Paper presented at the “Exploring Islamophobia” Conference jointly organised by FAIR (Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism), City Circle, and Ar-Rum at The University of Westminster School of Law, London, on 29 September 2001.
Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim
There is a proverb “The pen is mightier than the sword” which expresses well the idea of the power, if not the sacredness, of the word, and perhaps there was an echo of this idea in President Bush’s recent statement that the “war against terrorism” had begun with a “stroke of the pen.” There was a television programme recently about the ten hardest men in Britain, and I assumed it was going to be another of those offerings glorifying brute strength or glamourising vicious gangsters. Well yes, there were some tough nuts in there, pretty well all of them hard men in television serials, but the hardest ones were judged to be not those who used their fists but those who used words, and rated top of this class, the prizefighter, was Jeremy Paxman, the presenter of Newsnight on BBC2.
So we understand the immense power of words. But with that power comes a truly awesome responsibility. In speaking of the language of Islamophobia, it would be a very simple matter to give examples over the last two weeks of the abuse of that power, what William Dalrymple castigates in a recent article in The Independent as the “ludicrously unbalanced, inaccurate and one-sided” images of Islam perpetrated by what he calls the “scribes of the new racism” even in our quality broadsheets. This is not, of course, a new phenomenon. In 1997 The Runnymede Report had described Islamophobia as marked by “brazen hostility, bordering on contempt, for the most cherished principles of Islamic life and thought, reaching an apoplexy of hate in the modern Western media who represent Islam as intolerant of diversity, monolithic and war-mongering.” As Dalrymple says, “such prejudices against Muslims – and the spread of idiotic stereotypes of Muslim behaviour and beliefs – have been developing at a frightening rate in the last decade” and “Anti-Muslim racism now seems in many ways to be replacing anti-Semitism as the principal Western expression of bigotry against “the other”.
What is so much more encouraging is the fact that politicians and writers of this quality, insight, intelligence and humanity are increasingly speaking out against this pernicious, corrosive and virulent form of bigotry and it would be a simple matter too to refer to a great many articles I have seen like Dalrymple’s which are truly civilised and humane and do not bandy about words like “civilisation” and “humanity” as mere rhetorical incantations or militant banners to promote the poisonous and ignorant doctrine of the clash of civilisations.
Let Western civilisation always hold fast to one of its founding principles in the Platonic vision which places reason and dialogue above rhetoric and emotional manipulation. And all those voices in political life and the media who have upheld this vision deserve our profound thanks, for what they are writing and saying is completely in accordance with the universal spirit of Islam and the many sayings of the Prophet (saws) which teach us to use words as well as actions in such a way that we become, in his words, “a refuge for humankind, their lives and their properties.” – a refuge for all of humankind, not for any single group or vested interest. Said the Prophet, “The true Muslim does not defame or abuse others” and “the perfect Muslim is he from whose tongue and hands mankind is safe.”
Now, I’ve said that it would be a very simple matter to give examples of Islamophobic language, but I want to go deeper than simply dredge up old clichés. We’ve all heard again and again the tired old clichés which stigmatise the whole of Islam as fundamentalist, ideological, monolithic, static, unidimensional, implacably opposed to modernity, incapable of integration or assimilation, impervious to new ideas, retrogressive, retrograde, backward, archaic, primaeval, medieval, uncivilised, hostile, violent, terrorist, alien, fanatical, barbaric, militant, oppressive, harsh, threatening, confrontational, extremist, authoritarian, totalitarian, patriarchal, misogynist, negatively exotic, and bent on imposing on the whole world a rigid theocratic system of government which would radically overturn every principle of freedom and liberal democracy cherished by the Western world. I have to say that I don’t know a single Muslim who embodies even one of these characteristics, and I have Muslim friends and colleagues in all walks of life and from many cultures all over the globe.
There is one possible exception, and that is the first one, the most overused of all: “fundamentalist”. If this means certain fundamental beliefs such as belief in a supremely merciful God and in a divine purpose for mankind and all creation; belief that only God can dispense infinite justice although we must strive to embody some measure of justice and the other divine attributes in the conduct of our own lives; belief in a fair and inclusive society which balances rights and responsibilities, which values all people equally irrespective of their race, gender and religion, and which gives equality of opportunity to all men, women and children to realize their God-given potential; and belief in freedom from tyranny and oppression – well then, yes, I am a fundamentalist, and my fundamental beliefs will be shared by many people of all faiths.
