A War of Language
IB Tauris 2010
On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers, members of a fringe militant Islamist group, Al-Qaeda, launched the most significant attack on the United States since the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941.The eminent scholar of international relations and the Middle East, Fred Halliday, writing shortly after the attacks described this experience as “two hours that shook the world.”
The attacks had a seismic impact on the globe in many fields and, a decade since 9/11, the arena of language is no exception. A noted linguist, Sandra Silberstein in her insightful work, War of Words: Language and Politics of 9/11 writes, “In the aftermath of 9/11, through public rhetoric, an act of terror became a war; the Bush presidency was ratified; New York became America’s city with Rudy Giuliani as ‘mayor of the world’. Patriotism became consumerism, dissent was discouraged, and Americans became students, newly schooled in geography and Islam. Perhaps most importantly, public language (re)created a national identity.”
Shortly before his death, Fred Halliday, who had kept a growing list of words that appeared in public discourse in the years after 9/11, took a step beyond Silberstein’s study of American discourse by writing a dictionary of this language. Unlike Silberstein’s study, Halliday contrasts the West’s discourse of the War on Terror with Al-Qaeda’s discourse of the Global Jihad.
Fluent in 10 languages, Halliday has skillfully drawn attention to how 9/11 and its consequences has shaped the English language. Reading through this reference work, one comes across the words that came of age during the last decade: Mission Accomplished, Axis of Evil, Martyr, Jihad, Yellowcake. Halliday organizes this language into thematic sections that address aspects of the decade, including: The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Motifs of Jihad, The Euphemisms of War, Images of Muslims, and Palestine and Israel.
Shocked and Awed as a study of language is a notable resource for understanding the politics, culture, religion and thinking of modern Middle East politics and the West’s engagement with the region after 9/11. Halliday explains, “rather than aspiring to being comprehensive in any sense, Shocked and Awed is an attempt to illustrate the richness and malleability of words; the ever-changing character of language; how words and phrases are thrown up by such events; how bits of the past, often historical and religious symbols, are recycled for contemporary uses.’
Halliday also makes an observation about the uses of language after 9/11 and this contribution makes his final work one of the best analyses of the past 10 years. In describing his work, Halliday notes, “it also demonstrates the intersections of words with power; how, as the very title of the book suggests, states seek to use language to control events, how insurgents use their own vocabulary to justify their actions and discredit opponents. In a phrase, it is a study of the order and disorder of words.”
In his introduction, Halliday argues that language, inseparably tied to power and politics, serves as the main battleground for this decade. While the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and many corners of the globe bear witness to the physical war of the past decade, both Bush and Bin Laden understood that through the “political and military use of words,” both sides sought to “control events, people, and their minds”—and this battlefield is ultimately where this war’s victory or defeat will be determined. Halliday argues that America’s “aspiration to control through language, and the resultant failure to do so” most notably in Iraq “are also evident in the in the language opposed to such states.”
In Halliday’s estimation, Al-Qaeda’s inability a decade on to neither win Muslim public opinion or defeat the West indicates that the group will unlikely change the world, defeat the United States, or turn Europe into an Islamic state. Hence, it is the West’s war to win and Halliday believed that America got on the right footing with the election of Barack Obama. The author’s decision to end the inclusion of new words with inauguration of Obama signifies his own belief that the new president’s rhetoric and the increased emphasis on localized conflicts by Al-Qaeda marks a break from the Bush and Bin Laden era of the War on Terror and Global Jihad.
While this war may continue in some form in the next decade, one may avoid in the excesses and pitfalls of the previous 10 years—the charged public rhetoric after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq—by being aware of the language in which one fights and frames the conflict. A lifelong observer of the world, Halliday believed that a “democratic and peaceful world” can only be secured through one’s awareness of the discourse around them.
Halliday cautiously warns against the power of language: “Words can exalt and can explain, but, as shown by Shocked and Awed, jihad and many other entries in this book can also kill, and promote fear, hatred and misunderstanding. For that reason, they need to be studied, challenged and controlled”.
Shocked and Awed thus is a useful resource for understanding the language of these times and its power and its consequences. His final work is testament of his incredible intellect, and as an author of over 20 books, his passing last year marks the tremendous loss of one of the world’s great thinkers.