[All posts in this series can be found at The Arab Mind archive.]
On the Use of Language: Hyperbole as Defense
Until 9/11 most Americans, and most Europeans, had almost no experience of the Arab use of language. Arabic spokesmen were adept at using soothing, noninflammatory language when speaking to Westerners. There were few people with access to the Media who actually spoke Arabic, and there was no MEMRI, Camera, or other translators available to most people to facilitate learning of the actual words used by the Arabs in their native language(s). Since 9/11 and with the explosive growth of the Internet, it has become much easier to obtain translations of actual speeches meant for and delivered to Arabic speaking audiences, and this now allows for a greater understanding of how such language is used and what the words are meant to convey.
Raphael Patai remarked upon the beauty of the language, the belief among Arabs that Arabic is the most perfect of languages, the use of Arabic as a bond which cements the Umma as one, and the centrality of Arabic for Islam:
(pp. 49-50) Just as the Koran became the holy book of all Muslims, so Arabic became the holy language of all Muslims, including those of the peripheral belt who never adopted Arabic as their colloquial. They read and recited the Koran by heart in Arabic, they prayed in Arabic, and they adopted the Arabic alphabet (with some variations) as the script for their own languages. ...
If such was the esteem in which Arabic came to be held in the peripheries, where only a very few scholars attained full mastery of it, in the core area Arabicized after the Muslim-Arab conquest the holy language of the Koran attained a position never approximated by any other language in any other culture. ... The best Arab minds considered the Arabic language the greatest treasure possessed by the Arabs and devoted enormous ingenuity to the fullest possible utilization of its potential. In this they were greatly helped by the rich vocabulary of Arabic, the great variability of Arabic verb structure, the ease with which the language lent itself to rhythmic cadences, and its exceptional suitability to rhetoric and hyperbole.
As with any language, how ideas are expressed and what they convey contains multiple layers beyond the manifest content. The tendency of Arabic speakers to use rhetoric, hyperbole, and the relation between words, tenses, and action are all important considerations when trying to understand the Arab Mind.
The Arab tendency to hyperbole is obvious once you spend any time reading translations of actual content rather than Arabic discourse in English designed to sooth and calm the English speaking audience. Yasser Arafat was a master at appearing reasonable when speaking to Westerners while using the most blood curdling language when speaking to Arabs in their own tongue.
Some recent examples from MEMRI:
"The current U.S. government is very upset about losing the momentum for waging a war or aggression against Iran, because political public opinion in the U.S. does not support such a war. The administration thought - this is my analysis, but I can't swear to it - that it could once again increase the tempo of the drumbeat of war by unleashing a new nuclear crisis in our region all of a sudden, and then lumping together all of us - the countries of the 'Axis of Evil,' the rogue states."
"Sometimes It Amazes Me That My Enemy is So Naïve, Superficial, and Stupid... The American Media, Legislative, Political, and Intelligence Establishment Has Already Begun to Pound Away At This Account "
Although there are many Americans who might agree with the Ambassador's assessment, the salient point is that the language is far from typical of diplomatic discourse.
In a recent editorial in the Syrian government daily Teshreen, the paper's editor-in-chief, 'Issam Dari, attacked the Western leaders who attended Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations. He wrote that the leaders of the "imperialist" countries – the U.S., Britain, France, and Germany – had gone to Israel in order to stress "that they would continue to sponsor this poisonous mushroom that they planted in the Arab garden with the aim of sowing destruction, chaos, terrorism and crime in the Arab world." He added that although these leaders sought to convince the world that Israel was an established fact, Israel would nonetheless be uprooted sooner or later.
"The representatives of these imperialist countries came to Israel in order to stress that they would continue to sponsor this poisonous mushroom that they planted in the Arab garden with the aim of sowing destruction, chaos, terrorism, and crime in the Arab world."
This kind of language is related to the hyperbole once associated with spokesmen for the Soviet Union when they regularly railed against "capitalist running dogs" and threatened to bury us. It is strikingly anachronistic to most Westerners, which leads too many to conclude that such hyperbole is essentially meaningless. It is not. From mushrooms to vampires, all metaphors and similes are fair game for Arab rhetoric:
The following is the transcript of a speech delivered by Hamas Culture Minister Atallah Abu Al-Subh. The speech aired on Al-Aqsa TV on May 18, 2008.
Atallah Abu Al-Subh: "American support of Israel is total. It gets to the point where the Israeli demands turn into resolutions adopted by the Security Council, under the complete auspices of America. Thank you, America!
"In every alley, house, and neighborhood, and [whenever they commit] a holocaust, the Israelis should erect a statue of little Bush, who gave them everything. This is not viewed as deplorable by the mistress of criminality, America, or by the master of killing, destruction, crime, violence, tyranny, and injustice – little Bush.
"I can see the blood of the children of Afghanistan between his fangs. Their blood drips onto his lips and chest. He is Dracula, a vampire. I can see the holocausts in which the Iraqi people is burned, the land that is being torn to shreds, the oil that is being plundered, and the four million Iraqis scattered throughout the land, or exiled in their own country.
