Why Americans can't find Islam on the map

Few colleges offer comprehensive courses in Arabic or Middle Eastern studies, and even fewer students seem to care.

By Eric Boehlert

Published September 21, 2001 7:29PM (EDT)

Once again Americans are scrambling to make sense of the Middle East and Islam.

It's a drill the country has seen before: during the Iranian hostage crisis, after the Marine barracks were suicide-bombed in Lebanon, and during the Gulf War. Who are the major players? What is the motivation? Where does the hostility to all things Western come from?

Now, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the alarm is being sounded again, only louder.

"It seems that only at crisis moments do people draw attention to these issues," says Anne Betteridge, executive director of the Middle Eastern Studies Association at the University of Arizona.

"Most people have a detailed ignorance of the Middle East," adds Charles Kimball, chairman of the department of religion at Wake Forest University, and an Islamic scholar. "They have all these images and details in their head but little coherence or understanding."

Kimball says his phone has been ringing constantly for the last week, with calls coming from community groups, businesses and journalists who are all suddenly trying to understand the ramifications of Islam, its culture and its politics. "That's been the most telling side of this, people's recognition that they just don't know very much."

Telling, because even though the Middle East remains central to issues of trade, security and diplomacy in the United States, most Americans remain unfamiliar with the region.

That fact is reflected on college campuses across the country. Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies programs, while growing slightly in number recently, remain boutique majors at best.

The area of study faces a unique set of hurdles, including the negative perception of Islam among the mainstream population, limited exposure to the topic in high school classrooms, a reluctance among women to study a culture they're told gives them second class citizenship, an extremely difficult language to learn in Arabic, and the need to travel to a volatile parts of the world.

"Middle Eastern Studies is not one of your more popular disciplines," admits Christopher Rose, director of outreach for the University of Texas' Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

According to the Middle Eastern Studies Association, only between 50 and 70 colleges and universities offer degrees in the fields of Middle Eastern or Islamic studies. Some schools remain wary of the topic. Betteridge recalls a phone conversation with a college dean just a few years ago. His school had authorized an Islamic studies position but the dean, unsure the field represented a legitimate scholarly enterprise, was afraid whoever he hired would politicize the program. "When politics and religion intersect, that's when administrators get a little worried," she says.

And those schools that do offer related disciplines, do it on a relatively small scale. At the University of Texas in Austin, on a campus of 50,000 students, just 100 undergraduates are majoring in the school's renowned Middle Eastern studies program.

The small pool of students studying the Middle East has a practical effect, a fact evident on Monday when the FBI put out its unusual public call for Arabic translators. Willing to pay nearly $40 an hour for their services on a contract basis, the FBI, according to its Web site, "has a critical need for additional linguists with a proficiency in English and ... Arabic." Arabic speakers are needed to help sift through the growing pile of evidence the agency has collected in connection with the attacks, such as a flight manual written in Arabic and found inside an automobile rented by one of the terrorists.

The U.S. Army Reserve issued a similar call among its enlisted men and women.

The FBI says it has been flooded with calls, mostly from Arab-Americans willing to help. But the fact the United States government had to go soliciting "is a little embarrassing," says Jerry Lampe, senior associate at the National Foreign Language Center in Washington. "It says we're not as prepared as we should be, and that's not a good thing to broadcast to your enemies." Each year the U.S. government, with input from the Defense Department, compiles a list of what it designates "critical languages," ones in which fluent speakers are most needed for full-time government posts. Arabic has topped that list for the last several years. But with so few American students studying the language, there seems to be little help in sight.

The statistics are startling. According to Lampe, just 25 American colleges and universities offer comprehensive Arabic language courses. (Many more offer courses, but not enough for students to become professionally proficient.) And there are almost no high school Arabic programs in the country.

A recent survey of American college students nationwide indicated the number studying Arabic today could fit on a small campus: just 5,500. That's up from 4,500 just five years ago. But the number remains minuscule compared to other languages being studied on American campuses; Lampe estimates 100,000 students study Russian each year, for example.

Meanwhile, according to his estimates, the number of students who actually become proficient in Arabic each year could fit into a college dormitory: 300 to 400. "The picture is pretty dire," says Lampe.

At the University of Massachusetts, senior Arabic lecturer Mohammed Jiyad reports freshmen enrollment for his first-year classes often include between 35 and 40 students. But by the time they reach their third year of Arabic, just two or three dedicated students remain.

That in turn encourages college administrators to cut back on resources, says Betteridge. "When they see so few bodies in the classroom they decide it's not cost effective." Also, experts say the number of tenured Arabic professors nationwide could probably be counted on one hand.

Why do so few students master the language? "Arabic is among the most difficult languages to learn," says Jiyad. "Linguistically, Arabic, Japanese and Chinese require twice the amount of time, maybe even three times the time, to learn it compared to a European language. It requires total dedication."

For new students, particularly those with no Arab heritage, the language presents a maddening tangle of possessives, complicated grammar, brand new sounds, and is written from right to left in an utterly foreign alphabet.

And when it comes to trying to achieve true fluency, the language "is almost impenetrable for outsiders," says Wake Forest's Kimball. (That's one reason the Quran translates so poorly into English.)

"It's a bear," agrees Lampe, who has taught the language for 32 years and says students need at least six hours of Arabic classroom time each week. "And there's not just one form. There's classic Arabic, modern standard Arabic, and all the dialects that are spoken on the streets."

To master those common-day dialects, and to experience the culture up close, students are urged to go and study in the Middle East. Which leads to another major barrier; travel, and the fear some students have of touring the Middle East, even during relatively peaceful times.

"It can be daunting," says Betteridge.

The University of Texas' Center for Middle Eastern Studies is currently recruiting students to study abroad in Cairo and Turkey for next year. "Time will tell if anyone's interested in signing up," says Rose. "But if our insurance companies say no, that it's not safe, then we can't send students."

At U-Mass., Jiyad says he runs into resistance on his own campus: "I try to urge students to go to the Middle East and another professor's telling them not to go to Egypt, that they'd have to be crazy to go."

Will current events spark new interest in Middle Eastern studies? Or, as happened during the Gulf War, will students actually shy away from exploring that sensitive part of the world? "Honestly," says Rose, "it's too early to tell. A lot of it depends on our military's response."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Islam Religion