How to make a political statement by learning Spanish

SpanishClub3
Photo credit : bhs.burlesonisd.net

We are living in interesting times. Times when xenophobia, racism and suspicion of the ‘other’ are going mainstream, at least at the level of political rhetoric. While one can excuse this as the misguided logic leading up to the primaries, one cannot ignore the amount of confusion this is causing- both domestically and across the world. President Obama had to clarify recently at a high level ASEAN leaders’ summit that this trend of xenophobia does not represent America and it will pass[i].

Culturally, this phenomenon of xenophobia also challenges the very idea of what the U.S. is about – the ‘land of opportunities,’ an enduring myth that has survived centuries[ii]. The complexity in the idea of ‘land of opportunities’ is that it is true under certain circumstances, for certain people. While being challenged by nativists and others, who resisted immigration, this idea has survived; thanks to the generosity, wisdom and plain common sense of the American people and (some of) their law makers.

Additionally, this 2016 Political campaign is challenging the very idea of a culturally plural America. This divisive campaign is also bringing up a lot of issues that I deeply care about, both culturally and politically. I am both surprised and shocked at the level of bigotry against ‘Hispanic’ people, in particular. Language is at the heart of this battle, as well.

Let me clarify: My wife is a Spanish speaker –she is Mexican-American- and I was only vaguely familiar with the language. When we dated for four years, before getting married, I would add ‘o’ to every English word, to make it ‘Spanish’ sounding. Initially, I thought it was funny, but later on realized that I was being facetious and outright ignorant, not to mention offensive, as well. I love my (new) Mexican family as much as my (inherited) Indian one and it pains me to see the kind of narrow-mindedness that is characterizing American public sphere.

So, how does a brown, Indian born Muslim, with a Catholic Mexican-American wife tackle such bigotry? By learning Spanish, of course.

Keeping in mind the common wisdom of ‘happy wife, happy life’, I decided to learn the language. Well, that wasn’t the only motivation. I have always wanted to learn Spanish. As someone who knows four other languages – I grew up in India: where being a polyglot is the norm, rather than the exception- I thought that learning Spanish couldn’t be that hard. But boy! have I been wrong. Spanish grammar is hard. And tricky. And extremely nuanced. But it is a challenge worth overcoming and I am enjoying the journey. This process is also helping me map my own limits, of learning as well as expanding my skills of observation.

I have no delusions of grandeur and no great ambitions of mapping the cultural and administrative landscape of the U.S. like Alexis De Tocqueville did, when he wrote Democracy in America[iii]in 1835. But I do think there is a need for closely examining the changing contours of what America is ‘becoming.’ Tocqueville, who, until today is cited in scholarly and popular books and articles is considered one of the great chroniclers of American life. His greatest insight was that America was very ‘equal’ in many ways. The trends of aristocracy were long over, given that Americans resisted the ‘old world’ ways of doing this. He says “ Men are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other words, more equal in their strength, than in any other country of the world, or in any age of which history has preserved the remembrance[iv].”

Tocqueville went on to argue that equality of social condition translates into equality in political opportunities. The equal political rights that are given to everyone are a gift of democracy and it also means that everyone who is in this country ought to be treated in a similar manner. The current political rhetoric by Mr. Trump seems to be challenging this very idea – by clubbing blacks, gays, Muslims, Mexicans and others are ‘undesirables’ and shutting them out of ‘respectable’ American society. Even if it means doing so, rhetorically.

For me, learning Spanish is also proving to be a ‘border crossing’ phenomenon – quite literally. You can reach across and touch people’s hearts with the language and make them feel that you are ‘one of them.’ Partaking in a ‘linguistic community’ is being part of a culture, a way of life and a way of thinking. It goes merely beyond the ability to string a few words, together. I am learning this, each day. I did visit Mexico City with my wife, over Thanksgiving and learnt that my Spanish flows much better in Mexico, for some reason. Something about ‘full immersion’ perhaps?

