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Ebola: two curious questions of language

Friday, October 17th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- when misunderstandings beget panics, we're not too conceptually far from rumors of wars becoming wars ]
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Hilton Garden Inn, Liberia, Costa Rica

Hilton Garden Inn, Liberia, Costa Rica

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Language matters.

I know I keep saying this, but it is true, and in the past few days I have run across two cases where false assumptions about the meaning of language have led to erroneous “hearing” of a message, with consequent unfortunate results.

I’ll post the press reports first in each case, then my own comments.

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Red Cross and Rose Cross:

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies recently posted Fighting superstition in Congo’s Ebola zone:

In mid-February, at the peak of the epidemic, the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse. A local sorcerer accused four teachers of killing people to acquire supernatural powers.

According to him, the four belonged to the Rose-Croix, a Gabonese sect. The teachers – all from the same political party – were lynched by a mob wielding iron clubs and machetes.

Most of the terrified population of Kellé fled in the forest. From this time, a dangerous confusion has developed in people’s minds: Pink-Cross and Red Cross were seen as indistinguishable, all the more so because in the local Lingala language, the word for red and pink is the same.

My suspicion is that the Rose-Croix in question is not “a Gabonese sect” but Rosicrucians in the AMORC tradition familiar to those who chase divine secrets through ads in the back pages of esoteric journals — in this case, under the supervision of Serge Toussaint, Grand Master of the French court of AMORC, who visited Libreville, Gabon in July 2010 to address the Rosicrucian Central African Convention “On the Trail of Light”.

The original Rosicrucians were a key group of intellectuals in the early enlightenment period, best described in:

  • Frances Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, and
  • Christopher McIntosh, The Rose Cross and the Age of Reason
  • The Red Cross, or more precisely The International Committee of the Red Cross, is a global humanitarian organization whose founder, Henry Dunant, was one of two recipients of the first Nobel Prize for Peace in 1901, and the Red Cross has subsequently been awarded the Peace Prize three times, in 1917, 1944 and 1963.

    Red is not pink, though a rose may be a rose be a rose.

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    Liberia and Liberia:

    Rebecca Gordon, in Ebola & Immigrants and Muslims, Oh My! Operating the Fear Machine, writes of Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of SOUTHCOM:

    The general has proof that they’re already coming – all the way from Africa. In fact, he says, a U.S. embassy employee in Costa Rica told him about a group of migrants he’d met on the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. And where were these migrants coming from, Kelly asked? The embassy worker told him, “Liberia.” Liberians traveling to the United States through Central America. Who knew?

    As it turns out, these folks may well have been from “Liberia,” but they probably weren’t Africans. Chances are they came from Liberia, Costa Rica, the state capital of Guanacaste province there. This from the man in charge of all U.S. military operations in Latin America.

    Gen Kelly’s remarks were reported by DoD News in Kelly: Southcom Keeps Watch on Ebola Situation, October 8, and more widely in Time‘s General: Expect ‘Mass Migration’ to U.S. if Ebola Comes to Central America, October 9. Neither story picked up on the “two Liberias, one in Africa and one in Costa Rica” aspect of the story.

    The two reporters, and likewise the General, were presumably unaware of the Costa Rican Liberia. Rebecca Gordon has worked in and published on Nicaragua, holds an M.Div. and a Ph.D. from Graduate Theological, and has a sharp eye for telling detail.

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    And we all have our blindspots. The question is, what can we do about them?

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    Language as tripwire: Kobani and Ayn al-Arab

    Thursday, October 9th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- third in a series nibbling at the edges of the importance of precision in language ]
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    Charles Lister, presently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and previously with Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, is a respected analyst specializing in the Middle East. Two days ago, he tweeted:

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    In the first post in this series, Language as tripwire: the Khorasan Group and the active and passive voices, I said “place-names matter”. I have also discussed the matter of names and how they can shift in geostrategic meaning on this blog before, eg in my post, Damascus, Dearborn, Rome, Vienna?

    Ayn al-Arab is the Arabic name for Kobani, Kobani is the Kurdish name for the same city.

    Language matters, place-names matter..

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    And for what it’s worth, I am sure that I make silly mistakes o this kind, too — it goes with the conceptual territory being so much larger and more nuanced than any map an individual can carry in his or her head.

