When outsiders forget their place

I expect the occasional troll to drop by, especially given how I openly mock some of the Beltway’s most sacred cows (e.g., the so-called War on Terror).  But even the most obnoxious trolls generally pick fights over substantive issues.

So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself in a spat with somebody over my use of Arabic words in my posts.  Yes, someone–and a blogger who evidently fancies himself an informed firsthand observer of the Middle East and Islam–was outraged at my use of common Islamic words and phrases such as din ("religion") and Suratul Fatihah ("the Opening Chapter" of the Quran) in my post on sectarianism in Pakistan ("Barelvis and Deobandis, still takfir-crazy after all these years").

We’ve gone back and forth a bit.  I dismantled his arguments and implicit assumptions.  I think he ended up looking rather silly and ill-informed and, judging by the guffaws of onlookers, I don’t think alone in that perception.

I’m quite struck by the presumption, rudeness and strikingly anachronistic provincialism of this gentleman’s complaint.  A non-Muslim and a person who did not grow up in a Muslim cultural environment feels he can lecture me–a person who grew up in the Muslim community in the midst of a discussion with other Muslims–about using overly "ethnic" language.  Moreover, he is so closed to other cultures that he feels my exotic jargon an assault on native sensibilities that justifies a rude intervention.   It’s fascinating.  Archie Bunker lives on in the Blogosphere, and among "allies".

The bottom line is that, whatever he thinks, this is none of his business.  He has no more standing to whine about whether Muslims confuse him by saying Suratul Fatihah rather than blandly intoning "The Opening Chapter" than I have a right to complain about all these uppity Latinos who go around confusing the uneducated by wishing each other Felix Navidad instead of "Merry Christmas" like proper WASPs. 

I had moved on, both because of how trivial this matter is and because he never mustered a coherent rebuttal to my points, but now he’s back and incensed enough to escalate it by posting a slam on his blog.

Once again, the mix of half-digested facts, unrepentant boorishness, and a neo-Victorian penchant for half-baked declarations about other cultures raises its ugly but psychologically intriguing head. Reading this condescending lecture to brown people over their supposed bastardization of the Queen’s English you find yourself expecting it to close with "Rule Britannia!"

Anyway, here is his latest spitball (to call this anemic response a "salvo" would be flagrant hyperbole to which he’d undoubtedly be the first to object on semantic grounds).

Lounsbury: Razor’s and Preciousness, or I’m so very Muslim posturing

Tardily, but I thought I would share this. Of course I am right, as always, but I am sure many will disagree with my viewpoint but frankly I am tired of reading Muslim [it seems esp. an Indo-Pak non-native Arab speaker disease] writing in English that pretentiously uses Arab-lish translits for religious terms that are perfectly adequately experessed in ordinary Enlgish  Worse, the idiotic responses pretending to tell me how "Muslims" speak about such issues (amusing pretention that), or trying to imply a lack of familiarity – rather than grasping the unnecessary self-segregation and foolish pretentiousness of injecting such terms.

In my responses on my blog, I ran through the most glaring problems with his argument, but this latest bit got me thinking about a less obvious but equally pervasive fallacy implicit in this thinking:  Namely, the linguistically and sociologically clueless assumption that the stylistic norms of Arabs are normative for  Arabic loan words or expressions in English because Arabs are native speakers of Arabic.

The linguistic naivete of this expectation is quite striking, as is the way it repackages the widespread stereotype that Islam is an "Arab" religion.  Never mind, says Lounsbury, that few Arabs speak English as a second much less first language–their usage of these terms in Arabic is what should determine our usage in English.  As I noted in my comment below, it’s like looking at contemporary French to determine how to use an expression like double entendre in English.  In English it means something very specific, whereas in French it means a number of things. 

This Arabo-centric perspective is also reminiscent in its snobbery of the longstanding tradition  of imposing Latin style on English, despite the fact that it is a German language.  Just as patrician grammarians long claimed–utterly and indisputably incorrectly, as the rule applies only to Romance languages that descend from Latin–that it was grammatically incorrect to end a sentence in English with a conjunction, the gentleman is implicitly arguing Arabic stylistic usage is "classier" than all these "low" non-Arabic Islamic languages.    Again, a strikingly elitist and unscientific attitude that could’ve come out of some 19th century intellectual dilettante’s musings on "Oriental" cultures.

