Focus on Societies

Middle East Studies Association of North America

The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) brings together scholars, educators, and those interested in the study of the region from all over the world. MESA is primarily concerned with the area encompassing Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Israel, Pakistan, and the countries of the Arab world and North Africa from the seventh century to modern times. Other regions, including Spain, southeastern Europe, China, and the former Soviet Union, are also included for the periods in which their territories were parts of Middle Eastern empires or under the influence of Middle Eastern civilization.

MESA’s goals are to foster the study of the Middle East, promote high standards of scholarship and teaching, and encourage 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.

Special Project: Committee on Academic Freedom 

In September 1989, MESA launched a new initiative dedicated to monitoring the human rights of Middle East scholars, and by the spring of 1990 the Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) was in full swing. The committee defined its jurisdiction somewhat narrowly: it would address only the situations of professors and academic researchers at universities and research institutions or university-based religious institutes in the MESA region. Committee members—all volunteers—devote considerable time and energy to researching alleged violations of academic freedom and devising interventions. In 2007, a growing sentiment for devoting more attention to cases in North America resulted in dividing CAF into two wings: CAFMENA (Middle East/North Africa) and CAFNA (North America).

Academic freedom in the Middle East is increasingly endangered: in just the first two months of 2016, CAFMENA has sent 13 intervention letters; in all of 2015 it sent 18. In 2014, CAFNA sent 9. CAF members were also instrumental in the creation of MESA’s Academic Freedom Award in 2001. We have since bestowed 17 awards upon recipients from 9 different countries. Today, if you ask any member of MESA which among the association’s activities is the most important, their reply will be CAF.

Other  Programs

The Association of Middle East Women’s Studies (AMEWS) and approximately 35 other affiliated organizations regularly hold their meetings in conjunction with MESA. They bring disciplinary, regional, and temporal specialties that enrich the conference and the association as a whole. An annual film festival that shows recent documentaries is prized by annual meeting attendees. (This year’s will be the thirty-third). Attracting scholars, filmmakers, film buffs, and pedagogues, the film festival is also standard fare for the K-12 teachers who attend outreach workshops that are part of every annual meeting. These workshops grew from two major evaluations of K-12 textbooks sponsored by MESA in the early 1970s, which revealed that public school teaching materials concerning the Middle East were woefully deficient in factual content. Working with K-12 teachers is an integral part of MESA’s mission to enhance education.


The idea of an academic association devoted to the study of the Islamic and modern Middle East arose during the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the time, societies focusing on the region largely served scholars and philologists of the ancient world who had little interest in Islamic or modern literary, social, political, and cultural histories. But the fields of modern Middle Eastern studies were expanding quickly, stimulated by private foundation money (from, for instance, the Ford Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Council of Learned Societies) as well as federal funding for area studies through Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1958. New programs quickly sprang up beyond the Ivy League bastions of Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia.

With student and program numbers on the rise, key faculty focused on broadening and strengthening the edifice of knowledge about the Middle East through improving the level of library resources on the Middle East and developing more and better monographs, textbooks, and related teaching aids. This desire for high scholarly standards was a factor motivating the creation of an association. Area studies specialists, many isolated in disciplinary departments, also needed an association to provide external validation and systems of peer review for promotion and tenure assessment. Another catalyst for creating an association—the convivial nature of academics— is particularly pronounced among the Middle East studies crowd, which prizes hospitality, generosity, and talk, in addition to a shared sense of purpose. Thus, needs on all levels gave rise to MESA, and with the association came scholarly journals, an annual meeting, a host of resources facilitating best practices in language pedagogy and learning, and a vital clearinghouse for scholarship and research innovation. MESA is responsible for the International Journal of Middle East Studies, the premier journal on the region, the MESA Review of Middle East Studies, and a biannual newsletter. An awards program recognizes scholarly achievement, service to the profession, and exemplary student mentoring.

One of the first activities of the new association, in line with its priority to foster new and better scholarly and teaching materials, was the commission (with Ford Foundation support) of a comprehensive study on the state of the art of Middle East Studies. Discussions and research toward this effort began in 1970, were followed by a special conference in 1973, and resulted in the Study of the Middle East, written by MESA’s research and training committee and published in 1976. It provided a baseline on the state of knowledge in key fields and a point of contrast with the subsequent growth of new fields, the evolution of theoretical trends, and the transformation of areas of interest. It also reveals a nearly total absence of women and gender as subjects of research. Almost immediately after its conference, however, those fields mushroomed, and women’s and gender studies is now one of the largest and most active areas within MESA.

About MESA

The Middle East Studies Association of North America was founded in 1966 with 50 members and admitted to the American Council of Learned Societies in 1988. Now, in 2015, we have a membership base of 2,800 individual members, 60 institutional members and 39 affiliated organizations.  Our principal publication, the International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES), is published by Cambridge University Press under the auspices of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. The society is headquartered at the University of Arizona.

For more information on the Middle East Studies Association of North America, visit

Excerpted from Learned Societies Beyond the Numbers: 2015.