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Language & Religion — Does the Arabic language encourage radical Islam?

Arabic Islam Terror? Native speakers of Arabic have long claimed that Arabic is far more than a language; rather, the language of Islam, the language chosen by God to speak to mankind, influences how a person perceives the world and expresses reality. This, in turn, has a profound impact on a society's outlook. Thus, Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, a former Algerian minister of education, declares that "a people that changes language is a people that changes its soul and its view on the world."1 Abdelkader Yefsah, a sociologist, recently wrote that use of the Arabic language "leads straight to... the primacy of the religious over all other activity."2

In contrast, nonspeakers of Arabic tend to be somewhat skeptical of such claims. They acknowledge the importance of Arabic and appreciate its profound connections to the Islamic faith, but find it hard to believe that Arabic is so consequential.

While doing research at two Algerian universities in the academic year 1989-90, I had a unique opportunity to conduct a systematic investigation of this question. Looking at the differences between students schooled primarily in Arabic and primarily in French, I found the differences between them to be many and profound. To sum up the differences, Arabized students see the world in a far more Islamic fashion than do their French-oriented peers. What Arabic-speakers say about their language, in short, is true.

Arabic in the education system

The Arabic language is the most potent symbol of Arab-Islamic culture and its transmission, and as such has always been considered the necessary medium of instruction. Nearly all Arabs accept the importance of primary and secondary instruction's being conducted in Arabic; and, in fact, Arabic does dominate the curriculum through high school. Algeria, which long had a French educational system, completed its transition to Arabic in 1989, when the first class of twelfth-graders graduated from a completely Arabic education.

However, a good part of university instruction in the Arab world remains yet in English and French, prompting a major debate. On the one hand, a great majority of Arabs, regardless of their own linguistic skills, in principle favor the Arabization of higher education. The Francophone technocratic elite in Algeria's modern sectors publicly "approves" of Arabization even as it insists on the necessity of retaining French as a tool of modernization. But privately, this elite says with surprising frequency that Arabization would send Algeria "back to the Middle Ages." This elite is attached to a Western, secular, and scientific world view (and lifestyle), and it rejects Arab-Islamic traditionalism.

Also, attempts to Arabize instruction have run into the hard barrier of practicality: resources to make a complete switch simply are not there. The result is a splitting of institutions into Arabic- and European-language sections. Islamic studies and Arabic literature are the only completely Arabized disciplines. Scientific and technical instruction takes place in English even at Cairo's venerable Arab-Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, and at the universities of Medina and Mecca. In the entire Arab world, only Syria appears to have managed completely to Arabize its university.3 The other countries have all partially Arabized, with the humanities and social-science disciplines largely or completely in Arabic, and the scientific and technical fields largely or completely in English or French.

Every Algerian student with whom I spoke emphasized the necessity of maintaining contact with the developed West in order to effect a transfer of knowledge. The Islamist students stressed the necessity of separating that which is scientific and technical from the cultural and "moral." The greater a student's observed and professed attachment to Islamic ideology, the greater his tendency to reject the Western cultural and societal model as inappropriate or dangerous for Algeria. The Islamist movement therefore seeks to maintain the transfer of knowledge directly from the West while enveloping it in an Arab-Islamic cultural-religious ideology that filters out those Western aspects deemed harmful to Algeria.4

In many ways, the linguistic struggle is between two liturgical languages: Arabic is the medium of an arcane and powerful religion, and French is the medium of an equally arcane and powerful body of scientific myths and rites. The number of Algerians who told me "French cannot express the beauty and depth of the divine Islamic message" was matched by an equal number telling me "Arabic is incapable of transmitting modern science."

Studying in Arabic encourages Islamism

My research shows that the language of study is the most significant variable in determining a student's attachment to Islamic or Islamist principles. Cultural-religious orientation is more closely tied to language than to sex, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, geographic origin, or field of study. I reached this conclusion from extensive observation and interviewing at the Université des Sciences et de la Technologie Houari Boumediene (USTHB) and at the University of Algiers. I focused on two comparisons: (1) Arabized students in the incoming class versus slightly older, less-, and non-Arabized students; and (2) students in the Arabized social sciences and humanities versus those in the largely Francophone sciences and engineering.

