Language Deficit and Disdain for Arabists

Jim Henley applauds the Iraq Study Group for pointing out our incredible dearth of Arab speakers but observes, “It’s too late. The time to start to instill competency in the language and culture of the society you’re trying to scare-quotes transform is not more than four years after deciding to take the place over.” Agreed, except that it’s been clear for at least fifteen years, not just four, that we needed more Middle Eastern linguistic and cultural expertise. It’s just unconscionable that this hasn’t been corrected.

He observes that one of the reasons for this is that “DOD tarred anyone with much knowledge of or sympathy for Arabic language or culture as an ‘Arabist‘ and kept them as far away from the project as possible. Ignorance was purity.”

While I take Jim’s point, I actually understand the concerns about the “Arabists.” My dealings with academics and practitioners alike who are Middle East subject matter experts is that, unlike any other regional experts I have ever encountered, they tend to be fanatics. Most lose their analytic objectivity and “go native,” picking sides and mimicking the irrational contempt for the other side endemic in the region.

UPDATE: I hasten to add, slightly fanatical people with language and cultural training are preferable to “purists” without same. I am merely explaining the reaction against the so-called Arabists rather than approving.

UPDATE: More clarification is required, I think, on the second point above. My view here is anecdotal, to be sure, but based on quite a bit of dealing with Area Studies academics and many encounters with Foreign Area Officers, Foreign Service Officers, and the like. It’s not a universal phenomenon–for example, occasional OTB contributor John Burgess could reasonably be termed an “Arabist” and is by no means fanatical.

Further, I’m mostly thinking of people who immerse themselves in the study of a Middle Eastern culture for its own sake rather than with a specific functional perspective. People who study the region in the context of terrorism or intelligence analysis tend to approach things from a more detached view and seem much less apt to “go native.”

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Terrorism, Uncategorized, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    Agreed, except that it’s been clear for at least fifteen years, not just four, that we needed more Middle Eastern linguistic and cultural expertise.

    If Clinton had made the damn Arabs speak english back during his reign, we would have been able to prevent much of this trouble.

  2. Boyd says:

    My experience with DoD Middle Eastern experts is nothing like yours, James. I was an Arabic linguist in DoD for 20 years, and my son is currently a DoD Arabic linguist. I never experienced either the fanaticism you cite, nor anyone who was labeled an “Arabist” or otherwise ostracized. Civilians, especially those outside DoD, I admit could be collectively labeled “a bit strange.”

    Arabic is a hard language to learn, and Middle Eastern culture is hard to understand, impossible for some. The biggest problem I observed was that DoD wasn’t throwing enough people at the wall to see how many stuck.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Boyd: I don’t think it is translators who are being dubbed “Arabists” but rather Middle Eastern FAOs (Foreign Area Officers) and the like.

    And, yup, aside from maybe Chinese, Arabic is probably the hardest of the major languages for English speakers to learn.

  4. DC Loser says:

    Would you consider Pat Lang a fanatic?

  5. James Joyner says:

    Would you consider Pat Lang a fanatic?

    I don’t know him or his work but his bio looks impressive. I’ll check out his blog, which looks familiar.

    I’m sure there are plenty of non-fanatics out there; I just haven’t encountered many of them.

    I should note, too, that I’m thinking more about those who study the region for its own sake rather than with a specific emphasis, such as counter-terrorism or intelligence collection. The latter tend to bring a perspective of “how does this impact U.S. national interests” which mitigates against going native.

    Then again, I may just be dealing anecdotally from a too-small sample size.

  6. legion says:

    What I love is Tony Snow’s utter lack of connection to reality. when questioned about this deficiency, he actually said “You don’t snap your fingers and have the Arabic speakers you need overnight.”

    You know, if these guys consider the 5+ years between 9/11/2001 and now to be “overnight”, maybe the world really _was_ created in six “days”…

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    It goes back more than 15 years, James. 40 years ago I petitioned the university I was attending to take Arabic (it was reserved for graduate students). I was already fluent in Russian (quite a difficult Indo-European language) and passable in Mandarin (a very easy language to learn to speak; hard to learn to read and write) so I had obvious language cred. I was turned down.

