osama/obama/yo mama

The despicable attempt to smear Sen. Barack Obama as some kind of Wahhabist-educated al-Qaeda time bomb ought to be amusing, the kind of desperate tactics we can all have a good laugh over, like the idea that John Kerry, a decorated Viet Nam veteran, is somehow more cowardly and less fit to lead than someone who hid out in the Alabama Air National Guard, and reportedly didn’t even manage to show up for that. Unfortunately, the story now seems to be gaining traction, and so it has now passed from pathetic mud-slinging to dreary commentary on the lame state of our newsmedia.

But it’s also the story of how language is our most important lever in exploiting prejudice. Foreign languages are inherently alienating; to walk into a room full of people speaking a language you don’t know is to be immediately handicapped. And so perhaps it’s not surprising that this “scandal” should revolve around an innocent word from a language which has recently become the focus of tremendous hostility in the Western world. The language, of course, is Arabic, the language of scripture for billions of Muslims and millions of Baha’is around the world, but also the native language of tens of millions of Christians and even a fair number of Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists.

Many new Arabic words have come into the lexicon of American English, and in particular the language of the media, over the past two decades, as the West has slowly awakened to the fact that its destiny is tied to the Arab world and, more recently, to the whole Muslim community. (God’s sense of humor, one supposes — give the technology to the Christians but the fuel to run it to the Muslims.) The original misunderstood Arabic word, of course, was “Allah,” which Europeans for centuries misrepresented as “the god of the Musselmans.” This is accurate but misleading — “Allah” is a broad term, like “God” in English: Christians and Jews whose native language is Arabic use the word in precisely the way we use its equivalent. (This apart from the fact that Muhammad explicitly claimed that His message was from the “God of Abraham” — i.e., the God of Judaism and Christianity.) Nearly every responsible text on Islam or Arabic makes this clear, and yet it is still common for Americans to set up an opposition between “God” and “Allah” — as in this article, which attempts to show, not surprisingly, that “God” is good, kind, etc., while “Allah” is intolerable and monstrous.

It’s a poorly researched and highly biased article, and I dignify it with a link for two reasons. First, the Christian who wrote it is named “Abdullah,” meaning “the servant of God.” And there is, indeed, no way to call one’s self a servant of God in Arabic without invoking the word “Allah.”

But second, and perhaps more importantly, the article attempts to suggest that “Allah” is simply the name of one of the ancient pagan gods of Arabia — a name like “Odin,” denoting perhaps the most powerful of the gods, but not denoting either the monotheistic god of Judaism or the generic term for God:

Before Islam came into existence, pagan Arabs used to worship some 360 pagan gods. Allah was one of them and was viewed as the highest god of all. The name Allah, which was adopted by Islam was later used to mean God, by Christians in the Middle East, in countries which were conquered by the Muslims. Christians may have done so out of fear ,and because it sounded similar to the Old Testament name “Elohim”. [sic]

The exact origin of the Hebrew word “Elohim” is a matter of some debate, but there are some interesting points to note:

  • “-im” is a plural ending in Hebrew, and many scholars believe that “Elohim” is simply a pluralization of “Eloah,” meaning “god.”
  • Peculiarly, both “Elohim” and “Eloah” end up being used for both the God of Israel and pagan gods. For example, in the more famous of the “Ten Commandments” passages, Exodus 20:3, God commands, “You shall have no other gods before me” — and uses “Elohim” to mean “gods.”
  • The remarkable similarities of both sound and usage among “Eloah” in Hebrew, “Alaha” in Aramaic, and “Ilah” in Arabic provide strong circumstantial evidence that the three languages are all using the generic noun “god” and then reconstructing it in various ways to create a specially designated monotheistic “God.” In Hebrew, it is theorized, this was done by making it plural. (Interestingly enough, God in the Quran frequently refers to Himself in the plural, as in 51:57, “We built the heavens by Our authority….”)

In Arabic, on the other hand — and about this there is no controversy — the word “ilah,” meaning “god,” was transformed into the single “God” of the Abrahamic tradition by making it definite. (In English, of course, we have chosen to do this through capitalization, but there are no capital letters in Arabic.) The definite article was appended to the front of the word, making “Al-Ilah,” and, as is often the case in Arabic, the weak vowel on the front of the word was simply elided away, leaving “Allah.” The original form of the word is still used in dozens of Baha’i prayers which begin “Ya Ilahi” — “O my God!” “Ya” is a construction of direct address roughly equivalent to “O So-and-so,” and the “i” at the end of “Ilah” simply means “my.” Since, in both Arabic and English, a possessive pronoun eliminates the need for a definite article — that is, we say “his car” rather than “his the car” — the “al” is dropped from “Allah.”

