Discussing conflict, the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) told us decades ago that when language comes to the fore as an issue in society, we should conclude that there are non-linguistic issues simmering under the surface.
The opposite is also true: conflict, whether political or social, can bring language to the fore as a site of non-linguistic meaning. In extreme cases, languages can be criminalised after their own people. Arabic, in the West, provides a sad example of emerging criminalisation.
Here is how the criminalisation argument runs: since Arabic is organically linked with Islam and Muslims as the language of faith, and since Islam and Muslims are linked with violent extremism and terrorism in Western societies, Arabic must therefore be linked with extremism, violence and terrorism.
This criminalisation of Arabic is a new dimension of Islamophobia which, in my view, has the capacity to evolve into a new stereotype in this ever-changing, ever-expanding corrosive phenomenon in Western societies.
For well over a decade, the Western media have been reporting on the terrorist connotations of Arabic in the public sphere. Westerners have developed a sharper familiarity with the tones of spoken Arabic and a greater recognition of the Arabic script.
These capacities have been used in a profiling mode in ways that affect people negatively who are perceived to be Muslim or Arab, two categories of identification that are often conflated with one another.
In November of last year, two American citizens of Palestinian descent were almost prevented from flying out of Chicago Midway Airport to Philadelphia because they were overheard speaking in Arabic. Maher Khalil and Anas Ayyad, 29 and 28 respectively, were allowed to join the flight only after being questioned and cleared by airport security and police.
Carrying a box on the flight, passengers made them open it to ascertain that it could not do any harm. In fact, the box was carrying baklava, which, in typically generous Arab style, they proceeded to share with their fellow passengers.
In the past, skin colour and other signs of faith, such as facial hair, have been used as profiling tools, language has now joined them as a new profiling index.
This is not an isolated incident. Leila Abdelrazaq, a Palestinian-American artist, was arrested and interrogated in Arizona in December 2015 for having on her a notebook with sketches depicting immigration at the US-Mexico border, accompanied with Arabic writing that mocked her less-than-perfect competence in the language.
Stereotype of Arabic
Considering the emerging stereotype of Arabic as a language of violence, extremism and terrorism in the West, it would be hard to imagine that the Arabic script in her notebook had nothing to do with the arrest.
It may be argued that location is an important factor in the arrest and interrogation of an Arabic-speaking passenger or artist. Airports and borders are not neutral places, the argument would go, making it inevitable in current circumstances that the presence of Arabic, in speech or in writing, in these and similarly sensitive locations would raise suspicion.
But this is not true in all circumstances. It is not unknown for Arabic to be censored for its connotations of violence, extremism and terrorism in situations where location is not a security consideration.
In December 2015 an Arabic calligraphy homework in a “world geography” class in Augusta County, Virginia was considered a security concern, leading not just to the school’s closure, owing to mounting public pressure, but also to the temporary closure of all the schools in the entire county for fear over safety.
The fact that the Arabic homework was the Muslim declaration of faith, which was explained in the homework assignment to allay the fears of parents, may have something to do with this reaction.
Still, when such an innocuous thing as an Arabic calligraphy class can cause this kind of disruption in the life of a community, we must surely conclude that cross-cultural relations have hit rock bottom.
The fear of what Arabic is imagined to stand for in the West, particularly the US, hit the town of Lubbock, Texas on February 15 this year, the day after Valentine’s Day. The banner in white on black, with a red heart in the middle raised on the publicly owned Citizens Tower, declared “Love for All” in Arabic, a kind of Valentine message.
Referring to it as an “Arabic flag”, the mayor ordered that all necessary steps be taken to secure the building with assistance from the Department of Homeland Security, local police authorities and the FBI.
Identification of language with faith
Commenting on this story, one blogger wrote: “Their [Arabs/Muslims] Arabic language is so darn mixed up with their religion and their religion is so inseparable from their daily lives that it is enough to give a Texan sheriff a headache if not a scare. And that, in short, is exactly what has happened.”
This identification of language with faith and people, on the one hand, and with extremism, violence and terrorism, on the other, must be a matter of grave concern to all sane people.
The ever-changing face of Islamophobia has expanded its outlook to include aspects of religious culture. At the end of February, a Nigerian-born British man was not allowed to travel on an easyJet flight from Luton, outside London, to Holland because a fellow passenger was alarmed at reading the word “prayer” on his mobile phone.
The passenger immediately assumed that the man, a Christian in fact, was a Muslim and reported him as a security threat. Questioned by the police, the man was asked what he meant by “prayer”, which church he attended and if he ever thought of changing his religion; the implication being that there might be a connection to Islam. In the end, the police let him travel to Holland on the next flight, after a three-and-a-half-hour delay.
There is an extremely sinister side to this story. The linking of prayer with Islam treats religiosity as a particularly Muslim phenomenon, especially when a linguistic sign of this religiosity, the word “prayer” in this case, is linked with skin colour, a kind of racial profiling.
The underlying assumption here is that “blackness” correlates with Islam. And that, of all faiths, Islam is prone to advertise itself in public. By doing so, Islam somehow upsets the private-public divide which is an integral part of the secular ethos of Western culture.
It is in this additional sense that Islam is thought by Islamophobes to represent a threat to Western civilisation. Having advanced towards secularity, Islam comes to challenge what was thought to be a unidirectional trajectory of social progress in the West.
Extremism, violence and terrorism are not the primary issue here, but the retrograde influence Islam is assumed to have on the very fabric of the European Enlightenment is. Western media want Muslims to rescue Islam from the extremists. Regardless of what we think of this question, it seems legitimate to ask who will rescue Western societies from their Islamophobes.
Yasir Suleiman is acting president of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.