To assess students' attitudes about Islamization, I asked questions on such matters as equal rights for men and women, coeducational elementary and high schools, frequency of prayer, the sale of alcohol, their perceptions of Western societies and culture, and the importance of having Muslim teachers. Of women, I asked about their wearing the hijab (the garment worn by women that hides every part of their body except the face and hands) and their willingness to marry a non-Muslim. Of men, I also asked two specific questions: their attitude toward the hijab and their mosque attendance on Fridays. For students' attitudes toward "the West," I asked whether Algerian culture has anything to learn from Western culture, the importance of Algerian relations with Western countries, the impact of Western films and television programs, and music preferences.

The interviews showed that wealthy Algerians and Berber males are the least likely to be Islamists. Female students, whether identifying themselves as Arab or Berber, tend to be moderate. Arab males tend to be more strongly Islamist. Students from rural origins--who seem much less sophisticated--and from lower socioeconomic groups are manifestly more Islamized than others.

Student attitudes toward the Arabization of higher education reflect a national ambivalence toward the role of Islam in society: yes, we must enhance our cultural and linguistic national personality; but no, we must not allow it to deprive us of the power of universal scientific knowledge. It is only extremist Islamists and extremist Berberists who are able to escape such wavering and adopt firm, unequivocal stances for or against Arabization/Islamization.

In interviews, Arabized students show decidedly greater support for the Islamist movement and greater mistrust of the West. Arabized students tend to repeat the same simplistic stories and rumors that abound in the Arabic-language press, particularly Al-Munqidh, the newspaper of the Islamic Salvation Front. They tell about sightings of the word "Allah" written in the afternoon sky, the infiltration into Algeria of Israeli women spies infected with AIDS, the "disproving" of Christianity on a local religious program,5 and the mass conversion to Islam by millions of Americans. I was not the only one to notice this distinction. When asked if the new, Arabized students differed from the other students, many students and faculty answered an emphatic yes.

Student opinions. Many students saw the Arabization of primary and secondary education as responsible for much of the differences between them. Students from the first Arabized cohort of 1989 see themselves and are seen by other students as more competent in the Arabic language than their elders in the university. They differ from students just a year or two older in their attachment to Islamic precepts, values, attitudes, and behaviors.

Many students perceive Arabization as a primary cause of this increased Islamization. For example, a group of third-year students in psychology at the University of Algiers's Bouzaréah campus affirmed that the new students in their department were quite different. One explained:

They're a lot more conservative, religious-oriented, and narrow-minded than before. Especially here in psychology. You can't talk to most of them about certain subjects at all. Religion, for example. They just refuse to discuss it.

Asked why she thought that students in the sociology department were more religiously oriented than those in foreign languages, Nabila, a student of English, offered her analysis:

I don't know, although I've often wondered about that myself. I think it may be due to the fact that they have greater contact with the Arabic language and with professors who bring them things on religion. There are more professors who belong to the Da`wa Islamiya [Islamist religious group] than in our department. I think that when one is strong in a language, it encourages one to read more in that language than when one is not so strong. And that leads to other readings. Me, for example, when I find an Arabic book that interests me, I read a little of it, but that's it. I can't read the whole thing. It's too much work.6

The greatest difference is among scientific and technical high school graduates, for these high school tracks were the last to be Arabized. Mehdi is a student from the totally Arabized cohort who now studies engineering at USTHB in French. He has strong views on language:

Arabization will change the ways of thinking of Algerians in certain domains. It's true. For example, there are many Algerians who are simply not Algerians -- they're really French. For them, language is their umbilical cord with France. I'm sure that Arabization will change this society -- make it more religious than it is. . . . I'm convinced that we can transform the Algerian personality through Arabization. But that doesn't mean that we will be separated from the world of science and modernity. That's not true. In fact, I have a teacher who did a little statistical study of her own here at Bab-Ezzouar [USTHB]. She found that in comparing her Arabized and bilingual students, the Arabized worked a hundred times harder than the others. Why? Because they are seeking something. . . . They're afraid of lacking something, so they seek it to make up for it. I do that myself.7

Mouloud, a fourth-year engineering student, feels that studying in Arabic has caused students to adhere more to traditional values and Islam. But the real effect of Arabization is due to the difference in teachers at the primary and secondary levels. "A lot of the teachers come from Arab countries. They're more traditional. They are stricter, hit students, and emphasize obedience more." Indeed, many university students told me that they found their elementary and high school teachers from the Middle East, as well as the Algerians who were trained there, more austere, authoritarian, less approachable, and more likely to beat students physically.