But if to be a fundamentalist is to engage in any kind of cruelty in the name of any doctrine or ideology, whether religious or secular, including the murder of innocent people either by terrorists or governments, wherever they may be, then I am most certainly not a fundamentalist.
This defamatory list is a very obvious manifestations of what Francis Bacon, one of the founders of Western empiricism and modern science , called the “Idols of the Mind”, those crippling conditioned beliefs and prejudices which prevent us from learning by critical enquiry, observation and experience, and those who perpetrate them would do well to return to some of the hallowed principles of objectivity which supposedly underpin Western civilisation.
But there is a deeper dimension to these prejudices. Behind them is the demonisation of what is perceived to be a dark and dangerous manifestation of the “other”, the singling out of the most extreme position which can be imagined as somehow representative of the totality of Islam, as if there is one absolutely monolithic, cohesive and uniform Muslim mindset, a kind of immutable, undifferentiated abstraction. In view of the extraordinary size and diversity of the Islamic world, this fantasy about a monolithic and aggressive Islam is not merely the outcome of ignorance. It goes deeper than that. It is quite simply a psychological phenomenon, a pathological state. The very vehemence of the language with its absurdly simplified polarisation of reality into competing and mutually exclusive positions is itself symptomatic of deeply unconscious projections. That is what is so intractable about this pathology. The people who think like this are deeply unconscious of their own psychic processes, or, even more dangerously, they are people who are intentionally exploiting this tendency in the human being to dichotomise, to split reality into polar opposites, to see only black or white, and hence to foster division and confrontation.
In addition to the obvious stigmatisation of Islam through unanalysed clichés stereotypes and labels, we have to contend with grotesquely naïve and childish misrepresentations of what Muslims believe and how they behave, including articles by eminent university dons printed in tabloid newspapers which show an ignorance and intolerance of Islam as profound as that shown in much more lightweight material. That is what is extraordinary about Islamophobic ranting. We can find the same kind of hyperbole, distortions, inaccuracies and unsubstantiated generalisations coming from intellectuals and from the liberal establishment (though with longer words) as we do from empty-headed commentators whose only claim to having their comments on Islam published is that they are (or were) talk-show hosts.
Recent examples in national newspapers in the wake of the atrocities include such utter nonsense as the claim that “the Christian concept of forgiveness is absent in Islam”, or that “the concepts of debate and individual freedom are alien in Moslem cultures”, or that Islam is, uniquely, a “religion that sanctions all forms of violence”, or that the Taliban “desire to return Afghanistan to the mores of Arabia in the time of the Prophet”, or that Islamic law permits a Muslim man to divorce his wife immediately by sending a text message saying “I divorce you”, or that only Islam sanctions “suicide as a path to Paradise”, or, indeed, that the fanatical Muslim hordes are “already there in their thousands. And they are not going to respect weaknesses any more than Lenin did.”
And let us not forget the Internet as a source of Islamophobic utterances. If you have the stomach to trawl through and sift out some of the most obnoxious material you are likely to find on the planet, much of it written by native-speakers of English whose cultural illiteracy is only matched by their inability to construct an intelligible sentence in the English language, you may, if you are lucky, turn up sites which are capable of coherent syntax, if not coherent thought.
For instance, you might find the one set up by an organisation which supports, in its own words, “liberal-democratic pluralism and modernism as opposed to fundamentalism” and which maintains that “Islam was spread by the sword and has been maintained by the sword throughout its history” and that ”the myth of Islamic tolerance was largely invented by Jews and Western freethinkers as a stick to beat the Catholic Church”, or that there is “no way that Islam can ever be made compatible with pluralism, free speech, critical thought and democracy”. If you disagree with this, then, according to these people, you are, of course, an “apologist”.
