A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, March 2, 2012

English Under Fire in Both Israel and Egypt

This blog is written in English, so obviously I am part of the sinister plot by the English-speaking world, or American imperialism, or whoever (Illuminati? Freemasons?) to destroy the cultures of the non-English speaking world. It's a known threat (you could ask the French), and this week the creeping English menace came under fire from Israelis and Egyptians both: the Hebrew Language Academy on the one hand and a Salafi Member of Parliament on the other, which shows the pervasiveness of the threat that such diverse folks agree on it.

Perhaps I exaggerate. Here's Ha'aretz' report on "Israel's Academy of the Hebrew Language Declares War — on English." Admittedly the headline and lead paragraph are a bit strong: the Academy wants the Education Ministry to make sure Hebrew is used as a teaching medium in all universities and schools. (Ah, but look: I've cited Ha'aretz' English-language website!) Of course, the growing dominance of English lectures and textbooks in some professional fields (medicine, computing, the sciences, etc.) raises concerns in many countries seeking to protect their own language.

Naturally, the Egyptian Salafi is more willing to spot plots where they lurk. An MP from the Al-Nour Party, which continues to lend credibility to the Muslim Brotherhood's claims of moderation since it allows the Brothers to point to Al-Nour to show you what extremism is, one Mohamed El-Kurdi, has discovered that a USAID grant aims to help Egyptian schools to start teaching English in the second grade instead of the fourth. (The horror!) Ahram Online quotes him as telling Parliament that "We have to be aware that they want our children to be culturally westernised.” (And yes, I'm quoting Ahram Online's English web portal.)

Now, I have no standing to lampoon this Salafi for opposing education in a week when a major candidate for my own country's Presidency called the incumbent President a "snob" for suggesting that everyone who wanted to go to college or vocational school should have that opportunity. But somehow I never saw all those little kids who come up to you in the street and proudly say "What time is it now?" to show off their English as the vanguard of US cultural imperialism, and I have trouble picturing second graders in Egyptian villages listening to rap and dressing Goth in the near future, which is to say the next few millennia.

Not everybody agrees:
"We definitely should not neglect our mother tongue but I would remind Mr Kurdi that learning foreign languages was advised by Prophet Mohamed," said Amina Nosseir, professor of Islamic Philosophy at Al-Azhar University, to Ahram Online. "Communication is essential, especially after the world became like one street. Such opinions [as Mr Kurdi's] are not supportive in building our nation."

"I hate the discourse that we're targeted by the West all the time. Are we [Egyptians] so naïve and dim-witted to be so easily manipulated or influenced?" Nosseir exclaimed.
Of course, I'm not sure what Mr. El-Kurdi (who of course is on Parliament's Education Committee) may think of women professors like Prof. Nosseir, either. As for her final question, I don't think Egyptians are that susceptible or, as she puts it, "dim-witted," though Mr. El-Kurdi does perhaps constitute a counter-example.

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