Skip to main content

Middle East Perspective

by Donna Lee Bowen

Historically, Brigham Young University has not had a program focusing on the modern Middle East. After 9/11, the day that President Bush declared that the U.S. was sending troops into Afghanistan, we began to rethink that. The President’s announcement was made General Conference Sunday; President Bush’s speech interrupted President Hinckley’s Conference address.

As I drove home from my daughter’s house in St. George that Sunday, I thought and thought, and when I got home, I went to see Dil Parkinson. As we spoke that night, we realized then more than ever that we needed to start a modern Middle East studies program. It was something our country needed; something we could contribute to; and something that we’d been building toward ever since I was hired at BYU in 1978. No region is more important to the entire world than the Middle East—and no other region is more misunderstood. When we can help dispel incorrect ideas about what goes on in the Middle East, what people want there, how they view terrorism, or whether there is a clash of civilizations, we benefit national security as well as help cultures and people of the world understand each other.


Before the program was created, BYU concentrated on Asia, while the University of Utah worked on the modern Middle East. Gradually over the last thirty years, faculty members with knowledge of the modern Middle East have joined our ranks one by one. And with the opening of the Jerusalem Center, our need for knowledgeable faculty with expertise in the Middle East grew.

When we began laying the foundation for our program, we built it on a strong disciplinary base. The Arabic language is that base. We take students who know nothing at all about Arabic all the way through a minimum of three years of intensive Arabic. The curriculum is aimed at helping them function in the modern world, which includes reading newspapers, speaking to people in dialect, understanding television broadcasts and videos in standard Arabic, and operating on the street in the Middle East. Currently our language offerings are limited to Arabic. We look forward to adding Persian (Farsi) and Turkish when resources allow.

Our language training resources are excellent. Kirk Belnap, professor of Arabic, directs the National Middle East Language Resource Center (NMELRC). Having that center associated with BYU greatly benefits our students; it gives them access to all the language teaching resources and work in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian being done across the country. We are on the cutting edge of modern Middle Eastern languages.


With an established disciplinary core in the language, we began adding area studies classes that require students to become familiar with Middle Eastern geography, humanities, political science, as well as an historical foundation. The area studies facet supports the Arabic disciplinary focus. This is unique to the BYU program. Other similar programs either offer Arabic language and literature, or they offer area studies without the strong language component. There are few programs that put undergraduates through the amount of Arabic that we require of our students.

The area studies program in the undergraduate program is also well established and growing. Our excellent, well published faculty, have conducted significant research in different parts of the Middle East. In addition to the qualified faculty dedicated to the undergraduate program, we have enlisted experts from across the country to share their knowledge with our students via intensive evening classes. Students can sign up for a half-credit class taught by one of our visiting experts who typically give a two-and-a-half hour lecture every evening for about three days. Lecture topics have ranged from American national interests to Persian Gulf security. We are looking into a similar class that focuses on oil: the pricing, economics, and politics of oil; as well as a class on Middle East security issues.

Also unique to our program is that it caters solely to undergraduate students; we do not have a graduate program. Most Middle East studies programs focus on graduate studies, and they usually accept applicants who have had a year, or maybe two, of Arabic. With their experience, our students are given opportunities coming right out of their undergraduate work that would usually require two or three years of post-graduate school work. We are proud to say our program—especially in terms of language—is one of the top undergraduate programs in the nation.

Two Egyptian men preparing and watering camels.


At BYU, the path to building ties with other nations and people of the world begins with our students. They are our strongest asset. We have incredible, bright students who are willing to work diligently; use their agile minds; and willing to take the work we give them and run with it.

When our students first start the program, much of what we do is help them identify what biases they bring to the table. We ask them to set those biases aside, study and learn new things, and then go back and evaluate their biases. We also teach our students to not be afraid to take on any issue, research it, get to the root of the issue, and discover the truth. With this mindset, our students can help others identify and become better informed of current issues concerning the Middle East.

