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Reply to Rebecca and Yuval

Reader comment on item: Teach Arabic or Recruit Extremists?
in response to reader comment: language is the key

Submitted by Abu Nuwas (United States), Sep 13, 2007 at 00:14

To: Rebecca and Yuval

Here are some more random thoughts on Arabic, written hurriedly, unfortunately, but, I hope, with some sequence and coherence to them.

Arabic has been taught in the USA since at least 1841, when Yale established the first formal academic program in Near Eastern languages. That's 166 years (!) that instruction in this language has been available. In Europe, instruction in Arabic goes back to early medieval times.

Contemporary Near Eastern programs at US universities have routinely been bashed for not foreseeing the calamitous events leading up to 9/11 and beyond and warning the powers that be about them. (As in everything else, there were, of course, some exceptions).

But what is forgotten is that these programs were never set up to be learning centers of the modern Middle East. They were set up to study and research the pre-Islamic and Islamic medieval periods (up to, more or less, the fall of the Ottomans), pretty much like programs in Greek Studies are set up to study ancient Hellas, not contemporary Greece.

Oh, you could (and can) study such subjects as contemporary Arabic literature and if you insisted, someone could be found to teach you Colloquial Egyptian Arabic. But the real heart and soul of these programs was medieval in nature.

In effect, if you got a PhD in Near Eastern Languages you were first and foremost a medievalist, not an expert in Islamic terrorism. (You'd be surprised how many illustrious Arabists of previous generations never once set foot on an Arabic speaking country…Bernard Lewis, for one).

Even today, such an august institution as Harvard College (I mean Harvard University) plainly states at its NEL website http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~nelc/arab_islam.html that it "prides" itself on its "strength in the classical medieval period." (It goes on to say that it does "offer one modern field…", but the sense one gets is that this is more of an afterthought, not really what the program is interested in.)

Why should this be so? Why is the emphasis on the past and not the present, unlike language departments in, for example, Spanish, French, German, Russian and so on?

There is an answer, but I don't know if I can easily make myself understood in the telling. It is also a startling answer and will be outrightly dismissed by many.

But it goes right to the heart of the matter in explaining why "9/11", past, present and future happened and what it means. But you'll have to do a lot of reading between the lines to get what I mean.

The fact of the matter is that Islamic Civilization IS a past civilization. That is to say, there is no such thing. There was ONCE an Islamic Civilization but it has been dead for hundreds of years. What you have today is a non-productive, destructive and completely useless remnant of what was once a remarkable presence on the planet. But those days are long gone.

You might say there's a contemporary "Islamic culture", but that's about the highest stature you can give it. (Note that all Islamists of whatever stripe harken back to the past. None of them has a program for the future other than to return to the past…..one wonders why.)

Western scholars in this field have long recognized this, though few have put it the way I have and in today's climate, none would dare.. The point is, contemporary Islamic "civilization" is not worth studying…..there is nothing there!!

"9/11" in other words, was the last gasp of a dying and decayed civilization. That's what makes Islamism so dangerous. A cornered rat is at its most vicious when it knows the jig is up.

As far as the Urdu/Arabic question: I look at Urdu like I look at German. If you're going to be, say, a specialist in central European affairs, it would be a waste of your time to study Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Latvian and so on, unless you have an uncanny ability to learn languages.

Instead, become fluent in German because the elite in these countries all speak Hoch Deutsch. (So do the Dutch, but for different reasons).

Urdu has a similar position. It is the lingua franca of the great Hindustan culture that extends way beyond the borders of either India or Pakistan (I did not mean to imply that Pakistan is the crucial country, as Rebecca assumed I did. The language is, not the country).

In the Persian Gulf, for example, the most useful language to know after English is Urdu, not Arabic.

This is especially true if you actually reside there since all the hotels, taxis, shops, ticket offices, schools, etc are manned by Urdu speaking ex-patriots….by the millions. (Phone any US Embassy in the Gulf region and you'll be answered – in English (sorta) - by a native Urdu speaker).

If an important part of the "War on Terrorism" is winning the hearts and minds of the disenfranchised in South Asia, they can be more easily reached via Urdu than Arabic. (I personally don't think we are going to win anybody's heart and mind. That doesn't mean we're going to lose them either. It's a non-issue for reasons I can't go into here).

Yes, if you're going to be working for any of our intelligence services, knowing Arabic would be essential. But that kind of work requires a knowledge of that language at almost the native level, something that would take at least a decade of the most intense study to achieve. In any case, few people beyond the age of 12 or so are able to absorb a new and totally different language to that degree. And it would take a particularly special individual to want to immerse himself to that degree into a totally alien culture. A native speaker of Arabic that knows English is a much more practical solution if only because such an individual is much more easily found.

Learning Arabic poses a particularly thorny problem in that to really know it, you'll have to learn to what amounts to two languages…..the formal written (sometimes called "classical") language and at least one dialect which is used by people for daily communication. They are quite different.

I would be amazed if Arabic were NOT taught in Israeli schools. For Israel, this is an existential issue of the highest magnitude. In fact, it should be a required subject there.

Adios.

--Abu Nuwas--

Submitting....

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