At the same time, Spanish is proving to be my inspiration and a test of what I can push myself through. It is also teaching me that we are constantly borrowing and learning from one another. Look at words such as ‘Bastante’ (enough) and ‘Alfil (Chess piece) among others; which have been borrowed from Arabic. Besides, Spanish itself has Latin roots and shares ‘family resemblances’ with many other European languages.  There is an inherent cosmopolitanism in Spanish. This language of the conquerors – yes, let’s not forget the Spanish colonial history – did assimilate from other cultures and languages. In this regard, Spanish is very open and embracing. In addition, I am able to appreciate the intermingling of the other part of my heritage – the Muslim one – when I watch Destinos and look at the architecture and linguistic influences of the Moors on Spain[v].

Language, like other aspects of life is not insular. As a student of Spanish I am learning this and appreciating the increasing complexity of thought, learning. ‘Effort’ has taken on a new meaning – though I learnt that lesson well, when I was finishing up my dissertation writing. Nuance – both in thought and in speech-is another aspect of language that I am learning. Just a small change of accent or word can make a lot of difference.

Learning a language as an adventure ? One of the bigger insights I have gained personally since I started learning Spanish is that one needs to have a sense of adventure and also courage, to succeed. While the rudiments of a language, its grammar may be known, a learner does not know ‘all’ the rules or even the words necessary to form a fully coherent sentence. At the beginning stages at least! As one progresses, with trial and error; one’s confidence grows. It happened with me too. I am at what my teacher; Claudia calls ‘basic-intermediate’ level, where I am forming some coherent sentences and am beginning to understand much more than 50% of all words spoken to me.

Language in use – What Wittgenstein tells us about language? He is considered the greatest philosopher of the modern era. As this BBC podcast says “the limits of my language are the limits of our world[vi]”. While I will not indulge in the intricacies of Tractacus Logicus Philosophicus, his magnum opus; I will however, point to one of his key arguments – that language must be understood in how it is used. Not merely in terms of the symbolism that it denotes. ‘Language and logic also point to the limits of our world’ would be a good way to summarize one of his key arguments. I would argue, by way of Wittgenstein that having a broader ‘spectrum of logic’ can open up more ways of seeing the world. Better linguistic skills can enhance reasoning and ways of imagining the world.

Finally, language can unite us more than divide us. Just look around the world – there are more than 400 million Spanish speakers around the world[vii]. That is more than the population of the U.S. Learning Spanish can also diminish the world’s ignorance a little bit. Adding an additional speaker of another language is a good thing – and I say this as the son of two language teachers, who grew up in India, that has more than 23 ‘official languages[viii].’

With over 41 million native speakers of Spanish, the U.S. has more Spanish speakers than in Spain, according to a study by Instituto Cervantes[ix]. Besides, there are 11.6 million bi-lingual speakers. This is not counting people like me, who are learning their fifth language. So, how can one ignore or at worse malign these people, who speak other languages? By 2050, there are going to be an estimated 150 million Spanish speakers, making it the largest Spanish speaking country in the world. How can one fight this natural diversity of languages and cultures? If the founding fathers had the wisdom to avoid this issue, keeping in mind the diversity, why should we tinker with the existing order? Why fix something that is not broken and also why fight against the order of how our world is becoming global – through trade, commerce, better communication technologies? And of course, the growth of appreciation of Latin American culture. As my wife asks ‘Why hate Mexicans, when you love Mexican tacos’?

On that note, it makes sense to ask: Does the ‘English only’ movement even make any logical sense? Obviously, Wittgenstein would disagree[x].  Such racist and rhetoric narratives are the border-line where logic stops and bigotry begins.

 

 

[i] http://dailycaller.com/2016/02/16/obama-slams-trump-and-rubio-foreign-observers-are-troubled-video/

[ii] http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8140.html

[iii] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm

[iv]  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm#link2HCH0006 Chp.3

[v]  https://learner.org/series/destinos/

[vi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9jYaTCn8vw

[vii]  https://www.ethnologue.com/statistics/size

[viii] http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Languages_of_India

[ix] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/29/us-second-biggest-spanish-speaking-country

[x] http://www.iperstoria.it/vecchiosito/httpdocs//?p=547

Book Review: Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an by Denise A. Spellberg

