An Open Letter to students taking Arabic to join the CIA, FBI or the military

Tuesday, July 28, 2020 - 6:45pm

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

Since arriving at the University of Michigan, I have taken Arabic language classes every single semester. As a rising junior, I have grown to deeply love the language and the cultural history that informs it. If the pandemic permits, I am planning to study abroad this upcoming summer to improve my skills and immerse myself in an Arabic-speaking community. However, there has been an omnipresent and increasingly disturbing trend throughout my semesters of taking Arabic. In my classes, there has almost always been a student (often a cis white man) who is taking Arabic because they want to join the CIA, the FBI or the military in the future. While I understand the draw of learning a language to improve potential hireability, the fact that these institutions have directly harmed Arab communities for decades is an alarming truth. Taking Arabic to make yourself more valuable to a system which intensely surveils Arab communities in the United States and continues to back states who commit crimes against humanity against Arabic-speaking people — read Israel and Palestine — demonstrates a frightening level of apathy. Then to learn Arabic while also continuing to hold prejudices and negative stereotypes about Arabic-speaking people shows they will perpetuate the current systems of “enhanced interrogation” and turning a blind eye. 

Even more concerning is their naivety when declaring their pride in such a career goal to the students, faculty and staff around them. Many of our peers are students who identify as being of Arab or Middle East North African descent. As a student who doesn’t identify as Arab or MENA, I am made uncomfortable by their presence, and while I don’t speak for those who do, I can’t imagine what it is like for my classmates. It has almost become a joke in our classes, to guess who the future FBI or CIA employee is. This normalization means this is an issue which absolutely needs to be addressed. Learning a language to extract information, torture and continue decades of harm seems like an intense bastardization of the reason for learning languages in the first place. What makes it even more important to have this conversation about Arabic is how these communities are treated and stereotyped in the United States. 

I will now speak directly to you — you who is taking Arabic to join the CIA, the FBI, the military or something equally damaging. First, it’s not too late to change. To learn. To be better. Educate yourself not only about the Arabic language, but also about the people and the culture that it comes from. Reevaluate how and why your use of this language could bring harm. How we outsiders — as non-Arab or MENA identifying Americans — need to hold ourselves accountable and intently reflect to see if we’re really living up to the best we can be. We need to question if we’re being revolutionary in our learning. If we’re learning for the sake of growth rather than destruction. I know this is a hard truth and giving up what could be a lifelong dream is terrifying and disorienting. I raise the point that if your dream brings harm to those around you, was it the right dream to have in the first place? I believe firmly in never isolating people in their worst moments or in their deepest ignorance. This is a call to action, to reevaluate how you show up in our classes and where we should or should not take up space. We are privileged in how we are able to learn Arabic without being directly impacted by all of the cultural implications, which means we must hold ourselves to do more of this learning. I do not have all the answers when it comes to being a good “ally” but I can tell you that growing and trying is better than willful ignorance and complicity. I challenge you to grow along with me.