[The latest installation of a Monday series profiling Group of 88 members, which has included posts on Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Wahneema Lubiano, Pete Sigal, Grant Farred, Sally Deutsch, Joseph Harris, Paula McClain, Jocelyn Olcott, Irene Silverblatt, Maurice Wallace, and Kathy Rudy. The posts examine the scholarship and teaching of Group members, delving into the mindset of professors who last spring abandoned both the tenets of Duke’s Faculty Handbook and the academy’s traditional fidelity to due process. An item to keep in mind: in higher education, professors control the hiring process. The people profiled in this series will craft future job descriptions for Duke professors; and then, for positions assigned to their departments, select new hires.]
Group of 88 member miriam cooke (she capitalizes neither her first nor her last name) is a professor of Arabic in the African & Asian Languages & Literature Department, in which she has served two terms as chairperson. She received her Ph.D. from Oxford in 1980.
cooke’s research focuses on gender in the Middle East. She has published widely, with books that include War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War; Women and the War Story; and Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism through Literature.
Several themes permeate cooke’s scholarship:
1.) The legacy of sexism, not her subjects’ insignificance, explains the lack of attention devoted to the female activists who have interested cooke.
Her 1988 book on women writers in the Lebanese civil war theorized,
As the war dragged on, the middle and upper class Beiruti women found themselves increasingly alone, and they began to write about their experiences as women, and to recognize through articulation their previous oppression and marginalization. As negative awareness of otherness crystallized, the selfness of the “center” came into question. Intensified, this questioning became the first step in the deconstruction of a dominant discourse. The Beirut Decentrists came to realize that discourse, the conduit of power, could also become the locus of its ultimate threat.
In writing about these marginal but ideologically appealing figures, cooke claimed that she challenged “the notion that only men write about war. [This revelation doubtless would surprise Barbara Tuchman.] Although of differing political and religious beliefs, it is these Decentrists—women bound by common exclusion from both the literary canon and social discourse—whose vision will rebuild shattered Lebanon.”
As anyone who has followed contemporary events in Lebanon would understand, the women of cooke’s study appear to have exercised little, if any, influence in “rebuild[ing] shattered Lebanon.” Perhaps the world would be a better place if cooke’s Decentrists had influence over Lebanon’s civic culture. But basing arguments on what an author wished had happened does not constitute good scholarship.
2.) Islam is a female-friendly religion; to the extent that Muslim males have engaged in sexist behavior, Europe, the United States, or Israel are to blame.
cooke has stated that she wants to highlight “what some Muslim women have named Islamic feminism. Over the world there are Muslim women who are going back to the Koran, to Islamic law, to the Sunna of the Prophet, and saying, ‘We have a religion whose texts can be read in a very woman-friendly way. The problem is, that for centuries men’s interpretations focused on pushing women out of public space. Today Muslim women are themselves interpreting these Islamic texts. They claim the right to do so because every Muslim has the right to interpret the foundational texts since there is no priesthood in Islam, there are no intermediaries between God and the individual.’”
cooke has gone to great lengths to rationalize behavior in some Middle Eastern societies that most people would consider anti-feminist. She told City Journal’s Kay Hymowitz that “polygamy can be liberating and empowering. Our norm is the Western, heterosexual, single couple. If we can imagine different forms that would allow us to be something other than a heterosexual couple, we might imagine polygamy working.”
As Hymowitz further noted,
Some women, [cooke] continued, are relieved when their husbands take a new wife: they won’t have to service him so often. Or they might find they now have the freedom to take a lover. But, I ask, wouldn’t that be dangerous in places where adulteresses can be stoned to death? At any rate, how common is that? “I don’t know,” cooke answers, “I’m interested in discourse.” The irony couldn’t be darker: the very people protesting the imperialist exploitation of the “Other” endorse that Other’s repressive customs as a means of promoting their own uniquely Western agenda—subverting the heterosexual patriarchy.
