My inner jihad

Gabriele Jacobs is Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Culture at RSM and Co-Director of CESAM. She is strongly committed to cross-disciplinary research and to integrating insights of practitioners in the field of public safety. She believes that the solution of public safety challenges require all actors, thus also researchers, to embrace complexity and to move out of their comfort zones. In this blog post she writes how learning Arabic became a challenging self-study in moving out of the own comfort zone and a powerful counterconditioning against a fear oriented societal discourse.

When we want to arrive at sustainable solutions for public safety, an important step is to embrace complexity. This is only possible when we challenge ourselves to move out of our comfort zone which can be a quite personal and confronting experience. In my inaugural address, I describe in an opening narrative how the societal discourse about terrorism started to affect my personal perspective on my direct environment, and more specifically on my Arabic speaking neighbours. I felt ashamed by this insight and decided to start a “counterconditioning” by learning Arabic. This attempt turned out to be an “inner jihad” (personal struggle), which challenged me in several aspects.

Starting to learn Arabic, not only opened the door to the realization of how short-sighted and biased much of our public knowledge and debates about this region are. I was also confronted with the difficulties as an adult of learning a fundamentally different language, which is a process all adult Arabic-speaking refugees and migrants go through. And, last but not least, I was pushed out of my comfort zone as a professor: being a student again was quite a personal challenge.


Stretching my limits

My inner jihad started a year ago. Carrying my newly bought book Mastering Arabic, I entered a lecture room for the basic Arabic course in the Language & Training Centre, hosted in the elegant building of the Erasmus University College in the centre of Rotterdam.

That it would become a personal struggle became clear when I looked at my fellow students. I had expected a relaxed group of colleagues who want to broaden their horizon a bit, and my husband had fantasized about the exchange of recipes of delicious Arabic meals. Naïve assumptions, it turned out. Age-wise I could have been the mother of all 25 fellow students; on top of that, a large part of them were students of our International Business Administration (IBA) bachelor programme. I’m the academic director of this programme and I was recognised so my chance of anonymity disappeared right away.

What followed were weeks of cognitive pain and emotional sorrow. These brilliant students seemed to pick up almost effortlessly what refused to stick in my brain. Every time the teacher went around the room to go through the exercises, I went back through my worst school nightmares; sweaty hands, racing heartbeat and fantasies of leaving the room to avoid the embarrassment of being the only one who cannot answer the question.


Re-learning to learn a language

I re-learned a lot about learning. At the beginning, I was convinced that I will never ever be able to recognize Arabic writing or to remember a single word. I could not relate the vocabulary to anything I know – everything was alien, the writing, the sound, the composition of the sentences. In order to achieve automatization, daily short repetition on as many channels as possible are needed: writing, listening, reading. I used every source the Arabic course book provided, handwriting exercises, videos, apps, daily email reminders with mini training units.

Eventually, the weekly classes started to become fun. It was fascinating to learn the real meaning of words that had become so tainted in the public discourse in the last couple of years. Talib – student, jihad – struggle. I suddenly realized that a lot of Arabic text is part of our daily life; I looked more closely at the labels on products in supermarkets, or stopped in front of shops staring at their windows until I could read “Bakery Casablanca”, or “Gold and Silver Jewellery”, or “Bread and Vegetables”. It felt like going through alphabetization again.


Learning about grammar and culture (and demystifying words)

This experience clearly demystified for me words like “Sharia” or “Allāhu akbar”, because they became grammatical exercises. By deconstructing the language, deeper meanings of words and the influence of religion and politics on their use became clearer. As a cultural researcher, I am fascinated by the many social implications Arabic grammar manifests. Each word has diverse connotations, so the meaning can be determined only in the context of a text or conversation. All conjugations start in the past tense and all words can be lead back to three “root letters”, which seems to make the language tradition oriented and also very systematic. For example, k-t-b are the root letters for the concept of writing. By adding letters (based on a mind-blowingly complicated system), concept words get different meanings. Kataba – he wrote, katib – writer, kitab – book. Subjects (e.g. I, you, we, they) are included in the verbs. To say “I write” the word “Ana” for “I” is dropped and implied in the verb “aktub”, the “he” of “he writes” is implied in yaktub. The same applies to pronouns, the Arabic equivalent to my or her are endings attached to the noun: “my book” kitabi, “her book” kitabha. Arabic cultures are collectivistic cultures. Already in the language, subjects become part of the social context. Anyone interested in further reading? Ajamis article on Arabic Language, Culture and Communication provides an informative overview.


Arabic text book as conversation starter

I studied often during business trips in trains or airports and Arabic speaking people regularly approached me, commented on my homework or started spontaneous training sessions with me. My Arabic book turned out to be a fun conversation starter (nearly as good as little children or puppies) and I heard a lot of fascinating stories about Arabic dialects or challenges in reading the Koran.


Our mayor is a jihadist

My admiration for Arabic speaking refugees and migrants skyrocketed. Many manage to communicate fluently in Dutch, German or English and even follow formal education within two or three years, which can only be based on tremendous effort and dedication.

We need to be so much more accurate in the use of Arabic words than we usually are in our sloppy translations into Western language. It is a joy and relief to see the mayor of our city, Ahmed Aboutaleb, speak up for this more precise and careful handling of language by stating that he is a jihadist: “I get up every morning at 7 o’clock to do well for a city in the Netherlands. This is jihad in the purest form.” I am grateful for Mr. Aboutaleb’s jihad, and hope he will continue it for a long time. In sha Allah (If God wants, which is used by Muslims and Christians).

As-salamu alaykum! (Peace be upon you!)


If you enjoyed reading this, try another one in our series of blog posts about aspects of safety from the Centre of Excellence in Public Safety Management (CESAM) at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). It is intended to act as an introduction to the Centre’s work; to promote and foster the professional development and management of public safety organisations, and to give CESAM members a platform to share their observations and experiences as academics and citizens. Please see our webpage to find out more.

CESAM blog