Politics, Language and the Palestinians

Khaled Meshal, head of the political bureau of Hamas, addresses worshippers at a mosque in Damascus, where he is exiled.


The widely circulated article by Khaled Meshal, which first appeared in English in The Guardian and was reprinted in The Los Angeles Times, reminded all those who are involved in one way or another with the Palestinian struggle of the importance of language in framing that struggle, and—whether or not one agrees with Hamas—of redefining both the struggle and the language used to shape it in the difficult years ahead.

For most Palestinians, what was refreshing about Meshal’s piece was his use of a defiant language of struggle—one appropriate to their desperate circumstances—rather than the meaningless, empty, bankrupt language all but handed to current and previous Palestinian leaders by a team of American and Israeli script-writers.

Amazingly, there are still some people out there who don’t understand that language and politics are inseparable from one another—that there is no way to understand politics without understanding language, simply because politics exist not merely in cold hard facts, but in language itself.

This isn’t a complicated literary-theoretical trick: it’s common sense.

It’s impossible to think about politics without using language for the simple reason that it’s impossible to think about anything without using language.

The kind of language you use helps define how you think. You can’t just hold a certain political position, then come up with the words to express that position afterwards; the words have to be there first.

Even if you are particularly clever, the words you draw on—and the concepts and narratives with which those words are framed—almost always pre-exist you and the political positions you want to express. And the more conventional your point of view, the more readily you’ll find words, concepts and narratives ready to suit your purposes.

It’s not very surprising, actually.

This is why the careless use of certain words—“terrorism” is a perfect example—almost automatically leads to the adoption of certain political positions, because the words are doing the thinking for you. Such words are not only pre-cooked, they’re pre-digested: they are just passing through you.

Drawing on ready-to-use political language is unlikely to yield anything other than pre-formed, off-the-shelf, conventional thinking, because that’s precisely the kind of thinking that ready-to-use political language is designed for.

So, in general, people who uncritically use the political language that is available to them are not likely to come up with fresh new approaches to apparently intractable problems. They are, on the contrary, far more likely to go on thinking the way others want them to think.

This is why if you find yourself using the language, concepts and narratives—the “truth-entangling lines,” Shelley once called them—that are used by those who exercise political or military power, you are not very likely to think very differently from the way they want you to think.

On the other hand, if you insist on developing alternative approaches to various political situations—if you insist on thinking for yourself—you have to spend a lot more time thinking about the political language you’re using, the concepts you’re drawing on, the narratives and discourses you’re otherwise in danger of unconsciously buying into.

In no situation is a critical attitude to political language more important than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where political language has worked miracles that not only defy, but breathtakingly fly in the face of, the cold hard facts.

There is, quite simply, no other way to explain how it could be that the victims of four decades of relentless military occupation are so often made out to be the real villains, while those who willfully entered into—and have perpetuated and extended—that occupation are so often made out to be the victims; or how it could be that a state that was founded on an act of violent dispossession and ethnic cleansing could be a member in good standing of the international community, while those whom it dispossessed and banished from their land and homes are the ones who are treated as outcasts, murderers, outlaws, constantly being asked to apologize, to atone, to renounce this or that scrap of writing or ineffective gesture of defiance. Rarely have language and reality been separated by a greater gulf.

In fact, it could be argued that the worst thing about the process set in motion during those secret talks at Oslo in 1993 was the way in which it so systematically separated language and reality. On the one hand, there was a whole vocabulary and even a grammar of “negotiations” which came to called “the peace process”—“Area A,” “Area B,” “interim status,” “final status,” etc. And on the other hand there was an actual set of material circumstances, whereby, notwithstanding all the talk, Israel went right on expropriating more Palestinian land, uprooting more Palestinian trees, destroying more Palestinian homes, building more settlements.

How many times does one have to point out that the population of Jewish settlers illegally living in the occupied territories whose future status was supposedly being negotiated actually doubled as those negotiations were taking place, before one is granted the concession that in fact the whole thing was a farce? It’s not just that the language of the so-called peace process and what was actually happening were fundamentally at odds; it’s that language was systematically used to mask reality—or, as Harold Pinter put it during his remarks on a similar set of circumstances during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, language was actually “employed to keep thought at bay.”

This is why it was so demoralizing for Palestinians to see their political leadership not merely cave in to all the concessions extracted from them with such ease at Oslo, but also buy into the whole linguistic scheme—the language game—that was being used to mask the underlying intensification of the occupation which is what Oslo was really all about. For ordinary Palestinians, it was obvious that language and reality had been separated, and it grew increasingly objectionable for them to see their leaders use the set of terms that had been handed to them, which had no bearing on the reality they were experiencing, rather than trying to adapt language to actual political and material circumstances.

And this is why it was so demoralizing to for Palestinians to hear, often under appalling circumstances, Ahmad Qureia or Mahmoud Abbas helplessly pleading for a return to “interim status talks” or “the Road Map,” rather than shouting out in much plainer language, “stop what you are doing to my people!”

This is why the words of Khaled Meshal offered such relief to so many Palestinians (and not just those who support Hamas): because, rather than wallowing in a vocabulary invented to suit the purposes of American and Israeli planners and technocrats, he was describing the world as it actually exists for the Palestinians themselves, in a language actually suited to the occasion.

Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA and author of the weblog Speaking Truth to Power