Arabist Snobs
Languages are helpful, but don’t guarantee good analysis.


Daniel Pipes

Is knowledge of Arabic necessary to write about Arabs or make policy toward them? Yes, sniff some of those who have learned the language, known as Arabists.

Antony T. Sullivan, for example, pulls rank in the journal Historically Speaking. Critiquing an article, “The Military Roots of Islam,” by two non-Arabists, George Nafziger and Mark Walton, he writes: “As one who believes that foreign language competence and accurate rendition of foreign words and concepts into English are important,” — note Sullivan’s puffed-up sense of self — “I must confess to considerable disappointment in the article.” And what devastating mistake did those authors make to undermine their thesis? Did they misunderstand jihad (Islamic holy war)? No, something much worse:

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.”

But Nafziger and Walton correctly understand that war is “the principal process by which Islam spread throughout the world,” while Sullivan, despite his intimacy with taa marbuutas, propagates Islamist misinformation (“terrorism and Jihad are not identical twins but historic enemies”). His error fits a larger Arabist deceit, hiding the true meaning of jihad and pretending that it means self-improvement rather than offensive warfare.

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.