Study of Arabic in the US
Harry Levins of the St. Louis Post Dispatch has an interesting article on the lack of Arabic speakers in the US. He says that a little over 10,000 students are now studying Arabic. That is a big increase from the 1980s, when it was about 2500, or from the early 1990s, when it was about 4500. It compares poorly to 30,000 studying China, and 400,000 studying Spanish.
The subtext of the article is, of course, US security needs. At one point he quotes someone named Carafano at the so-called American Heritage Foundation suggesting that universities aren’t “defense-friendly” and that therefore their students “won’t be security-minded.” What a load of hogwash. First of all, universities are much more interested in the genuine defense of the United States than hack shops like the AHF (funded by Joe Coors of Coors beer and notorious far rightwing billionnaire gadfly Richard Mellon Scaife). What the university community mostly is not interested in is naked imperial aggression, of the sort the so-called American Heritage Foundation promotes.
Second, almost everyone in the security agencies of the US government– the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, etc., etc., has at least a BA or BSc. from a US university, so it makes no sense to allege that university-trained students are uninterested in the security field. Why should students who study Arabic be less so?
I’ll tell you what the real problems are. In some of what follows, I am influenced by comments of my colleague John Walbridge of Indiana University, but I am responsible for these remarks, and some of them are mine alone:
1) The US education system generally does a horrible job of teaching languages. Schools most often start the kids on a language only in 7th grade (typically age 11 or 12!). And often they only give the children a “sampling” of languages that year (which is useless). So they do not really begin until age 13 or so, about the time that language learning ability atrophies. If you want fluent speakers of other languages, you should be starting them in kindergarten. Not only do younger children learn languages faster and better, but being at least bilingual as a young child keeps the brain malleable for learning languages later in life. If you are monolingual and 14, learning languages is unlikely to come easily to you. This frankly brain dead approach to language teaching in the US is a vast mystery to me, but no doubt it has something to do with financial issues. Since Americans appear to think it is far more important to give tax cuts to billionnaires than actually to pay for needed social and cultural services in society, it is no wonder they don’t fork over money to tutor our five-year-olds in French. But US security, and the US image in the world (they are related) would both be much improved if more Americans were fluent in languages.
2) There is almost no scholarship money for studying Arabic. Why should students do something that is exotic, that may or may not produce well-paid employment, and for which there is almost no fellowship incentive?
3) Arabic translation is a relatively poorly paid occupation. The kinds of salaries offered Arabic translators by the FBI after 9/11 were frankly laughable.
4) The recruiters for the US security agencies shy away from hiring Muslim Americans, for fear they might turn out to be double agents. Muslim Americans are more likely to know Arabic well than others, and 99.999% of them are loyal Americans. All the 9/11 hijackers had to be brought in from abroad.
5) The recruiters for the US security agencies don’t want Americans who have spent long periods abroad, lest they have developed local sympathies. This foolish approach excludes the most knowledgeable US citizens. (It is a flaw in the philosophy of American journalism as well, and its silliness can easily be shown by pointing to the work in Iraq of Anthony Shadid, an Arabist who had previously covered Egypt; obviously, Shadid has gotten stories that non-Arabic speakers unfamiliar with the culture could not have).
6) The recruiters even advise Americans studying Arabic not to go on summer or semester-long study abroad programs, since apparently even that much living outside the US could permanently injure their loyalty to their country. But such study abroad is essential to gaining fluency!
7) Being involved in Arabic studies and Middle Eastern studies in the United States is extremely controversial and often leads to character assassination, and you just have to have an iron constitution to put up with all the junk that gets thrown your way by the bigotted. David Steinmann’s “Campus Watch Program” (he is also head of the far-rightwing Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs that produced Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith), which smears university professors and students that don’t toe the Likud Party line, is a case in point. (Ironically, Feith helped make a mess of the American enterprise in Iraq by excluding veteran State Department Arabists from the Coalition Provisional Authority in summer and fall of 2003!)
Not only is being misrepresented and smeared painful to most people, but trying to be even-handed on the Middle East will get a person called “racist” (i.e. insufficiently enthusiastic about Ariel Sharon), Orientalist (insufficiently enthusiastic about radical Muslim fundamentalism), or “terrorist-lover” (i.e. insufficiently enthusiastic about aggressive imperial warfare by the Bush administration). Since such epithets can harm careers, any sensible person would just stay away from Middle Eastern languages, or study something safe like Spanish.
Well, obviously, you just aren’t likely to get really fluent Arabists into the security agencies under these circumstances. And nor are you going to get Americans able to communicate with Muslim audiences actually before those audiences if the US government doesn’t trust the ablest Americans in this regard, and if David Horowitz is busy libelling them. I don’t expect this miserable situation to change anytime soon. And I am sure that this situation puts the United States at risk.