A War of Words: Language and Conflict in the Middle East

By Amara, Muhammad H. | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

A War of Words: Language and Conflict in the Middle East


Amara, Muhammad H., The Middle East Journal


LANGUAGEAND LITERATURE A War of Words: Language and Conflict in the Middle East, by Yasir Suleiman, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xiii+ 230 pages. Appends, to p. 234. Bibl. to p. 254. Index to p. 270. $70 cloth; $27 paper.

Political conflicts affect language repertoires, and in some cases language issues become part and parcel of the conflict. Language is not abstracted from reality and people but responds to surrounding changes. The Middle East, with its unique history and politics, offers a fertile background for the study of language and political conflicts.

Yasir Suleiman, in the work under review here, deals with language and political conflicts in the Middle East, shedding light on the subject from various perspectives. The investigation of language and conflict in this book combines social as well as political conflict, although the latter is more dominant in the book. Such a study undoubtedly requires a multi-disciplinary approach. Suleiman leans on various disciplines, and he extensively borrows terms from political studies (e.g., conflict resolution, zero-sum game, confrontation, hegemony). The book focuses on national identity, state building, ethnic marking, map marking, and semiotic representation. This book is the second volume of a three-part study on language and society in the Arab world. The first of these volumes is The Arabic language and National Identity: A Study in Ideology (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003).

The book comprises six chapters. Chapter 1 opens with some personal examples and concepts and introduces the content of the book. Chapter 2 explains the basic concepts employed in the book. It mainly deals with the interaction of power, conflict, and language. Chapter 3 deals in greater details with the debate between the language-modernizers and the language defenders with respect to Standard Arabic and its colloquial forms. Chapter 4 examines language and political conflict in Jordan. It deals with dialect as a boundary-setter as well as with the linguistic attitudes towards competing dialects in Jordan. The socio-political meanings of the Jordanian case are explored by using the concepts of code-switching, dialect convergence, dialect shift, and dialect maintenance in relation to the symbolic function of language in society. For this purpose, Suleiman utilizes the well-known sociolinguistic variable /q/ investigated in various Arab contexts, including Jordan.Chapter 5 examines the political conflict between Arabic and Hebrew in Israel/Palestine. Chapter 6 is conclusions.

In this study, the author decided not to consider North Africa (though there is a long section about it in Chapter 2), preferring to restrict himself to the Middle East. The decision is justified since North Africa and other parts of the Arab world (e.g., Sudan, Somalia, and Mauritania) deserve separate studies. The book covers a good number of cases in the Middle East (e.g., Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc.), but it does not consider Lebanon, one of the most intriguing cases in the study of language and political conflicts in the Middle East, whether in terms of dialect variation and change, or bilingual education.

In this book, unlike the previous one by the author (The Arabic Language and National Identity), Islamic nationalism occupies an important role and is treated in-depth, mainly in relation to language modernization.

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