I’m sure Deborah will appreciate my picking on another state for a little while. Today, we head down south to Alabama – the heart of the Bible Belt – where Daphne High School recently found themselves without a language program after their long-time French teacher retired. Seeing this as an opportunity to provide a unique educational experience that could help them compete in a global economy, the school decided to bring in former University of South Alabama professor Sanaa El-Khattabi to teach Arabic.
(Should I just stop writing right now? I’ll lay 10-1 odds that you already know where this is going so at this point I’m just typing out your inner monologue. Screw it, let’s charge ahead …)
But some Daphne residents are upset that the Baldwin County school system is permitting its students to learn what they call “a culture of hate.”
“When you teach Arabic, you have to teach the culture along with it,” said Chuck Pyritz, whose two sons, Isaiah, 17, and Isaac, 14, attend Daphne High. “The culture is intertwined with Islam.”
“They’re trying to indoctrinate our children with this culture that has failed,” he said. “…Why should we want to teach our kids a failed culture when we have a culture that has been successful? All we have to do is follow our Christian culture, which has brought this nation to the pinnacle of success. … I don’t see why they would want to teach this.”
Surprisingly, there’s actually a little bit of a back story on this one. About a month ago one of their own – Omar Hammami – was killed in Somalia after becoming a member of al Shabaab back around 2007 and eventually suffering a falling out with the leaders of the organization. So, in some way, it’s understandable that they have a visceral reaction to anything connected in any way to Islam … even if it’s just a language.
Still, it should be pointed out that both friends and family alike condemned Omar’s decision to leave. It was religious differences at home that prompted him to leave his family’s home in 2002, and it was then he started falling in with other American converts. (We are to conclude that “theological differences” means his father advocates a far more peaceful, secular interpretation of their religion than his son did.)
Anyway. The takeaway is that the town of Daphne has had some bad experiences with Islam in the very recent past, and now some members of the community have ended up directly associating the entire religion, the geographical region and the language shared by the majority of its people with the actions of this stupid kid and the small population of individuals who share his ideals. I can understand why they’re not exactly thinking rationally right now, but … well … that’s no reason to take their complaints very seriously.
Arabic is a language. It’s shared by Muslims and Arabic Christians (yes, they exist), and by people ranging in religious devotion from right-wing zealots to secular Muslims and non-believers. It’s also a useful tool of international business, which is growing significantly in the South in recent years. They’ll need young, ambitious, multilingual college graduates to become the next generation of international businessmen and women. It may be true that in order to more effectively absorb the language, you have to learn some of the cultural context … but that’s universally true. I’ll also go out on a limb and suggest that there’s a relatively thick line between this and getting the class to convert to Islam. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this sort of black-and-white thinking coming from the more conservative Christian population in our country:
“If they want to speak their language, that is their privilege in this country,” [Donna Rife, a Daphne resident who has two grandchildren in Daphne schools] said. “But don’t silence another voice, such as Christianity. … We are not a Muslim nation, and yet they’re trying to bring this kind of nonsense into (schools). I am absolutely against it.”
Thankfully, it looks as if the classes are off to a good start. Three classes of about thirty each are currently filled, and it’s gotten great reviews from the students. It sounds like the only complaints are coming from a small percentage of parents who can’t seem to separate language with religion, and religion with extremism.
Maybe they should think of it this way: English is so popular because the British Empire recently spanned one quarter of the globe and dominated approximately 20% of the world’s population. My bet is that they didn’t get to that point by simply asking the people of other cultures they encountered if they’d be so kind as to give a chunk of their GDP to some pale-faced monarch they had never heard of before. It got that way through war, subversion, and bloodshed. Our language – and every other language in the world* – has a history of violence associated with it because it happened to be used by some people who did horrible things. In no way does that association diminish its usefulness as a universal language of business, nor does learning it require any sort of religious conversion.
Well … African missions possibly excepted.
* Esperanto doesn’t count.