ATHENS, Ga. - To many Americans, Arabic is the sound and sign of the enemy, the vitriolic language of Osa-ma bin Laden or a hateful slogan scrawled on a banner. To University of Georgia junior Adriane Steinke, it's a fascinating classroom challenge.
"There really is nothing to compare it to in English," said Ms. Steinke, a political science major taking beginning Arabic this term. "It's a new alphabet, new sound system, new way of writing."
Her teachers and other U.S. Arabic scholars are hoping the national crisis over terrorism promotes new interest in the language, revered as the liturgical language of many of the 1 billion Muslims worldwide.
Linguists say they are cultivating friends of Islam as they teach students the rich language of the Koran, the sayings of the prophet Mohammed and the average Arab newspaper. The Arabic language program at the university, which is expanding, has also become a stopping ground for FBI and CIA recruiters looking for operatives who can crack secretive terror cells.
"One of my students said, 'I have to learn Arabic. I don't want to get shot at. If I learn Arabic, I can go into intelligence, and they don't get shot at,"' said Kenneth Honer-kamp, a religion professor who teaches advanced Arabic at the university.
One convert to the program is James Dunne, an upperclassman from New Orleans who began enrolling in Arabic courses after taking a course on the modern history of the Middle East.
"Once you start learning about the culture, you kind of want to learn the language," said Mr. Dunne, who is writing a thesis on the CIA's involvement in the 1953 coup in Iran. "That's the only way you can truly read the documents."
The students tend to make quick progress. When Arabic television broadcast a videotaped statement by Mr. bin Laden, predicting a reign of terror over the United States, some watched the broadcast from Athens, understanding the chilling phrases without relying on the translation.
Like the current gulf between America and Afghanistan, the road from Romance languages to Modern Standard Arabic can be rocky, however. College students in Jawad Qureshi's beginning Arabic class chant greetings in halting Arabic and copy their first phrases in the ornate script.
"Writing from right to left?" Mr. Qureshi said jokingly. "What's up with that?"
After half a term, Ms. Steinke said, she can understand much of what Mr. Qureshi says in class, but she panics when asked to read aloud from a line of script, a pretty but meaningless line of dots and flourishes to brand-new students.
Students who gravitate toward Arabic tend to break into three groups, said Dr. Honer-kamp.
"You have a group of people that have some Arabic," he said. "Their parents speak Arabic. They hear Arabic at home, but they can't read.
"Probably one third are Muslims from non-Arab countries - Indonesia, Pakistan, India - who want to learn Arabic for their religions, because Arabic is the language of the Koran.
"The other third are people that are just interested. Some maybe know someone in Saudi Arabia and they like them and thought the language was nice. Some people are interested in business, the military" or journalism.