Another intriguing tick to his latest riposte is how he interprets my use of a few mundane  and instantly recognizable expressions–it’s not like I was dropping fancy terms from Islamic jurisprudence that rank & file Muslims might find confusing or stilted; these are as culturally familiar to Muslims around the globe as mazeltov or hallelujah are to even culturally illiterate Jews and Christians, respectively–is how it interprets speaking normally as feverish "posturing".  It appears that he is so insecure vis-a-vis subcultures that he finds it impossible that cultural differences could arise naturally and organically from one’s background.  You see, it must be psychologically and/or politically motivated.  They’re not just different–they’re agressively imposing their fraudulent difference on us besieged white folk.

And such differences are inherently threatening to many.  Hence this neurotic need to police the Blogosphere and reestablish WASP cultural norms. 

Neurotic armchair shrink, psychoanalyze thyself. 

Here’s the  comment I posted to his blog.

I see you wish to prolong this bizarre skirmish.
I’m the rogue whose use of this overly "ethnic" jargon incurred your Archie Bunker-like wrath.
People can weigh the arguments for themselves by looking at the comments on my post. Seems to me that you’ve been beat.
BTW, I’m not only not South Asian–I’m a lilly white Bostonian of Scandinavian descent–but I’m a native speaker of "Muslim English". Aside from French and Danish (languages in which I’ve, incidentally, heard the very same expressions), it’s what I grew up with and indeed all that I know. I most certainly grew up hearing the phrases that you find so artificial and pretentious around the Muslim community in Boston.
How you figure that the usage of *Arabic speakers* is inherently normative for English speakers really eludes me. Seems to me that you turn to Arabs to find out how to speak Arabic, not English. Would you ask a Frenchman what "menage a trois" or "double entendre" mean in English just because the words are French? These loan words don’t mean the same thing in their original language.

  • http://sister-scorpion.blogspot.com Leila

    how fugly!

  • http://abusinan.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    This guy thinks he is much more than he really is. He wants to give lectures on Arabic, yet clearly doesnt speak Arabic himself.
    How can he try to give people lectures on a language he does not even speak? He seems to me to be one of those people who has read one too many books and insists that somehow this makes him an expert.
    Like I have said before, my wife uses these same words on her blog. She is a native Saudi speaker of Arabic. She might not use the same transliterations, but then again, as I said before, she doesnt speak in Fus7a, as academics and religious scholars do, so that isnt an issue.
    It would seem that this guy has an issue with proper, academic and scholarly usage of Arabic. Again, I suggest he sits in on an Arabic language Khutba and see if the language used by the Khateeb is any different from what you or others use.
    Of course it isnt. The Arabic, as you write it, is the proper, text book Arabic. What would he have you use? Gutter Maghrebi dialect that no one understands this side of the Atlas Mountains?
    This guy claims to associate with native Arabic speakers, but if he did he would know that what he is talking about is utter rubbish.

  • http://musicalchef.blogspot.com musicalchef

    That’s hilarious, especially the “Indo-Pak” part! Also sounds like a big pain in the butt.

  • http://aglarond.blogspot.com ayesha

    how irritating. beyond how wrong he is, what business is it of his whatever languages you use on your blog? you could put up a whole post in danish if you wanted (we’d just be waiting for a translation). :)

  • http://abusinan.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    I dont know how much Arabic you know Svend, but did you see his response to me in Arabic?
    Interesting that he said he just “noticed it” 7 hours after he responded to it in English, then decided to try and respond in Arabic.
    His response in Arabic was so bad that another poster, an Arabic speaker it would seem, had to post that they thought it was supposed to be in Arabic. lol
    I think he had to try and get someone to write the Arabic for him. Next time he might consider getting someone who can speak the language better than a first semester college kid.
    After that exchange, and another on Tariq Nelsons blog, I am getting sick of these people.
    You had one person on Tariq Nelson’s site who made it clear that Muslims who live in the West dont have the same deen as those who live in the Middle East.
    LOL! Well, that must explain why many of those in the Saudi Establishment can bring their drugs, alcohol and prostitutes into Saudi Arabia and still be able to preach to others.
    Yep, I must admit, they are right. Such people do have greater deen than the rest of us.
    It is people like this that are EXACTLY the reason why I think the Muslim community is crap.
    Thank God the Muslim community has very little to do with the religion of Islam! Alhamdulillah.

