In 1492, Antonio De Nebrija began the preface of his book on the Castilian language by saying that, “Language has always been the companion of empire.” His statement is true; one can easily notice the influence of imperialist powers on any trip throughout the world; simply identify the secondary language of the people and you can easily ascertain who once dominated that land in the colonialist era. A recent piece from the New York Times entitled, For American Students, Life Lessons in the Mideast (HERE), draws attention to the increasing interest to study abroad in Muslim countries. Of course the Times presents the rise in interest and presence innocently, but the one that knows the processes of history should be all to weary of the actual implications of this phenomenon.
The article cites the statistics associated with the rise,
Between 2006 and 2007 the number of American students studying in Arab countries rose nearly 60 percent while China had only a 19 percent increase and England, 1.9 percent.
These numbers have no doubt been bolstered by the Critical Language Scholarship Program, begun in 2006 by the State Department — a government initiative set up to encourage college-age students to study Arabic, as well as 12 other listed languages, including Punjabi and Azerbaijani…
Cultural exchange is a good thing, an opportunity to expand one’s horizons and promote dialogue in an age where most are discussing a clash of civilizations, but the fact that the State Department has set up a scholarship program for the study of the languages of the Middle East and South East Asia, certainly has little to do with its appreciation of heritage or other cultural concerns. In a world where students will increasingly be afforded a choice between work in America’s military, industrial, national security establishment and its offshoots and general unemployment or underemployment at home, it seems there is ample cause for considering that the apparently benign nature of such exchanges may ultimately lead to negative consequence.
It is apparent that opportunities for bi-lingual Americans to earn employment in the Muslim world will continue to proliferate regionally from epicenters in Baghdad and Kabul, at least if the U.S. gets it way in Afghanistan as well. The question is whether these opportunities promote cultural exchange or represent components of neo-imperialism.
Interestingly, Jeremy Scahill reported recently in the Nation (LINK) that while secretary of state Hillary Clinton campaigned during primary elections to ban and end forever the use of private security contractors, she is now working to increase their use under Obama. Her State Department is asking to more than double the use of private contractors in Iraq in a sure sign that the occupation will continue in many realms despite the President’s talk of troop withdrawal.
Patrick Kennedy, under secretary of state for management, recently stated to Congress that, "After the departure of U.S. Forces [from Iraq], we will continue to have a critical need for logistical and life support of a magnitude and scale of complexity that is unprecedented in the history of the Department of State." Indeed, the critical need for logistical and life support is probably unprecedented in the history of the world, and one need not wonder if many of the freshly trained, language-speakers included in the Times article may appear one day as personnel to help in this efforts.
Language has always been a necessary component of Empire and cultural exchanges such as these have been frequent occurrences throughout imperialist endeavors as well. Charles Maier, Harvard Historian and student of empires, explains,
Empires rule by virtue of the prestige they radiate as well as by their military might. Indeed they are likely to collapse of they have to resort to force alone. They must provide public goods of diverse sorts. Artistic styles, a hegemonic language, consumer preferences and tastes, flow outward with power and investment capital. Empires have justified their supra-ethnic domination by invoking allegedly universal values or cultural supremacy, and have diffused these public goods by cultural diplomacy and exchanges. (LINK)
America may not be imposing its language on cultures it colonizes, but direct colonization has proven unprofitable and virtually impossible in the contemporary world. Contemporary gestations of colonialism tend to utilize indirect methods, as occupation is as attached to non-governmental, humanitarian agencies and policy-crafting think tanks as it is to boots on the ground. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, American intelligence and military institutions have frequently remarked on the lack of Arabic speakers, usually adding Pashtun to the list. There may have been a lag, but the Times article highlights only a segment of a marked increase. Not only are more students studying abroad, but of the number of students taking up language and general studies that deal with the Muslim world in America is increasing exponentially as well.
In this sense Arabic has become the new Russian and it does not take a genius to figure out that in all probability, the so-called War on Terror, like the Cold War, will go one for awhile. Unfortunately, Muslims tend to suffer from the naive notion that the only interest western powers have in the Muslim world is to win its war against “Islamic Extremism.” That has never been the characteristic of Western engagement in foreign lands, and America is no different in sharing that Western tradition.
Niall Ferguson, economic historian and student of empire, once remarked in an interview at the Carnegie Council that,
American history needs to be understood in the normal language of history, the language of history which can be applied from the time of Alexander, to the time of Clive, to the time of Queen Victoria. We need to discard the language of exceptionalism and understand the United States as a normal empire, which behaves in the ways that empires have in the past. (LINK)”
This quote occurred at the onset of the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet today the world is still largely unwilling to classify the United States as an imperialist force at all. This surreptitious approach to the acquisition of power and influence has served the U.S. well, but it is hard to imagine that in the post-Iraq, post-Bush Islamic world, there is little apprehension and concern with the proliferation of interest the United States has shown to the Islamic world generally.