Dec 8, 2013
The War on Language
Posted on Sep 28, 2009
By Chris Hedges
The Arabic of the Quran is as poetic as the intricate theology of Islam. It is nuanced and difficult to master. But the language of the Quran has been debased in the slums and poor villages across the Middle East by the words and phrases of political Islam. This process is no different from what has taken place with Christianity in the United States. Our mainstream churches have been as complacent in fighting heretics as have the mainstream mosques and religious scholars in the Middle East. Demented forms of Christianity and Islam have largely supplanted genuine and more open forms of religious expression. And they have done so because liberal elites were cowed into silence.
Corruptions of Islamic terms and passages are as numerous in the militants’ ideology as in the ideology of the Christian right. The word jihad for the militants means the impunity to kill, kidnap, hijack and bomb anyone they see as an infidel, including children and other Muslims. Jihad, however, does not always mean holy war, or even war, in the Quran. According to Islamic tradition, the “great jihad” is the battle within one’s self to live in accord with God’s will. A jihad, for the prophet Muhammad, is often the struggle to achieve inner-worldly asceticism, in accord with his call “to command the good and forbid evil with the heart, the tongue and the hand.” And the Quran condemns the use of violence to propagate the faith. “There is no compulsion in religion,” it states. The Quran also denounces forced piety and conversion as insincere. Calls to martyrdom, presented by militants as a direct path toward eternal life, conveniently eschew the Quran’s rigid ban on suicide. But theological nuance is beside the point for zealots. The fantasies peddled by the Christian right, from the Rapture, which is not in the Bible, to the belief that Jesus, who was a pacifist, would bless wars in the Middle East, injects our own version of sanctified slogans into the vernacular.
Our crisis is a crisis of language. Victor Klemperer in his book “Lingua Tertii Imperii” noted that the distortion of language by the Nazis was vital in creating fascist culture. He was repeatedly perplexed by how the masses, even those who opposed the Nazis, willingly ingested the linguistic poison the Nazis used to perpetuate collective self-delusion. “Words may be little doses of arsenic,” he wrote. “They are consumed without being noticed; they seem at first to have no effect, but after a while, indeed, the effect is there.”
Chris Hedges is the author of “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”
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