As Westerners, if we are seeking to understand rather than reflexively disparage Islam and Arab culture in general, it will be helpful to keep this literal meaning of “Allah” in mind, rather than thinking of it as a name. (The same should also be kept in mind, in fact, regarding “Elohim,” or we shall be in rather a lot of trouble in the New Testament when God is referred to primarily as “Theos” — or, interestingly enough, “Ho Theos”: “The God.”)


Muslims, of course, do not help the problem of linguistic alienation when they insist on referring to God exclusively by His Arabic name in their writings. The same can be said of Arabic terms that could just as easily be translated into English. Muslim Apple, a blog I enjoy reading from time to time, is plagued with this. Here is a passage illustrating what I mean:

Alhamdulillah, I am a Muslim and have been practicing Islam for just over a year. I took my shahadah before Allah subhanahu wa ta ala and the angels.

And here is another (admittedly, from a commenter, not the blogger herself):

Remember in Tasfeer [sic] surat Al-Baqarah, Umm Eesaa was talking about hidayatul bayaan–everytime I see someone critizing islam or rasul Allah salAllahu alayhi wa sallam or just plaining state [sic] ‘it’s not for them’, I can’t help but ponder over the fact that Allah is not unjust to His slaves, and only He azza wa jal choses whom He Guides.

Muslim Apple sprinkles Arabic words and phrases into her English writing as an important aspect of her Muslim faith; she writes here that

The Arabic language is a part of this religion…. There was a time albeit (and alhamdulillah) short-lived after I accepted Islam, where I was in that convert super-learning mode and I thought… that after reading an English translation of the Quran and hadeeth and some fatawa and articles in books and online that that made me competent to speak about Islam, its history, and its rulings, as if I were a mujtahid.

Then alhamdulillah, Allah the Mighty and Majestic guided me to people of knowledge and good companions and I learned just how little I knew and from that came humility, and re-assessing my intentions, and from that small pockets and openings in this knowledge of the deen were opened to me.

And perhaps she is right that Arabic is inextricably a part of Islam, and as a non-Muslim perhaps it is not my place to comment.

Nonetheless, although I am loath to overstep my bounds or appear rude, I will point out a few things as an amateur linguist. First, the establishment of a linguistic competency as part of belief in a religion means that many people will be denied the ability to fully convert to that religion, especially in late adulthood. To wit, if a man first hears of Islam at the age of eighty or ninety, he will inevitably hear of it in his own tongue, will inevitably read the Quran in his own language (or have it translated or explained to him directly, which amounts to the same thing), and will inevitably have to accept or reject that faith based on abstract concepts rather than an engagement of the “true” text.

Second, the use of words from a foreign language in vernacular conversations about religion creates an insider/outsider dichotomy, to such an extent that some of the above passages are not even functionally understandable to a Westerner who is not thoroughly grounded in, if not Arabic, then at least the Arabic jargon being passed around. Naturally, every religion carries with it certain codewords inscrutable to outsiders — I grew up in the heart of the Baptist South and discussed religion with Christian friends for some twenty-five years, and I still can’t begin to tell you what the word “saved” means. Nonetheless, I recognize it as a good, sturdy English word, I know its common meaning, and therefore, even if I can’t quite come to it as a doctrinal concept, I nonetheless feel the gentle pressures of its connotations — including the unspoken threat. I feel, in short, ready to discuss the idea; I feel at home with it, although it is not mine.

Having studied a little Arabic and having spent a lot of time with Arab Muslims, I am not in the least put off by the above paragraphs. But to someone encountering Islam from the outside, particularly in the atmosphere of heightened tension engendered by recent conflicts between, especially, America and the Muslim world in recent years, Arabic begins to look a lot like a secret language, something to separate the initiated from the unwelcome outsider. It begins to feel, however subconsciously, like Islam has something to hide.