Spellberg

If the only thing you learn from this book is that the founding fathers had the wisdom to use Islam as a test case, to set the limits of tolerance in America, then that’d be sufficient. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an is a well-researched book, that locates the debates during the time (and before) Jefferson about Islam and its role in America and she draws out the implications of the same for our times. It shows Jefferson as a practical man, who had the vision and foresight to argue for the religious rights of (then) non-existent Muslims (free men). In this, she portrays Jefferson as a liberal hero and a visionary. In time such as these when Islam has come to denote everything that is negative, illiberal and not desirable, she shows, rather well that despite the reservations that Jefferson had about some of the practices of the religion, he thought it to be integral part of America. And this is an important reminder for all of us.

For those familiar with the Islamophobia prevalent in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and America, there is not much new material in this book. But she does do a good job of offering the context in which these debates occurred. Right from Dante’s inferno, which doomed the Prophet Muhammad to the bottom of Hell, to Voltaire’s play Mahomet, that fictionalized much of his life; there is a lot of material that Spellberg points to, that was used by those opposed to Islam in general and full integration of Muslim ideas in Europe in particular. This book also reminded me of Carl Ernest’s Following Muhammad, a brilliant book that charts the history of how Islam was perceived in the past and the contemporary understandings of the religion in Western societies. Similar to the treatment in Ernest’s book, Spellberg offers the challenges that Islam faces today, as it did in the earlier stages of its founding and propagation.

She points out that much of the prejudice against Islam came from Continental Europe and it was adopted by those who had not read or researched Islam much. Islam was positioned as the anti-Christ faith and was defined in direct opposition to Christianity. “Islam was thus for Christians of all denominations a weapon with which to vilify fellow believers, and it would prove effective, eventually to be appropriated for additional political and personal attacks on both sides of the Atlantic” (pg.17). While it was not all bad, and there were champions of pluralism and tolerance, they were few and far in between. She names Royall Tyler as another person who wrote a positive account of Muslim experience, allowing the subjects to speak forcefully for themselves and explain their beliefs. The Algerian Captive is an example of such work (pg.27).

In an effort to locate the debates surrounding American Muslim civil rights with our times, she points out that Jefferson was called among other things “a Mohammedan, an atheist,” pejoratively, because of his support of religious freedoms for all. This was a slur used against him, in his campaign of 1800. It is surprising that not much has changed since then and our current President, who has been called the same thing by birthers and those who deny that President Obama is an American born citizen. Further, one must remember that the debates about Islam and Muslims occurred in the context of the religious liberties that were to be given to minorities, among them Jews, Catholics and Muslims. Spellberg points out that while Catholics and Jews were real and were seen in somewhat of a negative light, Muslims were an unknown quantity. Questions of race became prominent in the context of citizenship as Jefferson and others thought of Muslims in terms of Turks and Arabs and not the Muslim slaves who were already present in the country (Pg. 168).

She also reminds readers that the suspicion that Muslims faced, because of their ‘foreign’ origins was not just limited to them. Catholics, Jews and other Protestants also faced discrimination and hatred. James Madison, like Leland, argued that “religious liberty is a right and not a favor.” It was not something the government could infringe or limit to select believers. (Pg. 241). She points out that Leland vocally championed the rights of Muslims and Catholics and Jews at a time when such inclusiveness was unusual and unpopular. And unlike Jefferson and Madison, the two famed Virginian political leaders whom he supported, Leland had himself had suffered persecution because of his faith. This persecution opened their eyes to the majoritarianism that could force the minorities into a position of weakness and suffering and this is exactly what they wanted to avoid.

As she makes her case, rather forcefully that American Muslims should be considered full and active citizens of this country and not as ‘outsiders.’ “Now, as in the 18th century, American Muslims symbolize the universality of religious inclusion and equality promised in the nation’s founding by Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Leland and others, an ideal still in the course of being fully realized more than two centuries later. Any attack upon the rights of Muslim citizens should be recognized for what it remains: an assault upon the universal,” she adds. And going by the reasoning of her arguments, the fact that full legal participation and acceptance has occurred for both Jews and Catholics is a sure sign that Muslims can expect this too. Although challenges to this are evident, given the efforts by certain groups to challenge the legitimacy of this notion of plurality, the fact that it is ingrained in the American constitution is a guarantee of its success, she seems to be saying.

