Seller's Market for Arabic Studies

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Mar 19 14:04:34 UTC 2003

New York Times, March 19, 2003

Suddenly, a Seller's Market for Arabic Studies


     CHICAGO  Prof. Muhammad S. Eissa has never been busier.

Each weekday he teaches Arabic to students at the Illinois Institute of
Technology, and because the demand for experienced Arabic instructors has
overwhelmed the supply nationwide, his lectures are videotaped for replay
in classrooms at a college and a university in Utah. In his free time, Dr.
Eissa, an Egyptian-born Muslim, has also been lecturing church groups and
Rotary Clubs that are suddenly eager for information about Islam. As the
pursuit of Al Qaeda and America's confrontation with Iraq intensifies,
Arabic-speaking educators and Islamic organizations, as well as
universities and schools across the nation, are straining to respond to
requests by students and the public for information and instruction about
the language and culture of Islam.

"It's just snowballed," said Karin Ryding, who heads Georgetown
University's Arabic languages department, which offered five beginning
Arabic classes last semester, instead of the usual two. Other universities
reported similar increases or new courses because of the demand.
Historically, most Americans have been only dimly aware of Islam and its
liturgical language, Arabic, but this is not the first time that national
interest has built to a fever. The 1979 hostage crisis in Iran led to a
burst of study of the Muslim world, and the federal government made more
money available to train teachers of Mideastern languages and for study
abroad. By the mid-1980's, however, government and public interest had
waned, only to increase again, for a while, at the time of the Persian
Gulf war.

But now some of Dr. Eissa's students are digging in for the long term,
betting that an intellectual investment in Arabic will pay off in their
careers. "If we go into Iraq, we're going to need to be over there for a
long time to build it back," said Lars Longnecker, a third-year law
student who decided in December to study Arabic. "So I see our involvement
in the Mideast increasing, and I figured Arabic would give me a leg up in
that area."

Students across the country appear to agree. Kirk Belnap, a professor of
Arabic and the director of a federally financed consortium, the National
Middle East Language Resource Center at Brigham Young University, said
many universities were reporting "double or triple enrollments" in Arabic
classes. "There's been an explosion in interest," said John C. Eisele,
executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic. The
College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., where Dr. Eisele
teaches, offered two beginning Arabic classes last fall, but had to turn
away 20 students. Because the demand is similar nationwide, many colleges
and universities, as well as half a dozen federal agencies, are seeking to
hire people fluent in Arabic. "There's a ton of jobs out there," Dr.
Eisele said.

It is not only college campuses that have experienced the surge in
interest. In Alabama, so many middle school and high school students asked
about Islam that nearly 200 Alabama teachers signed up last summer for a
course, Understanding Islam, taught by Dr. Angelia Mance, associate
director of the National Council on Geographic Education. "It was the most
popular course I've given," said Dr. Mance, who taught it in classrooms
packed with teachers in the Alabama towns of Florence, Jasper and
Hamilton. One of her students was Gail Spann, a public school librarian
whose son, Johnny Michael Spann, an officer in the Central Intelligence
Agency, was killed in Afghanistan in November 2001, Dr. Mance said.

"War is God's way of teaching world geography to Americans," Dr. Mance
said, quoting Ambrose Bierce, the 19th-century satirist. The Islamic
Networks Group, formed in the mid-1990's by California Muslims who
believed their religion was being misrepresented in the public schools,
has in recent months expanded its network of speakers bureaus to 25 cities
from 18, said Maha ElGenaidi, the group's co-founder, who grew up in Ohio
and Pennsylvania.

The speakers originally lectured about Islam mostly in public schools, she
said, but in recent months, the group has been flooded with invitations to
explain the religion to police departments, groups for the elderly,
community centers and Rotary Clubs. But if some Americans are suddenly
eager to learn about Islam, there is much ignorance to overcome.

Even many university students "lack a rudimentary knowledge of the nature
of the Islamic faith," according to a study published in the September
issue of the Journal of Instructional Psychology. After hearing statements
betraying ignorance of Islam, its authors, Thomas Mastrilli and Deborah
Sardo-Brown, professors at West Chester University in Pennsylvania,
circulated a questionnaire among 218 students about to become teachers in
public schools. About half the students could not identify the Koran as
the Islamic holy book or Mecca as the holiest Islamic city (one in seven
guessed Jerusalem), their report said. Not one of the students surveyed
could name the world's three most populous Muslim countries: Pakistan,
Indonesia and Bangladesh. The two professors called for more education
about Islam to foster religious tolerance.

In contrast, a study released this month warned against too much tolerance
of Islam. It was written by Gilbert Sewell, a former education editor at
Newsweek who heads the American Textbook Council, a New York group opposed
to multicultural teaching. Mr. Sewell examined seven widely used middle
school and high school world history textbooks and concluded that
publishers made "an effort to circumvent unsavory facts that might cast
Islam in anything but a positive light." For instance, textbooks have
"defanged" the term jihad, Mr. Sewell contended, defining it as Muslims'
struggle for spiritual improvement rather than more narrowly as holy war.
But several textbook publishers criticized Mr. Sewell's objectivity.

"A lot of his language is just slanted against the religion of Islam,"
said Collin Earnst, a spokesman for Houghton Mifflin. Bernard Lewis, a
Princeton Mideast scholar cited extensively by Mr.  Sewell, declined
through his assistant to comment on the report. Rashid Khalidi, a
professor of history and Near Eastern languages at the University of
Chicago, called Mr. Sewell's study "a terribly biased document full of
bigoted statements."

Mr. Sewell and his critics agree on the importance of increasing
Americans' familiarity with Islamic civilization the challenge to which
Dr. Eissa has devoted his professional life since he began teaching Arabic
at American universities in 1978. "American interest in Islamic affairs
comes in waves and then it ebbs,"  Dr. Eissa said, just before video
cameras focused on him as he began conjugating Arabic verbs at the start
of another class here. "But this current tide of fascination seems more
intense and wider in perspective."

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