I was shocked to read the headline of a broadsheet on Wednesday which proclaimed “No refuge for Islamic Terrorists”. Did this newspaper proclaim that there would be no refuge for Christian Mass Murderers after the massacre of Muslims in Bosnia? Thank you, Mr. Blair, for your statement on Thursday that the atrocities in America were not the work of “Muslim terrorists” but of “terrorists”. On the same front page there is an article about the execution of Islamic “militants” in China, several dozen Muslim men who had been fed alcohol with their last meal and then, stupefied by drink, driven to their deaths on an open lorry past laughing crowds. But is there any leading article or other comment which demands sanctions against China for such gross and barbaric abuses of human rights? Is there likely to be in the current climate which rewards Chinese and Russian support for an international coalition by turning a blind eye to the inevitable increase in the oppression of their own Muslim minorities? Will the Italian Prime Minister stand by his statement that human rights are one of the reasons why, in his view, the West is superior to Islam? Will he announce that the West is superior to China and superior to all those regimes, including those supported by Western powers, which abuse human rights? Will he speak out against those Italian cardinals whose anti-Muslim statements have reinforced xenophobia in Italy and therefore threaten to undermine the rights and freedoms of Muslims?
On Thursday, the first thing I heard in the morning was a discussion about different types of terrorism, and the extraordinary suggestion that the real threat is not so much “ordinary” terrorism as terrorism motivated by “doctrine” and “ideology” (no rewards for guessing here which “doctrine” is referred to) as if we are supposed to believe that it is only the “others” who have any kind of belief-system.
And behind this is also the entrenched view that it is religion which must take the blame for so much violence in the world. In other words, the “doctrine” which feeds the worst kind of terrorism is necessarily religious doctrine. This unquestioned association between religion and war has been wheeled out time and time again in the media with almost no attempt to question it. Having heard this for the umpteenth time last week, I looked into it, and discovered some interesting facts. About 250 million people have been killed in the ten worst wars, massacres and atrocities in the history of the world. Of these, only 2% were killed in religiously motivated conflicts, in this case the Thirty Years War in Europe, which figures as number 10 in the list, and even then this 2% is based on what many scholars believe to be a grossly exaggerated death toll. The vast majority of deaths were the result of secular wars and exterminations, largely based on atheistic doctrines and ideologies. It is truly extraordinary how facts can be ignored in the need to confirm and strengthen cherished illusions.
I clearly haven’t the time today to unpick every example of Islamophobic discourse. This is an ongoing struggle being undertaken systematically and with increasing effectiveness and influence by the Media and Popular Culture Watch Project which is one of the major initiatives of FAIR.
But what I can do is draw your attention to some of the underlying characteristics of the way that political and social power abuse, dominance and inequality are enacted in the kind of discourse of which Islamophobia is currently a prime example. We need to understand the characteristics of such discourse, wherever it appears; we need to rigorously unpick and expose its deficiencies with the best analytical tools, to bring to light and make conscious its manipulations, because although we can of course do our own shouting in response to it, it is through the light of knowledge and understanding that we can most effectively counter it. And as the Prophet made it very clear, the “ignorant theologian” is equally damaging to Islam as the “ill-tempered scholar” or the “tyrannical leader.”
Now there is already an established academic tradition of unpicking such discourse in what is called Critical Discourse Analysis or CDA developed by such influential discourse analysts as Teun van Dijk, Professor of Discourse Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
According to Van Dijk, “much of racism is ‘learned’ by text and talk”.
CDA upholds that power relations are discursive, that is, that discourse is an instrument of ideology and is a means of perpetuating social and political inequality. Discourse analysis which unpicks the way such language works therefore has great explanatory power and is also a form of social action, because the discourse itself constitutes the society and the culture from which it emerges. I am reminded here of the words of the Prophet, who said: “Anyone of you who sees wrong, let him undo it with his hand; and if he cannot, then let him speak against it with his tongue, and if he cannot do this either, then let him abhor it with his heart, and this is the least of faith.” Critical Discourse Analysis, as a form of social action, is both undoing with the hand and speaking with the tongue.
