Published March 16, 2006
Years before Middle Eastern affairs became as pressing a concern for many globally conscious Americans, students were formally debating Arab world issues at Marist School. And the day that the political wing of Hamas had a surprise victory in Palestinian elections, youth from across Atlanta were debating the region’s polemical issues at Marist.
The independent Catholic school established the first Model Arab League program in the nation on the high school level back in 1992; it has grown to become the largest program on either the college or high school level.
Like actors stretching beyond themselves to study and represent the complexities of their character, approximately 260 students from some 24 public and private schools across metro Atlanta participated in the annual Model Arab League program at Marist School Jan. 26-27. They each researched the positions and perspectives of one of 22 countries in the Middle East in order to represent those positions in a classroom simulation of the League of Arab States, an international organization based in Cairo, Egypt, through which Arab states discuss issues that affect their region.
Many schools are on the waiting list for the program. Students gain a better understanding of the complexity of some issues in the region and globally, and as they sharpen their listening skills they learn more of the positions of their debate opponents.
“It gets kids up on their feet and doing research and applying the research that they do and learning about negotiating and presenting themselves in public speaking,” said Dr. Louisa Moffitt, a history teacher at Marist and the event moderator.
The program was first offered at Georgetown University in 1983. In the early ‘90s the founding president of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, Dr. John Duke Anthony, wanted to expand the Model Arab League to high schools and called on Moffitt to start the first high school program. A nationally recognized member of the Middle East Studies Association and the Middle East Outreach Council with a doctorate in history, Moffitt also subsequently designed and implemented a cross-curriculum program at Marist for Middle Eastern studies.
The teacher recalled how early on the National Council “didn’t know if this is something high school kids could do.”
“Now there are high school models all over the country that have sort of spun off this one,” said the former Fulbright scholar who studied in Egypt and Israel.
“A lot of the teachers bringing delegations have come all 15 years so that has been nice, and when they are here they actually have to be that country; they have to stand in the shoes of a person from Morocco or Kuwait or Lebanon and have to present resolutions for viewpoints of these countries,” she said. “And in that format a lot of topics are comparable to topics the League of Arab States are really debating.”
Students serve on one of the councils where they take the position of their country. This year students in either the Palestinian, social, ministers of the interior, joint defense or environmental affairs councils addressed several topics such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Iraqi security forces, implementing the Beirut Declaration, relief response to natural disasters and protecting historical and religious sites in the Arab world.
One example Moffitt noted of how stereotypes are broken down is that in the social delegation “the kids get a chance to see that all women in the Middle East are not veiled from head to toe and to see that a lot of women in the Middle East choose veiling for reasons they haven’t even thought about, and that a lot of women’s issues are regional and ethnic rather than simply religious.”
“In Saudi Arabia women are very different than women in Tunisia or Lebanon or Kuwait. In most of these Arab countries you find a range in styles of dress so there’s not one thing that holds true for any one country,” she said.
She added that students are surprised to learn that “you come to the Middle East and can eat at McDonald’s and shop at Benetton.”
While Marist offers this opportunity for students to further learn about the Arab mindset, its curriculum and school affiliations also afford students a greater appreciation for the Jewish heritage and the chance to better understand issues from the Jewish perspective.
Marist participates in the Peace by Piece program sponsored by the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta, which links Marist students with counterparts from The Weber School, a Jewish community high school, and the Muhammad School for interfaith fellowship and learning. The school also offers a Hebrew Scriptures class in which students become familiar with the history and struggles of the Jewish people. Other class offerings include classes on peace and justice, world religions and the history of the Holocaust.
The students began their day with an opening program where Rima Houssami spoke on behalf of the ALIF Institute, which offers cooking and other cultural programs in Atlanta and beginning Arab language classes for children and adults. The keynote speaker was Dr. S. Rashid Naim, a professor of international relations and global politics at Georgia State University. He spoke of the centrality of the Middle East as the birthplace of the world’s three great monotheistic religions and of the Babylonian, Egyptian and Persian civilizations that have all made great contributions to the advancement of civilization. It is also a geographic meeting place linking Asia, Africa and Europe, which makes it important for communications, trading and military strategy.
“This is a region we really need to understand in trying to solve some of the most pressing issues of the world. We need to go beyond the caricatures,” Naim said. “In terms of human organizations and development and exchange and cultures and ideas this is really a central part of the world, and it has been throughout history.”
