Despite Right-Wing Attacks, "East Meets West" at the Virginia Military Institute

Article excerpt

"We need you...this country is at war," Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace told some 500 cadets, scholars and experts on the Middle East, assembled at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia in late March. As he spoke about recent events in the Middle East, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff emphasized principles, values, moral compass and doing the right thing.

It was not what the far right-wing blogosphere had been predicting and denouncing for months, ever since VMI's Center for Leadership & Ethics announced plans to hold a three-day conference on East-West relations in connection with its Arabic-language programs. Many bloggers, including some VMI alumni, were incensed over the theme of the conference, "711-2011: East meets West," calling it a celebration of the Muslim invasion and occupation of Spain. Others denounced some speakers as having terrorist ties or being apologists for the Muslim Brothers. Two documentary films on the cultural program were trashed as jihadi propaganda. Some outraged citizens even urged VMI to call off the conference. A blogger named Patrick S. Poole, who led the charge against VMI, leveled the ultimate insult, suggesting that the school's beloved hero, Stonewall Jackson, "is rolling over in his grave."

Reacting to the angry barrage of blogs, e-mail messages and phone calls, VMI issued a response "to dispel some of the misinformation." The controversy was said to center on the use of the word "celebrate" in promotional material, when referring to the period of cultural harmony and scholarly achievement by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Noting that some complaints had come from people who suffered losses since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, VMI said it "regrets the misunderstanding" and the wording had been revised. Sticking to its guns, however, VMI said it would proceed with the conference, concluding: "The topic of East Meets West is both timely and important."

"The attacks came as a surprise," Col. Stewart MacInnis, director of communications and marketing, acknowledged in an interview before the event. "The conference is seen as the right thing to do in preparing young people to be sent by the government into a very difficult situation where knowledge of Arabs and Arabic could be essential to the survival of their mission. Our aim is to foster understanding among Christians, Jews and Muslims, look at history and what worked and what didn't work, and give some direction for the future." When the controversy exploded online, the college spokesman said, VMI explained its position to the Virginia Assembly, which ruled that the charges against the conference were "a non-issue."

This bastion of conservative tradition is not new to controversy, but the school does not usually come under fire from the far right. Founded in 1839 as a male college, VMI resisted pressures to become co-educational until 1996, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it must admit women. In the current academic year, there are 144 women, or about 9 percent of the total 1,569 cadets, according to Colonel MacInnis, who added: "Many alumni-I would say a healthy majority of them-have come to terms with the presence of women, although some never will."

The latest debate to attract national attention took place in 2001, when the ACLU sued VMI on behalf of two cadets who objected to the custom of saying grace before dinner. U.S. district and appeals courts found the practice unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court declined in 2004 to hear the case, thereby supporting the lower court decisions.

Arabic Enrollment Swells

Dr. Kathleen Bulger-Barnett, professor of Spanish and head of VMI's Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, described the Arabic program's spectacular growth, beginning in 1997 with only elementary-level Arabic. The events of Sept. 11, 2001 have swelled enrollment in Arabic, she pointed out. Dr. Mohamed Taifi, a Moroccan scholar, arrived at VMI in 2003 and has developed 15 courses for the cadets including: Arabic for Business, Arabic Civilizations and Cultures, Advanced Arabic Grammar and Syntax, Arabic Literature of the 20th Century, and Advanced Arabic. …