Inshallah, Biden, Inshallah

During the first (and probably only) presidential debate ahead of the 2020 elections, Democratic candidate Joe Biden uttered a word so quickly that you might have missed it. You might have thought he coughed, or that it was some funny insider-joke word (if you couldn’t really hear what it was). But for the incredulous Muslims and Arabic speakers watching, you heard right: Biden said « inshallah » on national television, during a presidential debate. And that is very important.

You might argue and say that it’s just a word. No, it’s not just a word. Inshallah, one of the most beautiful Arabic words, means « God willing » and is often used in religious contexts. Colloquially, a person also may use it to say that they will do something—but they don’t really mean it at all. So, it’s kind of a joke. In this context, Biden used it in it’s colloquial sense—expressing skepticism that President Donald Trump would release his tax documents—which makes his use of the word even more priceless.

During Trump’s presidency, Muslims in America and coming to America have not had it easy. Trump rallied against them during his 2016 campaign, has derided the Muslim American women serving in Congress, done away with the Iran Nuclear Deal and basically banned people from Muslim-majority countries like Iran and Sudan from entering the country. It’s been just the next step in a long line of American Islamophobia that reached its zenith after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

So to hear a presidential candidate, who’s white and Christian, who’s not exactly liberal and hip, who is more of a champion for Israel than Palestine, say « Inshallah » on national television so casually, is a plus. It wasn’t a talking point on Muslims in America, it wasn’t a strategically placed prop in a prewritten speach: it was colloquial and spontaneous, and it shows Biden has done at least some homework on his Arabic-speaking constituents. So it’s no wonder Muslims and Arabs on social media went wild.

Furthermore, consider how much “fear” and hate is heaped on the phrase “Allahu Akbar.” Most Americans associate this phrase with terrorism, as in the words a terrorist cries before he blows himself up and takes out scores of people. But this beautiful phrase, which is used duri prayer, simply means “God is great”, and it is not intended to incite violence. It is hard to imagine someone-Muslim or otherwise-saying “Allahu akbar” on national television and not causing national outrage. Hollywood films and an Islamophobic media have yet to demonize “inshallah”, but it will be a long time before Americans disassociate “Allahu akbar” from terrorism.

Joe Biden is far from perfect. His stance on the Middle East is far from perfect. But in a time of so much division and hate, his use of one word became a talking point for discussion, and a teaching point to those unfamiliar with the word. Words are powerful, and, well, inshallah Muslim and Arab Americans will have better representation in the next administration. 🙏🏻

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