Thursday, July 17, 2014

The language barrier: How Islamists outshine Arab secularists

[Originally posted at NOW]

A little over a year ago, I visited a Jordanian friend in Amman. Determined atheists that we both are, as the Black Label bottle steadily drained our conversation turned, as it often would, to the evergreen subject of the woefully elevated positions of the region’s Parties of God in all their forms and guises.

“Man, let me show you something,” he suddenly said, reaching for the TV remote. “This is why the secularists can’t beat the Islamists today.” Flicking to one of at least a dozen available Islamic channels, we listened as a shrouded televangelist expounded on the boundless splendors of the pious path. “Just listen to the guy’s fusha [classical Arabic],” my friend said in sincere admiration. “It’s effortless.” And so it was – without the slightest stutter or pause, our imam filled the room with the music of 7th-century Arabian vocabulary, every single letter adorned with precisely the correct diacritical flourish. Picture someone mellifluously chatting in the tongue of Shakespeare and you’ll get something of the oratorical effect.

“Now compare that with these guys,” said my friend, switching to a political talk show featuring two beardless Jordanians in suits. Clearly ill-at-ease in the fusha they were compelled (by widely-observed custom) to speak on air – which is likely the only time they speak it – the contrast in style was disastrous. In awkward monotone, they would punctuate every other word with an “uhhh” as they frantically scanned their limited mental lexicons for the formally proper noun or adjective. “It doesn’t matter that what they’re saying is a thousand times more enlightening than the Islamist propaganda,” my friend said. “Who could listen to this for more than thirty seconds?”

That thought came rushing back to me on Saturday when I watched another Islamist, the fugitive cleric-cum-militiaman Ahmad al-Assir, mount an 11-minute-long diatribe against the “liberals” (what contempt he put into the word) of Lebanon’s moderate Sunni Future Movement. Secure in his amply-demonstrated fusha proficiency, Assir actually reverted to colloquial dialect to land his most personal jab, directed at Future leader Saad Hariri, “who doesn’t know how to string two words together in Arabic.” It’s a reference to the former prime minister’s famously shaky fusha, most memorably demonstrated in a calamitous 2009 parliament address. But Assir wasn’t trying to score literary points: he meant to undermine Hariri’s religious, and ultimately political, legitimacy as the representative of Lebanon’s Sunnis. It was an assertion of the supposed authenticity, the unshakeable Arabness, of Islamism compared to effete and decadent liberalism.

Older generations of Arab nationalist intellectuals championed the revival and protection of Arabic out of fear that “the nation” and its culture were losing ground to an ascendant West. Today, the new and graver danger is of young Arab minds being seduced by hyper-articulate jihadists, to whose rhetorical charms even this British kafir is not entirely invulnerable.

Among other things, this makes all the more necessary the secular Arabic literary heritage, from the classic pre-Islamic mu`allaqat through such brilliant medieval reprobates as Abu Nuwas to modern giants like Mahmoud Darwish. Indeed, there’s reason to believe a thread running through the entire oeuvre of the permanently clean-shaven Darwish, who never hid his dislike of Hamas and lamented those who “don’t know the difference between the mosque (al-jam`) and the university (al-jam`a),” was an unspoken determination to claim Arabic (and specifically classical Arabic, the clerics’ home ground) for an avowedly secular renaissance, or nahda. (The contribution of those who manage to turn these works into music and other art forms – Marcel Khalifé being perhaps the most obvious example – is also invaluable, not least because of the profanity of music in and of itself in the Wahhabist worldview. One recalls Khalifé’s farcical 1999 blasphemy trial.) Unless and until that is achieved, the Islamists will continue to exploit the appearance of an intellectual – and even cultural – superiority that is of course entirely and dangerously illusory.

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