Even cooke doesn’t claim, however, that Middle Eastern societies always have good records in their treatment of women. But this development, she contended, is the fault of the West. “The colonial experience,” wrote the Group of 88 member, “complicated relations between men and women, so that it is only in the desert beyond the reach of the colonial arm that fear does not predominate and Islam can operate as it was originally intended for the benefit of women.”
In a winter 2003 interview, cooke asserted, “When men are traumatized [by colonial rule], they tend to traumatize their own women . . . Now there,” she added, “is a return of colonialism that we saw in the nineteenth century in the context of globalization. What is driving Islamist men is globalization.” How her thesis would describe the experience of India—the “jewel of the crown” in the imperialist era but a major beneficiary of globalization—cooke didn’t reveal.
cooke’s tendency to exclusively blame the West (and Israel) for the problems of the Middle East accounted for her unusual interpretation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—which she traced back “to the establishment of Israel in 1948.” Indeed, her celebration of the “agency” of Muslim women has come close to rationalizing the acts of Palestinian women who engaged in suicide-murder attacks against Israel. After one such murder, she remarked, “For those of us who really are concerned with women’s role in the Arab public square, in the way in which women have been trying to empower themselves vis-à-vis the U.S., vis-à-vis old colonial powers, vis-à-vis their own men, the situation has become so desperate that now women’s participation in war is a mark of absolute hopelessness.”
Turning her attention to the United States, cooke argued with the 9-11 attacks, “American citizens felt for the first time how the apparently innocent business of moneymaking in New York City and of policymaking in Washington DC are seen as criminal elsewhere. The daily deals struck in the financial and military-political capitals of the U.S. have direct and mostly negative consequences for most of the rest of the world. These consequences are invisible to Joe-6-pack, they are searingly obvious elsewhere.”
Imagine cooke’s (appropriate) outrage if one of her scholarly critics had used a phrase like “Jane-3-pradas” as part of a claim that educated women are clueless.
3.) Disagreeing with cooke threatens the principles of the academy.
A few years ago, a significant debate occurred over reauthorizing Title VI, a government program that funds area studies (Middle East, Africa, Latin America, East Asia). The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has a well-deserved reputation for ideological one-sidedness; many in Congress argued that the government needed improved oversight to ensure that federal dollars went to increase knowledge about other regions, rather than simply funding the latest academic fads. In cooke’s mind, this proposal was not only unacceptable but a grave threat to academic freedom: Middle East Studies professors—apparently alone among recipients of government funds—should be free from oversight on how they spend the public’s money. As she wrote,
What is at stake here is academic freedom and the contradictory claim that it must be protected by surveillance, control and ignorance. When the nation is in extreme distress, educational institutions must devote themselves to the national project. There is an historical precedent for this rhetorical linking of academic freedom and its suspension as though they were the same thing. In her brilliant account of the roles of various institutions and individuals in shaping the Nazi conscience, [fellow Group of 88 member] Claudia Koonz has revealed how dangerous was the tailoring of education for specifically national purposes.
To compare legislative oversight of a government-funded program in which universities voluntarily participate to the Nazis’ education program is a breathtaking assertion.
cooke likewise has lashed out against Campus Watch, an organization concerned about the anti-Israel bias that too often permeates Middle East Studies classes. The group has a website that does nothing more than publicize the writings and remarks of Middle East Studies professors. To cooke, however, “Campus Watch is the Trojan horse whose warriors are already changing the rules of the game not only in Middle East Studies but also in the US University as a whole. They threaten to undermine the very foundations of American education.”
Apparently Justice Brandeis’ dictum—“sunlight is the best disinfectant”—has no place in miriam cooke’s academy.
