At the intersection of linguistics, psychology and anthropology, there’s a concept called the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” (or linguistic relativism). This is the proposition that language shapes one’s entire approach to reality itself.
For example, the Trobian people of Papua New Guinea have no linguistic tools to conceptualize a linear or chronological approach to time. A specialist puts it as follows:
They have no time line but only temporal points organized as noncausal patterns with ‘at most a swelling in value.’ Devoid of linguistic temporal connections, Trobriand events are self-contained: ‘a series of beings but not becoming.’
It goes without saying that such individuals would be unable to grasp the false promises of progressivism—this abstraction that posits history as an idealistic entity moving towards some utopian end, with society always continuously improving through liberal social engineering and technological maximization.
This structuration of reality shaped by language also happens within the same civilization. This has been shown in the works of the late Basil Bernstein in relation to education and how middle-class and working-class parents have a different approach to everyday speech which shapes their consciousness as a social class.
It is thus no wonder that some have recognized the potential neo-colonial weaponization of language. Take Kenya’s most important contemporary writer, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, for example. He was born James Ngugi and used to write in English. But then, from the late ’60s onwards, he decided to change his name and to also use his native language as a form of expression in order to “decolonize” himself.
He articulated his views in the essay, Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), where we read, for example, on pp.16-17:
Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.
For colonialism this involved two aspects of the same process: the destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture, their art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language of the coloniser. The domination of a people’s language by the languages of the colonising nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonised.
For a colonial child, the harmony existing between the three aspects of language as communication was irrevocably broken. This resulted in the disassociation of the sensibility of that child from his natural and social environment, what we might call colonial alienation. The alienation became reinforced in the teaching of history, geography, music, where bourgeois Europe was always the centre of the universe.
This disassociation, divorce, or alienation from the immediate environment becomes clearer when you look at colonial language as a carrier of culture.
Since culture is a product of the history of a people which it in turn reflects, the child was now being exposed exclusively to a culture that was a product of a world external to himself. He was being made to stand outside himself to look at himself.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o obviously writes from the perspective of a post-colonial ideologue who has been impacted by Marxism and Frantz Fanon. However, all of this can undoubtedly be applied in our Islamic context as well.
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Consider the usage of words such as “extremism” and “moderate.” Even some “conservatives” would use such terminology only within the context of religion:
“Religion should be moderate.”
“Religious extremism is bad.”
You’ll never see them, much less proper liberals, use it in the context of their own ideologies. You’ll never hear them, for example, argue that gender fluidity is “extremism” or that the feminist crusade for equality needs to be “more moderate.”
You’ll never hear them calling for Western civilization to “reform itself” due to its unregulated capitalism and liberal imperialism having generated so much misery all over the world.
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The psychological effects of secular-liberal neo-colonialism are such that nobody even thinks of applying this polarizing nomenclature outside the sphere of religion.
George Orwell devised the concept of “newspeak.” This essentially refers to how a totalitarian state would recreate language through its grammar and vocabulary, to the extent that people would be unable to even conceptualize ideas such as “freedom.”
Victor Klemperer, in his postwar study of Nazi propaganda, demonstrated how Hitlerian Germany would use certain specific “buzzwords” to cement its ideology among the masses.
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But it seems that it’s not just totalitarian and Nazi states that are involved in this kind of linguistic reconfiguration of society. Liberal societies do the exact same thing. They fetishize buzzwords such as “freedom,” “liberty,” “emancipation,” etc.,—words that are mobilized to expand their secularizing projects. On the other hand, words such as “extremism,” “moderation,” “reform,” etc., are applied exclusively within the context of religion.
This is insightful. Try to repeat this maxim when your Islamic ideology is challenged: “control the context to control the conversation.” Allah strengthen us.
I’ve heard Imams complain plenty of times about the flaws of the West. What are you talking about?
Who is this ‘imam’ exactly? And what flaws do they complain? That they don’t tolerate islam hard enough?
I’ve always believed that languages indeed shapes how people think, but now more than ever.
I started to study Arabic and it is obvious for anyone who studies Classical Arabic (Fusha) or even most modern dialects that a native speaker of Arabic will most likely end up religious due to the amount of religious expressions used in the language (most of the time without alternatives).
Also the fact that some languages are gendered and numbered (singular/plural) forms the native speaker.
Newspeak is a satirical construct – that it is a neologism shows that – aimed at people’s habit of using words without considering their meanings – the essence of religious speak. William Empson thought 1984 was aimed at christianity as much as political totalitarianism. I don’t know, but I think Western philosophers ignore muslim studies of Greek philosophy because muslims “islamicised” Plato & Co. by reading them in Arabic translation, whereas Europeans tried to use the Greek originals
Wow it’s a pretty cool coincidence. I started reading 1984 today and came across this Newspeak language which was designed specifically to control public thought. This made me wonder how much Language affects our world view and ideas. Then I came across this article. Thanks for this amazing piece !