The Voice: Summer 2003

The Voice

Model Arab League challenges students to see complexity of issues

As the conflict and war in the Middle East developed this year, some students took the initiative to educate themselves on the issues.  In addition to educational opportunities like the Model Arab League, several public forums were held in the fall, drawing on the expertise of faculty and others to learn more about the history of the conflict, the impact of war, and an understanding of 'just war' theory.  First year student Sara Gerritsma (third from left) represented Syria on the Council of Arab Social Affairs Ministers

By: Sally Jongsma

It felt strange to be debating issues from an Iraqi point of view while the United States was bombing Baghdad in early April.

“I felt like I was watching myself talk as I argued an Iraqi position I didn’t believe,” says Amy Nugteren from Pella, Iowa. Nugteren is a first year pre-law, political studies major. But she and the sixteen other Dordt College students who participated in this year’s Great Plains Model League of Arab States are convinced that the challenging and stimulating three days spent role playing and wrestling with urgent world issues were critical training for a future generation of leaders and public policy makers.

“It forces you to look at issues from others’ perspectives,” Nugteren says. What they learned from the experience translates to other problem solving and conflict situations, she believes.

Christel Poelman, a senior history major from Abbotsford, British Columbia, says the three-day event helped students see the complexities of the conflict in the Middle East, a background that is crucial to resolving the current situation. Poelman has spent a semester on the Middle East Studies Program, studying in Cairo, so she is aware of the tensions and sides to the arguments.

The Model Arab League, similar to the Model United Nations and other problem-solving, role-playing events, meets for three days each year. It gives students an opportunity to develop leadership and debate skills and learn about social, political, and cultural issues. Students from each college form teams that represent real countries and then try to find ways to resolve problems and pass resolutions on real issues. The dynamic, interactive role-playing and the research leading up to it helps students learn in a way that seldom happens by simply reading or listening to a lecture, say the participants.    

The Great Plains Model Arab League began meeting at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, in 1991. Dr. Raymond Weiss, a theology professor at Northwestern and a former missionary in Syria and Baghdad, thought it would be a helpful way for American students in the Great Plains to understand the background to the growing conflicts in the Middle East. Dordt College students have participated since the beginning, some of them because they are taking a Middle East history course to fulfill their required fourth course in history, philosophy, or theology, some because they have spent a semester on the Middle East Studies Program and have an interest in the politics of the area, and some simply because they’ve heard it’s a challenging learning experience that’s also great fun. The team usually includes students from a variety of majors, from first year to upperclass students.

Senior English major Nick Davelaar was this year’s Secretary General. He’s been involved for four years.

“My sophomore year was probably the best year. I knew the ropes and got very involved as a delegate,” he says. Since then he’s served as delegation chair and, this year, as Secretary General, which requires more administrative effort. The meetings are conducted under strict parliamentary procedure rules.

“It’s great fun. I wouldn’t miss it,” he says. And he believes it’s one of the best educational experiences he’s had.

“The point is not to win others over to an Iraqi or Syrian or Libyan position, but to gain understanding. That’s a highly valuable skill for anyone.” Knowing the history of the conflict doesn’t make suicide bombings any less horrible, but it gives policy makers an opportunity to address the issues that have led to conflicts as they try to resolve them.

Jonathan Vander Vliet, a first year mechanical engineering major from Hull, Iowa, says it takes work to see the world from a perspective that is radically different from your own. This may be especially true for a powerful country like the United States that isn’t forced to understand and cooperate in order to survive.

Vander Vliet plays viola in the orchestra and sits next to Davelaar. He has participated in similar role-playing, problem solving situations at a summer Air Force Academy program. Davelaar didn’t have to work hard to recruit him. Vander Vliet joined the team because of the urgency of the issues to be discussed and because he felt it would be a good way both to learn more about the Middle East situation and discuss the issues in a broader context.

As a delegate from Iraq on the Joint Defense council, he didn’t have any success getting his resolutions adopted. But in the process of preparing for the discussions he learned a great deal by reading international documents, agreements, and resolutions that he would not have known about otherwise.

“I was surprised how much I learned,” he says. “It’s easy to have stereotypical ideas that look pretty black and white if you don’t realize how complex the issues are.” He didn’t watch U.S. televised media for information but learned to find reliable alternative sources like the United Nations, independent information organizations, Arab networks, U.S. government reports, and the BBC—which he believes has a more international and in-depth emphasis in its reporting.

“There’s a lot of contradictory information out there. Even wording can be taken differently by different people,” he says. Reading government weapons reports gave him a different picture than simply reading analyses of the situation.

Poelman agrees. She says her experiences both in preparing for the Model Arab League and in living in the Middle East for a semester have convinced her that to be politically informed requires watching the standard media news sources more critically and reading news sources that come from other points of view. The internet gives access to an array of resources that each come with their own perspective, but that let people interested in understanding the complexity of issues see and evaluate those different perspectives for themselves.

“Hearing or seeing only one side of any situation, especially conflict, never gives the whole picture,” she says. “We really harm ourselves if we refuse to see the other side. And besides,” she adds, “part of our call as Christians is to treat people and their countries respectfully—even if we disagree with them.”

Although for Davelaar and Vander Vliet the experience of learning more about the Middle East may not have a direct professional connection, it does help them understand how to be responsible and thinking Christian citizens. Nugteren is interested in the issues but also the experience of diplomacy. She plans to attend law school and has aspirations for elected or appointed government office. Poelman plans a more direct connection. She hopes to work as a research assistant on public policy toward the Middle East in Washington, D.C., after graduation. Eventually she hopes to work in international development.

“I think I’ll always be drawn to the Middle East, partly because of how open and inviting the people are,” she says. “I see it as a way to be an ambassador, in a broad Christian sense.”