By Corey Habbas
This month, the Arabic language came under attack when Debbie Almontaser, principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, New York’s first public school that integrates Arabic language and cultural studies with a public school curriculum, explained that the English translation for the word “intifada,” literally means to “shake off.” Almontaser had been asked to explain a word on the T-shirts circulated by the AWAAM (Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media), a Brooklyn-based organization that empowers girls and women.
To the people who wear the T-shirts inscribed with “Intifada NYC,” it is a non-violent term that the AWAAM internalizes to mean a nonviolent shaking-off of pressures related to prejudice.
“I feel, as an Arab woman, as a Muslim woman and as a woman of color, pressure from two sides,” says Mona ElDahry, co-founder of AWAAM, in an August 2007 interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!
In the interview, Mona ElDahry describes the first pressure as the prejudice faced by Muslims and Arabs in the streets. The second pressure, she says, is when youth go home to their families, especially after the September 11 tragedy, and are told that they must hide their heritage, their language and remain silent about political issues.
Khalil Gibran International Academy has no affiliation with the AWAAM. But simply for explaining the meaning of an Arabic word, Almonaster and her school were attacked. In the same interview, activist and educator Paula Hajar comments, “It’s tragic that they attack the language the way they do.” Hajar notes how Arabic terms are frequently twisted and misinterpreted. “…the [Arabic] word for a school is madrasah, and they use it as an epithet, you know, that this was going to be a madrasah, meaning [to those who were against the school] a training ground for jihadists…” Hajar, who still hopes to see the new school open, expresses, “..it’s kind of tragic for all of us to see our culture peeled away this way and trashed, really.”
The attack on Khalil Gibran International Academy is one of the most recent examples of America’s fear of the Arabic language, but it is only one of numerous examples throughout the nation.
In August 2006, JetBlue Airways refused to allow an Iraqi man to board a flight at Kennedy International Airport because he wore a t-shirt inscribed with Arabic and English. The phrase read, “We Will Not Be Silent.”
In 2004, after the Michigan City Council approved a measure to allow the Muslim Call to Prayer (Athan) over a loudspeaker from the Al-Islah Islamic Center, some angry citizens and right-wing commentators feared that religious leaders could use the audio system to deliver Arabic commands to Muslim congregations that could incite a war against the local non-Muslim population.
Maintaining language in a hostile environment
Ironically, while the pathologic and irrational fear of Arabic persists, what is really dangerous to the Muslim population is the loss of Arabic language.Although Islam is the second largest religion in the world, practiced by more than 1.4 billion followers, Arabic is not the second-most spoken language in the world. Arabic, a Semitic language closely related to Aramaic and Hebrew, is spoken by an estimated 246 to 422 million people worldwide. Many Americans find it surprising that most Muslims worldwide do not speak Arabic.
While it’s true that Arabic is the liturgical language of Islam and all Muslims do learn to recite prayers in Arabic, many rely on translations of the Qur’an in order to gain understanding of the holy text. Despite this, Muslims everywhere are encouraged to embrace the language.
Non-Muslims often mistakenly think that non-Arab Muslims are asked to embrace Arabic because, in Islam, Arab culture and Arab language is promoted as being superior to other cultures. Yet Islamic historical and religious records clearly refute this misconception.
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is recorded to have said in his last sermon:
“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. “
While the non-Muslim population in America may feel threatened by Arabic, Muslims are in danger of losing the language in which the Qur’an was revealed. Muslim youth struggle to maintain what their parents, and older generations, may have taken for granted, while non-Arabic speaking Muslims struggle to attain the language that will move them closer to original scripture.
The ethnically diverse Muslim population in Minnesota numbers close to 150,000 people and includes Muslims fluent in Arabic from the north and central Africa and the Middle East, as well as primarily non-Arabic speaking Muslims from Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, and American Muslims who were either born Muslim or who converted.
