Biden’s Use of “Inshallah”: Language and the American Idea

Biden’s use of “Inshallah” in the first Presidential debate was far more radical and meaningful than commentators have thus far appreciated.

Biden to Trump: Inshallah we’ll see your taxes

“Inshallah,” an Arabic word that literally means “if God wills it,” expresses hope that something will come to pass in the future. The term can also be used to avoid committing to an action or to equivocate, as in “I may do this in some unspecified future, but I’m not making any concrete promises.”

Biden’s use of “Inshallah was spot on: in the stroke of a word, he conveyed that Trump’s promises to release his tax returns were utterly empty.

More radically, however, the Vice President’s use of a common Muslim expression to expose Trump as a liar mirrors and so inverts the latter’s own antagonism toward Muslim Americans. The context here is crucial: Trump, after all, stepped into the political spotlight by inciting hatred of Muslim Americans while casting the senior member of the Obama-Biden ticket as a secret devotee of Islam; given the dangers of this religion and its incompatibility with America, Trump implied, Obama was a man with foreign values and perfidious sympathies, a kind of Manchurian candidate working to betray and destroy America from within. Trump, who delighted in saying Barack Hussein Obama’s full name — reserving particular scorn for the explicitly Arabic “Hussein” (less recognizably, the name “Barack,” too, derives from Arabic, in this case the root b-r-k) — pursued so-called “birtherism” for years to suggest that Obama, like other Muslims, could not possibly be American.

Some of Trump’s hateful comments towards Muslim Americans during his first Presidential campaign bear recalling: during a rally in New Hampshire, Trump nodded along as one of his supporters argued “we have a problem in this country — it’s called Muslims.” Trump continued nodding, saying “right,” and “we need this question!” The supporter then asked the future President: “when can we get rid of them [Muslims]?” to which he responded, “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things.” He falsely claimed that thousands of Muslims cheered in New Jersey on 9/11. He said he would implement a forced registry of Muslims in the country and track their movements. He said he would pursue a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States. He recruited a number of anti-Muslim bigots into his administration, including Michael Flynn and Sebastian Gorka. All of these statements and actions were made under the Manichaean formula Trump articulated in 2016: “Islam hates us.”

The former Vice President’s use of the term “Inshallah” in a national forum to expose Trump’s shiftiness turns the tables on him, militating against his vilification of both the former President and the diverse group of Muslim Americans; for here it is a Muslim expression that reveals the Equivocator-in-Chief for what he is. With respect to his taxes, Trump, we surmise, has been saying “Inshallah” to us from the beginning.

The Arabism has already become familiar to fans of such Muslim comedians as Hasan Minhaj and Kumail Nanjiani. The former Vice President’s use of the term—this in the same American accent as that of any native-born Muslim American — further inscribes “Inshallah” into our idiomatic landscape; the very gesture presumes that such borrowings from Arabic are as naturally American as capeesh (from Italian capischi), fiesta (from Spanish), mensch (from German), or chutzpah (from Yiddish). Biden’s gestures articulates not only the normative nature of the Muslim American presence in our society, but also the larger relationship of the American project to linguistic heterogeneity.

It is in this last respect that Biden’s seemingly casual use of “Inshallah” — contrasting sharply with other candidates’ often more forced and awkward use of Spanish on the campaign trail — marks his most radical gesture during the first Presidential debate.

For “Inshallah” is not, in fact, a uniquely Muslim or Arab expression. On the contrary, the term instantiates the unstable relation of language to any cultural or religious identity. “Inshallah” is, of course, originally Arabic and evokes “Allah,” the Arabic word for “God”; but the term or its derivatives are used equally by non-Arab Muslims throughout the world and by Arab Christians from the Middle East to America.

A derivative of “Inshallah” is also used by hundreds of millions of Spanish and Portuguese speakers from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles, from Rio de Janeiro to Lisbon, from Houston to Malabo, and from New York to Madrid: the common “Ojalá” in Spanish or “Oxalá” in Portuguese, which also expresses hope that a particular event will transpire, marks one of many lexical traces in Spanish and Portuguese of the nearly thousand years of Arabic linguistic life on the Iberian peninsula.

Arab Christians pray in Arabic… to Allah

The expression “Inshallah” has also left its mark on other parts of the medieval Mediterranean where people converted to Islam and spoke Arabic over centuries. In Sicily, where Christians gave their children names like Muhammad and spoke Arabic into the thirteenth century, Sicilians will say “Si Diu voli” (“se Dio vuole” in standard Italian), a likely calque for “Inshallah.” Likewise in Maltese, a third of which is lexically Arabic (or Siculo-Arabic), one says “jekk Alla jrid,” an expression familiar to fans of A Dream of Poe.

Muslim and Christian scribes during the “Arabo-Norman” period in Sicily, 12th century AD

Calques for “Inshallah” also exist in a range of Slavic languages including Serbo-Croatian, Bosnian, Slovenia, and Bulgarian — a consequence of the linguistic interpenetration of Slavic languages and Ottoman Turkish, which borrowed “Inshallah” from Arabic.

The spatial and temporal migration of the term “Inshallah” reflects the dynamic impetus of any word in any language, hence language as such: the latter naturally traverses national and cultural frontiers, just as elements of culture cross linguistic boundaries. Over many centuries, for instance, English, itself a creolized fusion of a Germanic language and a langue d’oïl from France, has integrated thousands of words from languages all over the world, including Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other languages of Muslim majority countries. Continually intercalating the foreign, English demonstrates that actual monolingualism does not and cannot exist. For this reason the drive to purify languages of foreign influence — brilliantly satirized in Edmund Fairfax’s Outlaws — always fails.

