The role of language in Arab reforms

The war is language, wrote American beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg, in his Wichita Vortex Sutra. Language used like magic for power on the planet.

Arab governments are under pressure to change curricula
Arab governments are under pressure to change curricula

Ginsberg’s Vietnam-war-era concerns about the manipulation of language during times of conflict finds an echo in today’s Middle East, where Arab governments have come under increasing pressure from Western centres of power to reform not only their political systems but their educational curricula.

This pressure springs partly from a belief that the Middle East’s schools and universities have nurtured a world view that helped motivate those responsible for the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US.

Following those plane attacks, Saudi Arabia – home to 15 of the alleged hijackers – began a review of schoolbooks for evidence of extremism. About five per cent of the material has been deemed objectionable and purged.

Some Arabs have welcomed such changes. The editor-in-chief of Saudi newspaper al-Riyadh, Turki al-Sudairi, recently blamed “our education system, which does not stress tolerance of other faiths” for encouraging terrorism.

During a recent Aljazeera interview US Secretary of State Colin Powell said he sensed that “the people of the Middle East are asking for reform. It’s not just a question the United States wants it [sic].” But the notion of ideologically-driven reform of curricula has also stirred controversy and criticism.

“Do you have a new religion you want to teach students? Is it the Western religion? Is it the new American religion?” demanded Islamist MP Abd Allah Okash during a Kuwaiti parliamentary debate last December after the government said it wanted to alter textbooks to promote tolerance.

War of words

For those who believe traditional curricula help to breed extremists, Arabic is a key culprit. In the battle for tongues and minds, English has been deployed as a weapon to counter the militancy allegedly fostered by Arabic-medium education.

Saudi authorities announced last month that English will be taught as a core subject alongside Arabic and maths beginning this coming school year.

English has become a core school
subject in Saudi Arabia

“After 9/11, there emerged a troubling view that teaching Arabic and Islam encouraged militant tendencies,” says Suhail Karmani, an English language teaching (ELT) professional based in the UAE, “whereas English was seen as promoting the values of freedom, tolerance and democracy.”

Karmani is the founder of TESOL Islamia, an organisation based in Abu Dhabi that aims to raise ideological awareness of issues in English language education in Arab and Muslim countries and to promote ELT in ways that best serve the socio-political and socio-cultural interests of Arabs and Muslims.

“Some Muslims will naturally feel that there is a conspiracy to destroy Arabic because of its obvious proximity to Islam,” says Karmani. “But I think this is far too sophisticated for the Bush administration, although it probably does have this crude vision of Arabic as being somehow specially endowed in nurturing a militant mindset.”

Mujahidiin training

The Afghan experience may have helped shape these associations between education and behaviour. Islamist-oriented madrassas were encouraged to produce combat-minded mujahidiin to fight the atheistic Soviet occupiers in the 1980s.

“Afghanistan is a good example,” says Karmani. “During the Soviet years, the US actively promoted a jihadist worldview through Dari and Pashto [the two main Afghan languages] along with US-produced school textbooks which contained explicit references to war and hatred. After 9/11, it seems to have reversed the paradigm, using English now to promote tolerance and democracy.”

Language was used to help create 
a generation of Afghan warrior

But critics such as Karmani ridicule the premise that Arabic-medium and Islamic-oriented education act as some kind of cultural poison to susceptible students, for which English is the antidote.

“It’s an absurd idea,” says Karmani, who has more than 15 years ELT experience in his native Britain, Italy and, for the last eight years, in the Gulf.

“Usama bin Ladin, like most of the 19 hijackers [blamed for the 9/11 attacks], is probably well versed in English. In fact, the attacks would have been virtually impossible if the hijackers hadn’t known English. In a sense, it was a crucial part of their cover.”

Nevertheless, the concept of English as a modern Trojan horse carrying a different set of beliefs and views into hostile territory has reared its head in Iraq, where ELT intertwined with missionary work has enjoyed a post-war surge.

Mission Iraq

American evangelical Christian organisations, including Voice of the Martyrs, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, have declared Muslims in Iraq as priority targets for proselytising.

“Right now there are scores of rightwing Christian missionaries flooding into Iraq,” says Karmani. “Many have no moral qualms about using English as a tool to reach Muslims often under the false pretence of offering free English lessons and thereby establishing intimate contact with local communities, particularly Muslim women.”

