The MESA membership is set to vote on a proposal to remove the word “non-political” from the organization’s bylaws. We the undersigned believe it would be a mistake to do. We believe that change would carry significant symbolic and practical weight, that it would change public perception of the organization’s mission and reason for existence, and would decrease MESA’s effectiveness in many arenas.
The MESA website opens with a description of the organization as “a private, non-profit, non-political learned society that brings together scholars, educators and those interested in the study of the region from all over the world.” The mission statement continues by reiterating and elaborating the same definition, characterising MESA as “a non-political association that fosters the study of the Middle East, promotes high standards of scholarship and teaching, and encourages public understanding of the region and its peoples through programs, publications and services that enhance education, further intellectual exchange, recognize professional distinction, and defend academic freedom.”
In reporting on the MESA’s November 2016 annual meeting vote to put the resolution to remove the modifier “non-political” to the whole membership for a vote, Inside Higher Education quoted the argument that “the proposed bylaw change would bring the association’s governance documents into line with the day-to-day practices of MESA and its Committee on Academic Freedom.” The title of MESA’s committee of course echoes that of the American Association of University Professor’s (AAUP) influential and widely respected Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure founded in 1915. IHE continued by noting that MESA’s committee “regularly sends letters to foreign government officials protesting violations of students’ and scholars’ rights in countries across the Middle East. MESA’s board also periodically issues letters and statements, including, on Saturday, a statement reiterating its alarm at the ‘rise in the stereotyping and vilification of people of Middle East or Muslim background’ in the United States.”
Although the AAUP mostly limits its interventions to the US, it makes comparable statements and does so on the basis of principle, not politics. MESA’s concentration on the Middle East implicates deep passions and powerful political beliefs. Thus it has been challenging for MESA to preserve its non-political character, and some would argue MESA has already crossed the line into political advocacy. Nonetheless, the struggle to speak from a position of non-aligned principle has sustained MESA’s status and influence in the academy. That status is both special and distinctive, especially given the number of political advocacy groups already focused on the Middle East. To give up that status completely would reduce the impact MESA can have both within and outside the academy.
Becoming an expressly political organization could also affect MESA’s ability to seek academic grants supporting its activities. And it would reduce the value of a MESA credential for MESA members doing the same as individuals.
MESA’s bylaws require a 2/3rd approval from those voting to make this change. That may seem a high bar, but it means a 2/3rd majority of a small total vote would be enough to mandate this significant change in MESA’s identity. We urge MESA members to vote “No” in the best interest of a scholarly organization that also seeks an influence on public affairs.