After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a commission formed to figure out why the attacks occurred. One of the culprits, according to the commission’s 9/11 report, was “lack of imagination.”
With few exceptions, the report stated, government officials could not imagine that Osama bin Laden and his affiliates, hidden in a remote part of Afghanistan, could strike at the heart of America’s financial, military and political power.
“To us, Afghanistan seemed very far away,” the report stated. “To members of al Qaeda, America seemed very close. In a sense, they were more globalized than we were.”
Prior to 9/11, according to the report, few colleges or universities offered courses in Middle Eastern languages or Islamic studies. The commission maintained that this made it difficult to recruit officers qualified for counterterrorism. Even though the U.S. has funded programs in foreign languages and area studies since the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks exposed our comparative ignorance of the Middle East.
The Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies would seem to represent the answer to the 9/11 report’s call for a broader educational approach to national security. Founded in 2005, the consortium has a substantial number of students studying foreign languages. The program has 300 students studying Arabic, 44 studying Persian, and 91 students studying Urdu, the highest enrollment in Urdu language courses in the United States. 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 occurred.
The Duke-UNC’s program teaches on topics such as cybersecurity and countering violent extremism. Students may also take courses on music and movies in the Middle East.