In the March 21, 2018 Toronto Star, I read about the heroic FBI’s actions to save us from Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy, yet another mentally-ill, substance-abusing Arab Muslim youth. It had all the elements of the other “terrorism” plots, including a confidential informant and deliberate FBI actions to induce the youth into actions which would allow the US government to charge him with more serious offenses. It had the added element of Canadian government cooperation to facilitate prosecution and maximization of punishment. Of course, all of this contributes to a climate of hatred and fear of Arabs in particular and Muslims in general, and, sadly, for all non-whites for many people in North America. But I’ve complained a whole lot on this blog & my other blog about why the War on Terror is in fact a tactic of white supremacy.
As a lover of language, one particular USA government tactic particularly irks me: the transformation of completely innocuous Arabic words into danger signals. From The Toronto Star article:
The prosecution’s submission states that El Bahnasawy was in contact online with a well-known Daesh recruiter who went by the kunya, or nickname, of Abu Isa Al Amriki. Although his name indicates that he was “the American,” he was in fact Sudanese and is referred to in court documents as “Al Sudani.”
In a footnote in a brief to the Supreme Court, Obama-era lawyers explain kunya:
A kunya is a sort of traditional, honorific nickname. [REDACTED] Decl. at 2. A man’s kunya will often be the word “abu”—literally translated to mean father and then the name of his first born child. Id. According to [REDACTED], Al Qaida members also use kunyas as honorific pseudonyms. Id. These kunyas are not dependent on whether an individual is a father and are sometimes used to conceal a true identity.
Why does the US Department of Justice transliterate Arabic words with perfectly adequate English single word meanings and then translate them so frequently in its documents? Here are a few examples of Google searches restricted to the domain justice.gov:
Please don’t be scared of Arabs who have nicknames. Most often, we use them to reinforce intimacy among spouses, family and friends.
The government, when prosecuting criminals, chooses to use Arabic words instead of words like “pledged loyalty” or “alias” because it knows the public and jurors have been conditioned to think that the Arabic words somehow enhance criminality and danger. And every time the government does this, the general public’s fear of Arabic and Arabic-speakers increases. As many historians of prejudice have noted, the public generally takes its cue from government policies (Muslims), and racist government policies can continue to impact relationships among groups long after they have formally ended.
There’s no doubt the blast radius of a قنبلة qunbula is wider than that of a bomb. Many of you gave your bayat at the local madrasa before its basketball game during which you cheered for your star athlete by his kunya. Please don’t drone bomb the Sphinx, which we call أبو الهول Abu al-Hawl. Technically, that’s not a kunya, but actual knowledge often comes after the missiles have been launched.