forum, donations poured in to the organization almost immediately after the Twin Towers were struck, not least because its founder could suddenly be spotted everywhere: Crossfire, Nightline, Hardball. During this same period, Sorkin says, the diversity that had once characterized the Middle East Forum's board vanished. "I sat at one board meeting and thought to myself, am I at a ZOA [Zionist Organization of America] meeting?" says Sorkin, whose views on the Arab-Israeli conflict are moderate. Sorkin told me he respects Pipes and always felt welcome at the Middle East Forum. Eventually, however, he decided to move on, and says he was not alone.
In the changed atmosphere, Pipes was able to find a home for a book on Muslim-Americans that he claims had been "unpublishable" beforehand. Militant Islam Reaches America, published in 2002, warns that the Muslim-American population harbors "a substantial body" of people who "sympathize with the goals of the suicide hijackers," people who "despise the United States and ultimately wish to transform it into a Muslim country." More recently, Jim Lobe of the Inter-Press Service obtained the draft of a grant proposal in which Pipes proposed launching an "Islamic Progress Institute," which "can articulate a moderate, modern and pro-American viewpoint" on behalf of Muslims. In other words, the man who has complained that Muslims are abusing America's tolerance and failing to watch their hygienic standards now proposes to be their spokesman.
Muslim fundamentalists are "Nazis," "potential killers" who represent "true dangers" to Jews, Christians, women and gays, he argues. But on the subject of Jewish and Christian fundamentalists, he is far milder. When I asked him whether people like Jerry Falwell, who called 9/11 "God's judgment" on gays, civil libertarians and feminists, were really so different in their attitude toward modernity, he seemed aghast at the very comparison. "I see no signs of that," he said, insisting that Falwell "lives within the framework of a democratic polity and does not believe he has a truth that he and his colleagues hold which he can impose on the rest of us."
Shortly before Pipes launched Campus Watch, Martin Kramer's Ivory Towers on Sand appeared. The academic establishment, argued Kramer in his more scholarly version of the argument Pipes would soon popularize, had been asleep throughout the 1980s and '90s, producing not a single "serious" study on Osama bin Laden while lavishing attention on so-called Muslim moderates.
There is some truth to this. Books like John Esposito's The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, published in 1992, advanced the then-fashionable view that the danger of Islamic terrorism was overblown. "I think a lot of us were slow to appreciate the real depth of radicalism on the Islamic fringe," acknowledges William Quandt, a professor at the University of Virginia and former fellow at the Brookings Institution. Quandt, however, notes that many academics also produced informative, first-rate studies of Islamic politics that Pipes and Kramer ignore. "Is all the contemporary scholarship first-rate? Of course not, but an awful lot of it is pretty darn good."
Dan Brumberg, a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agrees. "I think Dan is right that there was a tendency to read mainstream Islamism as benign and underplay its racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic currents. But this is a very small part of Middle Eastern studies. Over the past ten years there's been a huge literature on autocracy in the region, and none of it glosses over the problems."
It's also worth asking whether the chief danger in America rests in the excessive influence wielded by dissenting Middle Eastern specialists, several of whom received hate mail and death threats after being attacked by Pipes. (Others, including Ian Lustick at Penn, told me they've learned that students were taking their class in order to serve as spies for Campus Watch.) After all, the specialists who accepted and propagated the dubious claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction mostly resided at think tanks, not universities. Indeed, many of the "America- hating" professors singled out by Campus Watch warned that attacking a country with no proven ties to Al Qaeda might undermine US security by fueling enmity throughout the Muslim world.
Pipes himself voiced no such concerns, arguing instead that the United States "cannot pass up a unique chance to remake the world's most politically fevered regime." In this he echoed Fouad Ajami, whose work Pipes cites approvingly and who is on the list of "Recommended Professors" on Campus Watch's website. That Ajami's predictions about the Iraq war--that US soldiers would be warmly welcomed, that America didn't need help from allies, that democracy would blossom afterward--have been proved wrong has not dislodged his name from the list.
Shortly after Baghdad fell, Pipes himself did voice second thoughts, characterized by the same patronizing attitude that has marked much of his work on Arab societies. Iraq needed a "democratically-minded Iraqi strongman," he'd decided by April of 2003, since its people "mentally live in a world of conspiracy theories" and were not quite ready for Western-style self-rule. Pipes conceded to me that there was an element of "wishful thinking" among supporters of the war, "including in myself." He might have been more sober-minded had he listened to some of the arguments being made by members of the profession he once, a long time ago, aspired to join.
Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer