The Arabist and Islamist Baggage of Arabic Language Instruction
by Daniel Pipes
I announced today my opposition to the Khalil Gibran International Academy, an Arabic-language focused New York City public school. This entry explains why I do so.
For one powerful first-hand example of this problem at the collegiate level, see "Middlebury's Arabic Morass"" by Franck Salameh. He explains:
For another specific case, see Shukri B. Abed, Focus on Contemporary Arabic: Conversations with Native Speakers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007); YUP conveniently has posted the table of contents (if backwards), where one chapter deals with "The Question of Palestine." The chapter contains eleven readings. To give an example of their flavor, the fifth of them states that the "Palestinian problem" is at base an issue of justice in which the Palestinians are the victims of a double standard.
For the heavy Islamic freight that Arabic instruction carries, see "Does Learning Arabic Prevent Moral Decay?" where one learns that some Muslims believe "Knowledge of Arabic can then help the Western countries recover from the present moral decay." (This is not as surprising as it sounds, for Muslims commonly assume that a non-Muslim who learns Arabic is en route to conversion to Islam; I experienced this many times during my Cairo years.)
Evidence from Algeria also points to the impact of Arabic instruction, as documented in James Coffman's breakthrough 1995 article "Does the Arabic Language Encourage Radical Islam? He compared Algerian students taught in French versus those taught in Arabic and found that
Coffman also found a similar trend in other Arabic-speaking countries:
(March 7, 2007)
Jan. 8, 2008 update: A reader, Alex, writes in a comment on this website that he is using a first-year Arabic textbook by Mahdi Alosh, associate professor of Arabic at The Ohio State University, Ahlan wa Sahlan: Functional Modern Standard Arabic for Beginners (Yale University Press, 2000), and that it mentions Bilad al-Sham repeatedly, but never Israel.
July 5, 2008 update: "Learning Arabic should not include lessons in political propaganda." So writes Joel B. Pollak, a student at Harvard Law School, in the Washington Post, criticizing his Arabic language class at Harvard this past academic year. The basic problem concerns the textbook. Titled Al-Kitaab fii Tacallum al-cArabiyya, by Kristen Brustad, Mahmoud Al-Batal, and Abbas Al-Tonsi. Published by Georgetown University Press, it received financial assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Pollak calls it "suffused with the stale prejudices and preoccupations of the pre-Sept. 11 Middle East" and gives details:
Non-textbook instruction at Harvard also has a pan-Arabist tenor. For example, his class watched three movies this past semester, all with political themes. Two of them bear noting:
Pollack concludes: "Most introductory language classes avoid controversial political subjects. In fact, they often highlight the brighter side of different cultures. Particularly with the growing importance of Arabic, can't we do better?" He rightly suggests a need to look "into the content of the federally funded materials used in Arabic programs at our own universities."
Aug. 11, 2008 update: The Washington Jewish Week has a follow-up piece on Pollak's account, "Plumbing the Pages: Arabic textbook stirs controversy," by Richard Greenberg.
Aug. 29, 2008 update: Emily McGinnis also takes a look at Al-Kitaab in the Georgetown University student paper, the Hoya. She reports in "Widely Used Arabic Textbook Called Anti-Western" that Ahmad Dallal, chair of the university's Arabic department, defends it. "I can't possibly imagine what anyone would object to in this book. It is not a book about politics, and from the perspective of language pedagogy — it is by far the best book in the field."
Gail Grella, associate director and acquisitions editor for languages and linguistics at the Georgetown University Press, adds that Al-Kitaab underwent extensive, formal evaluations at Georgetown and reviewed at various other universities before publication. She called Al-Kitaab a respectable text that is the most widely used textbook in the country. "By the sheer fact of how it's been embraced by the language teaching community, I think it's clear that it's a high quality textbook. Our authors are very careful not to politicize their books when writing. A very important part of language texts is culture, and there are elements of any culture that people will disagree with."
Apr. 28, 2009 update: The Mosque Foundation of Bridgeview, Illiinois, a leading Islamist organization, includes a message from Zaher Sahloul, its president, "Introducing Arabic Language to Public Schools." (Note the accompanying graphic.) Excerpts:
May 7, 2009 update: The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago argues in "The importance of Arabic" that Muslims believe if would be "a great benefit if their children get an opportunity to become conversant in Arabic through the public school system." The presentation gives various reasons for teaching Arabicin public schools and concludes with: "A basic knowledge of the Arabic language and culture can improve understanding and acceptance of Arab Americans and other Muslims."
May 18, 2009 update: Mastering Arabic 2 by Jane Wightwick and Mahmoud Gaafar (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), published today, contains a page about "Arabic in Jordan and Palestine" that not only pretends there are no Arabic-speakers in Israel (in fact, they number well over a million) but creates a polity called "Israel and Palestine" where simply "Israel" should exist. That's a fine dose of ideology with one's lughat ad-dad.
The book contains another map, this one of the Middle East. Students are asked to "Look at this map of the Middle East and then listen to the names of the countries." In Arabic, Wightwick and Gaafar then list "Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudia, Oman, and Yemen." Notice any country missing?
May 21, 2009 update: The CIOGC-sponsored "first annual Muslim ACTION! Day" took place today in the state capital, Springfield, Illinois, and included, as noted in the Apr., 28, 2009 entry above, lobbying to have Arabic taught in the public schools. One insight into the connection between Arabic instruction and Islam was signaled in the description of a "Leadership Breakfast with Legislators":
June 18, 2009 update: In an article at PipeLineNews.com on the CIOGC initiative, "Terror-Linked Bridgeview Mosque Behind Push For Arabic Language Instruction In Illinois' Public Schools," William Mayer and Beila Rabinowitz conclude that
Oct. 29, 2009 update: The title of an IslamOnline.net article makes my point for me: "Arabic Introduces Islam to Ukrainians." Shadi Shawer, the Arabic schools supervisor, explains: "Arabic, the language of the Qur'an, has become a window for many Ukrainians to know Islam. … The schools have become one of our tools to promote Islam and show its true image."
Apr. 26, 2010 update: Bassam K. Frangieh, professor of Arabic at Claremont McKenna, author of a forthcoming Arabic language instruction book (and translator of a book of Arabian love poems), also is a political extremist who lauds the "heroic operations" against Israel of Hizbullah, a designated terrorist organization, while calling for "American and European governments to halt their military and material maintenance of the Zionist killing machine."
Jan. 26, 2013 update: Flush with funds from its vast gas fields, the Qatari government has created the Qatar Foundation and its U.S. branch, Qatar Foundation International (QFI), one of whose missions is to spread the instruction of Arabic language via its "Anchor School Programs." Too clever to mention promotion of religious or political goals, QFI nonetheless freights the study of Arabic language as a way to do battle versus what it calls the "many deep misconceptions and barriers that lie between the United States and Arab peoples and cultures." Toward this end, its goal is "to introduce Arabic language and culture into mainstream education." To sweeten the deal, "QFI has facilitated visits to Qatari schools" for its students.
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