By Michael Hinckley
The Arabic language has a deep and rich history but has largely remained the province of scholars for many years, if not centuries, in America. Since 2001, however, the importance and benefits of understanding this complex and nuanced language cannot be overstated.
The Arabic language was spread throughout the Mediterranean, Europe, Asia and Africa by conquering Muslim armies beginning in the 7th century A.D. The Arab armies brought Islam and by extension, Arabic, to millions of people in the centuries following their conquests. Arabic has since filtered into European languages, and Arabic-derived words appear in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, the military, mythology and legends, and in common colloquialisms. As the sacred language of the world’s second-largest monotheistic religion, forms of Arabic are spoken by more than a billion people worldwide.
Arabic became critically important in the military, intelligence, and political spheres only after September 11, 2001. Prior to that, scholars who specialized in the Middle East prized the language because it afforded glimpses into the lost writings and philosophies of Greek and Roman scholars as well as the great minds of the Mediterranean throughout history, including Averroes and Avicenna. Muslim scholars have been so well-liked by the intelligentsia that Dante in his “Divine Comedy” placed Muslim scholars in limbo—a rare compliment for those who were considered infidels by the Church at the time.
Beyond the academic, which is a rich and varied field, learning Arabic has concrete benefits in some surprising places. In business, the Middle East represents billions of dollars worth of mineral exportation, trade and commerce. Being able to speak Arabic, especially Modern Standard Arabic, is seen as a bonus for major corporations with a presence in the Middle East, including Coca-Cola, Radio Shack and Exxon/Mobil. Interpreters are relied upon in all aspects of business, from negotiation of contracts to resolving worker disputes.
Learning Arabic has become critical in the United States, leading the Bush administration to increase funding for the learning of the language through the Foreign Language and Areas Studies scholarship. This free money is used as a stipend for graduate students learning the language both at domestic universities and abroad. Those learning the language with FLAS money are under no obligation to work for the government, but are recruited heavily by the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and other departments.
The U.S. military is desperate for fluent translators of Arabic into English and is offering sizable bonuses. While some who translate are deployed to Iraq, most are employed in counterintelligence and information-gathering operations such as reading newspapers and other communications and watching taped broadcasts. The information gleaned by these Arabic-speaking specialists helps the U.S. military and intelligence communities catch people associated with radical Muslim movements.
Arabic is also the language of Islam, and the holy Quran is written in a very ancient version of the language. To be able to understand the Quran, and in turn the Muslim faith, speaking Arabic is considered a most critical skill.