A group of four fourth-year electrical-engineering students at USTHB all agreed that the new Arabized students were different from all the others. "Arabization has changed students' attitudes. They have another mentality; we really don't have much in common with them. They're so narrow-minded!" They all felt that being steeped only in the Arabic language meant "thinking differently." How, exactly? "There's something there," but they couldn't put their finger on it. Two of the four pointed to the cultures and attitudes implied by the two languages (Arabic and French).

Older students see Arabized students as weaker in French, more religious, and more narrow-minded. Indeed, rapid change is felt even within the family; many students described their Arabized brothers and sisters in such terms. Fatih, a Berber engineering student, had to repeat his first year's studies, and so wound up in classes with the new Arabized students. He found them unlike himself:

They are definitely different, more conservative -- narrow-minded on a lot of issues. They are a lot weaker in French, making them struggle more in class than we did. I don't know . . . they say things differently, and don't talk as much. I have a hard time even talking to them. I even notice it with my brother, who is Arabized. We're only three years apart. But he's so narrow-minded. I know it's because he only reads the Arabic press and listens to the Arabic radio station. That gives him a completely different view on what's happening in Algeria and the rest of the world. He shakes his head when he sees me reading Horizons [the leading French-language daily]. I don't know . . . there's this gap between us. And most of these first-year students are just like him.8

Faculty views. The professors I spoke with at three campuses all noticed a difference between the Arabized group and their predecessors, though they perceived less a change in attitudes than in intellectual quality. Every professor indicated seeing a serious drop in the level of student competencies in all domains. While the switch in languages at the university level must be expected to cause some difficulties, most professors felt that linguistically, the new students were much weaker in French without being competent in Arabic. In contrast to the student opinion that the new students were strong in Arabic, a professor of engineering sighed, "What we're getting now is bilingual illiterates!" The professors attribute this drop in student quality in part to the overburdened school system, which does not provide adequate materials, conditions, or proper student-teacher ratios; and in part to Arabization, which removes the best and most experienced teachers from the schools. The drop in students' academic preparation, especially their analytical skills, say many teachers, causes the Arabized students to become easy prey for simplistic discourse and the Islamist movement. Sou'ad Khodja, professor of sociology at the University of Algiers's Bouzaréah campus, bitterly attacks the Arabized Algerian school system:

The educational system has been infiltrated for fifteen years by Islamists and Ba`thists. The two have joined efforts, under the cover of Arabization at full speed, to produce children who are totally uncultured and without a critical mind... The pedagogical method used was based on memorization and repetition.9

A large number of students and teachers agree with Khodja's thesis; and my own experience leads me to do so as well.

To sum up, this study establishes several connected points. The Arabization of education has direct effects on individuals' cultural orientation. Arabic's Islamic references imbue it with powerful religious symbolism that has important political connotations. When Arabization leads to a weakening of French, a dramatic shift in civilizational orientation results.

Why Arabic encourages Islam

Four explanations most likely account for my finding that Arabized education results in increased Islamization.

Arabic's different symbolic order. "Why is it so hard for a teenager to tell his girlfriend `I love you' in Arabic?" asks Mohamed Talbi, a linguist. "In French, it's so easy." To which his colleague Amina Zaoui replies, "The Arabic language has a memory that atrophies it: it has gone through the funnel of Islamic thought. . . . Arabic is a prisoner of Islam . . . sacred, it remains the language of modesty."10 The particular structure of the Arabic language and its allusions mean that a child who studies and thinks in Arabic will develop distinct historical and cultural references, cognitive approaches, attitudes, and styles of reasoning.

Arabic and Islam are complementary and mutually reinforcing. Arabization and Islamization are inseparable parts of a single cultural ideal that now pervades the Arab world. In Ann Swidler's terms,11 their cultural "tool kits" of cognitive and symbolic thinking differ from those imparted to earlier bilingual cohorts. The Arabized students prefer the Arabic-language press and radio, which differ in ideological orientation from the Francophone media. The Arabic-language media clearly have a more Islamic and anti-Western approach to political and social issues; and the radio stations' choice of music is Arab, in contrast to the Western music on French-language radio. During the current period of great social upheaval and uncertainty, these students tend to gravitate toward movements and activities more in harmony with their Arabophone references. As the ideological crisis deepens, individuals choose their camp by how well they understand and associate with its message. Arabized individuals find the Islamic groups' symbols, linguistic style, and cultural referents more familiar and persuasive.

