World Arabic Language Day: breaking the stigma

Aitana Robey

Today is the World Arabic Language Day, one of the six official UN languages, the others being Chinese, Spanish, French, Russian and English. The Department of Global Communications established one World Day for each of its official languages with the purpose of celebrating multilingualism and cultural diversity and promoting an equitable use of the six languages.

Cultural and historical approach to Arabic language

The Arabic language is one of the pillars of humanity’s cultural diversity. It is one of the most widely used languages ​​in the world, spoken daily by more than 400 million people in the Arab world and neighboring regions such as Turkey, Chad, Mali, Senegal and Eritrea.

For Muslims, it is a sacred language –the language of the Quran– and prayer and other acts of worship in Islam are only performed by mastering some of its words. Arabic is also an important ritual language in several Christian churches in the Arab region, where many of the most important Jewish religious and intellectual works of the Middle Ages were written.

Arabic language implies a world full of diversity of origins and beliefs and with a rich culture in literature, philosophy, singing, politics and science. It also has had an important impact in many other languages: of the Islamic world (Turkish, Persian, Kurdish, Urdu, Malay, Indonesian, Albanian); in some other African languages ​​(for example, Hausa and Swahili); and in some European languages, especially Mediterranean ones (Spanish, Portuguese, Maltese, and Sicilian).

Moreover, it acted as a catalyst for the production and diffusion of knowledge and helped transfer Greek and Roman scientific and philosophical knowledge to Europe during the Renaissance. It also allowed the establishment of an intercultural dialogue along the land and sea routes of the Silk.

This year’s motto for the World Arabic language Day is ‘Arabic language and communication between civilizations’ and it pretends to “reaffirm the important function that Arabic language has in building connections between people and the peak of culture, science and literature among others”.

The prejudices against Arab culture

Globalization and immigration have had, as a consequence, an increase of the Arabic population in the West, who have brought their culture and beliefs with them in a peaceful way. However, there is a perpetuated negative image in the West collective imaginary about the Arabic culture, especially about Islam and Muslims.

This negative image have been perpetuated and strengthen by the generalist and simplified speech of the media, that has reduced and misunderstood all Islam as fanatic Islam and has associated it with concepts like violence and terrorism. This distorted speech full of prejudices and clichés was aggravated by terrorist attacks such as 9/11 in USA and 11M in Madrid, among others.

Thus, Western society has built an imaginary long distance between “them” and “us”, generating a difficulty to empathize since this part of the population is considered –conscious or unconsciously– as different, not equal. For this reason, it is very important to promote Arabic culture as it is and to start breaking the stigma. In this sense, we would like to suggest some movies, shows and books to help dismantle prejudices and Islamophobia and reach a better understanding about Arab culture:

My name is Khan

My name is Khan is an Indian movie that tells the story of Rizwan Khan, a Muslim child that has Asperger Syndrome. As an adult, he falls in love with a Hindu single mother, Mandira, who lives in San Francisco. The 9/11 attack will unfairly complicate his life.

A thousand splendid suns

Written by the author of Afghan origin Khaled Hosseini and published in 2007, the acclaimed novel tells the friendship story between two women whose destinies intertwined by casuality and the convulsions that Afghanistan has suffered during the last three decades.

Layla M.

Layla is a Muslim teenager in Amsterdam. Motivated by the intolerance she suffers in her daily life, she finds refuge in fundamentalism in order to find her place in the world. It is directed by Mijke de Jong and it was published in 2016.

Commander Arian. A story of women, war and freedom

The documental movie directed by the Catalan director Alba Sotorra and published in 2018 tells the story of Arian and Bohar, two Syrian women in their thirties that have spent half of their lives in a war that seems to be endless. Both are commanders in the Unities of Women Proteccion.

Multilingualism and cultural diversity

Celebrating word language days is also a way of increasing the awareness and respect for history, culture and achievements of each one of these languages. Multilingualism is a fundamental value recognized by the General Assembly of the United Nations, and an essential factor for harmonious communication between peoples.

Multilingualism must be promoted and protected because of multiple reasons: first of all, it facilitates multilateral diplomacy, which is basic for the United Nations, promoting dialogue, tolerance and understanding. Moreover, it ensures the effective participation of everyone in the work of the Organization, as well as greater transparency and efficiency and better results. Finally, it assures that the widest possible public can understand the goals and actions of the United Nations.

According to UNESCO, three-quarters of the biggest conflicts have a cultural dimension. For this reason, overcoming the division between cultures is urgent and necessary for peace, stability and development. Culture, in its rich diversity, has an intrinsic value both for development and for social cohesion and peace.

As stated by the UN, “Cultural diversity is a driving force for development, not only in terms of economic growth, but also as a means of having a more enriching intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual life”, and the organization adds that “this diversity is an essential component to reduce poverty and achieve the goal of sustainable development”. Simultaneously, the recognition of cultural diversity – through an innovative use of the media and ICT in particular – leads to dialogue between civilizations and cultures, to mutual respect and understanding.

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