As it stands today, the Middle East and its political issues seem entirely foreign to many people in our country. Our students can help rectify that as they take their knowledge and experience to the world. They can help others understand that people in the Middle East care about the same things we care about. They care about their children, they care about their families, and they care about having a job so they can provide for themselves. They are concerned about building steady governments to make their cities better and to help their countries operate better. Their challenges and issues are human issues. We have to be concerned about individuals on an individual level before we can begin to look at national and international politics.

A Syrian shepherd.


Those important lessons, of learning to see people as individuals, can’t always be taught in a classroom. One of the innovative ways we have broadened the scope of our program is by sending our students overseas for their third-year advanced Arabic courses. Last year our students went to Amman, Jordan, for the semester. We placed them with local families, conducted coursework in the language, and gave them opportunities to use their language skills as they traveled around the city.

Interacting with the families the students live with and the people they encounter is one of the joys of the program. One of my students came back from studying in Morocco, and said, “Other people in the program asked me why I wanted Moroccan friends.” To us, that is the very centerpiece of the program: branching out, expanding horizons, and learning to understand different cultures and people.

When studying abroad, it is enormously important that students learn to function in the Middle East, and acquire the appropriate demeanor to be ensure their safety, make friends, and learn what people are thinking. We tell all our students that they can talk 25 percent of the time, but they need to listen 75 percent of the time. Too often we make the mistake of offering our opinion or thoughts without first listening and understanding another’s point of view. We tell our students they must listen, listen, listen, and then, when they think they understand, then they can respond. This approach doesn’t require that our students accept their views, but they at least need to understand the issue.


When I first taught Arabic at BYU, typically thirty students would enroll in the first semester and only about half of them would continue. Now we have more than one hundred students who enroll. We had two students graduate from the program its first year. Now, forty students will be graduating. Programs nationwide are reporting the same kind of growth.

As interest and enrollment grow, we are concerned that we use our resources wisely and that we create the right kind of experience for our students. We love our students. And we are working as hard as we can to improve their experiences in our program. If we can instill in them the complexity of the Middle East, then we are helping them gain a better perspective on what is happening in that region. Many students in our program have a sense of mission about their work. They recognize they can turn their work to good, both for their careers and for the needs of our country.

A number of our students see themselves headed for government. Many hope to be significant administrators in government offices. Equally important, a number of our students will enter academics. Others still will enter professional careers as lawyers or as businessmen. I hope many will also be parents who will teach their children to be active citizens in their communities.

Our alumni have already been placed in several important professional locations including the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We have placed alumni in the State Department, where they have begun to turn up in fairly significant places. We have alumni in all branches of military service, including Special Forces, the National Guard. We also have alumni in different agencies, such as the Development Bank. Some are oil analysts, who have moved into a variety of positions. The program has excellent alumni, and with the intellect and the talent that we have out there now, I expect to see this program grow and grow.


In addition to the professional and academic aims of the program, we encourage our students to become examples of the gospel. We have come to understand that the Middle East will be one of the last regions the Church will proselyte in, and communicating the gospel may take place in ways that we have never imagined. How can we hope to eventually share the gospel if we do not understand how to communicate with the people?

Our students have a spirit about them. We speak to the hunger for values that I see almost everywhere, the hunger for something that is greater than life itself—and our students are out there. They are making a difference in people’s lives, whether it is through answering questions about American values of responsibility and accountability, or questions concerning spiritual values.

When I accompanied sixty students and professors to Amman and Jerusalem, one of the things we did whenever possible was sing. When we visited old churches, especially ones with beautiful acoustics, we would ask permission to sing. On one such occasion, Dil Parkinson had our students in a small church up in northern Israel, and the priest gave the group permission to sing. They sang two hymns. After that they had to move along because there was another group waiting to come in. Before they left though, the priest took Parkinson aside and, in reference to the group that had just arrived, said “You already have what they’re here looking for.”

We know what we have, and we seek to share it. In a world where everything seems to be up for sale, we hold fast to principles that we will not surrender.

Bowen is the faculty coordinator for the Middle East Studies/Arabic major and a professor of political science at BYU.