Temple Times Online Edition
    MARCH 3, 2005
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Arabic, Islam courses aid students’ understanding of Mideast events

Arabic instructor Gordon Witty (right) helps sophomore criminal justice major Ryan Thomas in pronouncing Arabic words and sounds before Thomas’ Arabic Elements II class. Since 9/11, Arabic has become the fastest-growing language offered by Temple’s Center for Critical Languages, co-director Louis Mangione estimates.

As the United States’ commitment in the Middle East intensifies, Temple students are seeking out courses in Islam and the Arabic language to enhance their understanding of the region.

Most notably, Temple’s Center for Critical Languages has witnessed a fourfold rise in enrollment in basic Arabic in the last four years. Since 9/11, Arabic has become the fastest-growing language offered by the center, co-director Louis Mangione estimated.

In the religion department, “Introduction to Islam” previously was offered once a year. Now, it runs each semester, and its 35 seats fill immediately.

“Twenty years ago, when there was a lot of attention paid to the Soviet Union, many of these students might have taken Russian studies,” said Gordon Witty, who was hired as a full-time Arabic instructor in 2003. “Now, all the attention is on the Middle East.”

More subtle than surging enrollments has been the changing demographics of students taking courses tied to the Middle East, several professors said.

Jay Lockenour, an associate professor of history who teaches “War and Society,” said current events have spurred more women and minorities to enroll in the course.

“A course with war in the title has always attracted its share of white men, which I don’t think of as the average Temple student,” Lockenour said. “But now the class is more ethnically and gender diverse.”

Traditionally, Witty said, Arabic courses at Temple and elsewhere were overwhelmingly made up of students who — by ethnicity or religion — had a natural connection to the language. He estimated that 60 percent of Temple students currently taking Arabic classes fall under that category, whereas the remaining students have no ties to Arabic or the Middle East.

“Those students who don’t have religious or family connections to the language are definitely the population that has increased the most in Temple’s Arabic classes since 9/11,” Witty said.
It is unclear what is driving students to enroll in Middle-East-related courses. Witty surmised that the movement is a blend of post-9/11 curiosity and career leveraging.

“We’ve had all sorts of U.S. government officials saying publicly that the government needs more Arabic speakers, and I think many students, no matter what their reason for taking Arabic, see it as a marketable job skill,” Witty said.

Indeed, the intelligence agencies frequently lament their lack of skilled translators, and a recent Department of Justice study calculated that the United States possesses tens of thousands of untranscribed Arabic tapes.

Ryan Thomas, a sophomore criminal justice major enrolled this semester in “Arabic Elements II,” heard such reports and leapt at a chance to enhance his marketability.

“What could be more relevant today than knowing how to speak Arabic?” he asked. “Four years ago, before 9/11, Arabic never even crossed my mind. But the tragic events of that day showed me that there are now huge needs for people who are willing to do their part in the fight against terrorism.”

Temple junior Christina Hoffman has been on the front lines of America’s continuing conflict in that region — she spent 14 months dodging roadside bombs as an Army truck driver in Iraq — yet returned to school last fall knowing little about the Middle East.

“I still couldn’t understand why women would want to be part of this culture where they had to be veiled all the time and working in hot fields,” said Hoffman, who was deployed as an Army reservist from February 2003 to April 2004.

Perplexed, Hoffman, a psychology major, took “Women in Islam” last fall. Only then did she start to grasp the realities of Middle Eastern culture.

“I realized that maybe the women choose to wear veils and be obedient,” she said. “Being in Iraq and then coming back to Temple and learning more about that culture in class really changed my opinion of Islam.”

Hoffman’s change in perception would please Witty. He and other Temple professors were candid about their hopes that spiking enrollments in Arabic and Islam classes since 9/11 would not fade and could begin to bridge the cultural chasm between the United States and the Middle East.

“I don’t think this will go away soon,” Witty said, pausing a beat.

“Across the country, enrollment in Persian is already picking up.”

By Ted Boscia

Enrollment in Arabic classes at Temple

Elements I (1st sem.)
Intermediate I (3rd sem.)
Advanced I (5th sem.)
Fall ’00

Fall ’01

Fall ’02

Fall ’03

Fall ’04


Elements II (2nd sem.)
Intermediate II (4th sem.)
Advanced II (6th sem.)
Spring ’01


Spring ’02


Spring ’03


Spring ’04


Spring ’05