Learning arabic
Marwan Lahoud and Hakim El Karoui*


PARIS â€" The year 2015, an annus horribilis if there ever was one, will remain etched in people’s memories for the violent acts committed in the name of religion, of murder perpetrated in the name of Islam. Faced with the threat of terrorism, we’ve adopted new security measures for the long term, and that’s a good thing, but now it’s time for a deeper response to this issue. Our goal should be to prevent the radicalization of a segment of France’s youth that is tempted by a totalitarian, murderous ideology: terrorist jihadism.

An individual’s downward spiral into extremism has many possible causes: an identity crisis, social isolation, teenage angst, a forced cultural integration that has destabilized one's family, a lack of authority or guidance from parents who've lost their footing. Host societies once gave them work when it was convenient, but did not know what to do with them once deindustrialization began.

But there is one other key factor missing from this list: a lack of education. Those who know nothing about the culture of their origins are easy prey for all kinds of charlatans of terrorist ideology, who present themselves as the “real upholders” of Islam, as “scholars of religion,” and the true masters of Arab culture.

At the root

There is, of course, no miracle solution, but we think it’s vital to attack this evil at its ignorant roots â€" and teaching the Arabic language can help.

Why? Because France’s public schools are still the best place for students to learn about the history of Islam and the culture of their foreign-born parents, and to ponder the meaning of multicultural identity. And, of course, knowledge of Arabic is also an asset in the globalized job market, considering the importance of Gulf and Maghreb countries in international commerce.

Unfortunately, reality poses a stumbling block. The French Ministry of National Education has objected in the past to teaching Arabic to children of Arabic origin; currently, only 9,000 secondary school students in France are studying the language. This is probably owing to some misplaced notion of integration into the French Republic, along the lines of: “The Bretons weren’t allowed to learn Breton in the early 20th century, so we’re not going to allow the Arabs to learn Arabic!”

Principals have also been reluctant to teach Arabic in their schools because they are afraid this would lead to an increase in the enrollment of immigrant children... which, for them, translates to more problems.

The bottom line, they say, is that teaching Arabic would favor the isolation of the community, which is frankly laughable when one sees the disproportionate number of immigrant children already stuck on the outskirts of large cities. No need for Arabic classes to have segregated ghetto-schools.

But the demand for such classes exists, and since the education ministry hasn’t responded to it, Arabic-speaking countries have seized the opportunity, funding visiting professors who spend hours outside the classroom teaching the “language and culture of origin” to French children with Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian or Turkish backgrounds.

This system was conceived when immigrant workers, it was believed, would eventually go back home. But it’s now become obsolete: The children and grandchildren who came to rebuild France in the 1950s and 1960s are French, and French to the core.

Fortunately, the education ministry has become aware of the problem and has formally entered the field with better-trained and better-managed Arabic teachers, who soon will join the general education system via the creation of an “international” study option.

But that’s not enough, especially considering that the number of children learning Arabic in elementary school (about 50,000) far surpasses the number of secondary school Arabic teachers.

Mosques as alternatives

Mosques are also meeting the demand for Arabic language teaching.

An estimated 60,000 young French citizens learn Arabic in mosques, cultural or charitable associations, or institutes linked to religious centers. The government exerts no influence over the content and learning methods of these courses, the values they transmit or the quality of textbooks used.

We will not fall into the trap of saying mosques are dangerous places: the vast majority of mosques in France are not places of radicalization. Rather, they promote peace and respect for the political environment.

But for lack of Arabic textbooks edited in France, young people are learning the language with books from their countries of origin, which emphasize rote memorization and do not encourage critical thinking. The values transmitted in these textbooks are those of North Africa or Turkey, and they often contrast with French values.

Language and religion are greatly intertwined in Islam, all the more so when Arabic is taught in mosques, where teaching the language is, of course, an opportunity for proselytism, especially in Salafist mosques. But Arabic exists independently of the Koran: It’s a living language, a language of culture, a language of business.

By giving religious associations free reign over Arabic instruction, France is providing them with a steady income, as Arabic lessons have become an important source of revenue. And by failing to teach Arabic, France is sending its children to mosques: a strange approach for a country that prides itself on its secular vision.

The time is now to teach Arabic in French schools.

*Lahoud is international managing director of strategy and public affairs at Airbus Group; El Karoui is a former adviser to the French Prime Minister and founder of the Club du XXIème siècle (“21st Century Club”), an association that promotes cultural diversity in France.

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.

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