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 Muslims.
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.
Mr. Salameh teaches Arabic studies at Boston College. He writes for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.