On 9 May 2013 I was stabbed in front of the US Embassy in Cairo. My attacker was a young college-educated Egyptian man who had come from his village that day to kill an American in “revenge over U.S. policies in the Middle East.” At the time, I was living in Egypt and conducting research as part of my sabbatical from Hunter College of the City University of New York where I teach Arabic. The day I was stabbed, I had come to the Embassy looking to have a translation of my marriage certificate authenticated so that my wife’s Egyptian residency permit might be renewed.
After the attack, a few Egyptian journalist friends wrote about the event, partly to rectify some of the early misreporting in the Egyptian press. The main shared goal of their articles, though, was to declare that my attacker could not have picked a less appropriate target, given my love of Arabic and Arab culture. These overly generous portrayals did not prevent me from asking myself very early on: was I really such an unsuitable target? Not that my attacker knew what I do for a living, but the thought crossed my mind that perhaps, someone out for revenge on US policy in the Arab and Islamic World after 11 September 2001 could do worse than inadvertently target a teacher of Arabic.
Needless to say, I may not have been in Cairo at all had it not been for the events of 11 September 2001. If not for 11 September 2001, in other words, I may never have found the kind of tenure-track job that comes with the luxury of a periodic sabbatical. 11 September 2001 fell in the final year of my PhD program. Following events at the time like everyone else, it did not occur to me what a bonanza the attack, and the “Global War on Terror” that it spawned, would be for me and for my colleagues. It was a few years later that I first heard someone express what we all had begun to realize: “9/11 was our Sputnik.” Just as the launching of that Soviet satellite in 1957 had resulted in a windfall of US government funding for higher education in the United States in general, so did the attacks of 11 September 2001 lead to intensive government interest in and funding of Arabic and other “critical” languages specifically. In a decade where the number of classes at our universities taught by contingent faculty has grown dramatically, Arabic instruction and Middle East Studies in general has been one of the few fields to buck this trend.
Post 11 September 2001: New Enrollments, New Programs, New Funding Sources
The increase in government support for Arabic language programs was mirrored by surging student interest. The post 11 September 2001 rise in Arabic enrollment at US universities was nearly instantaneous. According to the MLA, between 1998 and 2002 Arabic enrollments in the United States nearly doubled. While the numbers of students studying Arabic (35,083) are still dwarfed by those pursuing languages like Spanish (864,986) and French (216,419), the gains are nonetheless striking. Arabic is now the eighth most studied foreign language in the United States.
Increased government funding has certainly played a role in this growth. At the US University Presidents Summit on 5 January 2006, President Bush announced the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI). It was reported that after an initial investment of 114 million dollars from the Departments of State and Education, the Department of Defense would contribute 705 million dollars to the initiative between 2007 and 2009. An important difference between this program and the Sputnik-inspired 1957 National Defense Education Act is that whereas the Cold War program was run from the Department of Education, this post-9/11 initiative was to be a collaborative effort between the Departments of Defense, State, and Education, and the newly formed Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The result is a dizzying array of more than twenty centers, offices, and programs. While some of them pre-date 11 September 2001, they were all directly impacted by the funding that came as a result of those attacks. To name a few of them: The Defense Language and National Security Education Office(DOD), The Foreign Language Assistance Program (DOE), Startalk (Intelligence), The Language Flagship Programs (DOD), The Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program (DOS), The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarships (DOS), and The Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (Intelligence).
If you have studied or taught a Middle Eastern language in the last decade, you have inevitably encountered at least a few of these programs and centers. I myself have participated in and led workshops funded by The National Middle East Language Resource Center (DOE); I have hosted Arabic teaching assistants supplied by the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program (DOS); and I have written more letters of recommendation than I can count for students applying for Critical Language Scholarships (DOS), Fulbright Critical Language Enhancement Awards (DOS), Gilman Scholarships (DOS), and Boren Awards (DOD). I also applied for a teaching job in 2012, which would have included directing the school’s Language Flagship Arabic program, a program I will say more about below.
Of course, the impact of the aftermath of 11 September 2001 on the field of teaching Arabic goes well beyond this alphabet soup of agencies, centers, and scholarships. What it has meant for those of us in the field is a proliferation of jobs. Prior to 11 September 2001, telling someone that you were studying Arabic was likely to elicit a response of “What in the world are you going to do with that?” Despite growing pains, it is very easy to portray all of this post-9/11 growth as a boon to the field. There are more jobs for both teachers and students of Arabic; more funding opportunities to study the language and to develop materials to teach it; and study abroad, until the “Arab Spring,” was booming. These apparent gains, however, come at a considerable cost.
