Viewpoint: Language — a tool of imperialism

By Layan Charara, Editorial Board Member
Published November 6, 2013

For the last five semesters, the first question each of my Arabic professors has asked is: “Why are you taking this class?” At this point, I’ve heard just about every possible answer, and the things I hear never fail to induce an eye roll or two. The post-9/11 composition of students in Arabic courses at American universities is, for the most part, characterized by white people who either want to work for the Department of State or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, aid Middle Eastern women in their struggle against their aggressive male counterparts, or mediate between the Arabs and Israelis — as if there’s a shortage of Arabic speakers in the Arab world. Apparently, a clarion call has sounded and help wanted ads are plastered about.

These ambitions are troubling to say the least. Learning a language to use it as a tool against its natives is an inherently imperialistic endeavor, and breeding people of privilege to believe it’s their duty to save people of color is problematic for many reasons.

For one thing, such beliefs perpetuate the white man’s savior complex and reinforce anti-American sentiments abroad. We’ve waged several wars in the name of such ostensibly noble concerns, and to no avail. Imperialism has constantly proved that it does not solve problems so much as create them, and projecting our chauvinism abroad only exacerbates the divide between “us” and “them.” Only when the hands of imperialism remove themselves from the Middle East will the region be able to address the problems that are intrinsically its own and salvage itself. My intention is not to undermine anyone’s attempts at humanitarianism, but rather to suggest that these aspirations are misplaced.

This discussion calls to mind Henry David Thoreau’s famous quote from Walden: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.” What perpetrators of the white man’s savior complex fail to realize is that the marginalized can't continue to be a bullet point on an agenda that seeks only to validate privilege.

The sexualized and objectified women of the West are misguided in their efforts to liberate Muslim women. Sending billions of dollars in aid to the Egyptian military that has violently suppressed calls for democracy from the masses strips the Egyptian people of their autonomy. The extension of such endeavors, however, continues to encourage people of privilege to boast similar pursuits — beginning with learning the “other’s’” language.

The nexus between language learning and national security interests was established decades ago, most prominently known by Title VI of the National Defense Education Act. NDEA funds the instruction of “critical languages,” also known as the languages the federal government deems essential to U.S. interests abroad. This law frames language as a tool for economic and military advancement, thus commodifying it.

In the last few decades, the number of Arabic students has increased under the auspice of programs, such as the Critical Language Scholarship Program, among other things. These programs provide students with an exemplary language and cultural immersion opportunity, and more salient, the opportunity to brag about their adventures in the land of the uncivilized and oppressed upon their return. Those are always my favorite stories to hear. Alas, I digress, but such are the laments of a girl whose parents fear they will not see her safe return if they send her on a trip to her motherland in the Middle East.

The commodification of language is nothing new, and the idea of a linguistic market has existed for quite some time. Language, and multilingualism specifically, is an essential resource — especially in the age of globalization — but in the case of Arabic, for whom and to what end? It’s unfortunate that the study of a language so rich and beautiful, with roots in a region that has given the world some of the greatest civilizations and inventions, is pursued with such regrettable intentions. Arabic is a linguist’s delight, and to use it to further imperialist interests and validate privilege rather than for academic, communication or trade purposes is purely exploitative.

I respect Americans’ incessant desire to help the disadvantaged, but I believe their desire for such emotional experiences is poorly rationalized. Help begins by reevaluating foreign policies that muzzle democratic ambitions and frustrate economic prosperity. Help begins by respecting the agency and autonomy of people of color. And then, help should cease. The people of the Middle East must be given the leeway to reclaim their identities and freedoms in the absence of foreign intervention.

Layan Charara is an LSA junior.