Language and war in the Middle East

Ali Alarabi

Posted Dec 12, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Language and war in the Middle East

By Ali Alarabi

Last November 26,President Bush signed an agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Malki that will regulate the presence of US troops in Iraq as well as the presence of American military bases in that country. Signed through a secure video conferencing system the agreement or the “ declaration of principles” as it was termed, called for an “ enduring” US presence in Iraq. As to why the US administration used the term “ Enduring” is of no mystery. The word “ Enduring” which according to Oxford English dictionary means among other things “ Permanent” or “eternal,” or “forever” it is a pretty and seemingly harmless word comparing to the more politically charged words like “ permanent” which if used instead it would likely raise a firestorm among certain segments of the Iraqi people. For Bush and for others, the battle over words is apparently as important as the battle over nations.

On this peculiar use of such word, Tom Engelhardt wrote in Tomdispatch, of the Nation Institute on June 7, 2007 that: “For a while, to avoid the taint of that word “permanent,” the major American bases in Iraq were called “enduring camps” by the Pentagon.

Five or six of them are simply massive, including Camp Victory, our military headquarters adjacent to Baghdad International Airport on the outskirts of the capital, Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad (which has air traffic to rival Chicago’s O’Hare), and al-Asad Air Base in the Western desert near the Syrian border. These are big enough to contain multiple bus routes, huge PXes, movie theaters, brand-name fast-food restaurants, and, in one case, even a miniature golf course.”

Along the lines of using friendly terms that would not irate the Iraqis and in order to paint a friendly or even a happy face on American bases in Iraq, the US military opted to change the names of all of its bases in Iraq into Iraqi-friendly names. Names, Iraqis could relate to, at least on the subconscious level, and hopefully would see it and get used to it as part of their new reality.

Old bases names such as Banzai became Al-adala (Justice), while Eagle became Al-Amal (hope), and Headhunter became Al-Istiqlal (independence), Highlander became Al-Izdehar (prosperity).

Iraq today is country cannibalizing itself on a daily diet of blood and gore, yet we hear US politicians and their Iraqi minions speak of “ democracy” in Iraq and “ liberation of Iraq (a country is liberated and occupied at the same time)

The US administration hailed the Iraqi election in 2005 as the first Iraqi “democratic election”. It is unclear however how can that be called a “ Democracy” in the real sense of the word when we have Kurds vote for Kurdish politicians and Shias vote for Shia politicians under strict orders from the Iranian Ayatollahs in Najaf, and Sunnis vote for Sunni Politicians. This was religious tribalism in the first order where each community voted for its religious tribe without any other consideration.

This would be the same if American Mormons voted for a Mormon presidential candidate, Protestant citizens voted for a protestant candidate and Catholics for a Catholic candidate. This would be unthinkable and certainly no one in America would call that a “ democracy”

But whether for public relations or political considerations, often times, political language is dressed up in neutral or positive terms in order to cover deceptive and manipulative goals.

Such is the case of Israel, a country notorious for making up friendly and innocent-sounding names and words for its brutal and inhumane policies. Israeli settlements for example, though illegal to start with, yet mushroomed to become cities on Palestinian lands. Settlement building and expansion is termed as “ natural growth”

On the other hand any Palestinian who is building an additional room to his house, or on his property is termed “ illegal” or “ building without permit” which in any cases will not get even when he applies for it. The results are demolishing the Palestinians homes for being “ Illegal”

Another example is the word “ terrorist” a much-contested term and its application depends on one’s worldview. Palestinians who resists the Israeli occupation are automatically labeled as “ terrorists” regardless of their affiliations or motivations. As if Palestinians, for fear of being labeled as “terrorists”, should be thankful for the Israeli occupation! Israeli violence against Palestinians is never termed as terrorism by the world media or international bodies, despite it terrorizes the Palestinians on a daily basis, but rather as “ self defense” a biased use of language.

Another example of language manipulation by Israel is its medieval-looking wall that Israel simply calls “ a fence” The word fence normally conjures up an almost romantic imagery of a country home surrounded by white picket fence, or small wire fence to either keep animals in or out or for beautification reasons.

The reality of this Israeli “ fence” however is anything but romantic. it is actually a massive system of deep trenches to prevent the movement of vehicles, a 27 feet high concrete walls, rings of barbed wires, high watch towers, massive gates for people and vehicles and is supposed to be 436 miles long when fully completed.

It is very hard to imagine such medieval system of high walls and deep trenches as an innocent ‘ fence” but some people believe such obvious deception.

Despite the manipulative use of language, the realities in the Middle East, however, are still ugly and bloody and it takes more than sugar-coated words to change them.

(Ali Alarabi is an award winning columnist and managing editor of Copyright Arab Writers Group Syndicate,