Home > Arabs & Democracy > For the Majalla blogs: on why politics is corrupting Arabic

For the Majalla blogs: on why politics is corrupting Arabic

Lebanese Sheikh Hussein Zayat, a calligrapher copies out pages of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, onto sheets of paper. (MAHMOUD ZAYAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Arabs pride themselves on a language that has not changed all that much in 1400 years. It remains tethered to the Qu’ran, that linguistic point of reference which stands out as a preeminent piece of literature as well as a divinely inspired book of guidance. If asked what made the Qu’ran so special, Arabs will invariably tell you that it is balagha, which translates as “eloquence,” and which in practice means conveying an intelligible meaning in as few words as possible.

You may think that a self-appointed guardian of the Muslim faith—a member of the Muslim Brotherhood no less—would adhere to this linguistic principle out of reverence for the holy tongue if nothing else. But alas, doublespeak has an appeal even for religious zealots.

“Mursi didn’t fail,” a Muslim Brotherhood stalwart told me recently, “he was failed.” This rather silly play on the words yafshal (to fail), and ufshil (made to fail), serves the purpose of stripping the former president of all culpability for losing power and plunging the country into crisis. It may sound catchy, but as a statement it makes no sense at all.

“The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” wrote George Orwell. And that is the problem with Arabic when enlisted in the service of politics. All too often, it is used imprecisely or disingenuously, and the result is obfuscation and balderdash packaged in neat off-the-shelf sound bites.

The problem is not, of course, limited to politicians. Arabic television channels and newspapers are full of the worst type of clichés that blur reality in the name of not wanting to cause offense. Countries engaging in deadly proxy conflicts are referred to innocently as “sides,” “players” or simply “regional capitals.” In the same vein, realpolitik becomes “the balancing game,” client groups become “political cards,” and issues, often affecting the fates of millions of people, become mere “files.” A deft politician aims to confuse his opponents by “mixing the cards” before “turning the tables” on them. According to this vision, politics is a game of poker played by bureaucrats.

Other linguistic sleight of hands abound. Take, for instance, the moderation trick, where an author places the preposition “between” to contrast two or more courses of action to imply that he or she is a moderate who advocates a considered, middle-of-the-road position (Good) as opposed to a rash and extreme position (Bad.)

The Egyptian-Qatari cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is something of a trend-setter in this regard, with publications from the 1970s with titles such as “Islamic jurisprudence between authenticity and renewal”, and “Contemporary ijtihad between discipline and neglect.” Al-Jazeera’s Arabic website has taken up the style with this elegant headline from October 26: “Egypt between Brotherhood-ization, Wafd-ization and militarization.” Appearing to steer a middle course (wasatiya) is a popular theme of Arab political culture; whether it is actually so, and whether it leads you anywhere, often goes unasked. What matters is the impression.

The Arab Spring—if one could use such a term now—has not ushered in a new vocabulary befitting the new era of democratic change. The word “compromise”—an essential concept for any functioning democracy—comes from the Arabic root word “to come down” (nazala), and who would want to do that.

The problem has not been alleviated by borrowing words from other languages where Arabic has not quite kept up with the influx of new concepts. “Pragmatic,” for instance, is widely used in the Arab world in its English form to describe a politician or political party, but in this usage its meaning is closer to “opportunistic” than anything to do with common sense.

Political feuding, too, has taken its toll on the language. Take the word “civil,” which has largely lost its meaning as a result of liberals and Islamists outdoing each other in their supposed championing of a “civil state” (dawla madaniya), itself only a ploy to avoid using the S-word: “secularism,” or “secular state.”

Even a word like “freedom” has become viewed with a degree of suspicion, users often having to resort to adjectives like “real” or “responsible” to make clear what sort of freedom they are referring to. All the while, words connoting violent confrontation like “resilience” (sumud), “resistance” (muqawama), “massing” (hashd) and “escalation” (tas’id) have lost nothing of their positive luster.

If Arabic is to become an enabler in a new, more liberal political culture based on realism and honest pragmatism, Arab progressives should at least reflect that in the way that they use language. Their medieval juristic and scientific forebears have done so in the past; only slovenliness stops them from doing so in the future.


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