When words become weapons
by: Ali Jawad
Ali Jawad is a human rights activist and political analyst with a keen interest in international diplomacy.

'Speak and you shall be known, for the person is hidden under his tongue', Ali ibn Abi Talib(a)

Language and thought are like two sides of the same coin. For how we think influences what we say, and what we say shapes how we think. Words offer an important window into the world of our thoughts. When thoughts are narrow, language becomes constricted and polarising. In such situations, words can mutate into arrows of discord that in turn give birth to a language that communicates negativity and division.

We recognise this relationship between words and thought in our daily lives, especially in examples of discrimination. The vile thoughts of racists and bigots of different kinds can often be deduced from their hostile language aimed at some 'other'. Inherent in this is a deeply entrenched 'Us versus Them' discourse. Whereas we often imagine language to be a medium of communication, in such instances language not only becomes a vehicle to reinforce division, but it is also the means through which one identifies and gives form to the 'Other'. It justifies attitudes and beliefs, and in turn, fortifies and intensifies them.

The late twentieth-century British author and critic George Orwell famously wrote an essay titled 'Politics and the English language' in 1946 in which he observed: 'if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought' because an effect can become a cause in a repeating sequence leading to an amplified end-result. To illustrate this, he posed the following example: 'A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.'

In light of the deep bond between thought and language, Islam places great emphasis on speech. Indeed the cornerstone of the faith - the Holy Qur'an - is the Divine Speech to humanity. Through it, God speaks to human beings and introduces amongst many other concepts, the idea of 'dialogue'. In numerous verses of the Holy Qur'an, we are audience to different dialogues: God and the angels, God and Satan, God and His prophets, prophets and their nations, parents and their children, believers and unbelievers, the inhabitants of Heaven and those of Hell etc. Throughout these verses, the actual words in the dialogue are detailed or descriptive adjectives are used to either describe the form of speech or established as conditions for the same. Some of the adjectives used to describe the speech are: honourable (2:235), upright (4:9), far-reaching (4:63), noble (17:23), gentle (17:28), soft-mannered (20:44) and so on.

Similarly, in the Prophetic example we find endless references to the nobility of the personal conduct and speech of the Holy Prophet(s) in his interactions with various people and groups. In addition to narrations about the importance of ethics, Prophetic sayings such as 'No one achieves true faith unless he controls his tongue' disclose the relationship between our speech (including the lack thereof) and faith.

Given the Islamic stance on speech, how then are we to rationalise the mortal sickness of intolerance that is currently plaguing the Muslim world? The precarious condition that surrounds us today cries out for sober selfcritique and deep examination. Whilst being cognisant of the profound effects of politics and power on culture and thought, as well as the impact that the imperial power game of the last decade has had on radicalisation, sectarianism and the budding of takfeeri (exclusivist extremists) currents, we must still pause to ask some serious questions about the language that today falsely poses in the name of Islam.

All one has to do is run a quick search on YouTube to find countless clips of preachers of hate who poison minds with speech that could not be more distant from Islamic teachings. Running the fear of pressing on raw nerves, what else does a discourse peppered with words such as rafidi, majoos, anjaas, bakri, et al. seek to achieve other than intentionally stoke division? Is this a language that aims to communicate, or to achieve its anti-thesis, non-communication? More importantly, what does such language divulge about the thoughts of its speakers?
Aside from a handful of sectarian 'hate-scholars' from the Shia and Sunni community, this discourse is a particular feature of the takfeeri currents. Notably, these currents have an extremely constricted understanding of faith. So perilously narrow is the 'Straight Path' that one is either in the Absolute Truth or sunk in Absolute Falsehood - there exists no room for anything between the two extremes. What is worse, one who is not deemed to be on the Absolute Truth (as they understand it to be) at once becomes a kafir (unbeliever) and can be attacked at will. To create this mindless worldview, language plays a critical function. It distorts established terms, gives them new meaning and utilises their original symbolism to catastrophic effect.

Thought and language are thus divided in a Manichean sense: those who share the same convictions are spoken to through a positive discourse and those who do not are exposed to a hostile, visceral negative discourse filled with hate and abuse.

In this sense, language is used to preclude thought and teaches its followers to 'un-think'. It promotes a bunker mentality, cocoons its advocates in pretentious selfcontained bubbles of righteousness and targets anyone who holds a different view. It is exactly for this reason that infighting between takfeeri groups almost immediately follows a military logic of wiping out the other. When words are instinctively used as weapons and all possible mediums necessary to construct dialogue are burnt down, there can be no hope for anything but physical retaliation. Any group that deviates however so slightly from one's specific understanding of the 'Truth' must immediately be confronted in order for the 'truth to be victorious'.

This phenomenon is not entirely novel in human history. In his acclaimed book, Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution, Alastair Crooke examines the philosophical origins for the standoff between 'Islam and the West', primarily focusing on the inter-related themes of power, thought and language. He traces the use of language as a tool of power by the Protestant and Puritan struggle in order to ridicule and depict its rival, Catholicism. Language, in such contexts, is used as a tool to inhibit dialogue and to sketch a false image of the 'Other'.

Today, we notice this style of discourse both internally at a sectarian level as well as in the Islam-West discourse. As western political powers resort to the traditional imagery of Islam and the Orient as fundamentally irrational and bloodthirsty, the mainstream media outlets give fanatics centre stage in order to vindicate these assumptions. Through their hostile language and distortion of terms such as jihad and kufr (disbelief), these individuals not only fulfil the above function but also give rise to a situation in which Islamic terms are used to promote conduct that the faith categorically forbids.

It would seem that more than ever Muslims must be mindful of their 'language' in this age in which many powerful forces have vested interests to promote hatred and intolerance. In my experience, we are often needlessly drawn into divisive talk that is distant from the Islamic model: be it unnecessary sectarian polemics or funny 'jokes' with a sectarian twist. To be dragged this low is to do a disservice to our own minds. Just as foul language invariably corrupts minds, the language of hate strikes at the purity of our faith.

Our discourse is an inseparable part of who we are. In the words of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib(a), 'Speak and you shall be known, for the person is hidden under his tongue'. This is as true of individuals as it is of nations and ideologies, for the language of the latter disclose their deepest convictions and moral standards. In our present context, we are witness to 'competing languages' within the fabric of the Islamic community - these articulate distinct understandings of faith in terms of thoughts, values and ideological foundations.

As individuals, we are constantly making a choice with respect to the language we use and the discourse we align toward. Language is vitally important because it offers a means for regeneration. Words and meanings provide an important medium through which to imagine and construct a different reality. Language wields immense power in defining the thoughts and conduct of millions and how they express their faith. As such, people of faith have an obligation to ensure that the words they use are in harmony with the convictions of their hearts. Equally importantly, they must remain vigilant about the (mis)use of words by their co-religionists who may utilise the very same language of faith to an altogether different end.

Originally published in islam today magazine UK, Vol. 2 No. 16 | February 2014. It has been republished here with permission.