"The forces of little Bush deny them their lives every morning. They destroy civilization and humanity, until the day comes when he can bring Israel the good tidings: In Baghdad, there is a nation that loves peace with the Israelis."
"This is what is going on. These are the 'good tidings' Bush brings us. Afghanistan is being destroyed, Iraq is being destroyed – Qana, the Al-'Amariya shelter... All the hatred and all the fire that consumes people from within are matches lit by Bush. Bush will be [deemed] the worst human being – if I may go so far as to call him a human – throughout history. The deeds committed by Nero pale in comparison with Bush's deeds. The crimes of warlords like Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco cannot be compared to one-quarter of Bush's shoelace – let alone to his full height.
"Bush thirsts for blood day and night. He derives pleasure from killing. He has surpassed all types of crimes and all sadistic traits. That's Bush for you. With all his audacity and insolence, Bush tears the Arab land to shreds. He makes decisions and has the audacity to call for the killing of life, and the killing of any person fighting for his right to live. That's Bush for you."
Again, note the hyperbole of the Culture Minister's comments. An American audience hearing such words from a member of the administration would wince or laugh, yet there is a receptive audience for such bombast.
And, of course, there is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who while not an Arab, places himself within the Islamic pan-Arab tradition and is famous for his oratory:
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "Today, certain people are about to convene in occupied Palestine, in order to celebrate its anniversary. They believe that by doing so, they are strengthening this disintegrating regime. However, the whole world will come to understand that holding these ceremonies is a sign of the weakness, the backwardness, and the disintegration of this regime. Otherwise, why didn't they celebrate this regime's 50th or 55th anniversary? Why did they come up with this idea now? Let me tell you, celebrating a dead man's birthday won't improve his condition one bit. This dead man will not be resurrected by all those people who are about to convene there.
"There is a group of terrorists and criminals who came according to a plan, with the support of foreigners, and who have no roots in Palestine. Sooner or later, they will be driven out by the people of Palestine."[...]
"You can be sure that the hand of God and the wrath of the peoples will grab you by the throat.
"The only country that refrains from intervening in Lebanon is Iran. Who are the people who make phone calls, and give support and encouragement? The ambassador of which country is fleeing [Lebanon]? Mr. Bush declared that when Prime Minister Al-Siniora announced the provocative decisions that generated the events in Lebanon, the U.S. ambassador was sitting next to him [Siniora]. So who's intervening in Lebanon's affairs?" [...]
"You should know that we are not offended by your accusations. On the contrary, they make us happy, because this shows us just how helpless and defeated you are, and how deficient and mistaken your analysis of the political environment is. This makes us confident that you are of a kind bound to become extinct. We say this loud and clear." [...]
Ahmadinejad's bombast seems out of proportion to Iran's capabilities yet such limitations have not stopped the spread of such genocidal content, which is becoming more common among the radial Islamists:
Pakistani Taliban Emir Beitullah Mahsoud: Pakistan Should Use Its Nuclear Weapons to Challenge the Enemies; Only 5% of Fighters in Afghanistan Are Ours; "We Take Pride in Being Enemies of the Jews and Christians"
Beitullah Mahsoud: "Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden are two of the greatest mujahideen for the sake of Allah and two of the greatest leaders of the Muslims. All the Muslims love these two men. They fight America with full determination, and we are proud of them. However, these leaders are not in our region. Nevertheless, we are prepared to do whatever they want. If they want to come here - we are ready. If they ask for our support, we will say: We respond to the call.
"We have a weapon more powerful than the Pakistani nuclear weapon. We have fidaai fighters. The problem of Pakistan is that it has lost what it used to have, and this is because it no longer has an independent political will, and its army does not adhere to its nuclear weapons. Moreover, it uses the weapons in its possession against the people and against the Muslims. Pakistan should use these weapons to defend the Muslims and to challenge the enemies. But the army has used its weapons to harm the people and the Muslims.
"We are happy to have the Americans here and to be their enemies. The Jews and the Christians are among our sworn enemies, and Allah willing, we will fight them to the end."
There are more examples everyday of Arabic and Arabic-like hyperbole among those who identify most closely with the idealized radical Islamists. Such language is meant primarily for the home audience and serves to inflate the self concept of the fighters, whose weakness in conventional terms is unmistakable.
As the version of expansionist, supremacist Islam runs up against the limitations imposed by the reality of their weakness and failure in comparison to the West, hyperbole must commensurately escalate to forestall knowledge of their own weakness. This is bombast as defense against despair. It is the scream of the Kamikaze pilot whose death and defeat are assured but whose ideology cannot admit to such defeat.
For radical Islam, defeat on the battlefield equals the defeat of their Allah; this is unacceptable and once one's ideology becomes intimately enmeshed as part of one's self-concept (ego ideal) it must be defended against using all means at one's disposal.
The Arab world, even the radical Islamists, know (but deny by ignoring and using their hyperbole) that in any exchange with America, Israel, and the West in which the Western powers exert even a fraction of their might, the Muslim world will lose; further, any nuclear exchange would result in the effective end of Islam as a political force in world affairs. This is unacceptable for many reasons, and it is therefore no surprise that the cultural tendency to hyperbole has been recruited for its defensive purposes by the enemies of the modern world.