There is an excellent survey of CDA by van Dijk with an exhaustive bibliography which is easily accessible on the following website (www.hum.uva.nl/~teun/cda.htm). This article contains a rigorous exposure of the way discourse promotes and sustains racism, by promoting prejudiced social representations shared by dominant groups (usually white, European) and based on ideologies of superiority and difference. This is done by analysing some fragments of a book misleadingly entitled The End of Racism by Dinesh D’Souza (1995), a book which embodies many of the dominant Eurocentric supremacist ideologies in the USA, and which specifically targets one minority group in the USA: African Americans. This book is one of the main documents of conservative ideology in the US and has had considerable influence on the debates on affirmative action, welfare, multiculturalism, and immigration, and on the formulation of policy to restrict the rights of minority groups and immigrants.
I emphasise here that the discursive moves and ploys used in this book are the same moves and ploys that are used in all such discourse, including Islamophobia, and I hasten to add that we should also be very clear that the same tools of analysis need equally to be brought to bear on “Westophobic” discourse and all forms of discourse which seek to foment strife, division, hatred and confrontation. If I make a strong case against Islamophobia today, this does not mean that I do not value the strengths of Western civilisation.
Here are some of these discursive moves and ploys , as identified in van Dijk’s analysis of just a few fragments of D’Souza’s book. I’ll point up as far as I can the way in which these ploys are also used in Islamophobic discourse, but I hope you will make your own connections too.
By denying, mitigating, euphemising or explaining away your own defects you make them invisible or harmless. A characteristic ploy here is to generalise or universalise them or make them seem natural. Thus, we are told that racism is “a rational and scientific response” to primitive peoples and was in any case “widespread among other peoples”. Thus, racism is an ‘all too human’ characteristic of ethnocentricism. It is simply ‘caring for one’s own’. In this way, generalisation is made to appear as explanation. Van Dijk claims that this is “one of the most common moves of ideological legitimation: abuse of power is not a self-serving, negative characteristic of dominant groups” but is innate, “genetically pre-programmed” and “biologically inevitable”, so there is nothing we can do about it.
“The Greeks were ethnocentric, they showed a preference for their own. Such tribalism they would have regarded as natural, and indeed we now know that it is universal.” (533)
Notice the use of positive-sounding words like “human”, “natural” and “universal” to give respectability, even nobility, to tribalism. And how often have we been told in recent days how “natural” revenge is, and how “universal” and “humane” are the principles enshrined in the self-image of the West and supported by the whole “international community”, whatever that is.
Mitigation and denial is also accomplished through the use of euphemisms, that is the substitution of mild, polite, saccharine, evasive or roundabout words for more direct and honest ones. We have become more familiar with this ploy, and the related one of omission of key words, through the honesty and integrity of those journalists who are trying to use words to tell the truth.
Here are some familiar examples, with thanks to Brian Whitaker, among others:
targeted killing (assassination/murder by death squads/extra-judicial killing/execution)
collateral damage (civilian casualties)
killed in crossfire (shot by soldiers or snipers)
settler (illegal settler)
areas (communities/neighbourhoods) – the implication here is that people who live in “areas” are less civilised than those who live in communities or neighbourhoods.
suburbs (illegal settlements)
the international community (the West?)
a divided city (a city with 99.8% Arabs)
disputed territory (illegally occupied territory)
provocative act (criminal act according to international law)
There is a novel justification for euphemisms which I have recently heard from journalists. Apparently, column inches dictate that shorter terms have to be used to save space. “Settler” is only two syllables, whereas “illegal settler” is five, so the use of “settler” saves space. If so, why are the long words “neighbourhoods” and “communities” used to describe where the in-group lives , whereas “areas” is used for the out-group? Why, indeed, are the six syllables of “Islamic Terrorists” used in a headline on Thursday when space would have been saved by using only the three syllables of “Terrorists”?
And why is the mouthful “international community” used in cases where it clearly refers to “The West”?
Another well-known argumentative ploy is to invoke ignorance.
“It is impossible to answer the question of how much racism exists in the United States because nobody knows how to measure racism and no unit exists for calibrating such measurements.” (276)
Notice the use of academic jargon, and the appeal to scientific credibility. This is a clever ploy because, in a culture mesmerised by the supposed omniscience of scientists, most people dare not question “lack of scientific evidence”. By the same token, we can pretend to ignore the existence of all manner of self-evident and awkward truths, including the very existence of Islamophobia, under the banner of scientific respectability.