Iraqi pupils may find that some
teachers have a hidden agenda

Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham – both senior American Christian leaders who are close to the Bush administration – has planned a major proselytising operation in Iraq through his organisation Samaritan’s Purse.

Such US evangelicals see their mission in Iraq in the context of a clash between superior and inferior belief systems. The younger Graham has a history of anti-Islam comments, including his description of it as “a very evil and wicked religion” that encourages terrorism.

Organisations such as the Billy Graham Centre and Christian Educators in TESOL offer advice to Christians wishing to teach English to foreign unbelievers. And websites such as carry adverts for English-teaching missionaries in Iraq.

Promoting English

The US State Department promotes the spread of English overseas through the Office of English Language Programmes (OELP), which has 16 regional English language officers (RELOs) – four of them in the Middle East – as well as project specialists and support staff.

The OELP aims to create and support targeted English language projects “to promote mutual understanding between the United States and other countries” – drawing a clear link between English language and diplomacy.

Secretary of State Colin Powell (L) has called for Arab reforms

Secretary of State Colin Powell
(L) has called for Arab reforms

The OELP’s work is administered through embassies and consulates and includes the development of English teaching curricula, textbooks, and teacher-training workshops. US embassies in Jordan, Syria and Yemen conduct their own English training programmes while those in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia give support to affiliated projects.

The US aid agency USAID is also involved in English teacher training programmes, most notably in Egypt.

In addition, Powell launched the Middle East Partnership Initiative at the end of 2002 to promote political, economic and educational reforms in the region.

“The drive for reform is being increasingly stepped up by Washington,” says Karmani. “And what’s worrying is that there seems to be no moral debate about introducing secular reforms into the heart of the Arab-Muslim world.”

Regional reforms

With or without that impetus, curricular reforms and the spread of English have continued apace in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia has implemented well publicised changes, but the regional pace-setter is Qatar, where a major revamp of school curricula, educational facilities and teaching methods is under way.

This autumn, Carnegie Mellon University joins fellow American institutions Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M University and Virginia Commonwealth University who have already set up English-medium branches in Qatar.

“Students are learning more English and less

Washington Post on US colleges setting up in Qatar

But according to Cairo-based RELO Robert Lindsey, the US promotion of English has always been “extremely modest and peripheral to our mainstream public diplomacy and economic development policies”.

“If there is in fact a correlation between the spread and use of English and the spread of democratic values, then our public diplomacy has missed – and continues to miss – a big opportunity,” Lindsey told

And Darwish al-Imadi, director of the Educational Institute at the Supreme Educational Council that oversees the reforms, dismisses suggestions that Qatar has succumbed to external pressure. The current reform campaign began three months before the 9/11 attacks took place, he says, and only serves educational purposes.

Nevertheless, many Western observers view the relationship between imported subjects and native ones as essentially competitive. Writing in the Washington Post last year, journalist Susan Glasser said Qatar’s educational reforms meant “students are learning more English and less Islam”.


But are English and Arabic necessarily locked into a zero-sum contest? And does an English education not empower students in a world where that language dominates global commerce, travel, diplomacy and the internet?

Karmani argues that the two can coexist, but to meet students’ needs, English might be taught as a foreign, not second, language. Countries such as France, Japan and Iceland cope well without having to resort to English-medium education, he notes.

Experts agree that students learn best in their native tongue

Experts agree that students
learn best in their native tongue

“It is an indisputable fact that people learn better in their mother tongue,” says Karmani. “But instead of being taught together, with English, Arabic has been grotesquely marginalised.

“The result is that students leave universities with very poor levels of English. The Arab Human Development Report for 2003 has found that… young people are leaving university with very poor language skills in both English and Arabic. So, in a sense, these people are being disempowered by an English-only approach to education.”

Lindsey says the US has no official position “other than a general position in favour of freedom of choice: We would not like to see English as a foreign language banned or severely hampered, or English-medium schools closed.” But he agrees that students normally learn better in their native tongues.

The solution says Karmani, is “to promote more Arabic in ways that empower young people and to explore ways of adding English as a means of building on literacy in Arabic.

“There is a desperate need for a debate on language policy issues in the Arab world, to determine just how much English we really need and why we need it along with a parallel debate on the role of classical, modern and demotic varieties of Arabic.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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