Saturday, January 21, 2012

Why I want to learn Arabic

I wrote this essay for a scholarship application to Middlebury College’s Arabic Language School. The prompt was to write about the role of language in conflict resolution.
            I believe that one of the most pressing issues in America is an increasing sense of insecurity. I am not referring to the size and potency of our military forces, but the deepening sentiment that our self-identity as “the greatest country in the world” is somehow threatened by the economic and social agendas of other nations. Patriotism is becoming synonymous with ethnocentricity, and leading to the rejection of other cultures.           
The economic hardships and cultural prejudices that have dominated the post-9/11 era have created a dam in the flow of foreign policy. We engage in and threaten war in the regions that supply us with fuel, and yet withhold some of the basic structural and political support that would bolster our image as a true champion of freedom.
            Through my increasing interest in the Middle East in the past few years, I have become more aware of what I believe are the flaws in our international relations. I see a lack of appreciation for cultural diversity and pre-emptive judgment of others. American children are spoon-fed information about terrorists, but not about the localized populations who live under their regimes. I believe that if our media and foreign policy focused on these communities rather than the aggressive extremists who commandeer the political strata, Americans would begin to understand that military intervention is not our only superpower. Overzealous build-up of the Department of Defense does not make our country more secure. I think that a bullet is a cheap fix and a short-term solution, and the person on its receiving end usually has a son who will replace him with vengeance.
            Learning Arabic, for me, would be an opportunity to become a mediator toward long-term solutions. Our defense system is backward, and I believe that the most cost effective investment in the Middle East and Africa is to identify the societal discontents that terrorist organizations feed off of. The first step toward gaining trust and preparing for peace is to demonstrate genuine egalitarianism through language. Embracing cultural differences is the most American act possible, and in order to identify a mutual goal of peace, it is essential that each side be able to communicate and feel understood.
            Because my college doesn’t offer Arabic, I have tried to take advantage of other opportunities to learn more about the Middle East. I have been roused by speakers like Shabana Basij-Rasikh, an Afghan graduate of Middlebury who spoke at my college last year, and by stories from Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Sky. As the media tells horror stories about the abuse of women and the rates of violence, I try to understand the perpetuating factors of that cycle. I have learned that educating a generation can change the future of a country, and I believe that Americans have a great opportunity to learn here as well.
            Through Saint Michael’s Conversation Partner volunteer program I met Nora, a student from Saudi Arabia in the intensive English program. She has since become one of my closest friends, and because of our relationship I have learned more than any class could teach me. Nora’s desire to learn has inspired me to take this step in my own education. I want to retaliate to conflict with empathy rather than ethnocentricity, and learning Arabic will help me become a bridge of diplomacy. America needs a renewed foreign policy strategy that will emphasize its appreciation of cultural differences, its goal of mutual amity, and its continuing and unbending stance on freedom for those most oppressed and underrepresented.