Another Casualty of ISIS: Study Abroad

on February 22 | in Foreign Policy, Homeland Security, Middle East, War of Ideas

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Among all the victims of ISIS, here’s one that has gone nearly unnoticed: study abroad.

Don’t worry: “study abroad” itself remains highly popular. The number of Americans studying overseas in 2014 was 5.2% higher than in 2013, according to the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors Report, following a trend that has seen student expats more than tripling over the past two decades. More young Americans than ever before see studying in a foreign country as a necessary part of preparing for a professional career.

Just not in the Muslim world.

304,467 American students studied overseas in 2013-14, and of the top 25 destinations almost half (12) were to Western countries. The top four were the UK, Italy, Spain, and France; China is now at number 5, after a remarkable surge in popularity. More non-Western nations emerge farther down the list: Costa Rica (8), Japan (10), South Africa (11), India (12). Although Europe remains on top, with 53.3% of the total, Latin America is popular (16.2%) and Asia is well represented (11.9%). Even sub-Saharan Africa gets a nod.

But the Middle East and North Africa—the area containing most of the world’s Muslim-majority nations—represent barely 2% of the total. And even this statistic is deceiving, because the single most popular Middle Eastern destination is Israel. There’s nothing wrong with studying in Israel, of course, but last year the tiny country hosted more Americans than all the Muslim-majority Middle Eastern nations combined. True, Jordan and the UAE get a substantial number, but 11 out of the remaining 15 Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East and North Africa had fewer than 30 American students each. That’s .0001%, if you’re counting.

Why does this matter for intelligence? Because a crucial part of doing the job is providing context for understanding what’s going on in the world. We can have the best HUMINT, SIGINT, and IMINT in the world, but as an analyst if you can’t bring a sense of cultural context to what you’re seeing, you can’t help the policymaker see what’s really going on.

And what’s worse, it’s almost impossible to “teach” someone culture: you need to live it. Because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—and now, the meltdown in Yemen, the instability in Libya, the metastasizing Syrian conflict and the rise of the Islamic State—we are rapidly creating a future where the only Americans who have lived in a Muslim country have done so as part of an occupying force. You don’t get “culture” living in a Green Zone.

But maybe we’re just avoiding the Middle East, rather than Muslim nations per se? Consider South Asia, where the only two destinations with dramatic drops were Muslim-majority Bangladesh (-61.4%) and Pakistan (-45.5%). And note, the apparently dramatic decrease in Pakistan is because the total number of U.S. students went from 11 to 6. By comparison, Bhutan—with a population of 778,000 to Pakistan’s 192 million—increased last year to 38. In Asia, Indonesia remained strong in 2014, but moderately-Muslim Malaysia dropped from 237 to 159 (-32.9%). Even with a few outliers, it’s hard not to see a pattern.

This is not the fault of the students, parents, or universities. Students from any country deserve to live and study in safety, and the spread of Islamic radicalism has put more and more nations at risk. Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen are in the midst of military conflict right now, fueled by radicalism, sectarian hatred, and regional politics, so are reasonably off the table right now. Other countries like Palestine, Egypt, and Pakistan may be mostly safe, but periodically dangerous due to specific terrorist threats against Americans. But this doesn’t tell the whole story.

The Islamic State has scored a kind of marketing coup: the images that average Americans see today, and associate with Islam, are almost exclusively produced by the group’s sophisticated propaganda apparatus. They promote violence, brutality, torture, and fanaticism, and they effectively attach the iconography and history of an entire faith to it. This means that for many Americans, ISIS is now the most powerful and recognizable image of Islam—and there are almost no countervailing images, memories, or experiences to balance the picture.

Study abroad has the potential to provide that balance, and so the current lack of direct human contact could have significant repercussions for our understanding of the world in the future via intelligence, diplomacy, or otherwise. When this generation grows into positions of power, the overwhelming majority will have never broken bread in Damascus or negotiated in a souk in Cairo. They are unlikely to have funny stories about the Iranian who joked about “Death to America” rallies (“It’s like a rock concert—and there’s nothing else to do on a Friday.”). They’ll never be able to reach into their memory for the exceptions to the pattern—like the Lebanese who told me about the underground pork restaurant in Beirut where the bad Muslims go to get their bacon fix, or the Saudi who told me “Riyadh is crazy—you have to go to Jeddah to meet girls.”

Looking at the ways ISIS has directly impacted so many Syrian and Iraqi lives, maybe such a small thing as study abroad doesn’t matter very much. Or maybe it does.

In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, barely any analysts in the U.S. Intelligence Community could imagine that Saddam Hussein was pretending to have weapons of mass destruction—pretending, because inside his culture, it was safer to risk the wrath of the United States than to admit to his regional enemies that he had no credible deterrent.

No intelligence source could reveal what we ourselves couldn’t imagine.


David Millar is an intelligence professional and instructor with over a decade looking at East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.  As the Senior Intelligence Analyst for Northeast Asia at SOCPAC, he provided strategic insight for planning and operations in Asia, and as an intelligence analyst for the Executive Branch he advised the President and other policymakers on East Asian political institutions, leadership dynamics, and decisionmaking.

Photo: Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. Very few American undergraduate students will visit this structure since they are opting not to study in Pakistan. 


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