Connecticut: Arab Nationalism Run Rampant at Middlebury

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Aug 22 13:03:54 UTC 2006

Arab Nationalism Run Rampant at Middlebury

 Franck Salameh
Fri Aug 18, 7:30 AM ET

At Middlebury College's Arabic Summer School, where I recently taught
Arabic, students were exposed to more than intensive language instruction.
Inside the classroom and across campus, administrators and language
teachers adhered to a restrictive Arab-nationalist view of what is
generically referred to as the "Arab world." In practice, this meant that
the Middle East was presented as a mono-cultural, exclusively Arab region.
The time-honored presence and deep-rooted histories of tens of millions of
Kurds, Assyrians, Copts, Jews, Maronites, and Armenians--all of whom are
indigenous Middle Easterners who object to an imputed "supra-Arab"
identity--were dismissed in favor of a reductionist, ahistorical Arabist
narrative. Those who didn't share this closed view of the Middle East were
made to feel like dhimmi--the non-Muslim citizens of some Muslim-ruled
lands whose rights are restricted because of their religious beliefs. In
maps, textbooks, lectures, and other teaching materials used in the
instruction of Arabic, Israel didn't exist, and the overarching watan
'Arabi (Arab fatherland) was substituted for the otherwise diverse and
multi-faceted "Middle East." Curious and misleading geographical
appellations, such as the "Arabian Gulf" in lieu of the time-honored
"Persian Gulf," abounded. Syria's borders with its neighbors were marked
"provisional," and Lebanon was referred to as a qutr (or "province") of an
imagined Arab supra-state.

Nor was the Arabic school's narrow definition of Middle Eastern culture
restricted to the classroom. Alcohol was prohibited during school events
and student parties, and although a school official claimed the ban
reflected Middlebury's campus policy, beer and wine flowed freely during
cookouts and gatherings organized by the German, French, and Spanish
schools. Banning alcohol is a matter of Islamic practice and personal
interpretation--not accepted behavior throughout the Middle East--and
reflected the Arabic school's conflation of Arabic with Islamic.
Similarly, the Arabic school's dining services conformed to the halal
dietary restrictions of Islam, an act implying that all Arabic speakers
are Muslims, and that all Muslims are observant; yet less that 20 percent
of the Arabic school community was Muslim. No such accommodations were
made for Jewish students who kept kosher, even though they outnumbered the

Arab nationalism was also evident in the school's official posture toward
America's national holidays. The Arabic school was alone among Middlebury
programs to ignore Fourth of July festivities. Worse, visiting faculty
from the Middle East cold-shouldered older students sporting the closely
cropped hair, courteous manners, and discipline suggesting membership in
the U.S. armed forces. Most students and faculty avoided contact
altogether with those dubbed hukuma (government) or jaysh (army).

Such attitudes and practices aren't confined to Middlebury. A former
student of mine who recently took a summer Arabic course at Georgetown
University relates that one of her professors, an otherwise excellent
language instructor, refused to allow the word "Israel" to be uttered in
class. And his bigotry wasn't confined to the Jewish state: during a class
discussion on nationalism, my former student argued that "many Lebanese
did not think of themselves as Arabs." The instructor's response: "while
they might say that, it's just politics, because all Lebanese people know
on the inside that they are indeed Arabs."

Arabism flies in the face of historical fact. Ethnic minorities in
Lebanon, as throughout the Middle East, have suffered at the hands of
Arabs since the Arab-Islamic invasions in the early Muslim period. Of the
efforts of Arab regimes and their ideological supporters in the West to
de-legitimize regional identities other than Arab, Walid Phares, a
well-known professor of Middle East studies, has written: "[The] denial of
identity of millions of indigenous non-Arab nations can be equated to an
organized ethnic cleansing on a politico-cultural level." This tradition
of culturally suppressing minorities is the wellspring of the linguistic
imperialism regnant at Middlebury's Arabic Summer School.

Yet healthier models for language instruction are easy to find. In the
Anglophone world, Americans, Irish, Scots, New Zealanders, Australians,
Nigerians, Kenyans, and others are native English-speakers, but not
English. Can anyone imagine an English language class in which students
are assumed to be Anglican cricket fans who sing "Rule Britannia," post
maps showing Her Majesty's empire at its pre-war height, and prefer
shepherd's pie and mushy peas? Yet according to the hyper-nationalists who
run Middlebury's Arabic language programs, all speakers of Arabic are
Arabs--case closed.

A leading Arabic language program shouldn't imbue language instruction
with political philosophy. It should instead concentrate on teaching a
difficult language well--on promoting linguistic ability, not ideological
conformity. Academics should never intellectualize their politics and then
peddle them to students under the guise of scholarship. Those who do may
force a temporary dhimmitude on their student subjects, but in the end
they only marginalize their field and themselves.

This marginalization has never been clearer than it is today, when Middle
East studies scholars are depressingly consistent in their condemnation of
American policy in the region, including its support for the democracies
in Israel and Turkey. The same Arabist orthodoxy that seeks to
indoctrinate summer language students in Vermont is at work every day in
classrooms across the country, where professors whose vision is limited by
ideological blinders ill serve their students and the nation. Set against
this backdrop, Middlebury's Arabic Summer School is a window into an
academic field in crisis.

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