Orientalism has always been linked to Arabic and Middle Eastern studies in the Western world. While the Western study of Arabic dates back to the 15th century, the language remained in the background of Western academia until the Clarification, which sparked interest in foreign cultures and established Arabic speakers as exotic, violent, or backward. “Orientalism” sums up these generalizations. It is the study of distorted Western conceptions and reproductions of the Arab-Islamic world; a “system of representationswhich creates an Other and assures the supremacy of the Western world. Finally, the academics abandoned the term in the 1970s for more region-sensitive categorisations.
But has our society really gone beyond Orientalism? Dr Edward Said argue that a new form of Orientalism taints Western discourse today by constructing “a much more threatening image of Islam”. While globalization has increased interdependence, it has certainly not fostered cross-cultural acceptance. And today, Western power networks are using this “neo”-Orientalism in teaching Western languages to create fear and emphasize security.
Mohammad Samiei, professor of global studies at the University of Tehran, argues in his article “Neo-Orientalism? The relationship between the West and Islam in our globalized world” that capitalism “tends to corrupt Western Islamic studies for its own interests”. Colleges and universities receive private and government funding, becoming hostage to the political and cultural agenda of the donor. After World War II, the US government recognized Arabic as a “strategic language,and his agenda became to professionalize the discipline.
The effect is clear: since September 11, enrollment in Arabic programs has leaps 82%; most now focus on security rather than culture or identity. Mahmoud Al-Batal, co-author Al-Kitaab (the manual used at Middlebury and hundreds of other universities), embodies this orientation. In 2007, Al-Batal commented that “the tragic events of September 11, 2001 ushered in an era of heightened national attention to Arabic as a language vital to national interest and security”. This vitality has contributed to massive increases in government-funded Arabic departments in higher education in the early 2000s. The material presented in Al-Kitaab frames how new language learners think and communicate in Arabic, but the book also gets funds of a federal agency that funnels students into the government curriculum. The National Arabic Curriculum now aims to turn language learners into advocates for Western security against the threatening Middle East. Sound familiar? Orientalism lives.
I came to Middlebury and signed up for an introductory Arabic course, hoping the language would become a way of immersing myself in cultures different from my own. However, it quickly became apparent that learning Arabic would be different from learning Spanish and French in high school. Our first vocabulary set included المتحدة األمم, or “United Nations.” The second had “translator” and the third had “army”. The first manual did not include colors or days of the week – universal lessons in virtually all beginner language courses. More recently, Al-Kitaab Part II (published in 2013) included the word شرقي, which it translates as “Oriental, Middle East”. While my teachers have gone to great lengths to culturally enrich the curriculum and introduce us to real-world scenarios, after three years of Arabic I still feel more comfortable discussing police presence during uprisings than to order food in a restaurant. I’m studying abroad in Jordan this semester, and despite being immersed in the language for just over a month, I’m still struggling to reconcile what I learned at Middlebury with the vocabulary I I need for everyday life.
Last summer, to improve my language skills, I attended Middlebury’s eight-week summer language school. The State Department, CIA, FBI, and military are all training employees in Arabic for the cause of securitization to achieve this goal. There I took classes with students (like me) who hoped to experience new cultures through language learning, as well as graduate students and scholarship students from their employers from the Departments of State, education or defense. The woman I sat next to every day revealed she was an army interrogator in Middlebury on active duty. After hearing about Ramadan one morning, she reflected on her complete disinterest in the subject, as it didn’t matter to her job.
The neo-Orientalist narrative extended beyond the student body. In the first two weeks alone, Middlebury held two separate meetings recruitment sessions for “National Security Careers Using Foreign Language Skills”. In response, students organized protest demonstrations called “Language for Peace”, aimed at resisting “the militarization of the study of languages at Middlebury”. They also distributed a petition to cease recruitment sessions. Orientalism has also infiltrated the summer university program. At one point, many upper-level students walked out of class after a particularly upsetting lesson that included vocabulary words like “suicide bomber” and “tear gas.” These students felt that the professor and the program were catering to students there using government money and supporting an Orientalist agenda. Learning Arabic at Middlebury is no longer just about cultural immersion, but about creating graduates who embrace the constructions of Middle Eastern peoples and cultures as dangerous.
You may think that Orientalism is long buried, but these neo-Orientalist perspectives are not unique at Middlebury. Power organizations still systematically infect all aspects of Arabic language teaching in higher education.
Madeleine Gallop is part of the class of 2023.5.