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


Daniel Pipes

Amusingly, Cole specifically lambasts the American Enterprise Institute, 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 learned difficult languages; also unlike Cole, Rubin offers sensible policy advice on an impressive range of issues.

Moreover, note the inconsistency of Cole and other Arabists: “They themselves freely write about Israel, although they have no Hebrew,” Lee Smith of The Weekly Standard points out. Perhaps too many foreigners know Hebrew to make it quite so prestigious?

While one can scarcely imagine serious research on, say, the United States 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 United States, 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.

Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. © 2011 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.