Scholars slam underfunding

September 21, 2001

Middle Eastern studies in Britain have been seriously underfunded and have suffered from ignorance and hostility, academics said this week.

Gerd Nonneman, executive director of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, said: "These areas are of national importance, as the events in America have highlighted. We now face a situation where there is not a single person in the country teaching Pashto or other Afghan languages."

Dr Nonneman said: "There has been a lack of strategic vision and this has contributed to the funding problems. Because these subjects have been on the margins they have been the first to be cut as universities themselves have faced funding cuts."

Arabic, Middle Eastern and Islamic studies are increasingly funded from overseas. The School of Oriental and African Studies launched the Middle East Institute in London this summer, with a donation of £1,250,000 from Sheikh Mohammed bin Issa from Saudi Arabia.

Charles Tripp, reader in Middle East politics at Soas, said: "The aim is to use the institute to safeguard Middle Eastern studies and eventually raise £20 million for a building and new posts."

Dr Nonneman said: "Funders do ask why the UK government is ignoring these areas."

The Society for Middle Eastern Studies is concerned at the funding priorities of the Economic and Social Research Council, which are seen as domestic and Euro-centric. The society's analysis of the number of grants to out-of-Europe research proposals puts the Middle East at the bottom.

The ESRC declined to comment on the criticisms, but a spokesperson said:

"We do give additional funding for the learning of languages."

Academics believe their work is viewed with suspicion. Beverley Milton-Edwards, a reader in politics at Queen's University, Belfast, and an expert on Islamic terrorism, said: "I was interviewed for three hours by the FBI in Washington about my research on the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad. I was also accused of being a sympathiser by an American journalist. This led to serious consequences for my personal safety."

Dr Milton-Edwards said: "The support of my university has been invaluable. There is acute awareness in Northern Ireland that conflict needs to be resolved through dialogue and understanding."

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