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Mohamed Hammar: Language, Religion and Innovation


Language, Religion and Innovation

(to help Tunisia rise to the Challenge)

By Mohamed Hammar


In the months of December 2010 and January 2011 the people of Tunisia carried out a kind of social and political rebellion that shortly afterwards became publicly known as the “Jasmine Revolution” or the “Arab Spring” or recently “Arabellion”. Whatever the name, the event triggered a wind of change causing the traditional “establishment” to be shaken and transformed into a new status, one that remains up to now of an unknown nature. Researching the area lying beyond the event, not the event itself, will allow me to avoid a pointless debate and slipping on media-trodden paths. I prefer to grind an axe of a more fundamental and practical nature, instead.


Actually, what interpellates me from first sight is the picture of a country that is in dire need of seeing innovation replacing staleness, efficient work taking over sterile political and media rhetoric coupled with political impotence, in dire need of seeing citizens contributing do’s to replace the too many don’ts that have been manifesting themselves since the « revolution », do’s that help fix the whole picture.


In the course of the current study, I will be trying to uphold three major claims. To begin with, I argue that any resolve of the Tunisian crisis, as I believe there is one, and any completion of social and political change has got to go through the resolve of a world crisis and with a view of a world challenge. I also claim that it is thanks to both the linguistic performance and the religious one that the symptoms of the deep crisis affecting the Tunisian society are betrayed. My third claim is that the symbolic pair language/religion can resolve the crisis all the more that in occidental philosophical thought, there exists a strong move towards bridging the gap between language and religion. In all, I mean that it can constitute a tool to be implemented both as a thermometer or stethoscope and as a healer at the same time.


This said, let us test the hypotheses. To begin with, it is noticeable that the so- called Tunisian revolution  took place in circumstances badly impacted by a world political crisis, the latter being characterized by the decline of democracy: « we are now faced with a crisis of democracy of grave proportions”, warns Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment For Democracy (NED) (1); as far back as 1990 Francis Fukuyama accounted for the 1989 change  by “the death of politics” and “the end of history”; a good many commentators have told us that the atomization of society which is due to economic and cultural globalization is in large part responsible for the decay of politics; Jurgen Habermas claims that the prevalence of political theology to the detriment of pluralism and diversity within unity has fragmented  “the political” . Most thinkers agree that we are living a world crisis marked by the search for alternatives for the sake of State survival.


So Tunisia could not help but suffer from its intrinsic problems and simultaneously from the global ailment from which veteran democracies such as the U.S.A, France, the U.K or Germany are suffering.


On account of this, our country seems to be too overwhelmed with the process of re-structuring the state to be able to set such link. Therefore it has almost lost the sense of the essential, which has hampered its action of meeting the population’s everyday needs in a dignified way (inadequate economic policies; resorting to international debt and so on). Tunisia is undergoing change rather than having control over it.


Drawing on this awareness, Tunisia should realize that the local political problematic has to be grounded in the global context where it mostly evolves so as to be re-grounded in the home context.

Let us suppose that the inhibition on the part of Tunisia is caused by this country’s inability to build up an on-hands approach to politics and to polity and that this is caused by a deficient social mind whose two facets, the religious one and the linguistic one, are not playing their respective parts properly.


Now how do language and religion unveil the negative features characterizing Tunisia’s awkward process of change? Religiously speaking, there is a stale mosque rhetoric being so remote from people’s needs, ambitions and expectations, even stopping believers from formulating their wishes in clear speech, which has resulted in frustration expressed in weird forms and clichés; the rituals have nothing to do with the right worship tradition; lethargy is an obstacle in the face of current modern-era issues; mosque  intransigence, strong-headedness, intolerance and obscurantism  are taken for religious precepts, which has tempted imperialist war lords to implement religious fanaticism in masterminding  terror acts.


Linguistically speaking,  we can take notice of an impotent linguistic mind caused by uncontrolled  bilingualism and a primitive form of diglossia within the Arabic language; bilingualism constitutes an impediment to progress rather than an asset; standard Arabic is still unable to express the scientific mind; the vernacular is hardly considered to be Arabic whereas it is. We can also notice a chaotic teaching and learning of living languages alongside a savage propagation of foul language.

To add insult to injury, the linguistico-religious flaw has badly affected the political field and resulted in social turmoil, political doublethink and doublespeak, materialistic frenzy, consumer craze, economic stagnation, school and university mediocrity.


We can deduce from this state of things that the Tunisian society is not in good terms with a two-fold tradition: the many-century tradition of espousing the faith of Islam in a way that is supposed to be compatible with the reality of the current epoch, and that of voicing and writing down in a living Arabic “parole” the multitude of representations that this faith could give birth to in all fields of human activity inclusive of politics. Parallel to this disrupt language/Islam and despite the intrinsic bond that attaches them to each other, there exists a series of underlying disrupts of which the most important one is the divide between the temporal and the spiritual across the Muslim’s personality whereas intrinsically there should exist no such separation.


