“How do you say `friend’ in Arabic?”: Columnist Wendy Chamberlin

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Opinion: How do you say `friend’ in Arabic?

By Wendy Chamberlin

Words do count. When words are misconstrued, they can easily incite and inflame hatreds. When properly studied and appreciated for what they are — vessels of culture — language can lead to understanding other people.

Take the word “madrassa” as an example. All too many people in the West, when they hear the word, conjure up a sinister breeding ground for terrorists. Madrassa is simply the word for “school.” It is for exactly this reason that the opening of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in New York City is so important.

Named for the famous Lebanese poet — a Christian — this secondary school has a mandate to “prepare students of diverse backgrounds for success in an increasingly global and interdependent society,” and to equip graduating students “with the skills they need to become empowered independent thinkers who are able to work with cultures beyond their own.”

We cannot as a nation turn our backs on the world as reflected in our misconceived rejection of the Khalil Gibran International Academy and what it stands for.

This school is not meant to educate foreigners, but to build understanding among American students toward the people of the Middle East. Inclusive in this mission is a curriculum of intensive Arabic language studies.

Why then are the critics of the Khalil Gibran school feeling so threatened and believe the study of Arabic by American children leads to terrorism?

What the critics fail to see is that Arabic language instruction is an investment in our future security. It is, of course, the undeniable responsibility of government to provide security for its citizens. We can and have tightened our borders to foreign tourists, students and businessmen, put U.S. citizens through rigorous and sometimes invasive airport security checks, even absorbed the heavy financial costs of these measures.

And yes, it has provided a certain amount of security. But enduring security will only truly be assured when people understand one another. We cannot as a nation turn our backs on the world as reflected in our misconceived rejection of the Khalil Gibran International Academy and what it stands for.

Wouldn’t it be wiser to embrace the teaching of Arabic and other languages to expose our youngsters to the world beyond our borders? Primary schools in a Washington suburb have initiated Arabic language training this year, encouraged by business and government leaders who say bilingual speakers are needed to help the United States compete in the global marketplace. Bilingual education is in our security interests too.

The Iraq Study Group reported that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, with a staff of 1,000, had just 33 Arabic speakers with only six of them able to converse fluently. The report went on to argue that U.S. interests in Iraq suffered because of the lack of Arabic proficiency at all levels of engagement. In Iraq, we have seen that understanding the culture and the language often is a matter of life and death.

The need for Arabic speakers in America is readily apparent. While there has been an increase in the number of students studying Arabic in recent years, the numbers are still anemic when compared to the sheer volume of students studying other languages. These numbers need to rise. We need to encourage students and critics to embrace with open arms the Arabic language while checking their political baggage at the door.

By targeting the academy in Brooklyn or any class in America that teaches Arabic language and culture, we stand to lose a great deal as a nation. We lose the chance to understand the message of individuals before they resort to violence and terror. We lose the chance to reach out and befriend people from another culture to see what unites us rather than what divides us. We lose the chance to train a generation of Americans in language skills which our State Department, CIA, FBI, and military are so desperate for.

Finally, we close ourselves off to the global village and lose that uniquely American value that has made us the object of admiration in the past: inclusiveness.

Wendy Chamberlin is president of the Middle East Institute, which promotes knowledge of the Middle East among Americans and includes language classes in Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Turkish as well as seminars and programs on the politics and cultures of the region. Readers may write to the author at: Middle East Institute, 1761 N Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20036-2882; Web site: http://www.mideasti.org.This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.

(c) 2007, Middle East Institute
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Source: James Logan Courier


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