Language and Power
March 5, 2017
Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students -
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.
In Washington state, the body of a young Muslim man was found hanging from a tree after he had been missing for a month. First, his death was ruled a suicide. Now, as the FBI investigates, it is “undetermined.” Such stories pepper my social media feed. Whether he died by suicide or homicide, his death is tragic, and I ask you to make a prayer for him and his family. But, if he died by homicide, then we should clear about terminology. In our era of White Supremacy, the homicide of a Black man by hanging is a lynching.
Language includes value. Meaning, words have impact not only in their meanings, but also in perpetuating certain worldviews. Rather than speak of something as lies, certain people in power are using the term “alternative facts.” We often complain that when a Muslim takes leave of his senses and kills people at an office, it is “terrorism,” but when someone not Muslim walks into a church or in a movie theater and does the same, it is a “shooting.” Similarly, an Israeli comedian spoke of Israeli policies against the Palestinians as “apartheid” rather than “occupation.” And, “occupation” gets used in contrast to “stalemate.” Likewise, in the 1980s, we ennobled the Afghans fighting the Soviet occupiers as “mujahideen” (i.e. people who do Jihad) and “Freedom Fighters,” and now, as they fight our occupation, we speak of Jihad as something dangerous, and we speak of the same Afghans as “insurgents.” When speaking of the Syrians seeking safety in Europe and the Americas, they are “refugees,” though some choose to call them “migrants.” Further, some in power speak of the arrival of refugees as an “invasion.” If it is possible to have a most vile usage of terminology, we find it in the latter of the Stages of Genocide, where marginalized populations get labeled as a pests, to make their extermination as easy as is possible. The Nazis called Jews “vermin.” The Hutus called Tutsis “cockroaches.” In Myanmar, Muslims were called “bacteria.” In the United States, some have been speaking of Islam as a “cancer.”
Language is also a mask or deflection. When politicians argue about the dangers of “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” they defend themselves by stating that they are not singling out all Muslims, but only the dangerous ones. But, when we look through all of their statements, they spew such nonsense like, “Islam hates us.” Further, multiple politicians have insisted that the recent immigration policies are not a “Muslim Ban,” even though (a) one politician confessed that the strategy was to isolate Muslims, and (b) Muslims from across the globe trying to enter the US, as well as Muslim American citizens trying to return home to the US have been getting detained and questioned about their Islam.
All of these usages reflect power. We speak of History as written by the victors. We usually think of Power as something defined by bloodshed or control of energy resources. But, Power also seeks control of language, as a way to control outlooks, especially the outlooks of those victimized by Power. Thus, these terms do not enter our discourse as accidents. They are deliberate and designed as tools of subjugation and dehumanization.
But, we must point to a few things very important.
First, only someone dehumanized can dehumanize someone. If the human race is a human family, as we believe it is, then the killing, subjugation, or even hate by one person against another is also violence against the self. Thus, because it manifests as hate and violence against People of Color (and, for that matter, non-Christians), White Supremacy is an act of White self-hate, disguised as self-love. This point might sound preposterous, but consider it.
If you love yourself, then you nurture yourself with compassion. If you fill your heart with rage, fear, hate, and violence, then you are corroding yourself from within. Look at the current voices of White Supremacy in our society: do they look like happy healthy people? Not even remotely. James Baldwin states that Whites cannot develop love for Black Americans until they first learn to love themselves. Thus, extreme self-love is rooted in extreme self-loathing. When I look at a grown adult’s (especially someone middle aged) social media and *all* of their photos are of themselves, I get concerned about their well-being.
Thus, your antidote against this dehumanization is to appreciate the innate worth, the immense value that every human being has. When we say that killing one is like killing all humanity, we are saying that one human being is so valuable that it is beyond measure. This requires you to appreciate your own innate worth and dignity. Further, our tradition is one that emphasizes a spiritual meritocracy. Meaning, the most important nobility is with the Divine, the most noble of those people are those with the most God-consciousness in their hearts, minds, and actions.
Further, hate cannot sustain itself. Anger is like fire, and the nature of fire is that it seeks to stay alive by burning everything, until there is nothing left to burn; then it calms. When challenged by hostiles to prove to them that Islam is not an ideology of hate, I have to remind them that Islam is a population of a billion and a half people spanning nearly 1500 years, producing sophisticated civilizations, with presence in every place in the globe. A hateful ideology cannot sustain itself that long and wide. Likewise, if Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.. -- each of which has pockets of people committing violence against others -- were themselves hateful ideologies, they would not last as long as they have. Hate will fizzle out, but after it has burnt everything down.
Thus, your antidote against this hate is to embrace gratitude. Gratitude is the water that can fuel love to put out that anger. This becomes especially important, when you read of the lynching of a young Black American male. Anger is so contagious that it can spread faster than fire in a trail of gasoline.
Further still, when we speak of supremacist ideologies that are so deeply organized, individual efforts will not stop them. A commonalty between various Liberation Theologies and Caliphate (Khilafah) movements is the argument that when oppression is systemic, institutionalized, and deep-rooted, then not only will donations to the needy not resolve poverty, but because such donations give us (the donors) the satisfaction of contributing, they will further reinforce oppression. The way of the prophet Moses, peace be upon him, against the pharaoh of his time was to lead his people out of subjugation into exile in the desert. The way of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, against the pharaohs of the Quraysh, was to lead his people out of subjugation, into exile in Madinah (Medina), as a major step in his overall revolution.
Thus, the challenge for you and I in confronting the contemporary pharaohs and their minions is to develop gratitude in the course of helping them develop true self love. Meanwhile, we have to figure out systemic answers to systemic oppressions. Otherwise, more trees will hang more young men. And, speaking of that young man, his name is Ben Keita. He was 18 years old, and a few weeks away from High School Graduation. His father speaks of him as a happy young man. And now he is with God.
And Allah knows best.