In a Dallas/Fort Worth suburb, over 200 parents attended a town hall meeting on Monday, February 7, 2011 to express their fear, confusion, and distress that their children might be taught the religion Islam when they are also taught through an Arabic-language immersion program. The planned foreign language instruction is for language only, with some cultural context involving foods, holidays, and general customs.
The Arabic language, spoken by over 250 million people worldwide, is of utmost strategic importance to the United States right now because of the George Bush-instigated, and Obama-perpetuated, war in Iraq–and to a smaller extent, Afghanistan. Arabic is the official language of Iraq, whereas in Afghanistan Pashto, Farsi, and Dari are mostly spoken, with Arabic spoken to a lesser degree. They will continue to be important nations in America’s future if only because we have been there for almost the past ten years. Our entanglements will not be severed so easily.
In addition, the State Department has sought to use diplomacy and cultural exchange to develop better relationships with nations where Arabic is the majority language spoken. Its Middle East Partnership Initiative — Leaders for Democracy Program selects Arab-speaking young people between the ages of 22-30 to participate in a mentorship program all across various nations of the Middle East in order to cultivate democratic principles throughout the region. There will be a need to administer these State Department programs by American citizens who are themselves fluent in Arabic.
Mansfield ISD near Dallas was awarded a federal grant to create a language program that would begin in elementary schools and eventually extend to middle and high schools. According to the Star-Telegram:
The Arabic studies program, funded by a five-year, $1.3 million Foreign Language Assistance Program federal grant, was to begin this semester at Cross Timbers, then spread to Davis Elementary and Howard Middle schools in the fall and to Summit High School by fall 2012.
Arabic culture was to be integrated into the curriculum in elementary and intermediate schools, then offered as a language credit in middle and high schools. Davis, Cross Timbers and Howard are feeder schools to Summit.
“Part of the grant language brings in targeted instruction that will be embedded in the classes,” Escovedo explained. “Algebra comes from the Arabic world. You talk about things while you’re doing your lessons. Instead of a Valentine’s cake, you might make a Moroccan dessert.”
Parents at Monday’s meeting ranged from supportive to upset, said Willie Wimbrey, assistant principal at Cross Timbers.
The University of Texas, working with the district, identified Cross Timbers for the program because 10 percent of the district’s Arabic-speaking population attends the south Arlington school. [emphasis mine]
“The federal government sees Arabic, Chinese and Russian as critical,” Escovedo said. “Our country has a deficit in Arabic speakers and people who understand the Arabic culture.”
Some parents, however, objected to the lack of communication from the school district about the program’s implementation and whether Arabic language instruction was mandatory or optional, as opposed to resisting the particular language.
Other parents confused religious instruction in the tenets of Islam with the teaching of the Arabic language.
Finally, some of the area’s American-born or naturalized Americans fluent in Arabic because they are native speakers hope that their American-born children (“heritage” speakers), having learned it in childhood, would benefit from the program’s implementation to increase tolerance and understanding:
Kheirieh Hannun was born in the Middle East but raised in the U.S. She believes giving students the option to learn Arabic will give her son and others like him the option to learn more about their culture. “It was surprising, but I think it’s okay, and it will help come down on the stereotype.” Hannun says she is hopeful the class could broaden the minds of not only students, but also parents.
However, it’s not looking likely that after the outcry the Mansfield ISD will keep the grant. There will be more community discussions and then the school district will decide whether to go forward with the grant or return it. Only five such Arabic language-instruction grants were awarded around the nation.