In a condolence speech about a recent mass shooting, President Obama stated that, “We spend over a trillion dollars [annually], and pass countless laws, and devote entire agencies to preventing terrorist attacks on our soil…” Embedded in his chastising speech calling for common sense gun legislation, the Commander-in-Chief succinctly outlined the massive military-industrial complex which undergirds American hegemony. The accompanying drone attacks, military interventions, and arms sales also results in the slaughter of innocents.
Another consequence of this global military posture is the rise of Arabic as a ‘critical language.’ The Middle East is a nexus where money, weapons, and people flow alongside great power ambitions. As part of this flow, a trickle of students from economically developed countries in the global North go to study in Amman. Among the nationalities represented, none have the extensive economic, military, and trade links that the United States has with the region.
Like the rest of the world, all countries in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region must consider the American position when making any major foreign policy move. Not every student from America studying Arabic comes with the goal of explicitly maintaining hegemony. Reasons also include conducting academic research in their field, learning Arabic as a heritage language, deepening understanding of religious texts, or even supporting existing Christian communities in Jordan and elsewhere.
Others, though, are interested in starting a career path in the security establishment or affiliated private companies where fluent Arabic will signal academic rigour to potential employers as well as give an impression of expertise about the region.
For this particular kind of Arabic student the prospect of stable employment, options for a lucrative career in private contracting companies, and the prestige of security clearance serve to relegate any attendant conern about US foreign policy in the Middle East. Their overriding sense of American exeptionalism (that the US is a force for good in the world, that it is the only force for good in the world, and that despite any mistakes that are made, it always has good intentions) dispels any selfdoubt for those set on this career track.
Understanding the motivation of these students also requires understanding the context from which they come from. In the last decennial census of 2010, “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of… the Middle East, or North Africa” was, bizarrely, considered White. This despite the dominant narrative perpetuated by racist hate groups and mainstream media outlets that conflate Arabs and Muslims into an ethno-religious group who pose an existential threat to the nation. In the United States, the majority of Muslims are Black or of South/Southeast Asian descent. Also, well over a majority of Arab-Americans are actually of some Christian denomination in their belief.
It is obvious that Americans who travel abroad to study Arabic disregard the most egregious Islamophobic and racist myths perpetuated by the American mainstream media. Less clear is how they square the desire to authentically connect with locals for the purposes of language learning with a belief that the United States is the only source of righteous rule. These underlying issues of politics and privilege are always present whenever an American studies any language, but is especially acute in the case of Arabic.
The process of becoming fluent in a ‘critical language’ does not automatically transform the American student abroad into a open-minded internationalist. The idea that, through cultural imports, people abroad often know more about the United States than Americans know about foreign countries is novel and sobering. The tamest criticisms of US government foreign policy and of a domestic society rife with racism becomes a splitting headache, piercing the veil of self-absorbed and affected worldliness.
Students studying Arabic for the goal of entering the American security establishment need to know their place. They need to understand that the history, culture, and language of the MENA region do not exist for their material benefit. They need to understand that even though they think hegemony benefits themselves, they are wrong and that its worship and maintenance always leads to ugly consequences, especially for those living inside America. They need to know that in the final calculation, those most exultant about America’s position in the world would rather dispense with it all than exist in one where they do not dominate.
These exceptionalist Americans have to go out into the wider world with a mindset of humility and critical self-awareness, if they truly want to make America a safer place.