Americana in Arabic

Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor who runs a blog about Middle Eastern affairs, was not a supporter of the Iraq war and has been very critical of US policy since. But he has an idea which I think anyone interested in promoting democracy in that part of the world could get behind.

Prof. Cole wants to undertake a project to translate important books by great Americans and about America into Arabic, and to subsidize their publication and distribution.

The project will begin with a selected set of passages and essays by Thomas Jefferson on constitutional and governmental issues such as freedom of religion, the separation of powers, inalienable rights, the sovereignty of the people, and so forth.

I hope to have all the founding fathers translated—Madison, Franklin, Washington, Paine, and so on. I would also like to see works that treat issues in democracy and multi-culturalism. I cannot find in OCLC, an electronic catalogue of over 40 million books held in participating libraries, any Arabic translation of the major speeches and letters of Martin Luther King or of the works of Susan B. Anthony. Eventually it would be nice to see in Arabic a good solid book about, e.g., the history of the American Jewish community, and other important minority groups about which most Arabs know nothing.

Prof. Cole is seeking donations for this project, which seems a worthy effort at candle-lighting. Doubtless some will claim it smacks of cultural condescension. But isn’t the real condescension in assuming that people in the Arab world are not interested in reading some of the classics of American democracy?