Self-glorification is one of the most obvious and characteristic way to promote a positive self-image, and D’Souza’s book is full of glowing admiration for Western culture and accomplishments.
“What distinguished Western colonialism was neither occupation nor brutality but a countervailing philosophy of rights that is unique in human history” (354) – and by the way, colonialism is also legitimated in terms of scientific curiosity.
We are entitled to say in response to this that the supposedly unique philosophy of rights so selflessly propagated by Western colonialism was in fact prefigured and surpassed in the first truly pluralistic society established by the Prophet in 7th century Medinah, a vision which nurtured those splendid multicultural and multi-faith civilisations in Islamic Spain, Sicily, the Levant, and in the Mughul and Ottoman Empires.
“”Abolition [of slavery] constitutes one of the greatest moral achievements of Western civilisation” (112) – notice here this extraordinary reversal used to enhance the positive characteristics of European civilisation, which sits oddly with the justification and mitigation of racism as a natural and all too human inclination.
We are all familiar now with the vocabulary of self-glorification, first in the recent debates about multiculturalism which have included explicit assertions of the superiority of the supposedly mono-cultural virtues of “Englishness”, and more recently in reactions to the atrocities in America, which have included insistent repetition of words like “civilised”, “freedom”, “humanity” and of “good” versus “evil”. And on Thursday, we heard the Italian Prime Minister explicitly ascribe “superiority” and “supremacy” to the West over Islam. It has been encouraging to see that there is not a single political leader who has supported his completely out-of-tune remarks, and it was good to hear British government ministers, including David Blunkett and Claire Short, repudiate them yesterday as “offensive, inaccurate and unhelpful”. But it has raised a new discussion in the media about the differences between Islam and the West and once again all kinds of colourful figures are wheeled out to give their opinions on Islam. I heard one such figure on the Today programme yesterday, having flippantly admitted that he knew very little either about women or Islam, proclaim that the main difference between Islam and the West was the fact that women in Islam were 3rd class citizens. The implication was quite clear: the West is superior to Islam for this reason. Notice the appeal to the moral high ground in this kind of self-referential and self-congratulatory superiority.
To bring some light into this discussion, I recommend a look at the website of the Australian Psychological Society, particularly the section on Language, Social Representations and the media (www.aps.psychsociety.com.au/member/racism/sec3.html) which makes a very clear statement of the way in which “the media are cultural products central to the construction of social realities and to communication between groups and across cultures…..Media coverage of group differences, and often group conflicts, tend to highlight and exaggerate, oversimplify and caricaturise such differences”. A classic study from 1961 of this phenomenon is on cross-national images of the ‘enemy’ which showed that the cold-war images US citizens had of Russia were virtually identical, or the ‘mirror image’ of the views that the Russians had of the US.
The same source makes an important statement about “political correctness”. It can be anticipated that some commentators will suggest that the reluctance of other political leaders to endorse the Italian Prime Minister’s remarks is merely a matter of “political correctness”. It is important to realise that “while genuine political correctness can be a strong force in encouraging more humane reasonable and human behaviour, it is invariably represented by opponents as undermining free speech in the service of minority group interests….Dismissals of genuine and effective anti-racism initiatives as ‘merely’ politically correct thus legitimises racial intolerance….”.
Now, van Dijk pointedly remarks that “it is only one step from an assertion of national or cultural pride and self-glorification to feelings of superiority, derogation and finally the marginalisation and exclusion of the Others”. And indeed, I would add not only marginalisation and exclusion, but ultimately persecution and genocide. We can go directly here to Islamophobic discourse without referring to van Dijk’s analysis.
A classic example is the shaping by Serbian orientalists of a “stereotypical image of Muslims as alien, inferior and threatening” which “helped to create a condition of virtual paranoia among the Serbs”2. As I have said, this is a pathological condition, and its pathology is absolutely transparent in its good vs. evil, “us and them” language. And language which uses the rhetoric of “either you’re with us or against us” partakes of the same psychically fragmented condition. It has been extraordinary to see the hatred which has been aroused by those who have refused to submit to this oppressive, self-righteous and divided mentality and have been courageous and clear-thinking enough to say so. Tony Benn is an example, and the furore he caused on Newsnight on Thursday night, while always retaining his own dignity, could not even be contained by the No. 1 hard man, Jeremy Paxman.
