Thursday, April 10, 2008

The use of Arabic Words in the Media

This article which I found interesting was in the LA times a few days ago. Here are some excerpts:

“English has always had a special fondness for other European languages, a neighborly soft spot -- perhaps because Britain has been invaded by speakers of those languages from the onset of its recorded history.”

“So whenever I come across an Arabic word mired in English text, I am momentarily shocked out of the narrative. Of course, English has pilfered numerous bits of Arabic -- "artichoke," "zero," "genie," "henna," "saffron," "harem," "tariff" -- but the appropriation was so long ago that few English speakers know the words' origin. These dictionary entries were probably introduced by the Moors into Spanish first, and then by the Spaniards into English.”

“If we take away the familiar food pilferages ("hummus," "falafel"), words recently adopted from Arabic are all troublesome: "hijab," "intifada," "fatwa" and "jihad." For an English speaker, the first suggest humiliation, the last three violence.”

“English has yet to incorporate these words fully, and history suggests it might never do so. The language is filled with words that are culture specific: "sahib," "coolie," "effendi," "bey." The word "emir" simply means prince in Arabic, but in English it is a prince or ruler of an Islamic state. When my sister in Beirut tells her daughter a bedtime story, the emir kisses the sleeping princess awake. No mother in the U.S. or Britain would let an emir anywhere near a princess' lips. No princess will ever sing "Someday My Emir Will Come.

“That in some ways is how it should be. Language, after all, is organic. You can't force words into existence. You can't force new meanings into words. And some words can't or won't or shouldn't be laundered or neutered. Language develops naturally.”

“I bring all this up, however, to get to the word whose connotation I would love to see changed -- "Allah.

“In Arabic, Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians all pray to Allah. In English, however, Christians and Jews pray to God, and Allah is the Muslim deity. No one would think of using the word "Allah" to talk about any other religion. The two words, "God" and "Allah," do not mean the same thing in English. They should.”

“God, however, is a big deal. The word for God matters quite a bit more than what lands on one's table for dinner at night. We never say the French pray to Dieu, or Mexicans pray to Dios. Having Allah be different from God implies that Muslims pray to a special deity. It classifies Muslims as the Other. Separating Allah from God, we only see a vengeful, alarming deity, one responsible for those frightful fatwas and ghastly jihads -- rarely the compassionate God. The opening line of every chapter in the Koran is "Bi Ism Allah, Al Rahman, Al Rahim": In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful. In the name of Allah. One and the same.”

“The separation is happening on all sides. This year, the Malaysian government issued an edict warning the Herald, a weekly English newspaper, that no religion except Islam can use the word Allah to denote God. No such edict, or fatwa for that matter, is needed for the New York Times: a quick search through the archives shows that Allah is used only as the Muslim God.”

I’ve written about the issue of orientalism in the media before. I also agree the author that the word Allah should be more inclusive on all sides. I don’t agree in not using it all together however, or using it in a non-Muslim context necessarily, but nevertheless good article.

An understanding of the power the media uses in their methodology to describe Islam is crucial when considering the significance of their representation. There is nothing simple or contained about the way language operates. In the Western dichotomy of self and other, the self always holds the universal truths and the position of good, while that which the other holds as truth is incorrect and the label as a whole takes on the position of evil. When labels become widely accepted definitions, such that they actually shape what they are labeling, the glaring inequality between the labeled and labelers truly come to light such that the cultural and ideological imperialism of the West fundamentally defines and constructs the Islamic World through discourse.

In light of this, we, as media audiences, must be aware of the motivations and reasons for the current media coverage of the Islamic world. To what extent is the coverage and investigation of Muslims and their culture rooted in America's innocent curiosity and need to know, and to what extent is it fueled by the post-9/11 paranoia and other national interests that associate Islam with terrorism. Ideas and information spread by these news sources can lead to dominant definitions worldwide and have the ability to manufacture the opinions and consent of significant numbers of people, such as the consent to rescind civil rights from certain groups of people, to go to war, and to view the deaths of innocent civilians on foreign soils as "collateral damage."

Islam remains, as Said argues, the last association of peoples where malicious and derogatory generalizations about them remain accepted in the mainstream. We, as the media's audience and as producers of media, must reexamine our perceptions of Islam and be skeptical of the dominant images of Islam in the media.

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