Ironically, my understanding — again, from an outsider’s perspective — is that God revealed the Quran in Arabic precisely in order to be understood, because it was being revealed to Arabs:

(12:1-2)

تلك ايت الكتب المبين انّا ينزلنه قرءناً عربياً لعلكم تعقلون

“These are the verses of the clear book. We have sent down a discourse in Arabic to you that you may understand.”

In other words, God revealed Himself in the vernacular of the people He was teaching.


Some Arabic words pertaining to Islam are probably untranslatable, or at least need more than one word to translate them properly. And, as in English, we are probably never all going to agree on the meanings of a few of them. “Shari’ah,” for example, is usually translated as “Islamic law” — which is true enough, as far as it goes. But what, exactly, constitutes Islamic law? In orthodox Sunni Islam, for example, there are four means of determining the law: the direct teachings of the Quran, the reported sayings and practices of the Prophet, consensus, and the principle of analogy. Shi’a scholars, on the other hand, reject the absolute authority of consensus and analogy, but accept the teachings of the 12 Imams as well as the use of “logic” or “intellect” as the means of understanding the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet. Some modern Muslims have even gone as far as to deny the authenticity or relevance of the reported sayings of the Prophet entirely, complaining that too many of them contradict either each other or the Quran.

Moreover, when it comes down to actual cases, there is sometimes great debate and certainly a wide variety of practices. For example, some Muslim nations, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan under the Taliban, mandate stoning as a punishment for adultery. Yet many modern Muslims reject the idea that stoning is to be universally applied, despite its occasional appearances in reported stories from the life of the Prophet. They point out that in the 24th surah of the Quran, God lays down a very specific and detailed law regarding adultery, including a punishment well short of death — 100 lashes — and rules of evidence weighing decidedly in favor of the defendant. They further point out that in countries where the death penalty is frequently applied for adultery, the very strict rules of evidence laid down in the Quran (including the necessity of four eyewitnesses to the act!) are generally not observed, making the punishment fundamentally illegitimate.

These points of legal debate within the Muslim community, however, are all too easy for outsiders to ignore. And they become even easier to ignore when all thought on Islamic jurisprudence can be swept into a single sack labeled “Shari’ah.” It is a distinctly foreign-sounding word to American ears, and when it is spat out of the mouths of news anchors and politicians looking to establish easy categories (Islam = foreign, un-American, inhuman), it becomes the funnel through which a wide array of opinions and beliefs about law in Islam can be channeled down into the mold of the wild-eyed, bearded misogynist.

Or consider a related term, “fatwa.” Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme cleric in post-revolutionary Iran, famously “issued a fatwa” calling for Muslims everywhere to do everything in their power to send Salman Rushdie “to hell” for his book The Satanic Verses. (Interestingly, the Arabic word for “verse” is “aya(t)” — the same word that forms the beginning of “Ayatollah.” It’s hard not to wonder if Khomeini didn’t take the title of the book somewhat personally.) Since then, “issuing a fatwa” has taken on a distinctly negative connotation in English usage, usually implying that the issuing authority has somehow overstepped the bounds of both his legal powers and human decency.

Yet the vast majority of fatwas are issued on completely mundane issues of Islamic theology and law. Moreover, as there is technically no clerical hierarchy in Islam, Sunni doctors of jurisprudence have generally agreed that fatwas are not so much binding commandments as legal opinions that assist both Muslim courts and individual Muslims in applying God’s law. And fatwas directed at timely subjects are just as apt to be progressive and socially responsible as not: Muslim scholars in Spain condemned ‘Usama bin-Laden for his terrorist acts, while Iranian scholars, curiously, issued a fatwa condemning the production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

What might have been the impact if the newsmedia in 1989, reporting on Khomeini’s reprehensible attacks on Rushdie, had simply used a nice English word like “decision” or “statement” or even, as occasionally popped up at the time, “death warrant”? It would in no way have lessened the impact of the reporting, but it might have gone a long way towards neutralizing the American tendency to see Arabic as the language of oppression and injustice.


To return, then, to the case of Senator Obama. The charges leveled against him, in a subtle game of “Oh, we’re just reporting what they’re saying” between Fox News and conservative pseudo-magazine Insight, are essentially these: that Senator Obama was a student at a Muslim school in Indonesia as a small child (possibly one with ties to the radical Wahhabist sect), that this might be an indication that his loyalties somehow lie somewhere other than with America’s interests, and that even if that’s not true, he’s obviously trying to hide his Islamic connection, so he can’t really be trustworthy.