In 2010, The Washington Post ran a George Polk Award-winning series entitled “Top Secret America” which reports that in response to 11 September 2001 the US government created an unprecedented and vast web of secretive and sometimes redundant security programs. Results of attempts to put a dollar amount on the “Global War on Terror” vary tremendously, but it is clearly in the trillions of dollars. This militarization of our society has not spared universities. Though the condition is not new, 11 September 2001 coincided with shrinking state budgets for public universities that increased pressure on these institutions to find alternate sources of funding. Universities have sought to replace shrinking federal and state monies with military and intelligence funds. Many of us, particularly at public schools, have felt the pressure to seek out such funding. It is no coincidence that twenty of the twenty-two universities that host Language Flagship programs, among the most visible government initiatives undertaken post-11 September 2001 in the language teaching field, are public institutions.
The Language Flagship Program is a cluster of Department of Defense funded language initiatives (k-12, undergraduate, and graduate). For undergraduates, the program provides students “the opportunity to achieve professional-level language proficiency in one of ten critical languages such as Chinese, Arabic, or Swahili, while pursuing another major.” Although one can learn much about the program from its website, information on the program’s funding sources and goals are not easily found. Only on a sub-page called “About NESP” (which can only be found by hovering over the “About Us” link) is the funding source mentioned: “The Language Flagship is a federally-funded effort and is a component of the National Security Education Program (NSEP) at the U.S. Department of Defense.” A bit further on, the program’s goals are spelled out clearly: “NSEP [and by extension Flagship] seeks to develop a pool of language-capable professionals in various fields of study available for employment with federal national security agencies.”
Many would argue that there is nothing wrong with a DOD funded program that entails a service requirement for those who receive optional funding, especially when the NSEP has broadened its definition of “national security” to include fields such as “International environment” and “Human rights and humanitarian assistance.” If that is the case, then why the lack of transparency about the source and the goal of Flagship funding on its website? Perhaps, greater transparency is lacking because the truth is potentially unattractive to those hosting the program, or potentially dangerous to those participating in it.
The Weaponization of Language
When President Bush introduced the NSLI in January of 2006, in addition to platitudes about protecting and spreading freedom, he mentioned the practical and urgent importance of learning these “critical” languages in a direct way that is hard to find on the websites of many of the centers it ended up funding: the initiative, according to him, is to help in giving troops, intelligence officers, and diplomats “all the tools necessary to succeed.” In comments made after the speech, David Chu, then Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, added some geographic specificity. He argued that it was “critical to mission accomplishment … to obtain more personnel fluent in Pashtun, which is spoken in Afghanistan, and Arabic, which is spoken in Iraq and across the Middle East.” In other words, the US government needed speakers of Arabic and Pashtun to help it win its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In “Harm’s Way: Language and the Contemporary Arts of War,” Mary Louise Pratt writes about the use of language and culture in these two wars in particular: “Language … is not a side effect to the acts of war being carried out; it is itself a weapon integral to the war making.” She recounts an event that illustrates this in a horrifically eloquent way. The incident was recorded by an Australian photojournalist embedded with an American combat unit in Afghanistan. The unit, blasting music by Pink Floyd, races towards an Afghan village where an American and an Afghan soldier have been killed the day before. The unit’s interpreter is instructed by a psychological operations specialist, Sergeant Jim Baker, to encourage the villagers via loudspeaker to turn over the perpetrators of the killing that had occurred the previous day. When he receives no response, Sergeant Baker then orders the burning of the bodies of two Taliban fighters killed the day before. Baker surely knows that the burning of bodies contravenes Islamic law: bodies are to be buried quickly and the head is to face Mecca. While the bodies burn, the interpreter is instructed to insult the villagers:
You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burned. You are too scared to come down and retrieve the bodies…. Your time in Afghanistan is short. You attack and run away like women. You call yourself Talibs, but you are a disgrace to the Muslim religion and you bring shame upon your family. Come and fight like men instead of the cowardly dogs you are.
Sergeant Baker explains to the journalist recording the incident that the idea is to flush the Taliban out with these insults and then to shoot them. Pratt’s description of these events illustrates quite graphically, the tactical use of “foreign language and cultural awareness” as a weapon.
