The tedium of demonizing idiom
By : Jamal Doumani
Yet again, another case of the American media harrumphing about “Islamists” — not to mention other equally obtuse terms like “fundamentalists” and “jihadists” — when reporting on some dreadful act by a group that professes to be Muslim. What these words actually refer to is not just semantically blurred, it is blurring straight through.
Last Saturday, news reports confirmed the death of Munir Abusalha, 22, a native of Florida, as the first American to die in a suicide operation in Syria. The group he fought alongside, Jabhat Al-Nusra, which is active in the war there and has been known to coordinate suicide bombings against government positions, was identified with facile ease as an “Islamist.” In a similar manner, when six weeks ago Boko Haram extremists kidnapped nearly 300 girls, these extremists, led by a semi-literate oaf, who during their long reign of terror in Nigeria have displaced half a million of their fellow Nigerians and destroyed hundreds of schools, were also identified as “Islamists.”
Al-Qaeda militants? You find them in your daily paper named as “jihadists.” Book-burning terrorists in Mali, who just happen to be Muslim, are referred to as “fundamentalists.” And so it goes.
The problem with these terms, bandied about with such impressive ease, is that they are, meaningless. They exist neither in Muslim theological lore nor in the modern public debate among Muslims. They are, in short, of western coinage.
Words are of paramount significance in this, as indeed in any other context, for language is not just a currency of rational exchange. It stands in a vital, reciprocal relationship between the people who speak it and felt reality. It defines us as much as we are defined by it. We subvert it at peril of subverting our perceptions of objective reality. Indeed, among linguists, it is axiomatic that language and consciousness are one and the same, symbiotically linked in a kind of inter-psychic tension. The term “Islamist militant” may not intrinsically mean anything, but in an Americans’ consciousness it by now has come to evoke images that determine how they see Muslims and Islam — clearly as the “other.” All of which does not help in the least when it comes to conducting a sane global dialogue of cultures or to achieving global amity. And it certainly does not help when well over a billion Muslims, who come from diverse cultures, different historical backgrounds and separate linguistic traditions, are lumped as one lower species of men.
And words have a way about them, in particular when repeated endlessly, of sinking root in the ethos of one’s language But the sad truth is that the media continues to cheapen and debase the public debate by refusing to rise above this pedestrian idiom that it has chosen to communicate news and commentary about our part of the world.
One’s first reaction is, well, this is a measure of how uninformed, intellectually unsophisticated or perhaps biased American reporters and editors are. But there may, just may, be more to it than that. Perhaps the American media is responding, albeit subconsciously, to an impulse in the West’s historical archetype that goes back to Medieval times, when Christendom — for that is what, before nations became nations in Europe, the continent was known as — instinctively saw Muslims as the “other,” the enemy against whom it launched bloody crusades, beginning with the first in Jerusalem in 1099.
Consider this. Before Europe became the collectivity of states we know it to be today, it too went through a historical phase not unlike the one the Arab world began to experience after the First World War. Europe had its own Christian militants (along with its own Osama Bin Laden), its own Spring of Nations, and its own birth pangs as nation states.
Political scientists and historians love to quote the famous saying by Massimo Azeglio, the mid-19th Century statesman, who wrote: “We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians.” For indeed, the formal creation of Italy at that time had little meaning for most of its putative citizens, who remained in loyalty, traditions and social mores inhabitants more of their regions, say as Sicilians, Tuscans, Calabrians and Venetians, than of their “nation.” To be sure, the conscious perception that nations are not just there, but must be formed, through the purging fire of struggle, took hold after rebellions erupted, spontaneously, simultaneously and perhaps mysteriously, in 1848 in what came to be known as the Spring of Nations. Peoples in countries across the European continent were demanding more political rights, more social justice and more freedom. (The Spring of Nations had a pitiful terminus.)
And before that still came Thomas Muntzer in the 1520s, who led a violent peasant war that terrorized Europe, and from whom Reformation leaders at the time distanced themselves completely. Muntzer, essentially a German political leader, nevertheless chose to use religious language — the language that felt the peasants would best understand. He was eventually captured and beheaded. The moral of the story? Demonize another people’s history, political culture and religion and you risk sounding not only like a bigot — bad enough in and by itself — but like someone who is not in touch with his own history and political culture.