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    Language as tripwire: Conway’s Game of Life and “emergent” warlords

    Thursday, October 9th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- the word "emergent" has an emergent, special meaning -- don't abuse it ]
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    Now here’s an interesting little graphic. If you’re interested in cellular automata and agent based modeling, you’ll recognize it as a Gosper’s glider gun from Conway‘s Game of Life:

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    It was the use of the word “emergent” in this Stars and Stripes piece, Islamic State leading Mideast into warlord era as nations dissolve, that tripped me into making this post:

    The Middle East may be sliding toward a warlord era, with nation-states increasingly struggling to control all their territory and millions living under the rule of emergent local chiefs and movements.

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    Who would have thought that this pattern:

    glider gun

    when subjected to the very simple rules of Conway’s Game:

    Any white cell with fewer than two white neighbours turns black
    Any white cell with two or three white neighbours remains white
    Any white cell with more than three white neighbours turns black
    Any black cell with exactly three white neighbours becomes a white cell

    where a “cell” is one of the squares on a grid, and a “neighbor” is any cell horizontally, vertically, or diagonally adjacent to the cell in question, would result in this smaller pattern that glides across the grid:

    glider

    The upper pattern is called a “glider gun” while the lower one is called a “glider”.

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    If you want to know more about the emergent warloards, you need HUMINT, you need people who know the languages, the dialects, the cultures, the personalities, the shifting alliances…

    If you would like to know more about the various emergent patterns that have been found in Conway’s Game, try this Wikipedia entry. It includes the delightfully patterened “Pulsar”:

    And if you want to play around with gliders, you could try Wolfram‘s page:

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    Warlords aren’t “emergent” — that’s a buzzword-style use of what has by now become a term of art. They are strongmen already in the terrain, and if we knew the terrain like they do, we’d already know them.

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    Language as tripwire: the Khorasan Group and the active and passive voices

    Thursday, October 9th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- first in a series in which the language makes a difference ]
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    There is this business of the so-called “Khorasan Group”.

    Two paragraphs of CENTCOM’s news release, Sept. 23: U.S. Military, Partner Nations Conduct Airstrikes Against ISIL in Syria, mention the phrase “Khorasan group”. The first of these reads:

    Separately, the United States has also taken action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned al-Qa’ida veterans – sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group – who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations. These strikes were undertaken only by U.S. assets.

    Notice the use of the passive voice: the group is “sometimes referred to as” the Khorasan Group. This is either skillful linguistic obfuscation or bureaucratic linguistic ineptitude, and I tend to vote for the latter, because so few people know how to write decent Ebglish any more, while those that do can easily be paid to forget.

    The passive voice doesn’t tell us who does the referring — who refers to the group as the Khorasan Group. It might be Americans in intelligence circles, in the Department, in the media — it might be other Syrians, intercepts from Jabhat Nusra communications or AQC — or the “group” themselves.

    As recipients of the CENTCOM news release, however, and by means of that passive voice construction, we just don’t know.

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    And perhaps it matters.

    Perhaps it matters because the place named “Khorasan” has a distinctive meaning in Islamic eschatology. It is the place of origin of the army with black banners that will sweep victoriously down to Jerusalem, either led by the Mahdi or coming to his aid. While there is a province in Iran still called Khorasan, a far greater area including parts of Iran (Masshad, eg), Afghanistan (Herat, Balkh), Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan was designated Khorasan in earlier times, and both AQ and Iran have used the hadith about the army from Khorasan in support of their own activities.

    Plenty of water has passed under the bridge since that CENTCOM press release two weeks ago, and I’m not going to link to all the wise and foolish articles that have explored the nature of the group — but journalist Jenan Moussa has seen internal memos of the group that was attacked under the name “Khorasan Group”, and the name is not one they have viven themselves:

    So why is the Administration using a loaded apocalyptic term to describe what seems in effect to be a group of AQC fighters sent to fight under the aegis of Jabhat al-Nusra?

    Language matters, place-names matter, and the use of the passive voice only confuses what should be clearly understood.

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    Nomenclature, ISIS and beyond

    Thursday, June 19th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- accuracy in naming, and the potentially dire consequences of theological insults ]
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    On February 3rd, Hassan Hassan, a columnist for the English daily The National in the UAE, wrote a piece titled Five Reasons Why It Is Stupid To Say ISIL Instead of ISIS for Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. Here are reasons 1, 3 and 4 of his five, minus the “stupid” bit, which is intended to make the title eye-catching, while it’s dismissed as fluff (“joking, don’t shoot”) in the body of the piece:

    1. “Al-Sham” is a word often used for Syria, and more specifically for Damascus. “Bilad al Sham”, on the other hand, is Levant or Greater Syria.

