Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board
|Article about the Need for more courses in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies|
|09/24/01 at 22:50:14|
|Why Americans can't find Islam on the map|
Few colleges offer comprehensive courses in Arabic or Middle Eastern
studies, and even fewer students seem to care.
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By Eric Boehlert
Sept. 21, 2001
Once again Americans are scrambling to make sense of the Middle East and
It's a drill the country has seen before: during the Iranian hostage crisis,
after the Marine barracks were suicide-bombed in Lebanon, and during the
Gulf War. Who are the major players? What is the motivation? Where does the
hostility to all things Western come from?
Now, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon, the alarm is being sounded again, only louder.
"It seems that only at crisis moments do people draw attention to these
issues," says Anne Betteridge, executive director of the Middle Eastern
Studies Association at the University of Arizona.
"Most people have a detailed ignorance of the Middle East," adds Charles
Kimball, chairman of the department of religion at Wake Forest University,
and an Islamic scholar. "They have all these images and details in their
head but little coherence or understanding."
Kimball says his phone has been ringing constantly for the last week, with
calls coming from community groups, businesses and journalists who are all
suddenly trying to understand the ramifications of Islam, its culture and
its politics. "That's been the most telling side of this, people's
recognition that they just don't know very much."
Telling, because even though the Middle East remains central to issues of
trade, security and diplomacy in the United States, most Americans remain
unfamiliar with the region.
That fact is reflected on college campuses across the country. Middle
Eastern and Islamic Studies programs, while growing slightly in number
recently, remain boutique majors at best.
The area of study faces a unique set of hurdles, including the negative
perception of Islam among the mainstream population, limited exposure to the
topic in high school classrooms, a reluctance among women to study a culture
they're told gives them second class citizenship, an extremely difficult
language to learn in Arabic, and the need to travel to a volatile parts of
"Middle Eastern Studies is not one of your more popular disciplines," admits
Christopher Rose, director of outreach for the University of Texas' Center
for Middle Eastern Studies.
According to the Middle Eastern Studies Association, only between 50 and 70
colleges and universities offer degrees in the fields of Middle Eastern or
Islamic studies. Some schools remain wary of the topic. Betteridge recalls a
phone conversation with a college dean just a few years ago. His school had
authorized an Islamic studies position but the dean, unsure the field
represented a legitimate scholarly enterprise, was afraid whoever he hired
would politicize the program. "When politics and religion intersect, that's
when administrators get a little worried," she says.
And those schools that do offer related disciplines, do it on a relatively
small scale. At the University of Texas in Austin, on a campus of 50,000
students, just 100 undergraduates are majoring in the school's renowned
Middle Eastern studies program.
The small pool of students studying the Middle East has a practical effect,
a fact evident on Monday when the FBI put out its unusual public call for
Arabic translators. Willing to pay nearly $40 an hour for their services on
a contract basis, the FBI, according to its Web site, "has a critical need
for additional linguists with a proficiency in English and ... Arabic."
Arabic speakers are needed to help sift through the growing pile of evidence
the agency has collected in connection with the attacks, such as a flight
manual written in Arabic and found inside an automobile rented by one of the
terrorists. The U.S. Army Reserve issued a similar call among its enlisted
men and women.
The FBI says it has been flooded with calls, mostly from Arab-Americans
willing to help. But the fact the United States government had to go
soliciting "is a little embarrassing," says Jerry Lampe, senior associate at
the National Foreign Language Center in Washington. "It says we're not as
prepared as we should be, and that's not a good thing to broadcast to your
enemies." Each year the U.S. government, with input from the Defense
Department, compiles a list of what it designates "critical languages," ones
in which fluent speakers are most needed for full-time government posts.
Arabic has topped that list for the last several years. But with so few
American students studying the language, there seems to be little help in
The statistics are startling. According to Lampe, just 25 American colleges
and universities offer comprehensive Arabic language courses. (Many more
offer courses, but not enough for students to become professionally
proficient.) And there are almost no high school Arabic programs in the
A recent survey of American college students nationwide indicated the number
studying Arabic today could fit on a small campus: just 5,500. That's up
from 4,500 just five years ago. But the number remains minuscule compared to
other languages being studied on American campuses; Lampe estimates 100,000
students study Russian each year, for example.
Meanwhile, according to his estimates, the number of students who actually
become proficient in Arabic each year could fit into a college dormitory:
300 to 400. "The picture is pretty dire," says Lampe.
At the University of Massachusetts, senior Arabic lecturer Mohammed Jiyad
reports freshmen enrollment for his first-year classes often include between
35 and 40 students. But by the time they reach their third year of Arabic,
just two or three dedicated students remain.
That in turn encourages college administrators to cut back on resources,
says Betteridge. "When they see so few bodies in the classroom they decide
it's not cost effective." Also, experts say the number of tenured Arabic
professors nationwide could probably be counted on one hand.
Why do so few students master the language? "Arabic is among the most
difficult languages to learn," says Jiyad. "Linguistically, Arabic, Japanese
and Chinese require twice the amount of time, maybe even three times the
time, to learn it compared to a European language. It requires total
For new students, particularly those with no Arab heritage, the language
presents a maddening tangle of possessives, complicated grammar, brand new
sounds, and is written from right to left in an utterly foreign alphabet.
And when it comes to trying to achieve true fluency, the language "is almost
impenetrable for outsiders," says Wake Forest's Kimball. (That's one reason
the Quran translates so poorly into English.)
"It's a bear," agrees Lampe, who has taught the language for 32 years and
says students need at least six hours of Arabic classroom time each week.
"And there's not just one form. There's classic Arabic, modern standard
Arabic, and all the dialects that are spoken on the streets."
To master those common-day dialects, and to experience the culture up close,
students are urged to go and study in the Middle East. Which leads to
another major barrier; travel, and the fear some students have of touring
the Middle East, even during relatively peaceful times.
"It can be daunting," says Betteridge.
The University of Texas' Center for Middle Eastern Studies is currently
recruiting students to study abroad in Cairo and Turkey for next year. "Time
will tell if anyone's interested in signing up," says Rose. "But if our
insurance companies say no, that it's not safe, then we can't send
At U-Mass., Jiyad says he runs into resistance on his own campus: "I try to
urge students to go to the Middle East and another professor's telling them
not to go to Egypt, that they'd have to be crazy to go."
Will current events spark new interest in Middle Eastern studies? Or, as
happened during the Gulf War, will students actually shy away from exploring
that sensitive part of the world? "Honestly," says Rose, "it's too early to
tell. A lot of it depends on our military's response."
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