May 15, 2021 9:00 pm

Power Play of Language Use

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Photo credits: Reuters/Ammar Awad

The radical potentials of terminology in aiding the cause of  occupied Palestine 

THE current violent attacks on Palestine have shaken the Muslim conscience with macabre visuals of bombings, blood-smeared rubble and helpless cries of children, mothers and fathers unsettling every sensible human. The notion of Ummah- a unified single body spread across cultures, sensibilities, geographies sharing the essence of unity nevertheless, seems to be resurrecting at the present moment. Muslims divided by nationalities and other markers of identity are brimming with support and love for the oppressed Palestinians and calling out the war-mongering tactics of the Israeli state. The collective emotional locus of this Ummah is centered on how Israeli state is violently pushing further its project of settler colonialism amidst the global community of nation states, playing mute spectator lest their personal interest are harmed. In such an emotionally charged atmosphere, Muslims, on an individual level feel helpless with no favorable mobilization and channelization mechanisms at hand. This becomes particularly concerning when the global news and social media is handled by the powerful lot who can mislead the conversations taking place around the topic by deploying problematic and ambiguous jargons and this is where we have a formidable duty to perform.

It may seem that such ambiguity recycles itself amongst the unlettered, lay populace, which is quite not true. Twisting the linguistic and syntactic nature of sentences and exploiting them to their purpose is a popular apparatus used by the oppressor to portray itself as innocent or to diminish the criminality of its excesses.

At the present instance also, the language algorithm is clearly failing the cause of Palestine and Palestinians with Western Media constantly twisting the narratives to favor the culprit. Deploying euphemisms, understatements and adopting passive tones, cherry-picking statements out of the context is how the media tries to wrongly shape up the discourse to the best interests of the oppressor.

In the series of attacks also, launched against Sheikh Jarrah residents to forcefully evict them from their homes and to usurp their lands, the same set of tactics were deployed to portray the assaults as innocent. Terms like “clashes”, “fresh violence”, “escalation” were used to introduce the audience with one sided violence  creating a smokescreen of ambiguity all over. Vocabulary to encompass inhumane desecration of Al-Quds by Israeli forces and assaults against the worshippers suddenly went missing. The retaliatory action that followed from Palestinian end was given the whole spotlight and assumed a disproportionately hyperbolic character almost reversing the roles of the oppressed and the oppressor. The highly asymmetrical distribution of power and weaponry was easily glossed over too.

While some well-meaning reports and online conversations even within Muslim context adopted the usage of the term likes ‘ethnic-cleansing’ to refer to the assaults, such portrayals are nevertheless problematic, unjust and taxing on the oppressed. The oppressor on the other hand benefits from such renewed colonial tropes packed up in cute neologisms.

To dissect the term cleansing, it presumes the presence of something unclean that warrants tidying up, some laundry works essentially to be taken up by the already ‘cleansed’ i.e the Saviour. Not only is the term lazy and irresponsible, but inherent are racist dispositions and total acquittal of the culprit. Amendments in discourses on the local level can be made relatively easily by being more cautious and informed.

In public spaces like the media houses, the employment of the problematic lexicon has met serious challenges over time. Critics and researchers have pointed out the need to use terminologies in an informed and dispassionate manner. A significant breakthrough that has taken place in this context is the UN report which categorically classifies Israel as an ‘apartheid’ state, replacing the term ‘persecution’ for its ill-treatment of Palestinians. Human Rights Watch also noted that Israel’s policies are racist and based on apartheid. Association of the term apartheid with Israel has always irked the latter as officially it claims to follow a non- discriminatory policy irrespective of race, nationality, or ethnicity. Criticism however stems from the Israeli policies that enforce a separation between Israel and West Bank inhibiting the movement of Palestinians within the West Bank into Israel. Israel also has repeatedly contested the usage of the term ‘Apartheid Wall’ that indicates the forced separation of the two regions based on ethnicity. Instead, it prefers to call it ‘Security Wall’ which helps the state maintain its existence.

Employment of apt jargon has had practical and policy implications. The Boycott and Divestment Movement has, for example, gained strength and momentum with such explicit statements made by Human Rights groups and civil society members. The effects of the lexicon used are therefore more far-reaching and therefore warrant constant scrutiny to detect the tropes  used against the Subaltern.


Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

  • The author is a researcher with a special focus on Religion and Gender. 

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Ahymon Ayoub

Ahymon Ayoub has completed her Masters in Sociology from Kashmir University and is a freelance researcher interested in topics related to Islam and Women.

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