By Dr. Daniel Pipes
Most egregiously, the authors refer more than once to the Muslim direction of prayer as the qilbah. This is incorrect: Nafziger and Walton have reversed the second and third consonants of the Arabic word (root: qaaf-baa-laam). The correct word is qibla (accent on the first syllable), and in English that word is most commonly written with the spelling indicated. The system of transliteration recommended by the International Journal of Middle East Studies, the leading American scholarly journal in the field, holds that there is no reason to add an 'h' to the final letter (taa marbuuta) of such words as qibla.
Sullivan concludes on an even more pompous note: "It is unfortunate that those who do not have a firm command of Arabic opt to write on topics that demand linguistic competence. But this is unfortunately all too common in the times in which we live.
Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan, offers another colorful instance of Arabist snobbism. His official biography proclaims he "commands Arabic, Persian, and Urdu and reads some Turkish." Preposterously, he argues that U.S. problems in Iraq resulted from a lack of Arabic language ability: "we saw all the instant Middle East experts who knew no Arabic and had never lived in the Arab world (or sometimes even been there) who were paraded as knowledgeable sources."
But his vaunted knowledge of many languages did not prevent Cole from giving horrible advice, such as encouraging Washington to trust the Muslim Brotherhood and negotiate with Hamas.
Amusingly, Cole specifically lambasts the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, asking "Does anyone … over there even speak a word of Arabic?" and derides one specific AEI scholar, Michael Rubin. "I've never seen Rubin quote an Arabic source, and wonder if he even knows the language; he is a Persianist by training." Rubin (whose biography says nothing about the languages he "commands") informs me that he has "a working knowledge of Arabic" adequate to quote Arabic newspapers for policy analysis. Unlike Cole, Rubin does not flaunt having learnt difficult languages; also unlike Cole, Rubin offers sensible policy advice on an impressive range of issues.
While one can scarcely imagine serious research on, say, the United States of America without knowing English, non-Arabists do write useful and important studies about Arabs, due to the vast amount of information in Western languages, especially English. For example, I have praised David Pryce-Jones's The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs as "a landmark for understanding the politics of the Middle East." If one hardly needs Arabic to write about the U.S.A., native Arabic speakers typically do need information available in Western languages to excel.
Of course, it helps to know languages. But, as these examples suggest, languages do not protect against ideology, faddism, pedantry, or misinformation. They guarantee neither quality scholarship nor policy insights. Whoever has learned Arabic can take pride in this achievement without boasting that it trumps other qualifications. It is one tool among many, not a status.
© 2011 by Daniel Pipes. All Rights Reserved.
Originally Published in National Review Online.
Republished with the Permission of Daniel Pipes.
Reprinted from the Daniel Pipes Mailing List, November 22, 2011
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Author or co-author of eighteen books, including a grammar of the Egyptian dialect, Dr. Pipes is a regular columnist for National Review Online, Front Page Magazine, the New York Sun, and the Jerusalem Post. His analyses of world trends and of forces and developments in the Middle East have appeared in numerous North American newspapers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He frequently appears on American network television, as well as at universities and think tanks, to discuss the Middle East, Islam, and the Islamist threat to the U.S.A. and the West. He also has appeared on BBC and Al Jazeera, and has lectured in approximately twenty-five countries.
Dr. Pipes is a Polish-American Jew whose parents fled Poland in 1939, immigrated to the U.S.A., and assimilated well into
American society and culture. His father is Richard Pipes, an American historian specializing in Russian and Soviet history
and serving as Professor of History at Harvard University from 1950 until his retirement in 1996. During the Cold War, the
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