This explanation fits with the views of such linguists as Jerome Bruner, Joseph Glick, R. Jakobson, Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Whorf, who argue that language inevitably imposes cognitive categories that force an individual into a particular symbolic order in thinking, communicating, and the ordering of his experience. Arabic's highly charged sacred character increases its coercive power, making it what Benedict Anderson calls a "truth-language."12 It is an emanation of reality and thus the only access to that reality. This has made Arabic particularly resistant to change and accretions.

It is worth noting here that while the Arabic language is perfectly capable of serving as a medium of modernity, it does not do so, because it serves as a highly charged religious symbol. Understanding the dynamics at work, Islamist leaders in Algeria make Arabization of the school system a primary goal.

Less competence in French. Arabized students soon realize that even in the Arabized university faculties (Islamic studies aside), French holds an undeniable prestige as the key to quality reading material and instructors. And they know that the large state companies of the economic sector function almost entirely in French. As Clement Henry Moore and Arlie R. Hochschild demonstrated in Morocco,13 these students, unable to share in the veneer of French culture that pervades the modern sector, are the most likely to become politicized. Fifteen years ago in Algeria, this discontent led to student strikes; today, it is channeled toward Islamist opposition.

A poorer quality of instruction. Using Arabic in the schools implies much about teachers, textbooks, and pedagogical approaches. As the primary and secondary levels adopted Arabic, many of the most qualified and experienced teachers, unable to teach in Arabic, were let go, then replaced with poorly qualified Arabic-speaking teachers who also brought more traditional and pro-Islamic attitudes. Textbooks in Arabic do not match the technical quality, sophistication, and diversity of French textbooks--a fact usually acknowledged by teachers. As for pedagogy, while the West emphasizes a child's observation, critical awakening, and active participation, Arab pedagogy builds on memorization of the Qur'an, a text never to be questioned.14 From this base, the child learns to be less active or critical in acquiring knowledge than his Western counterpart. Knowledge for him is less an object of discovery than a corpus to be deposited in the child through rote learning.

Graduates of such a system tend to have a weaker mastery of subject matter, are less able to express themselves, and have less developed critical, analytical, and creative skills. Also, these less analytical students, say many (and I agree), are more easily swayed -- especially during periods of social crisis -- by the authoritarian nature of Islamist discourse, which demands unquestioning obedience to a dogmatic belief system.

Strengthened links with the Middle East. Just as young Algerians in the 1960s voraciously read leftist political literature in French, many of today's university students consume large quantities of Islamist works in Arabic, something made possible by their strong grounding in classical Arabic language and literature. Greater contact with the Middle East, with its Arabist and Islamist culture, has spawned sophisticated writings, debates, and discussions on Islam in Algeria. As Dale Eickelman points out, this relatively new intellectual discussion of Islam on a wide scale has done much to transform Islam from a lived tradition into a conscious ideology.15


Every Arab government, regardless of its political or social character, uses the symbolic power of the Arab language in its drive toward national modernization, authentification, and uniformization. All of them see the Arabization of society, particularly the educational system, as crucial to their mission. This leads, however, to an unexpected irony: because Arabs draw so close a connection between classical Arabic and the faith of Islam, Arabization invariably leads to an identification with the (supranational) Islamic religious tradition. Even the most secular Arab nationalits (such as the Ba`thist variants in Syria and Iraq) must appeal to Islamic symbolism to bolster sagging legitimacy and to mobilize the masses (as Saddam Husayn did in his wars against Iran and the U.S.-led coalition). Hence, Arab nationalism has, however inadvertently, contributed to the rise of Islamism. Indeed, today's Islamist surge is the natural, perhaps inevitable consequence of the Arab nationalist policies of thirty years ago.

This logic applies to Algeria as well. To build national identity, the Algerian nationalists who came to power in 1962 greatly emphasized Arabism and Arabization; their heirs, today's Arabized university students, identify themselves not as "Algerian" or even "Arab" but as "Muslim." This correlation between Arabic and Islam, we have seen, cuts across all ethnic or socioeconomic groups. Even among Berbers, the most fervently pro-Western and anti-Islamist group in the country, young people who recently graduated from Arabized programs show more Islamic attitudes than their parents and older siblings. The radical enterprise of a generation ago, in short, ended up hijacked by the power of the Arabic language.