  • http://otherlives.blogspot.com Nancy

    Forgive me, it’s “Feliz.”
    Fascinating argument – who has the right to use a particular language and what makes one a poser. It always depends on who you’re speaking to, right? And with a blog, the audience is undefined – so the writer chooses the audience they speak to. It seems to me that Arabic words must serve as an important in-group marker to Muslims all over the world. Among fellow Muslims, wouldn’t it sound more awkward to use “The Opening Chapter” than “Suratul Fatiha”? But you might choose the English phrase if you assume that no one in your audience will have a clue what you’re talking about otherwise. Which you clearly wouldn’t assume about your readership. Anyway, I enjoyed the exchanges and your characterization of the commenter as “Archie Bunker” style. Ma’a salaama.

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com svend

    Abu Sinan, whatever he speaks or understands, he doesn’t know jack about how Muslims speak, at least about Islam. That’s pretty evident.
    Thanks for catching that typo, Nancy (small world!). Perhaps I was thinking of Latin subconsciously.

  • http://abusinan.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    You are right Svend.
    I guess the one thing that really bothers me about the internet is the fact that some people do a few googles and now assume the right to be experts on any given field even when it is evidently clear that they know very little.
    Just like with an online translator, it doesnt fool people.

  • http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/category/mideast-peace/ Richard Silverstein

    I come to this argument as someone who enjoys both Svend’s and Lounsberry’s blogs. Though I think on this question I side with Svend. I studied for a PhD in HEbrew Literature & so wrote and studied about Judaism. As such, I often found it necessary, and indeed critical to use original Hebrew (well, English transliterations) when referring to theological concepts. If you didn’t you’d lose the specificity of what you were talking about.
    Reducing this argument to whether or not you say ‘God’ or ‘Allah’ seems foolish. ‘Allah’ is just as acceptable a term in English as ‘God’ is. What’s the problem? In fact, in some contexts if you used the term God instead of Allah, a reader might not understand that you’re talking about the God of Islam.
    Regarding Lounsberry’s rudeness, unless you knew his blog & his style previously, you wouldn’t realize that he enjoys brandishing the rapier. When you’re ‘with’ him in the argument, it can be quite funny & enjoyable (though not to the victim no doubt). For example, he once became apoplectic over Michael Totten, who completed deserved the ‘take down.’ It was delicious to read.
    I see it as theater (for him). I wouldn’t take it too personally. THough I’d understand too if you did. It’s hard to remain serene in the midst of such attacks.

  • Wellwisher

    Nicely put, Richard.
    At last a bit of sanity in this “mountain out of a molehill” affair!

  • http://abusinan.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    Michael Totten doesnt take criticism well. I made one post, my only post on his site, and was promply banned, with no reply to my post.
    I simply put it that he seemed to have little or no real depth in his knowledge about Lebanon and that it was evident in his post and pointed out why.
    I find it ironic how all of these people who champion “freedom of speech and the American way” dont seem to support it too much in their own personal actions.

  • http://atlantarofters.blogspot.com The Sanity Inspector

    Humor is more effective than language nannying. More entertaining, anyway.
    http://atlantarofters.blogspot.com/2006/01/american-islamic-leaders-warn-of-anti.html

  • http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/category/mideast-peace/ Richard Silverstein

    Abu Sinan: I’ve lambasted Totten in his blog. But I don’t think I was banned. But I never tried to publish another comment there so don’t know for sure.
    BTW, I once wrote a blog post in which I called him “Larry of Arabia:”
    http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2006/02/21/michael-totten-larry-of-arabia/
    Very fitting analogy I think though of course T.E. Lawrence has a much firmer grasp of Islam & Arabs than Mikey does.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a lot quicker on the trigger to ban commenters w. Arab-sounding names than Jewish (like mine, that is).


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