The Voice: Summer 2003
Model Arab League challenges students to see complexity of issues
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 didnt 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 years 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,
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
theyve heard its a challenging learning experience thats also great fun. The team
usually includes students from a variety of majors, from first year to upperclass
Senior English major Nick Davelaar was this years Secretary General. Hes 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 hes served as
delegation chair and, this year, as Secretary General, which requires more administrative effort.
The meetings are conducted under strict parliamentary procedure rules.
Its great fun. I wouldnt miss it, he says. And he believes its
one of the best educational experiences hes had.
The point is not to win others over to an Iraqi or Syrian
or Libyan position, but to gain understanding. Thats a highly valuable skill for
anyone. Knowing the history of the conflict doesnt 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 isnt forced to understand and cooperate in order
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 didnt 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
As a delegate from Iraq on the Joint Defense council, he didnt 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. Its easy to have
stereotypical ideas that look pretty black and white if you dont realize how
complex the issues are. He didnt 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 BBCwhich he believes has a more
international and in-depth emphasis in its reporting.
Theres 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 respectfullyeven if we disagree with
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 Ill 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.