    I think there’s a sort of quality control process in Arabists. Only the worthy are admitted to the club.

  8. cian says:

    Wasn’t there something in the media not so long ago about a middle eastern linguist who was fired because he was gay?

    Twelve years under an all but republican controlled congress and my bewilderment is now a permanent state of being. And just wait, someone will be on to say its Clinton’s fault.

  9. davod says:

    Doesn’t anyone remember the concerted effort by universities to boycott anyone learning Arabic for the government.

  10. suek says:

    My husband studied Arabic at the DLI for a year, then served in Saudi for a year. At the beginning of the conflict, he was called and interviewed(tested) for about 15 minutes. On the basis of what he had forgotten in the last 20 or so years, he wasn’t tapped for anything. Age may have been a factor, but I can’t help thinking that with a fairly short refresher course he could have provided an asset that could bridge the gap while others were trained. Age would eliminate him from on site – that is, in Iraq – duty, but surely there are other places where a rusty dusty ability could be of use! I suspect he was just one of many. The military has never been known for it’s husbanding of resources, I think. On the other hand, it would have made life difficult for us, so personally, I guess I was relieved, but still…!

  11. John Burgess says:

    I appreciate James’ differentiation, but note with irony that there’s a call for Arabists, but mostly for Arabist who toe the non-Arabist line.

    Something funny happens when an Arabist is developed. After living and working in Arab countries for a number of years, one learns things that aren’t part of the ‘common wisdom’ about the Middle East. One hears of things that simply never make it into textbooks or never, ever into mainstream media, particularly films.

    One learns things such as the fact that the film “Exodus” isn’t actually a documentary. Or that countries all have their dark undersides; none is pure as the driven snow, either in policy or action.

    Some Arabists-in-the-making take to heart their having been deceived by the information cloud they were raised in, not dissimilarly to those people who become anti-American when they learn there is plenty in American history of which one can honorably be ashamed. They tend to go off the deep end, in other words. Some become more Arab than Arabs, a phenomenon not unknown to other fields (cf. the zealotry of converts to anything).

    A professional Arabist has to find a way to deal with the contradictions between ideal and real. Taking the tone of ‘You don’t know the half of it’ doesn’t work well because no one likes to be told that, no matter the truth of it. Righteous anger doesn’t work either, because here one steps into the realm of beliefs held with religious fervor, even when no particular religion is at stake.

    There’s probably a good dose of self-interest in there, too, as becoming an Arabist is a multi-year investment. It takes a minimum of three years of intensive language study to be able to deal with the complexities of Arabic vocabulary (the grammar is actually pretty easy). Then it takes years to get a handle on what distinguishes one type of Arab (say a Syrian) from another (say an Egyptian). Then you have to figure out the range of differences within every different ‘type’ of Arab.

    It also means learning to deal with a huge pallet of grays that rarely reduce to black and white on very contentious issues. This, of course, complicates dealing with those who prefer black/white issues (n.b.: Congress abounds with this type). This, in turn, requires an ability to not just throw up your hands and say, “Screw ’em all!”

    Importantly, it requires the ability to tolerate the varying degrees of abuse attached to the word “Arabist”; these days, it’s usually pejorative.

    Nobody in the Middle East (or anywhere else, for that matter) has clean hands. Most in the Middle East have some claim on justice or some form of restitution for historical injustices. To pretend that only one side, in whatever conflict is being discussed, is 99.9% pure is both delusion and a bad basis for political decisions. The trap to avoid is utter cynicism.

  12. James Joyner says:

    John: Irony duly noted.

  13. Matt S says:

    This is slightly off topic, but Dave- I wouldn’t say Mandarin is “very easy to speak”. The grammar is certainly straightforward and the omission of plurals, verb tenses, and articles simplify things a bit. But most speakers of Indo-European languages have difficulty adapting to tonal languages, and many mainland Chinese people have difficulty understanding a word if spoken in the wrong tone. Plus, the relative dearth of cognates makes learning Mandarin vocabulary a time-consuming process.

    That being said, you’re correct that reading and writing it is far more difficult than speaking. The lack of any kind of alphabet (I don’t count pinyin) seems unique among modern languages, though I really don’t know on that score.