In a comment thread a few days ago, several Group sympathizers implied that only specialists in the relevant field could even describe the academic work of Group members. cooke has taken this approach one step further, implying that only specialists in the relevant field who agree with the Group’s approach can review Group members’ work. In 1990, the International Journal of Middle East Studies reviewed cooke’s study of Lebanese women writers as well as her translation of stories by Egyptian writer Yahya Haqqi. Magda Nowaihi observed that cooke had made “numerous mistakes in translation, as well as deletions that detract from the meaning of the original text.” The reviewer offered two full paragraphs of examples of cooke’s incorrect translations. She added that while cooke’s deletions were deliberate, they too frequently distorted the meaning of Haqqi’s text.
Sabah Ghandour, meanwhile, noted that the Group of 88 member’s study of Lebanese women writers “definitely expands our information about literature written by and for women,” but lamented that “cooke seems to be ideologically motivated when analyzing the work of some important literary figures.”
Ghandour laid out how cooke treated males and females differently throughout the book. Males were “writers,” women were “authors”; men’s writings were “nationalistic,” while women’s were “patriotic”; and cooke equated the “perspective of the narrator/character with that of the author when discussing literature by male writers . . . while she distinguishes quite clearly between author in narrator in women’s writings.” In the end, it appeared that cooke was so intent on using gender as a “rigid theoretical framework” that she threatened to drown “out other crucial variables in the literature written on the Lebanese civil war.”
The reviews strongly displeased cooke. She claimed that Nowaihi viewed translation as a “pedestrian operation” that required word-for-word recapitulation. (Nowaihi had said nothing of the sort.) The reviewer, claimed cooke, failed to understand that, as Derrida, one of her intellectual mentors, contended, “translation is Umdichtung (poetic transposition).” Meanwhile, after noting that “it would be otiose to repeat the argument of War’s Other Voices,” cooke nonetheless did so, rather than responding to the specific criticisms that Ghandour made. Both reviewers, cooke claimed, were motivated by “outrage” at her “philological choices and theoretical decisions,” with the reviewers attempting to silence her voice in academic debate.
cooke’s response was so over-the-top that the journal took the unusual step of giving both Ghandour and Haiwairi an opportunity to reply. Ghandour lamented that since cooke apparently could not accept “a reading of the text that differs from [her] own,” she instead resorted to personal attacks. Nowaihi likewise regretted cooke’s eagerness to claim that ideological bias explained the reviewer’s motive, noting “the vast majority of my differences with her go well beyond differing theoretical approaches.” Nowaihi added that good-faith disagreement among academic specialists did not constitute a “refusal to acknowledge” cooke’s views.
Responding to criticism by instead lashing out at the critics, suggesting an attempt to silence dissenting voices in the academy . . . Where have we recently seen that strategy by cooke and her colleagues in the Group of 88?
cooke already had a reputation as a professorial protester before she joined the Group of 88. She’s one of the two dozen professors who form DukeDivest, an organization demanding that Duke divest from all companies with military ties to Israel, citing allegations of human rights abuses. (The divestors did not call for Duke to divest from companies with military ties to any other nation, including those with acknowledged human rights abuses in the Arab world; Israel, in their mind, deserved unique treatment.) She also was one of the more than three dozen Duke professors who signed onto a 2003 Chronicle ad denouncing George Bush’s foreign policy—an ad that violated Duke rules, since it was paid for by department funds.
It’s not hard to imagine someone with such a profile signing onto the Group of 88 statement. cooke, indeed, appears to affiliate with just about every politically correct initiative that comes along. In late March, even before AG Roy Cooper had declared the three players innocent, she had moved on to her latest cause, joining with members of a group called “Fight Imperialism Stand Together,” holding a sign reading, “No More Persecution.” Their agenda? Rallying on behalf of Sami al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor who pled guilty to conspiring to aid Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization. A few weeks later, the group called for a march on Durham to protest Cooper’s exoneration of the three players.
In spring 2007, cooke taught “Arabic Culture & 9/11”; this fall, she’s offering “Topics in Arabic.”
[Update, 6.30pm: Debrah uncovered this video of cooke with her husband, Duke professor Bruce Lawrence.]