As is true of virtually all of the people of Europe, including the English, today’s Bosnian Muslims are an amalgam of various ethnic origins. Yet what the Serbs did was to differentiate and isolate the Muslim community “by creating “a straw-man Islam and Muslim stereotype” and “setting and emphasising cultural markers” which focused on Islam and the Muslims as alien, culturally and morally inferior, threatening and, of course, exotic, but in a perverse, negative way. The Serbs applied the label “Islamic fundamentalist” freely to all Muslims, who were seen as reflections of the “darkness of the past”. They claimed that “in Islamic teaching, no woman has a soul”; that “the tone of the Qur’an is openly authoritarian, uncompromising and menacing”; that the reading of the traditional tales in A Thousand and One Nights predisposed Muslims (in their words gave “subliminal direction” to the Muslims) to torture and kill Christians; that the destruction of places of worship belonging to other faiths is an obligation on all Muslims; that the “banning of tourism and sports” in Islam inevitably led to “xenophobia” and “segregation”, and so on.
It is quite clear that these Serbian orientalists, “ by bending scholarship and blending it with political rhetoric….defined Islam and the local Muslim community in such a way as to contribute significantly to…. making genocide acceptable”. And what allowed them to play such a role? It was “the extensive media exposure they enjoyed in Serbia”, as much as “their participation in official propaganda campaigns abroad”.
At this point, I will not trouble to examine the profusion of derogatory statements which have been made against Islam and Muslims not only in the last two weeks, but over the last ten years. I will only point to the evidence of how the distorted analysis of Islam by the Serbs, played out in the media, made the transition from pseudo-scholarly anlaysis to advocacy of violence and ultimately to genocide. Such is the outcome of words used without truth or responsibility. To see so many stereotypes in the Western press so similar to those invented by the Serbs is quite chilling.
Other discursive structures, strategies and moves I can only touch on these here. They include:
The well-known argumentative ploy of casual reference to “scholarly” studies so as to give weight and authority to fallacious arguments.
The use of presuppositions and premises which are taken to be held by everybody: “We all know that….”, “The reality is….”, “The truth is….”,
The familiar disclaimer of the apparent concession: “Of course there is some prejudice, but….”
The number game of comparative statistics – always used in favour of the dominant group.
After this focused linguistic analysis , I would like to finish by affirming the wider spiritual perspective which must inform this discussion. Years ago, when I was lecturing in Psycholinguistics at the University of Edinburgh, I had a strong academic interest in the relationship between language and mind, language and attitude, and language and prejudice, but it is only in recent years in my engagement with the faith, knowledge and civilisation of Islam that I have begun to understand how vital it is to understand the nature of language from a spiritual perspective and how sacred is that trust borne by all of us who use language to inform, educate, influence and persuade others.
And to use words like “spiritual” and “sacred” in relation to the use of language is simply another way of saying that to use language wisely and well is the mark of the fully human being.
The Greeks also understood well the responsibility imposed on mankind by the gift of language and the fierce debates about the role of rhetoric were most notably expressed and distilled in Plato’s affirmation that philosophical dialectic (that is the testing process of critical enquiry through discussion) is utterly distinct from and immeasurably superior to rhetoric, which, if not firmly subordinated to knowledge and reason, is roundly condemned as nakedly exploitative emotional manipulation.
It is this legacy which has ultimately ensured that “in the contemporary usage of all modern European languages….the word rhetorical is unfailingly pejorative [i.e. disparaging, negative]. It implies “ dissembling, manipulative abuse of linguistic resources for self-serving ends, usually in the political context…”1 How often have we heard in recent weeks from intelligent commentators of the dangers of “cranking up” the rhetoric and the need to “tone it down” in the interests of reason, restraint and proportionality. And, sad to say, how often have we heard too a new version of Orwellian Newspeak which admits only one version of reality, only one interpretation of events, and which discredits all alternative perspectives as evidence of complicity with terrorists.
