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Sotloff's Legacy: A Year After His Murder, Millennials Keep Signing Up For Arabic

Courtesy Maryanne Rodriguez
South Florida native and Williams College Arabic major Maryanne Rodriguez at Dar al-Hagar in Yemen.

A year ago Thursday, U.S. officials confirmed that South Florida journalist Steven Sotloff had been brutally murdered in Syria by the terrorist group known as ISIS.

ISIS reaped the global shock it thrives on. But in this case there’s at least one reason to claim the terrorists are losing. True, the West remains a good five or six clueless steps behind ISIS in the social media war. Still, Sotloff left an important legacy that a growing number of his fellow millennials are embracing – one that could eventually help counter the propaganda potency of Arab extremists.

Sotloff grew up in Pinecrest, a South Florida Jewish kid who loved basketball. But in 2010 he wrote a letter to Qatar University in Doha. In part it read:

“I have been aware of the mysterious and romantic qualities of the Arab world since I was a child…I have decided I want to spend a large part of my life in this part of the world, and I can only do that successfully with the proper skills.”

RELATED: A South Florida Temple - And A Family - Reel From ISIS's Killing Of Steven Sotloff

By that Sotloff meant learning Arabic. And he learned it well enough to become a successful freelance journalist in the Middle East.

In 2013 ISIS militants abducted him. In her video plea for his life, Sotloff's mother, Shirley Sotloff, emphasized his efforts to break down the toxic mistrust between America and the Arab street. ISIS nonetheless beheaded him. He was just 31.

I think it will definitely help people from the Middle East to see us as ready to learn Arabic and ready to reach out and not just impose ourselves. – Maryanne Rodriguez

But it turns out Sotloff was a martyr for a cause more and more of his generation are signing up for.

Arabic is the fastest-growing foreign language at U.S. colleges: The number of undergraduates studying Arabic is almost 10 times what it was a decade ago. And that’s largely because the post-9/11 cohort, like Sotloff, understands the need to engage the Arab world.

One of them is Maryanne Rodriguez, who attended Coral Reef Senior High in Miami-Dade. In June, Rodriguez graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts with a major in Arabic. Along the way, she’s studied in Jordan, Yemen and Morocco – and last weekend she left for Turkey on a Fulbright Fellowship.

Rodriguez believes it's crucial to be able to conduct more honest discussions with Middle Easterners about issues ranging from women in Islam to U.S. drone attacks in the region.

“One of [our] biggest misconceptions is that the Middle East hates the U.S.,” she says. “Yes, I would get into cabs and people would say, ‘Look at what your president is doing, look at the drone strikes, my brothers and sisters are getting killed in Yemen.’ So then you have to converse with the other and you have to start to understand the other.”

Credit Facebook
An undated photo of Steven Sotloff in Egypt.

Having that conversation in al-arabiyya is by no means a breeze. Arabic ranks up there with Mandarin as one of the world’s most difficult languages for Westerners to learn.

But at Florida International University in Miami, Arabic courses are full, and the school is planning to add more advanced levels.

“It’s completely fascinating,” says Stephan Horler, an FIU sophomore taking his first Arabic class this semester. “I do find it difficult to get the hang of writing right to left. But having to use my vocal chords in a different manner,” he adds, offering some throaty examples of Arabic phonetics, “is remarkable.”

Horler is originally from Peru. Like a lot of Latin American countries, Peru has a large Arab population – and Horler got to know quite a few Arabs while growing up.


That Latino familiarity with Arabs is one reason interest in Arabic studies is growing in South Florida. Another: Since Spain was once an Arab kingdom, Spanish speakers recognize some of their roots in Arabic.

Camis, pantalon, arroz, tamatem: If somebody’s listening to me right now he probably thinks I’m speaking Spanish, and those were Arabic words,” says Wilfredo Ruiz, a Puerto Rican Muslim and Florida legal counsel for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Sunrise.

But Ruiz sees something deeper in this trend: the fact that Millennials aren’t discouraged by horrors like Steven Sotloff’s murder. In fact, he says, it seems to make them more resolved to learn Arabic and discover the Arab world beyond ISIS.

“Stories like Sotloff will be, rather than a dissuasion, inspirational,” he says.

Ruiz believes the more Americans involve themselves with the Middle East this way, the less appeal groups like ISIS may have. Students like Rodriguez agree:

“I think it will definitely help people from the Middle East seeing us as ready to learn,” she says, “and ready to reach out and not just imposing ourselves.”

That’s what Shirley Sotloff’s son was trying to do. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should note it’s what my own son hopes to do. He’s an Arabic major at Williams – and last weekend he too left for a year of study in the Middle East.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.