He noted that the Islamic civilizations, long dominant in the region, contributed to the institutionalization of education and the advancement of astronomy and medicine and philosophy.
For example, he said, “The European Renaissance would not have been possible if it were not for the fact that Arab/Muslim civilizations preserved traditional Greek thought, developed it further, and passed it on to Europe.”
As they explored the current issues of the region, the professor encouraged students to stay in their roles.
“That, in itself, is a mental exercise which is needed and will really help you to better understand the region and the rest of the world,” he said. “We are all in this together. Whether we are from the Middle East or not, the issues in many ways are universally true and will have an impact on our lives.”
As the students faced the challenges of coming to agreements among their 22 states, he asked them to consider how difficult it is for organizations like the United Nations, which is 20 times as large as the League of Arab States, to come to consensus.
Marist senior Margaret Mullins was glad to face that challenge as she feels this is one of the most important activities she’s engaged in as a high school student, researching the conflicts and the positions of her assigned country, Syria.
“I love politics, international affairs and history. Model Arab League gave me the opportunity to combine many of my passions and apply them to current events. The topicality of the program gives it a feel of importance,” she said. “Model Arab League provides a window into a society most Americans are unfamiliar with.”
She and others created resolutions promoting the implementation of the Beirut Declaration calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state and for programs to spread international awareness of the Palestinian cause. They also studied border issues and called for removal of the Israeli West Bank barrier, and of checkpoints, established by Israel to protect itself from suicide bombers and other security threats, and opposed by Palestinians because of long delays and other hardships they cause for residents traveling through the West Bank.
“In addition, however, to gaining knowledge of another region, I was also able to learn the importance of compromise,” Mullins said. “Each of the 22 participating countries arrives with its own agenda and resolutions, so it becomes imperative that concessions are made on all sides. The Model reveals the necessity and difficulty present in creating solutions to today’s problems.”
She now follows more closely the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the news. “By knowing both the Palestinian and Israeli history, I can better understand Palestine’s desire to elect a government to replace the corrupt Fatah party, but I also know that Israelis are concerned with Hamas’ past violent ties,” for which the United States has declared it a terrorist organization.
Catholic Robert Banick and other Pace Academy students represented Saudi Arabia. He was surprised to learn that his assigned country and others had offered to send troops to Iraq for reconstruction in exchange for some U.S. troop withdrawal. Saudi Arabia is very concerned about the Iraq conflict and its border control as well, he said, and is working to prevent Saudi extremists from going there to train and later to return home and “wreak havoc.”
“They want to see the insurgency shut down as much as other countries. It’s pretty true for most countries with the exception of Syria,” said Banick.
Taylor Jackson, a student from Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, represented the country of Qatar. He also studied Iraq border control and learned of the great need for more people and guard training. “It’s a mess that needs some cleaning up quickly.”
He said that Qatar is a key U.S. ally in the region.
“In essence they are practically supporting the war behind the scenes but putting on a face of neutrality,” he said. “It’s really close to Saudi Arabia and if there was ever a problem with Saudi Arabia, Qatar would be a good launching pad. Even though it’s a small country it plays a big role in U.S. relations in the region in general.”
The Lovett School student Leslie Miller also found the program and her study of Morocco enriching. This North African nation, which experienced a terrorist attack in Casablanca in 2003, is one of the most liberal Arab countries and also more supportive of the United States and is trying to please the European Union as it has applied for membership. She was happy to represent Morocco and believes Middle Eastern women leaders can help shape the discourse as well and “have a critical role.”
“Morocco is very liberal and allows women in politics,” she said. “It’s really fascinating. International politics really interests me and coming up with solutions to problems that we don’t have solutions to.”
As Sister Christen Shukwit, OSF, academic dean of Marist, told participating students, perhaps some of these students will help build peace and shape future dialogue in the Middle East. Past students have gone on to study in countries, including Egypt, Syria and Morocco, and one former participant is now earning his doctorate in the field at Georgetown University, which has a Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
“What you are doing is … important to the world. We have some of the best and brightest students in the city of Atlanta here in this room. Some of you are going to be our political leaders in the future. … Know that you make a difference,” Sister Shukwit told the young diplomats.