Arabic in America: Is Rejection Racism?

Recently in the US, there’s been a few incidents where people speaking Arabic are getting attacked or persecuted. The rise of ISIS/Daesh in the Middle East has fomented fears among Americans about Muslim people and the Arabic language. An Emirati man in Ohio was arrested for purportedly pledging allegiance to ISIS/Daesh, because he spoke Arabic. The allegations eventually proved false. An Iraqi student at UC Berkeley was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight while speaking to her uncle on the phone. Why? Because another passenger was feeling threatened by her use of Arabic. These events show a growing if not already high degree of prejudice against Middle Eastern people and their communities in America. So, this begs the question: is the knee-jerk reaction to Arabic language racism?

Perhaps not racism, but it is judgmental and prejudiced. It certainly contributes to racism in the United States against innocent Muslims and people of Middle Eastern origin. The UAE issued a travel warning to its citizens, advising against traditional clothing for their safety. That’s absurd and difficult, if not impossible, to justify on the part of the United States.

A few schools in the United States are implementing Arabic language programs. A school in Northern Virginia, Annandale High School in Fairfax County, now teaches Arabic. Like Annandale, most schools that teach Arabic in the US have large communities of Arabic speakers. I think it’s really important for US systems in general to be teaching Arabic. If not to help integrate Middle Eastern immigrant communities, then it helps promote tolerance against bigotry in the United States. We can’t have more incidents of police officers seeing the use of Arabic as proof of allegiance to ISIS/Daesh.

One might argue that there aren’t enough Arabic-speaking immigrants in the US to justify teaching it. By that token, we shouldn’t teach French in US schools and Hindi-Urdu should take its place. The point is that the number of speakers is less important than you think they are. It’s more about general utility in the world at large. Spanish is useful because of the sheer number of Spanish-speakers in the US, no doubt. But Mandarin Chinese not only has a large speaker population but also is a link with Chinese businesses. We should be teaching at least Modern Standard Arabic in US schools. It allows for general access to Arabic-langauge media, and will help with understanding Middle Eastern politics. It can also provide a gateway to learning other dialects on the advanced level.

To reject the teaching of Arabic in United States schools doesn’t necessarily amount to racism, but it comes very close. The justifications against Arabic classes I’ve heard from others often include a fear of Islamic indoctrination. Or that “Arabs are taking over”, and other xenophobic fears of Arabic and Middle Eastern communities. We must overcome our prejudices in the United States and learn to accept and embrace Middle Eastern people. Otherwise, we’re doing terrorists’ work for them by hurting innocent people.