Q&A with Dr. Muhammad Ali Bahri from the Translation and Interpreting Institute of HBKU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences
All languages contain terms and phrases whose original meaning has changed and whose new meanings could be negative or even implicitly racist. How does the Arabic language address this?
There is no specific characteristic in the Arabic language that makes it tend toward or against racism, but when the ancient Arabs boasted about their lineage, perhaps that became a feeling of superiority over another, racist tendencies emerged in Arab society and were expressed by language. As for the existence of racism in our literature, we find this in classical Arab poetry, especially when expressing pride, praise, and satire. Moreover, since Arab society was based on tribal tribe dominance and the glorification of it, all of this was acceptable until the emergence of Islam, which clarified misconceptions and offered another perspective to many values, although unfortunately populist conflicts arose after that.
Racism is a newly emerging term, but by studying the word ‘race’ etymologically, it was initially used in the sense of “origin”. What concerns us is the existence of the meaning of racism, even if it was not called by this name in our history and literature. There are words that develop semantically and are used in one era, then their use decreases or disappears in another era while remaining within a language.
We might find a form of racism or racial discrimination anywhere in the world. How did this affect Arabic language development?
Racism lies in societies, not in the nature of language, but since language is a phenomenon that is subject to the social phenomena of development, change, and perhaps extinction, Arabic as a language can develop at the level of the semantics of its vocabulary.
According to some linguists who studied the nature of the semantic change of vocabulary, it is as an expansion of the vocabulary or a narrowing of its meaning or otherwise, but the important thing is that people are making this change in some way, and they say the term to refer to a close or different connotation than the original meaning. For example, the word ‘foreigner’, which we use today, once meant ‘non-related’.
Arabs use the word ‘A’jami’ to refer to non-Arabs, because they believe that there is no language like Arabic in its diction, rhetoric and eloquence, and perhaps they used it to describe someone who is not good at Arabic diction, even if this person is an Arab. If we analyze their logic in classifying other languages against today’s logic, we may have said this was racism! However, an adjective in a particular society or language is not necessarily racist, as long as, when used in its natural context, it is merely a description rather than an expression of supremacy.
Language is a weapon and it can be racist and not. It is subject to the culture and the cultural balance of its speaker. Yet, this culture has shifted throughout time. Recent studies on racism and Arabic are, to my knowledge, almost non-existent, even though this topic is heavily analyzed in other languages. There may be several reasons for this, including our lack of discussion of the issue of racism, or because it is present in the Arab world but to a lesser extent to some countries in the West or elsewhere.
Has the Arabic language contributed to stereotypes and racial prejudices in Arab society?
Language is the instrument of expression, and when a person owns a thought or belief, it appears during speech, no matter how they may try to hide it; it appears in slips of the tongue and the ‘melody of speech’. Language plays a role in creating stereotypes; it all depends on the mindset, and whether we judge things with a sense of generalization.
Speech is a key to a person’s intellect and place in society, so people pay attention to their language and tend to use one accent or avoid another, so that they are not perceived as belonging to a group they do not want to be affiliated with because of the stereotyping associated with it. But we should let our actions overcome stereotyping. Our deeds tell who we are, and we should not be so concerned with showing or hiding our accent.
Have prejudice or racial discrimination had an impact on the Arabic language?
To some extent, yes, as they may lead to the spread of an accent or group of words and the extinction of other accents or expressions. The reason is not language; prejudice or discrimination lie behind it. There is a strong connection between a society’s culture and the language of its people.
Can we study racism, prejudice, and stereotypes in Arab culture without considering the role and effects of the Arabic language?
Language is one of the repercussions of racism, but we have to consider other repercussions that may arise in-laws or people’s behaviors. Identity is another issue to be considered. Language is linked to identity and is one of its components. Perhaps, in our keenness to cultivate identity, we find ourselves inculcating racism in ourselves. So we must avoid extremism in building our identity, as extremism mingles the components of identity with racial features.
Does the Arabic language include concepts or words that express racism?
As with any language, there are words in Arabic that we might now see today as having racial connotations. For example, people often link something worthy of praise with ‘white’ – white knight, white penny, white heart – and attack the word black’ to negative aspects: black day, blacklist, black market. This may sometimes affect our subconscious, so we have to think a little deeper and ask whether we take colors as symbols that influence racism, as color can be evidence of racism and can be neutral. At the same time, does the black color of the stone in the Kaaba make people refrain from it?
Color can be mentioned and there will be racism associated with it. But in the words of the Prophet Muhammed: “There is no favor of an Arab over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab, and neither white skin over black skin, nor black skin over white skin, except by piety”. This is a rejection of racism and symbolizes an affirmation of human dignity, which is part of the universality of the Prophet Muhammad’s (BUH) message and its focus on humanity. Perhaps this is what we have to learn: our literature and language should be international, humanistic, and free from racism.
In the Arabic language, how can we choose words and expressions to reduce or mitigate societal biases?
We must be mindful of this in the way we educate children and young people. and not allow art and media to steer us towards racism without noticing that this is happening, whether through words or images. Teachers and educators must be very careful with the vocabulary they use and make their students aware of how they judge people and things and the vocabulary they use to do so.
Scholars of Arabic language and sociology should also study language through its relation to society, highlight words that have a racial connotation, or emphasize that we should use words with fairness and balance. One important area is the field of sayings and proverbs. There are publications which now criticize the literature of proverbs, including books and articles that tackle popular proverbs and the values – whether right or wrong - that are presented in some of them.
There are dozens of accents and dialects in the Arab world. How do we ensure this promotes diversity, rather than giving rise to racism?
Firstly, we should always return to the basic fact that there can be no preference for a person over another because of their language, accent, color or race, as we are all of one origin. Secondly, it is necessary to study racist words, structures or proverbs in our folk and literary heritage, and draw attention to them. Thirdly, we should always remember that language and society are linked. Just as we have to research language and where racism lies in it, we also have to look at society, its culture, its systems and laws, and where racism lies in this.
There is always a thin thread that represents the boundary between being proud of something – whether it is language, identity, or otherwise - and a feeling of supremacy and racism over others. All of us, individuals and institutions, must realize the importance of justice and equity; from the words we utter to the laws that regulate our lives.