For those wanting to hear an interview with the author, check out this link on NPR.

 

 

 


[i] Full Citation: Spellberg. Denise A. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. Alfred A. Knopf. NY. 2013

 

Are the Saudis getting something right?

Are the Saudis getting something right, in terms of their foreign policy, both in the MENA region and around the world? Or is it all a big mess, much like American foreign policy in the region? In a recent article in the TIME magazine, Farid Zakaria[i] pointed out that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is a disaster and that it is pouring money down the drain, while alienating itself from the global order. The kingdom’s  rejection of the Security Council seat is the most egregious example of this phenomenon. There is however, one area where the Saudi government is acting in good faith and putting its money for a cause that may actually drastically change the intellectual and foreign policy landscape of the country in the decades, if not years to come – higher education. The billions of dollars that King Abdullah has allocated to higher education may hold the prospects for a more liberal, open and vibrant in the years to come.

Pic courtesy: www.dailymail.co.uk
Pic courtesy: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

Just taking a cursory look at the number of Saudi students in American schools tells us that something profound is taking place. Post 911, the number of Saudi students in the U.S. plummeted, for reasons related directly to the tense relations that characterized the countries and people, immediately following the incident. As this Wall Street Journal article[ii] points out, in 2004, there were just 1000 Saudi students in the U.S. In 2011, there was a huge jump to over 66,000 students. This also corresponded with the increased interest and lobbying at the highest level from the Saudis to help their citizens understand the rest of the world and vice versa. On a macro-level, the overall literacy rate was 5% in 1950s and has climbed upto over 79%, since then. This is part of the strategic plan put forth by King Abdullah, who is concerned with the potentially declining oil revenues and also an increasingly networked world, where Saudis have to find their place – once the oil runs out.

I believe that this is visionary thinking and rightly puts money where the mouth is. With a greater number of students coming to the U.S., learning, interacting and sharing their experiences and lives with others, they will create a better understanding between the two countries. Once they return- and many scholarships are tied in such a way that they eventually return to Saudi Arabia- they will bring back this understanding and nuance in dealing with the rest of the world with them. I believe that this new generation of people will be the defining factor in how Saudi of tomorrow will shape up – either as a continuation of the current order, or a radical shift to a new and more open system, one that is open to many more ideas and versions of Islam and ways of life, than it is currently.

There are indicators that this is already occurring. The women contingent’s participation in Olympics in 2012 and this year’s activism to end the ban on women driving cars are both instances of reform and change that are taking place in the kingdom. Things are changing, albeit slowly. Citizens movements, and work from activists who are asking for greater integration into the global human rights discourse and activism are changing the landscape of legal reform. Saudi based humanitarian aid organizations are cooperating and working alongside international aid agencies and both the entities are learning to appreciate the different worldviews that they approach their work.

As Zakaria points out, and quite rightly, the kingdom’s vast oil wealth has been used to underwrite the promotion of Wahhabism, a rather orthodox and fundamentalist version of Islam that is not entirely acceptable to most countries in the Muslim world. While this brand of Islam has been promoted as the “mainstream” Islam by the ruling elites in Saudi, one must be aware that the diversity within the house of Islam is as much as the diversity of human races and religions – as Islam is literally present everywhere in the world. So, in short, the Saudi version of Islam does not have a monopoly of representing Islam – the presence of the holiest sites of Islam notwithstanding. Other strands of Sunni Islam are equally valid, so are Shia Islam as well as the various permutations and combinations of syncretic Islam that has emerged in India, Indonesia and the U.S., sometimes radically challenging our conceptions of what it means to be a Muslim.

All of these hold prospects for change, but most importantly it is the 66,000 plus students in the U.S. who will define the future of Saudi. And by the look of it, and having interacted with a few dozen of them, I am optimistic that there will be a more tolerant and open Saudi Arabia in the years to come. The Saudis are getting something right – and that is investing in the future of their youth. And I hope that they don’t give up on this, anytime soon.