And let us not forget the use and abuse of images as well as words in our increasingly visual culture. By “language” I mean both the verbal and the visual vocabulary and syntax. We are entitled to ask what on earth is implied by the juxtaposition of a picture of Muslim women praying next to an article entitled “Cradles of Fanaticism”. This speaks for itself. The intention is very clear. In this equation, to pray is to be fanatical. Elementary logic tells me that this must mean that all people from all religious traditions who pray are fanatics. This is the kind of shameful material I would have used when as a teacher of English I taught young people how to recognise the way they were manipulated by propaganda in the media. I wanted them to gain the essential critical thinking skills, as well as the qualities of empathy, tolerance and respect for diversity, which are presumably valued by civilised, humane and freedom-loving peoples.
But it is important to realise that from an Islamic perspective language is not just a tool of critical enquiry, rational debate and discussion which advances human knowledge, important as this is, but is a divine gift to mankind, a mark of his special status in the divine order.
The Qur’an says that God “imparted unto Adam the names of all things” (2:31). On one level this can be interpreted as the capacity for conceptual thought which is empowered through the definition and distinction inherent in naming, a capacity not shared even by the angels, who are commanded to prostrate themselves before Adam in recognition of his status as Khalïfah, or vicegerent, a term denoting man’s stewardship of the earth as a consequence of his being made in the image of God.
In another sense, the names are the letters from which all words are constructed (notice how we name the letters – we say alif, ba, alpha, beta, and so on). The proportioned script of Arabic lettering has the remarkable property that the shapes of all the other letters are generated in strict geometric proportionality by the alif (or more correctly from the dot, which defines the length and surface area of the alif). This is what gives Arabic calligraphy its sublime visual harmony. Alif is the first letter, the upright stroke, symbolic of our erect, Adamic, human nature orientated vertically towards remembrance of our divine origin.
We have heard much in recent days from politicians, military strategists, commentators and the general public about the need for a “proportional response”. Everyone with humanity feels this instinctively, because it part of the innate disposition (fitra) of the human being who is created, as the Qur’an says, “in due measure and proportion”. But proportionality in Islam is not just a quantitative and material matter, a question of deployment of forces. It is a qualitative matter, a defining marker of human character and spirituality, which in its primordial condition is in a state of balance and equilibrium.
So the “names” are not simply tools for logical thinking, for making fine distinctions. From an Islamic perspective, letters and words are the very substance of the created universe, emanating from the Divine Word which is the origin of all creation and in which all concepts find unity and reconciliation. It is therefore a sacred trust to use words which are fair, fitting, balanced, equitable and just, words which are in “due measure and proportion.”
In this conception of language, the letter is not an inanimate component of an abstract concept, but is a living entity, and the words which are formed from these letters, the phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs have the power to diminish or enhance our humanity. The word is in fact a deed, an act in itself, which carries the same responsibility as that taken in doing and acting. We have the expression “in word and in deed” and this encapsulates this wisdom, this convergence between speech and action.
“Art thou not aware how God sets forth the parable of the good word? [It is] like a good tree, firmly rooted, [reaching out] with its branches towards the sky, yielding its fruit at all times by its Sustainer’s leave. And [thus it is that] God propounds parables unit men, so that they might bethink themselves [of the truth]. And the parable of the corrupt word is that of a corrupt tree, torn up [from its roots] onto the face of the earth, wholly unable to endure.” (Qur’an 14:24-26).
Correctives must always be applied to what is out of balance. Islamophobia is a reality and it needs to be corrected, not by using the word itself as a label to stifle just criticism, not by defensive hostility, and not by shouting louder, but by knowledge, by reason, by detailed work, and above all by the example of our own humanity.
28 September 2001
Henzell-Thomas is Chair of the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism
(FAIR) and the Executive Director of the Book Foundation. He has worked
in education for many years, having taught at primary, secondary and tertiary
levels, both in the U.K. and overseas. Most recently he has held a lectureship
in Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and the post of
Director of Studies at an UK independent school.
1. Robert Wardy, Chapter on Rhetoric (page 465) in Greek Thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge, edited by Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey E.R. Lloyd. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000.
2. Norman Cigar, The Role of Serbian Orientalists in Justification of Genocide Against Muslims of the Balkans, Islamic Quarterly: Review of Islamic Culture, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, 1994.