Al Amal School is a forerunner in maintaining the Arabic language, a private Islamic school with more than 400 students, located in Fridley, Minn. Each grade has three levels of Arabic so that students can be placed in classes that match their abilities. Al Amal School Arabic instructors enforce an Arabic-only rule so that students are immersed in Arabic during each class session. Outside of class things are different. Yasmina*, an older student who attends Al Amal at the high school level confesses, “We always end up defaulting to English because it’s easier. There are too many different Arabic dialects.”
Another Al Amal School student makes similar observations. Asma, who is enrolled in the upper grades, notices the Muslim community losing the Arabic language through the younger generations. “It’s usually the kids that grew up speaking Arabic that try to talk with our instructors in English. He will ignore them until they ask him in Arabic.” Asma says that it’s usually the students who don’t have an Arabic language background that end up making an effort to use the language in class. When asked if she hears students using Arabic on breaks and lunches, Asma says, “It seems like when it is, it’s used as a way to exclude other non-Arabic kids from the conversation.”
While it might be expected that some Muslims from non-Arabic cultural backgrounds may reject a language that has been used by some to exclude them, Asma notes that the exact opposite seems to be happening. “People try to learn Arabic even more, so that they can understand what others are saying.” A widespread belief held by Muslims is that Arabic is a language for all Muslims, not just for those born or raised in Arabic-speaking cultures.
Manufactured illiteracy: Tool of oppression
For Muslims, the dangers of not being literate in the language of Islam are numerous. Wars and violence are quick to pave the path from a literate and well-functioning nation to a state of illiteracy. The foreign political strategy of many conquering powers has been to weaken their victims by separating them from their past by destroying information and the means of transporting it, as well as exterminating people of knowledge.
One such assassination happened this year. The renowned Islamic calligrapher, Khalil al-Zahawi, was gunned down outside his home in Iraq. Although western media sources claim executions such as this are due to sectarian violence, most Iraqi residents and skeptics worldwide understand that Khalil al-Zahawi and his calligraphic contributions were prized by both Sunni and Shia alike.
Many Muslims feel that if oppressive powers are able to eradicate Islamic art, culture and literacy, especially in the Arabic language, then non-Muslims would be prevented from learning accurate information about Islam and Muslims would be prevented from practicing and celebrating their true religion.
When language is used as a cage
Literacy creates an atmosphere of freedom, equality and stability. In the same way that language can be used to unite people, it can also be used to cage and compartmentalize people. The slow death of another people’s language can be used as a long-term political strategy as an attempt to sever long-term transnational alliances.
In Turkey, a country in which most people are culturally and religiously Muslim, Arabic was once banned. Ataturk, the developer of Kemalist ideology, used radical means in order to pry people away from Islamic faith and worship. He closed religious schools, banned Islamic institutions and legal systems, outlawed the Arabic script used to write the Turkish language and replaced it with the Latin lettering system, and appointed government-approved puppets as religious leaders whose lectures and teachings were strictly controlled.
For a time, Ataturk made it mandatory for people pray in the state language. Most Muslims were offended by the proposition of being denied the right to pray and read Qur’an in Arabic, and the Arabic language was eventually re-legalized. Ataturk’s anti-religious policies became a cage in which he put his people so that they were separated from Islam and the language that was used to reveal the message of the Last Prophet of Allah.
As the French initiated the brutal colonization of Algeria in 1830, language became a cage by which to convert the colonized victims of the North African coast. Algerian libraries were burned. Of the mosques that were not destroyed, many were turned into churches, or used as animal barns. The literacy of an entire generation was erased as the French stole the colonized population’s wealth and resources.
Many American and European texts express what the French did to Algeria as a “modernization.” The Algerian people know differently. Although Algerians took back their rightful independence, now, the colloquial dialect spoken in Algeria is a combination of Arabic, French and innovated words.
In many ways, keeping standard Arabic alive has allowed countries representing a majority Muslim population whose Arabic language has been manipulated by European imperialism to unite people who live under different dialects of the same linguistic core.
*Name changed to protect the privacy of the interviewee.
Corey Habbas is a freelance writer who lives in Blaine, Minn. Her articles have appeared in The Milli Gazette, IslamOnline, Iqra! Newspaper, as well as many others.