NOTE: The views expressed here belong to the individual contributors and not to Princeton University or the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Islamophobia and the etymological roots of the King Hearings, Part III: The public policy implications of language use

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a three-part series on Islamophobia in America. Part I discusses the premises and implications of the King hearings. Part II examines the emerging semantics of Islam and Muslims in the West.  

Nazir Harb, MPA

With the death of bin Laden, the world faces another opportunity to re-evaluate status quo assumptions and modes of operation. However, this is also an important time to think critically about how we use language to describe the events occurring in the Middle East and the “War on Terror.” Obama was right to describe bin Laden not as a Muslim leader but as a mass murderer of Muslims—having orchestrated the killing of, according to several studies, x38 more Muslims than non-Muslims in his lifetime. But among bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s most insidious contributions to the targeting and vilification of Muslims everywhere is their malicious manipulation of Islam’s idioms, phrases, and its co-optation and distortion of sacred Quranic conceptions. Unfortunately, as I discussed last week, post-9/11 anti-Islamic sentiment led many to unwittingly adopt al-Qaedaists’ language and its corresponding ideology that perpetuates both the network’s self-portrayal as defenders of Islam and the notion that Islam is a geo-political entity rather than a world religion that is not only devoid of the terrorist organization’s political agenda but in fact contravenes it at every turn.

In short, I argue, language matters a lot—the way we talk about Islam, Muslims, and Arabs in the United States impacts people in the Middle East in real ways. Not only insofar as the United States is participating in a third major combat operation in a Muslim country—Libya—but also on a social and cultural level. The way English-language media describe events and people affects Arabic media and, critically, innocent lives are often lost in translation.

The adoption of English media norms by Arabic media
Research I conducted on English and Arabic media prior to 2011 indicated that certain politically-charged discourse items in Western English-language media ranging from “Islam” and “Muslim” to “terrorism,” “threat,” “violence,” or “fundamentalism” tended to readily go in and out of Western political discourse following crises where, whether true or not, Muslims or al-Qaeda were suspected of inciting or carrying out violent acts. After their respective frequencies would peak, these terms did not always decrease to pre-crisis levels but they generally experienced a period of significant decline until another event triggered them. However, the usage of these same discourse items in Arabic media, once becoming politically-charged in the context of a crisis situation (e.g. terrorist incident) and introduced into Arabic political discourse in popular media (Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiyya, etc.), tended to escalate increasingly from that point onward with no abatement, and in many cases exceeded the limitations of charts and graphs over time.

Since 9/11, the use of terms relating “Islam” and “Muslims” to “terrorism” or “extremism” in Western English-language discourse has been steadily rising—by now there is a conflation of the words “Islamist” and “threat” such that “Islamist” has come to imply a threat in its own right. In Arab media there is a time lag as these terms creep into the Arabic language environment initially via translation and secondary-source references. As such, phrases that conflate “Islam” with words like “terror” (irhab), “terrorism” (irhabiyya), and “violence” (‘onf) had an average frequency of 8.27/year pre-9/11. After 9/11, the rate escalated rapidly, especially after the invasion of Afghanistan and the beginning of the Iraq war. There was another peak after January of this year with the onset of the Arab revolutions across the Middle East. On average, since 9/11, the conflation of Islam with terror and violence in Arab media has increased to the unprecedented level of 1,222.57/yr.

Why? What is the difference between the Arabic-language political environment and its English counterpart? Why might a post-crisis politically-charged word’s or phrase’s frequency not just linger on but continue to rapidly increase in the former environment but not the latter?

How do ideas become paradigmatic?
An April 2011 study by the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London reported that new word associations form ideas in the mind by physically creating synaptic connections through the process of potentiation—a finding that challenges prior assumptions about the brain’s ability to learn new ideas after a certain age. This cerebral plasticity, the brain’s ability to learn and change, was found in adults over the age of 18. The Centre found that new connections are triggered by repeated novel sensory experiences, which include new combinations of words.

The fact that Arab media are repeating phrases that associate Islam with violent extremism and terrorism should concern U.S. policymakers. While al-Qaeda recruiting numbers remain very low in absolute terms, there is a correlation between new recruits and the increased incidence of new phrasings that cause neurological associations between the words “Islam” and “Muslim” with “violence,” “terrorism,” and “al-Qaeda”. Though U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East remains overwhelmingly the most commonly cited motivation for violent extremism, language plays an important role in individual and collective national identity formation in the Middle East. (Suleiman 2003) This factor to date has been largely ignored—at our peril.

While many argue that an integral part of the “War on Terror” is combating al-Qaeda’s narrative, it is not easy to come up with a counter-narrative when many do not understand the master narrative of the Arabic-speaking and, for that matter, non Arabic-speaking Muslim world, let alone its complicated, radical offshoots—or what socio-linguists would call a “restricted narrative,” i.e. the particular idiom of al-Qaeda and its affiliate networks that portends to re-appropriate Islam’s vocabulary such as “Ummah” (community) and Quranic spiritual concepts like “Jihad” (striving for self-improvement and closeness to God). Countering this narratology requires considerable expertise. Such a campaign may not be possible in the near future given the low levels of even the most basic Islamic literacy among average Americans, policymakers, and leaders in the “War on Terror” the world over. But we can help to change this by educating ourselves. And the first step can be as easy as how you spell the word “Muslim.”

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