What does such an event have to do with the Language Flagship Program specifically and military funding for language training more generally? A 2012 article in the University of Texas at Austin’s Life & Letters entitled “Humanities and the Military” describes a collaboration between Flagship students there and Texas Army National Guard soldiers in a “weekend-long language and culture workshop conducted by the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Middle Eastern Studies and Center for Middle Eastern Studies for soldiers who will soon be deployed to Afghanistan.” One of the coordinators of the program is quoted as saying “All of the participants seemed intent on learning as much as they could about Afghani culture because they knew that this information might help them accomplish their mission more effectively.” This collaboration is painted in positive terms: linguistic and cultural information being used to help improve relations between two culturally disparate groups. The context for this contact, though, is war and occupation, and such information, as we have seen, can be used to gruesome effect. The university seems to be aware of this potential, or at least of the danger of having its government funded students associated with such a collaboration. In a subsequent version of the article, all references to the Flagship program have been removed, as has the following statement by the director of the NSEP: “We are proud of the partnerships that The Language Flagship programs have made with ROTC and the services.”
Even if not a single US student were using the language and culture he or she learned to such ends, it is important to think very carefully about how our knowledge and expertise might be used by the entities that fund this education. After my stabbing, an Egyptian friend tried to counter some of my doubts by telling me that a knife-maker is not responsible for the uses his knives are put to. Perhaps not, but what if that knife maker happens to be sponsored by the military?
There are those who argue that the deep reach of the military into universities post-11 September 2001 has become too easily accepted as the status quo. Until recently, defense and intelligence recruiting on university campuses tended to be vigorously protested. Today, while there are certainly exceptions, there is relatively little public debate, particularly in the Arabic teaching field. A number of professional associations, such as the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) and the African Studies Association (ASA) urged their members not to participate in NSEP-funded programs when the new agency was launched in 1992. When the National Language Flagship Initiative was announced after 9/11, MESA re-affirmed its reservations. Soon after, though, in response to a resolution introduced by a member at its annual Board of Directors’ meeting in 2002, MESA removed its recommendation that its “members and institutions not seek or accept funding” for the Language Flagship Program “as presently defined, constituted, and administered.” To my knowledge, there has not been much public debate in the field of Arabic or Middle East Studies since.
Some of the original dissent over NSEP and Flagship funding for language instruction was centered on concern for the safety of our students studying abroad. Perhaps debate has died down because, in addition to some tweaks to the program, there is no evidence that any student with such funding has been attacked or targeted. I would argue that those concerns, while important, are too narrow. More consequential than the impact of these programs on the security of our students abroad, is their impact on the people in the places where these languages are spoken. My attacker had no idea that I teach Arabic. He certainly was not concerned about the source of my funding. I was attacked because of the US government’s role in the killing of hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Muslims in Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan since 11 September 2001.
A Call for Discussion and Debate
These shifts in the teaching of Arabic have been underway for years now and can be felt in many classrooms where Arabic is taught. And yet, while there has been much debate about teaching approach, there has been little discussion tying the methodological shifts of Arabic pedagogy to these broader geopolitical contexts and the funding streams they have created. Given the significance of these transformations for the field and for the lives of students, it is high time for a vigorous debate about the militarization of knowledge and teaching of Arabic modeled, perhaps, on the debates that have taken place in fields such as Anthropology. A good place to start would be at the annual meetings of professional organizations such as the Modern Languages Association, The Middle East Studies Association, The American Council on Teaching of Foreign Languages, the American Association of Teachers of Arabic, and the Annual Anthropological Association. I plan on proposing a thematic conversation on this issue for the 2014 MESA conference. After discussion and debate, every instructor, student, program, and association will have to decide its own red lines and actions. What will help in drawing those lines is greater transparency. It is essential that schools, instructors and students know the goals, funding sources, and service requirements of any program they are applying for, writing letters of recommendation for, or advising students on.
Whatever we decide as individuals and as a field, it would be irresponsible to ignore the fact that the government of the country where we are teaching Arabic and other “critical” languages, funds their study so that they can be used as, among other things, a weapon. Above, when I wondered about my appropriateness as a target, I did not mean to suggest that I, or anyone in the field deserves to be attacked. What I mean is that as ambassadors of language and culture—and regardless of our politics or level of involvement in US government-funded programs—we are not as disconnected from the militarized use of language and culture as we might like to think. In fact, many of us owe our livelihood, as perverse as it sounds, to the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the responses to it. In the end, I agree with my Egyptian friends that I—that we as a field—do more good than harm. Responses to those attacks, after all, showed us clearly how great is the need for education about the region and its languages. This fact does not reduce our responsibility to be vigilant about our potential role, however indirect, in the harm that has and will be done. If anything, it makes this responsibility greater and more urgent.