I won’t go into an extensive debunking of these charges here — others have already begun that work, and it’s really outside the scope of this column anyway. But one aspect of the story is directly related to this question of language as the lever of prejudice. Fox&Friends host Steve Doocy had this to say:

And the thing about the madrassa, and you know, let’s just be honest about this, in the last number of years, madrassas have been, we’ve learned a lot about them, financed by Saudis, they teach this Wahhabism which pretty much hates us. The big question is was that on the curriculum back then? Probably not, but it was a madrassa….

Mr. Doocy seems to be stuck on a particular word. But that word doesn’t mean what he thinks it means. “Madrasah” (I’m applying more standard transliteration rules here) is derived from the root “darasa,” meaning “to study.” “Mudarras,” from the same root, means teacher; “dars” means “lesson”; while “madrasah” itself simply means “school.” Not “Islamic school,” or “anti-American brainwashing school.” The word “madrasah” gives no indication whatsoever of ideology, alignment, or funding — it’s just the Arabic word for “school,” like “escuela” in Spanish, “schule” in German, “hakkyo” in Korean, “whare kura” in Maori, and so on.

It’s been over a year now that I’ve been silently lamenting the abuse of this poor little word, so useful — I have myself been attending a “madrasah” to learn Arabic, but this one is funded by U.S. taxpayers and administered by the Army. It did not include, to the best of my recollection, any Wahhabi doctrine, and while there was plenty of anti-government sentiment to go around (mostly on the part of the students), no anti-Americanism. Some of our teachers were Muslims, but others were Christian Arabs, and one wasn’t an Arab at all, but an American graduate of the DLI Arabic program.

The misunderstanding of the meaning of “madrasah” is so widespread that even people who are trying to stand up for what’s right get this wrong, as in CNN’s report on Obama’s childhood school, in which correspondent John Vause announced confidently, “I’ve been to those madrassas in Pakistan, and this school is nothing like that.” Or the Washington Post article on Tuesday whose opening paragraph reads:

Fresh doubt was cast yesterday on a magazine’s allegation that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) attended a madrassah, or religious school that teaches a fundamentalist version of Islam.

It would be reassuring to believe all this is purely the result of ignorance — and, no doubt, sometimes it is, as in the CNN and WP reports. But there’s also an ugly undercurrent to what’s going on here, and the repetition of the word “madrasah” is clearly intended to associate Sen. Obama, in the minds of non-Arabic speaker Americans, with all manner of negative things — terrorism, misogyny, secrecy — that are now symbolized by the Arabic language.

To be fair, Arabic is not the only language to suffer this fate. If you wanted to subtly badmouth a political opponent, you could do worse than to hint that he’s a kimono-donning, paté-supping liberal, because that sounds a lot worse than an all-American guy who wears a bathrobe and eats liver. To the extent that we are inclined to be xenophobic to begin with, a foreign word goes a long way toward helping us overcome our natural scruples and dislike someone. After all, if you heard on the news that Barack Obama attended a school when he was six, you might think… well, you’d think, “So what?”


Likewise, foreign-sounding names can make us a little queasy. Consider our last ten presidents:

George Bush
Bill Clinton
George Bush
Ronald Reagan
Jimmy Carter
Gerald Ford
Richard Nixon
Lyndon Johnson
John Kennedy
Dwight Eisenhower

Apart from the slightly Teutonic sound of “Eisenhower,” all these names ring with the comforting tones of humble English and Irish poesy. And Ike, of course, could have any name he damned well pleased. (His predecessor, on the other hand, had what must have been the all-time Iconic American Name. “Harry True-Man”? It’s like he was invented by D.C. Comics.)

These names sound solid to us; dependable. A guy named “George” or “Dick” may not be everything we’d hoped for; he may turn out to be corrupt or incompetent; but there’s no way he’s going to sell us out to the bad guys. The old bad guys were the Russians, of course, and a candidate named “Igor” was hardly going to be elected recording secretary of the local school board, let alone president.

Meanwhile, Sen. Obama has been taking flack not only for having once gone to school, but for having a funny-sounding name. This tacky blog entry by somebody named Debbie Schlussel takes the Senator to task for, among other things, having the middle name “Hussein.” Ms. Schlussel ends her commentary with this bit of wit:

Is that even the man we’d want to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency, if Hillary Clinton offers him the Vice Presidential candidacy on her ticket (which he certainly wouldn’t turn down)?

