Cultural studies

Cultural studies critical to national security

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a commission was formed to understand why the attacks occurred. One of the culprits, according to the commission September 11 reportwas a “lack of imagination”.

With few exceptions, the report said, government officials could not imagine that Osama bin Laden and his affiliates, hiding in a remote part of Afghanistan, could strike at the heart of American financial, military and political power.

“For us, Afghanistan seemed very far away,” the report said. “For al-Qaeda members, America seemed very close. In a way, they were more globalized than us.”

Before 9/11, according to the report, few colleges or universities offered courses in Middle Eastern languages ​​or Islamic studies. The commission argued that this made it difficult to recruit qualified counter-terrorism officers. Although the United States has funded programs in foreign languages ​​and area studies since the Cold War, the September 11 attacks have exposed our relative ignorance of the Middle East.

the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle Eastern Studies would seem to represent the response to the 9/11 report’s call for a broader educational approach to national security. Founded in 2005the consortium has a substantial number foreign language students. The program has 300 students studying Arabic, 44 studying Persian, and 91 students studying Urdu, the highest enrollment rate for Urdu language courses in the United States. The lack of Arabic linguists has been cited as one of the reasons the United States missed critical messages sent by al-Qaiida about the 9/11 attacks a day before they happened.

The Duke-UNC program teaches on topics such as cybersecurity and countering violent extremism. Students can also take courses on music and films in the Middle East.

But for the Trump administration, the Duke-UNC consortium doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do when he teaches students about Middle Eastern culture through films, music and concerts.

A “fundamental misalignment”

In August, Assistant Secretary for Post-Secondary Education Robert King Recount the Duke-UNC consortium, they were using federal funds the wrong way. In a letter published in the Federal Register, King informed the consortium that it was spending Title VI funds on unauthorized activities. Title VI of the law on higher education finances, among other things, the strengthening of undergraduate education, research on different regions of the world and the improvement of foreign language training.

“While Iranian art and film can be subjects of deep intellectual interest,” King explained, such offerings represent “a fundamental misalignment” between course offerings and Title VI. requirement that the programming advances “the security, stability, and economic vitality of the United States.”

In his letterKing criticizes the consortium for using federal funds to support the writing of an article titled “Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition.” He also had a problem with the program sponsor a concert series which included a performance by hip hop artist Marco Pavé, also known as “Memphis’ Millennial Muslim”.

In my view, as a political scientist who has much written on Islamic political thoughtI maintain that these types of cultural programming can support America’s broadly interpreted national security interests.

Movies teach a society what other people think and feel. They also offer insight into their legitimate grievances, such as American support for the Shah before the Iranian Revolution, and what draws others to America, such as freedom and music. Movies such as “Persepolis– about an Iranian girl growing up during the Islamic revolution – help to humanize Iranians and shed light on their complex relationship with Islamic fundamentalism.

The film “Persepolis” showed the Iranian revolution in a unique light.
Sony Pictures, CC BY-NC

Safety Resources

The federal government awarded the Duke-UNC Consortium an annual $235,000 Title VI grant as a national resource center to provide a “full understanding” of the Middle East.

The Duke-UNC consortium grant was continued for the 2019-2020 academic year. However, in questioning the consortium’s course offerings, the Trump administration signals that it cares little for academic freedom and that he has a narrow view of what is important to national security.

When American students – who are the future policy makers, security analysts, government and military leaders – watch foreign films, attend concerts and learn about other religions, it better prepares them for the work they must do to keep America safe. This includes recognizing threats as well as building peaceful relationships with people around the world. As stated by Terry Magnuson, UNC Chancellor for Research in his answer to King’s letter: “Cultural and historical programs provide essential preparation for work in areas of national need.

Diverse Perspectives

To better understand the Duke-UNC Consortium controversy, it helps to look at the larger context. Since at least 2014pro-Israel groups have pushed the federal government to tighten the leash on how Middle Eastern centers use Title VI funds.

This spring, the Duke-UNC Consortium hosted a conference on Gaza conflict. U.S. Representative George Holding, R-NC, request Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will investigate. Of yours promised to determine whether the Consortium was supporting activities that “reflect diverse perspectives”. Then King took over with his letter to Duke-UNC consortium.

In his letter, King argued that the consortium appears to be “out of balance.” He complained that the consortium emphasizes the “positive aspects of Islam” but not the discrimination faced by religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians and Jews.

A campaign against academic freedom

The researchers said the Trump administration’s action represents a “unprecedented” intervention in academic affairs.

Christopher S. Rose, former Title VI officer, remark that he has never seen a Ministry of Education official “ridicule courses based on their title”.

Jay Smith, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues that the Trump administration’s action constitutes “political interference”. He also said it posed a “clear threat to academic freedom”.

Cliff Smith, Washington Project Director for the Middle East Forum, defends control of the Trump administration program that receives dedicated national security education funds. He offers this thought experiment: “If you were a professor in charge of a course on Iran-focused geopolitical strategy and a student wrote an article analyzing gender roles in Iranian films, would you give the student a passing grade? Would it even matter if his cinematic analysis was good? »

It’s good for academics to debate among themselves how to balance humanities and social science course offerings in a national resource center. For many academics, however, this sends a shiver down the spine when a federal agency threatens to defund university programs it doesn’t see the value of.

A die recommendations of the 9/11 report was “to institutionalize the imagination”. The Duke-UNC program helps achieve this goal. Classes on Iranian films, hip hop music and the mystical tradition of Islam are not only of “intellectual interest”. Arts and CultureI believe, can help the country consider new threats as well as build good relationships around the world.