    3. When ISIS was formed, they certainly didn’t mean the group would operate in all of Greater Syria or Levant. It was only recently that they announced they would open a branch in Lebanon. People forget that ISIS was a merger between Islamic State of Iraq and “Jabhat al-Nusra for the Support of the People of Sham”. After a year and two months from creating Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Al-Baghdadi unilaterally announced a merger between his group and Jabhat al-Nusra, in other words between the group that operates in Iraq and the group that operates in SYRIA. Jabhat al-Nusra did not mean, and does not say, it is a group for supporting the people of all the Levant but the people of Syria. So the initial merger was Iraq & Syria, not Iraq and the Levant. It was later that the name of the new merger “broadened” to include other areas, as ISIS announced a chapter in Lebanon and more recently in Jordan. So, in short, this is less about the meaning of “al-Sham” and more about that fact.

    4. Often when there are Arabic words whose translation into English is disputed, it’s better (academically speaking) to use the Arabic word and explain what it is – in this case, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (still ISIS).

    I’m always grateful for informed background, and in full agreement with point #4.

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    Yesterday, the NYT had a post titled What to Call Iraq Fighters? Experts Vary on S’s and L’s:

    Many news outlets, including The New York Times, have been translating the group’s name as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS for short. But the United States government and several news agencies call it the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or I.S.I.L. (The BBC, curiously, uses the ISIS acronym, but “Levant” when spelling the name out.)

    Al-Sham is the classical Arabic term for Damascus and its hinterlands, and over time, it came to denote the area between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, south of the Taurus Mountains and north of the Arabian desert. Similarly, in Egypt, “Masr” may refer either to Cairo or to the whole country. Used in that sense, al-Sham takes in not just Syria but also Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and even a part of southeastern Turkey.

    That is fairly similar in extent to what Western geographers call the Levant, a once-common term that now has something of an antique whiff about it, like “the Orient.” Because of the term’s French colonial associations, many Arab nationalists and Islamist radicals disdain it, and it is unlikely that the militant group would choose “Levant” to render its name.

    That’s three paragraphs, and a broad strokes version of something the article goes into more detail about…

    The fighters do not like “Syria” either, though. Syria is what the Greeks named the region in ancient times, possibly after the Assyrian people who once lived there, though that derivation is disputed. And at times in the past, the term “Syrian” was used to mean specifically a Christian Syrian, while Muslims or Jews living there would be called Shami. Today, when Arabs speak of Syria, they usually mean only the modern state, which the insurgent group is fighting to obliterate.

    Historic resonances are the point, said Ali Adeeb, a professor of Arabic at New York University. “When they first thought of the name,” Mr. Adeeb said of the group, “they were thinking with the mentality of the seventh or eighth century, just like their interpretation of religion and the life they want to recreate.” He noted that in the group’s statements, “they use old words like ‘ghazwa’ for invasion, instead of the modern word for battle.”

    So if neither “Levant” nor “Syria” will do to translate “al-Sham,” what would? Some writers and geographers use “Greater Syria,” which preserves the distinction with the current state. But that would come at the cost of adding an adjective that is not present in the original Arabic, not to mention cluttering the acronym. Or the already familiar ISIS abbreviation could simply be said to stand for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, though the last word is unfamiliar to English speakers.

    Al-Sham is a key concept in the final 100-page apocalyptic rant in Abu Musab al-Suri’s 1,600-page Call to Global Islamic Resistance — hence my own preference for ISIS, as an abbreviation for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. I’d suggest it may be time for English readers to get familiar with that last word, although given our proclivity for not knowing even such basic distinctions as that between Sunni and Shia, I’m none too optimistic about that.

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    But here we have the Zenpundit readership, and I have the impression that deepening understanding is a major concern. May I therefore also recommend Aaron Zelin and Phillip Smyth‘s The Vocabulary of Sectarianism over at Foreign Policy? That way we can all be clear on the theological insults conveyed by such phrases as rafidha / rawafidh, nasawi / nawasib and Hizb al-Lat.

    In sectarian warfare, theological insults can carry the force of death-sentences.

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