RAZA/RACE: Fear of a Non-English Nation

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We are at war with terrorism, war with immigrants and war with ourselves. It follows that we are at war with language and languages. Since we also live in a racist society it follows that the languages spoken by darker skinned people would be attacked. And so it is. In the wars against “terrorism” (or more truthfully rendered, war against “Islam and the people of the Middle East”) and undocumented immigration, Arabic, the language of the “terrorists”, and Spanish, the language of the “illegal alien”, are under fire.

by Pancho McFarland


Assalamu alaikum.

Many of us who advocate for a more peaceful, just and equitable world recognize that on this interconnected globe the calls for a better world must be multilingual. We know too that in a better world there will continue to be many languages none of which is scapegoated or censored. The critique of war, violence, racism, sexism, poverty and domination of any sort in Arabic, Spanish, or English should be respected and taken seriously. It should be celebrated not censored. But in our Orwellian dystopia that is perpetual war (now against this nation, tomorrow against that region) the good is now the bad and the bad good. We are at war with terrorism, war with immigrants and war with ourselves. It follows that we are at war with language and languages. Since we also live in a racist society it follows that the languages spoken by darker skinned people would be attacked. And so it is. In the wars against “terrorism” (or more truthfully rendered, war against “Islam and the people of the Middle East”) and undocumented immigration, Arabic, the language of the “terrorists”, and Spanish, the language of the “illegal alien”, are under fire. While the histories of the fear of Spanish and Arabic and the contemporary individual and collective reactions to them are different, the fear of darker-skinned people and the languages they speak stem from a long history of racist, nativism. Two recent attacks on Spanish and Arabic illustrate the xenophobic strategy of demonizing non-English languages and the fear of a non-English nation.

In this truly bizarre and particularly mean-spirited historical moment in the United States, even patriotic expression in a non-English language is assailed. On the heels of more than two decades of Latin American immigrant scapegoating and English-only and official English campaigns a group of popular recording artists including rapper Pitbull, Olga Tañon and Wyclef Jean recorded a version of United States of America national anthem in Spanish. The April 2006 recording, titled Nuestro Himno (Our Hymn), caused a flurry of media activity. Pundits and politicians denounced the song. Senator Lamar Alexander introduced to Congress a resolution that stated that the United States national anthem be sung only in English. Even Mexican American Los Angeles mayor, Antonio Villaragoisa, spoke out against it on CNN. George Bush spoke against the new recording even though he himself sang a version in Spanish on the campaign trail. Others saw the singing of the national anthem in Spanish as recognition of the pride and love that many Spanish-speakers have for the United States. Some of us ask: What could there possibly be to fear in hearing the United States national anthem in Spanish?

In a society that censors multilingual expressions of its national anthem, expression in the language of the enemy will be forbidden. The ‘American Taliban’, John Walker Lindh (known also as Hamza), has been attacked mercilessly in the press and public opinion. The sympathetic piece, “Innocent: Can America and Islam Coexist?” written by Tom Junod in the July 2006 issue of Esquire reminded me of the media lynching and state repression of John Walker that began in early 2002. The press told us to be outraged that this all-American boy could become a traitor and convert to our enemy’s religion (Islam), speak our enemy’s language (Arabic), and otherwise betray us. We followed the lead of Attorney General John Ashcroft who seemed to make it a personal crusade to condemn Lindh and showed our distaste for him and others like José Padilla, the Chicago native who converted to Islam and sided with the “enemy,” and then was later used as a scapegoat in the war on terror. Those of us who refused to see the case of Lindh in stark and simple “us vs. them” terms were demonized along with other “enemies” and “traitors.” Steve Earle became the favored whipping boy (replacing the Dixie Chicks) of the ultra-conservative country music scene for his song, “John Walker’s Blues.” While not condoning nor crucifying Lindh and his behaviors, the song seeks to understand. Earle presents Lindh in a complex light as a product of 1980s U.S. society that left many questioning the morality of our culture, the sanity of our politics, and the direction of our nation. The questioning, self-critique, and the striving for something better can only be good for us. Right?

The state eventually bargained with Hamza and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. Part of his sentence involves several special administrative measures; what amounts to a gag order. His visitors, who are limited to immediate family members and attorneys, are prohibited from revealing anything to the public about what Hamza has to say or think. The FBI scrutinizes all his letters. His public voice has been taken away. Even more striking and appalling is that “all communications with others will be in English.” He is forbidden to speak Arabic. Prison guards put Hamza into isolation for simply greeting a fellow Muslim inmate in Arabic. The fear of ‘foreign’ languages, of Arabic, is palpable in Hamza’s story.

What could there possibly be to fear in someone saying “peace be upon you” (assalamu alaikum)?

The lesson of Orwell was that language helps shape reality and the shaping of reality is crucial to attaining power over people. One of the privileges of the elite is that they have disproportionate influence on establishing the boundaries of discussion about war, violence and poverty. Ideas, concepts, words and languages that critique war, violence and poverty will be challenged by elites who use war to maintain the status quo and their wealth. The good becomes bad and the bad good. The warmakers are spoken of as the bestowers of peace, democracy and prosperity. The poor and disenfranchised are marked with the labels of “illegal” and “terrorist.” In 1984 certain words were forbidden and/or replaced by other terms. In 2006 whole languages are being forbidden.

Spanish and Arabic because they are associated with the despised groups are hated. Hate, xenophobia, and racism are always irrational. But, the forbidding of certain expressions of spirituality, peace, and fraternity (assalamu alaikum) and national pride (Nuestro Himno) shows a level of hatred reaching pathological proportions. My hope is for a multilingual cure.

Que les vayan con dios.

Pancho McFarland is a member of the Bad Subjects editorial collective, a resident of South Chicago, and assistant professor of sociology at Chicago State University.


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