Guest Post: Speak the Languages, Know the Modes of Thought

Charles Cameron, who has appeared here before, is the former Senior Analyst with The Arlington Institute and Principal Researcher with the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. He specializes in forensic theology, with a deep interest in millennial, eschatological and apocalyptic religious sects of all stripes.

Charles will be doing a new series of posts here at Zenpundit that will drill down into the important but often elusive religious-cultural connections that impact American national security and foreign policy issues.

Very pleased to have him aboard:


by Charles Cameron

SSgt. David Flaherty, currently deployed as the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team’s public information officer, is to be congratulated on speaking Pashto. But Wireds Danger Room comment, “The fact that this is considered newsworthy and exceptional — a U.S. military officer speaks one of the official languages of Afghanistan! — doesn’t reflect well on the national commitment to Afghanistan” is also to the point.

A couple of other recent items in the news about languages and translation at home and abroad should concern us.A report from the US Department of Justice on the FBI’s Translation Project was less than enthusiastic, not only finding that significant quantities of material collected in the Bureau’s highest-priority counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence collection categories were never evaluated, but that the number of translators inn the FBI pool had diminished since a 2005 audit, that in 2008 the FBI met its hiring goals for linguists in only 2 of its 14 critical languages, that security clearance and language proficiency training for a new linguist took 19 months before hiring could take place, and that 70 percent of the FBI’s own linguists in the field offices tested did not attend the FBIs required training course.

And retired and renowned Marine colonel Thomas X. Hammes was quoted in a recent piece on CBC News about allegations of “botched” translations in the Afghan theater leading NATO troops to faulty conclusions as saying, “We’re willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make sure ice cream and steak is there, and I would trade all of that for my entire tour if I could have one decent translator. Many times I’d trade body armor for a translator.”I want to suggest, though, that there is another aspect to this business. I was reminded of it when reading the FBI complaint against Luqman Ameen Abdullah and others connected with the recent events in Detroit. The complaint includes the phrase, “Abdullah also said that thegovernment plots and plans against them so they need to plot and plan in return”. The complaint doesn’t mention it, but that’s an echo of the words of the Qur’an, 8.30:

 “And when those who disbelieve plot against thee (O Muhammad) to wound thee fatally, or to kill thee or to drive thee forth; they plot, but Allah (also) plotteth; and Allah is the best of plotters.”

What this suggests to me is that we need to be able to speak / read not only spoken or written languages of our sources, suspects, informants and opponents — but also the language or underlying logic of their thought. A close reading of the Detroit complaint’s text in association with that of the Qur’an gives us an understanding that Abdullah views his plotting as aligned with Allah’s. This in itself may not seems surprising, but it suggests a manner of reading that may prove fruitful in other occasions, and that’s the point I want to make.

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