NO WAY, JOSE . . . Or, is that, HUSSEIN?

Her fans, in the comments section under the blog entry, also have a good time with Obama’s name:

“Obama = Black Osama”

“I mean if you want to disown your muslim-ness–why would you retain such a sickening name? Barak Hssein Obama–I want to be puke.” [sic]

“Before even learning that his middle name is a Muslim name, somehow I never liked watching or listening to that Omama OBanana, or whatever his name is…. I have enough experience, I can tell from the first sight whether I like a person or not, whether a person is a fake or not. And frankly, I do not like that Banana Hussy Obamba.”

One fellow also gets in a passing swipe, for some reason, at the month of Ramadan:

BTW, this is America. We don’t celebrate pagan holidays such as; Ramadama-Ding-Dong.

One poster took a more subtle approach, noting that

Barack Obama was originally named “Baraka.” It is not an African name. It’s an Arabic word meaning “blessed” and comes directly from the Koran.

A large percentage of Africans speak Arabic as either their native or their liturgical language, so even if the name were solely an Arabic one, it would be entirely legitimate to speak of “Baraka” as an “African name.” But, in fact, the word has the same meaning (“blessing”) in Swahili — it is probably an Arabic loanword, but it has long since lost any particular Muslim connotation. Indeed, “Baraka” is the name of an experimental boarding school in Kenya run by educators and businessmen from Baltimore.

Furthermore, although the word “baraka” undoubtedly appears in the Quran, so do thousands of other words. But it would be queer reasoning to say that they come from the Quran. Not that there would be anything wrong with it if they did, but it’s linguistic poppycock — “baraka” is from precisely the same root as the Hebrew name “Baruch,” which was around quite some time before the Quran.

But again, the intent is to associate Arabic with Islam, Islam with funny-sounding words, and Obama of the funny-sounding name with something distinctly “un-American.”

Of course, anything goes in the blogosphere. Responsible people with real jobs — say, as radio and television broadcasters — surely wouldn’t stoop to this kind of playground name-calling:

[Rush Limbaugh, 11 July 2005]

Obama Osama Obama was in Florida over the weekend stumping for [Sen.] Bill Nelson [D-FL], and he said Democrats have got trouble….

But I mean, if Obama Osama — here’s the story. It’s in the Orlando Sentinel. “Obama Osama Leads Star Power or Lends Star Power to Nelson. A Democratic U.S. senator campaigns for his colleague in a town hall forum in Eatonville. About 500 people rose to their feet in a standing ‘O’ worthy of a rock star, as U.S. Sen. Barack Obama Osama hit the stage….”

Limbaugh noted that he was only mimicking the mistake of Senator Ted Kennedy, who at the National Press Club a few days earlier accidentally referred to Sen. Obama as “Osama bin… Obama.” This was clearly a slip of the tongue, a funny one even, and Kennedy probably deserves a little ribbing. But this mantra-like repitition of the “Osama Obama” phrase seems clearly to intend something else.

The hosts of KSFO’s morning show also piled on, delighting in Kennedy’s slip-up, which provided them cover to say “Osama Obama” over and over again.

MORGAN: Well, it is big time finally watching what’s going on as Hillary begins the character assassination of “Osama Obama.”

RODGERS: “Osama Obama” — all right, hold it up on that — this is going to take some time to explain. There are several angles at work here. But of course, she’s not going to sign her name to any of the attacks on him — at least not yet.

MORGAN: Well —

RODGERS: But the wheels are in motion.

MORGAN: And for those of you who are taping us at Media Matters, “Osama Obama” is a reference to what Senator Ted Kennedy called Barack Obama.

RODGERS: Exactly.

MORGAN: It’s humor. Humor, folks.

RODGERS: Teddy Kennedy. Teddy Kennedy. Got that, freaks with keyboards? You got that?

[cited on mediamatters.org, 19 January 2007]

But that show was broadcast over two years after the National Press Club incident, indicating that “Osama Obama” was not so much a topical joke of the moment as a catchphrase that could be brought up at will to remind people of Sen. Obama’s ominous connection with… something sinister. Schools, maybe.

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One Response to osama/obama/yo mama

  1. SLB says:

    Great article Seth.

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