Research methodology

I conducted my study in the capital, Algiers, where there is the greatest concentration of university students, the largest array of fields of study available, and a population in which all the country's ethnic and socioeconomic groups are represented. The two universities in Algiers -- the University of Algiers and the Université des Sciences et de la Technologie Houari Boumediene -- offer a good point of comparison for this study. Of the same size and considered the top universities in the country, the former is an Arabized institution specializing in law, social sciences, and humanities, and the latter a largely French-language institution training scientists and engineers.

The year 1989-90 was the perfect moment to research the effects of Arabization, for it marked the first-ever entry of a fully Arabized group into the university. Also, the concomitant collapse of communism that year, the weakening of Algeria's ruling National Liberation Front, and the rapid rise of Islamism created an atmosphere in which students felt particularly free to express their opinions on all subjects without fear of repression.

To obtain information on students' attitudes and their adherence to Islamic religious values, I conducted approximately seventy-five interviews and administered over two thousand copies of an attitudinal questionnaire of forty-five items. The sample included students in several disciplines.

My research did not pass without controversy. Just three days after first using the questionnaire, a large poster appeared on the bulletin board reserved for the students of the mosque at the University of Algiers scathingly attacking me and my activities.16 But this proved a summer storm, and efforts to clear it up even resulted in my establishing closer relations with the students. ∎

James Coffman
December 1995, pp. 51-57
Middle East Quarterly


1 Quoted in Bernard Cubertafond, L'Algérie contemporaine (Paris: Presses Universitaire de France, 1981), p. 23.

2 Abdelkader Yefsah, La Question du Pouvoir en Algérie (Algiers: ENAP, 1990), pp. 381-82.

3 Gilbert Grandguillaume, Arabisation et politique linguistique au Maghreb (Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 1983), p. 20; Fatiha Akeb, "Moi et Ma Langue," Parcours Maghrébins, Dec. 1986. "Appears," for official declarations often only loosely correlate with classroom reality. Considering the lack of scientific textbooks, it is likely that Syrian students, like their counterparts in other Arab countries, must do extensive reading in European languages.

4 I showed Abassi Madani, the head of the Islamic Salvation Front and a professor of education at the University of Algiers's Bouzaréah campus, the book Islamization of Knowledge: General Principles and Work Plan (Herndon, Va.: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1987); he shrugged it off as "idealistic," saying that what is necessary is to seize control of the university environment and determine what is taught and how.

5 This recent religious program had a profound effect on millions of Algerians. I many, many times heard about when Ahmed Deedat, a South African Muslim scholar, invited Jimmy Swaggart (the "leader of Christianity") to a debate on the veracity of the Bible. Swaggart was apparently trounced, finally admitting that the Bible had indeed been altered throughout history. For many millions of Algerians, this constituted proof of the superiority of Islam over Christianity.

6 Interview, Jan. 22, 1990.

7 Interview, Mar. 28, 1990.

8 Interview, Apr. 30, 1990.

9 Le Point, Jan. 18, 1992.

10 Algérie-Actualité, Apr. 3-9, 1986, quoted in Henri Sanson, "Peuple Algérien, Peuple Arabe," Annales de l'Afrique du Nord, 24 (1985).

11 Ann Swidler, "Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies," American Sociological Review, Apr. 1986, pp. 273-86.

12 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (New York: Verso, 1991), p. 14.

13 Clement Henry Moore and Arlie R. Hochschild, "Student Unions in North African Politics," Daedalus, Winter 1968.

14 Grandguillaume, Arabisation, p. 21.

15 Dale Eickelman, "Imagining Islam: Books and Higher Education in Contemporary Muslim Thought," paper presented at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, Washington, D.C., Nov. 1991.

16 The most important passage read as follows: "DANGER! A foreigner has been distributing this questionnaire [a copy was hanging above the poster] in our faculty. This person has introduced himself into our midst under false pretexts! He claims to be studying our university, but distributes a questionnaire focusing on students' religious beliefs. It is clear that he intends to use information obtained for insidious ends. His questions show his bias and anti-Islamic attitudes. For example, the question asking whether Western societies could serve as a model for Algerian society. And why does he insist on the comparison between Arabic and French, with no mention of other Algerian languages, such as M'zab, Chaouïa, and Tuareg? Once again, foreigners are attempting to malign and slander us. Do not answer this questionnaire! Anyone cooperating with this individual is a traitor to his people, his country, and to Islam! This man is an enemy of God!"



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