Nativists who wish to build a linguistic and cultural wall around an Anglo-American identity are often under-educated whites who, like the Proud Boys now apparently at Trump’s command, tout “western culture” without having read a word of the richly macaronic (“macaronic”: evoking and mixing multiple languages) texts of Chaucer, Dante, Goethe, or Joyce; or fully educated scholars who, devoting themselves to the study of such authors, nonetheless remain unwilling or, for lack of linguistic facility, unable to recognize the subversively foreign elements in their work.

Goethe’s East-West Divan (1819), an homage to Islamic mystical poetry

Notwithstanding the nativist impulses of Trump and his supporters, the American project has increasingly — though not fully — separated national from cultural or religious identity: many Americans eat Ethiopian food, practice Vinyasa yoga, send their kids to Taekwondo classes, learn Spanish, go salsa dancing, seek Acupuncture therapy, and visit their Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim doctors with no sense of cultural alienation. Synagogues and temples, megachurches and cathedrals, and — for a growing number of Americans — even gurdwaras and mosques have become normative elements of our cityscapes.

In contrast to the cultural and religious variety evident at least in our cities, however, our society maintains a profoundly monolingual (and—for reasons I have addressed elsewhere —racially hierarchical) orientation: notwithstanding the range of languages spoken by first or second-generation immigrants, few third-generation immigrants speak any language other than English. The popular fears around the pervasiveness and spread of Spanish, often by whites that were not taught or failed to learn even a modicum of a second language, reflect this general resistance to a multilingual society.

Unlike Europeans, who often evince chauvinistic pride in their national language, Americans do not tout the exceptionalism of English, much less tie this language to any autochthonous commitment: the Blut und Boden crowd centers its ideology on racial, not linguistic supremacy. Perhaps uniquely among national endeavors, the American project, at least in its current form, entails a commitment to both a certain measure of cultural and religious diversity and a monolingualism abstracted from the virtues of any particular language.

Fully accounting for this phenomenon or even ideology requires more extensive consideration; for my purposes here, it suffices to say that American monolingualism emerges historically as a consequence of the relative isolation of the American mainland, the global reach of the British empire and American economic and military hegemony after the second world, and the resulting adoption of English as a universal lingua franca. Students in naturally multilingual regions across the world learn languages spoken by nearby peoples and nations; those with means also learn English to engage with global media and conduct business, research, or scholarship. By contrast most native-born Americans, faced with little need or impetus to acquire a second language, learn only English.

In his macaronic use of “Inshallah,” Biden gestures, offhandedly and subtly, at the fragilities of this monolingualist ideology.

Often blinding us to the internal foreignness of any word — its long history across linguistic boundaries, its changing valences of meaning and so cultural import — monolingualism reduces ultimately to the fear and rejection of otherness. Indicatively, nearly half of Republicans are bothered when they hear other languages. Trump summarized the resulting monolingualist program in 2015: “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish!”

Crucially, the insouciance with which Biden deploys “Inshallah” matches his verbal dismissal not only of Trump’s integrity, but also of his nativism and xenophobia, evident from the anti-Muslim rhetoric with which he initiated his political career, his rejection of other languages, and his approbative signal to white supremacist groups in the first Presidential debate.

Ultimately, monolingualism and its Trumpist articulation remain inimical to the American idea at its noblest. That idea has its roots in native American political structures and European philosophy. Uniting diverse peoples and tongues under one political umbrella, the federalist system of the Iroquois Confederacy, according to a resolution passed by the United States Senate in 1988, informed the structure of the American republic and “many of the democratic principles” “incorporated into the Constitution.” Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and other European theorists of liberty also influenced the founders of our Republic. Under the sign of “freedom,” including of verbal, religious, and other expression, people from all over the world came to these shores: waves of Europeans established English, German, Swedish, Czech, Italian, and other communities. True enough, these groups violently displaced, overran, or extinguished the indigenous, African, and Iberian languages of native Americans, slaves, and prior colonists; the linguistic heterogeneity remained captive to the racial hierarchy. Whatever the forces and ideology that repeatedly effaced languages other than English, however, they could not prevent new ones from taking hold. In the last sixty years, Khmer, Vietnamese, Korean, Creole, Amharic, Somali, Yoruba, Wolof, Bosniak, and other languages have established a presence here, weaving anew the rich tapestry of American languages.

Even in its strictly European roots, the American idea betrays a commitment to plurilingualism: Christopher Columbus, an Italian, first sailed to the New World with polyglot Iberians, including a Jew named Luis de Torres —the latter probably recruited to converse with the native inhabitants in Arabic, then the international language of trade (many Andalusian Jews spoke Arabic).

Other Iberians, including descendants of Andalusian Moors or converts from Islam, fled to the New World after the fall of Granada in 1492 and the advent of the Inquisition. Some were brought here against their will: one dark-skinned Arab, Mustafa Zemmouri, also known as Estevanico, escaped slavery in the 1520s to explore the west of the continent, traveling as far as what is today New Mexico. Within a few decades of Columbus’ pillaging of the homeland of the Tainos, Europeans began forcibly transplanting west Africans to the New World as slaves, some of them practicing Muslims and more than a few literate in Arabic, the language of the Quran.

As Biden’s use of “Inshallah” reveals, Arabic — and a plurilingual society — have been in America’s veins all along.

Hassanaly Ladha is Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut.

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