x

Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Languages are tools for communication and understanding, not fear and division

A right-wing French politician has said that learning Arabic is a gateway to extremism. Nothing could be further from the truth

Nicolas Dupont-Aignan made his comments after a report suggested offering Arabic lessons in French schools. AFP
Nicolas Dupont-Aignan made his comments after a report suggested offering Arabic lessons in French schools. AFP

At the beginning of the story of the Tower of Babel, all human beings were united and spoke the same language. Then someone had the idea of building a tower so high it would reach heaven. God was not impressed by this act of hubris and punished the people by scattering them across the earth and making them speak in different tongues, no longer able to understand each other.

The solution to this ongoing problem is, of course, to learn languages. Doing so not only enables people of the world to converse, but to truly know and respect each other. Today, however, even this idea has been weaponised and used to spread hatred and division.

Exhibit A is Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, the leader of the right-wing populist party Debout la France. He has weighed in against a report by a think tank, which recommends that French state schools offer Arabic language lessons. The report’s author Hakim El Karoui believes that teaching Arabic in schools is a way to promote understanding of Middle Eastern culture and history, and offers a safety valve against radicalism. Given France’s large Arabic-speaking minority, its notable trade links with the region and the overlooked status of Arabic as one of the world’s great literary languages, it’s a reasonable proposal.

However, when asked in an interview whether learning Arabic would lead students to terrorism, Mr Dupont-Aignan responded: “This is the danger. I believe so.” He also added that he opposed what he referred to as the “Islamisation of France”.

Unlike Mr Dupont-Aignan, actual linguists – and most other right-thinking people – know that languages are not inherently good or bad and that they don’t, in themselves, possess political motivations of any kind. Our perceptions of a language are usually shaped by our own beliefs and prejudices about the cultures they are spoken within.

You’d hope that Mr Dupont-Aignan is simply a lone crackpot, but unfortunately he’s not. When ideas are expressed on a public platform, they tend to percolate into popular discourse, no matter how crazy they might be. Just ask the passengers who have been kicked off aeroplanes for saying words like “Inshallah”. This happens because their fellow travellers seem to think that a person speaking Arabic in public is something to be scared of.

Mr Dupont-Aignan isn’t the first person to push the idea that languages possess hostile characteristics, either. Earlier this summer, Richard Dawkins tweeted a picture of himself sitting outdoors on a beautiful summer day. Above it were the words: “Listening to the lovely bells of Winchester, one of our great mediaeval cathedrals. So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding ‘Allahu Akhbar.’ Or is that just my cultural upbringing?”

As a noted academic Mr Dawkins ought to know that Arabic is spoken as a first language not just by Muslims, but by Christians, Jews and people of many other faiths. That’s before we consider its status as a language of great learning and poetry, especially that contained within the Quran. But the message he clearly wanted to convey is that Muslims are to be mistrusted and feared. He clearly can’t get past his own prejudices, and while UK law prevents people from saying that kind of thing publicly, ascribing the characteristic of aggression to two “foreign” words does exactly the same thing.

Mr Dupont-Aignan’s views are particularly ironic, considering France’s long and brutal colonial history, during which his country imposed its own language on people around the world.

There may also be a bit of insecurity behind his ideas. After all, the Académie française is battling what it sees as an invasion of the French lexicon by English words. President Emmanuel Macron has also recently launched a drive to boost the global use of French, particularly in Africa, describing it as “the language of freedom”.

He follows in the footsteps of the former president Francois Hollande who memorably asserted that “speaking French means speaking the language of human rights”. I would say, “Try telling that to the people of Algeria and the many other African nations whose populations were tortured and massacred under French colonial rule,” but he actually said this at a summit of Francophone nations in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. No joke.

Irony aside, to anyone but the most deluded fantasist, it should be clear that placing languages in ideological opposition to one another – one representing liberty and equality, the other death and destruction – is not just foolish, it, too, is an act of supreme arrogance that could have disastrous consequences for the way we all relate to each other.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World