This enforced nature seems to be all the more true that even non Muslim thinkers are aware of it. Globalisation expert Pierre Hillard  is one who confirms this when saying « Islamic Religion does not obey this characteristic (the distinction between the temporal and the spiritual) » by « merging » them (2) . As a matter of fact, how to merge the temporal and the spiritual once again? But in the first place, what may have caused them to be separated and what is the relationship, if any, between this cause and the dysfunctioning of the linguistico-religious system?

Regarding the cause, I believe it is embedded in the following quote by the historian Marshal Hodgson:

“The Muslim encounter with modernity, unlike in Europe, was marked by an « acceleration of history » that resulted in a radical rupture with the past. The prime casualty of this development was that modernization was not accompanied by a parallel transformation of religious, intellectual and political values on a mass level.”

To the list of values that was left without transformation I will add the linguistic one, in its capacity as the inseparable twin to the religious, all the more that the Arabic language, as a  media language whose role is to help spread and inculcate the concepts of democracy among other tasks, is not performative enough to sustain the democratic move and to guarantee success.  Therefore it looks as if Arabic is evolving far less rapidly than history is. What is more, Arabic, which, like any native language, is supposed to be the reflection of both the religious mind and experience (inclusive of the democratisation drive) is currently rather a reflection of a slowly-evolving religion as well. In a nutshell, both Arabic and Islam are evolving below the speed of both history and democratisation. Speeding them up is a dire need. And for a reason: the speeding up will result in the welding of the rupture.


Now, what to do in the face of this kind of desynchronisation? How to transform the twins, language and religion, and their tributaries in a bid to provide the social mind with an appropriate welding remedy allowing the country to regain balance and then contribute a vision inspiring the whole society so that it becomes able to deal with politics and polity?


How to do so and ensure that such a novel vision should help the nation rise, and also to help materialise positive change worldwide? On grounds that the vision in question will have been provoked by a world crisis, will have been based on universal data and will have been conceived of from a universal standpoint.


Axioms and methodology:


Theoretically speaking, I hold with several researchers from around the world, mostly non-Arab-Muslims, who have speculated that the two key cultural features, religion and language, have much in common in their deep structure:


1/ Both language and the penchant towards religion are innate. Sociobiologist Edward Osborne Wilson back in the 1950s was the first to have envisaged the innate nature of the human penchant towards religion. Since then other scientists have researched the issue. Australian writer Peter Sellick tells us that:


“Since Chomsky’s work in the late 60s linguists generally acknowledge that the brain has innate structures that aid the acquisition of language. More recent work by evolutionary psychologists indicates that it is not only language that is facilitated by innate brain structures. Indeed it seems that these structures are responsible for all cognition, including the elaboration of religious ideation.” (4)


And when we add to this the discovery of the FOXP2 also called “language genome”, we realize that both language and religion, at least on the basis of their innate character, are entitled to help further understand human nature, thus contributing to human progress.


2/ Both depend on a sense of purpose in order to operate. None of them makes sense unless it is implemented in some task other than itself. As language is nothing if it is not utilized by humans to serve the purpose of speaking and communicating,  likewise religion could not be anything noteworthy  if it was not espoused by humans to serve the purpose of reaching a better state of welfare, be it in terms of spirituality or of materiality.


3/ Both are endowed with a liberating power with the « liberation theology »on one side and the liberating power of language as featured by countless linguists  on the other side ( in ELT, see Henry Widdowson’s « Teaching grammar as a liberating force »).


The epistemological Tool:


To understand, to target and to liberate: these are the three components of the methodological tool of change. Regarding understanding, its object is nothing other than human existence. As for Islam, it can play a major role in the promoting of understanding and in propelling positive historic action. This is what reformation of Islam should sound like, if there is any. Contradictory though it may seem, it is not Islam that needs reforming . Language does. It is the one facet that is to display our current understanding of the world as Muslims.  It is from this angle that the tool is considered to be a unified body despite being a merger of two features.


The Need for a Purpose:


As for the targeting task, it consists in answering questions such as “Why understand?” or “What to do with the understanding?”. It goes without saying that the linguistico-religious combination can by no means make up a jointly functional instrument if it does not serve a common purpose. In other words, there should exist, from the outset, a reconciliation of both language performance and religious practice in order for society to be able to carry out the task of re-tailoring democracy and its tributaries, among other related tasks. And this is what could constitute a target for understanding, which means making the combined feature serve a cause, the cause of change.


Reaching the third characteristic, that of liberation, I claim that apart from the strong emphasis laid by the Holy Koran on the primordial part that language plays in people’s lives and because this study is not supposed to be an interpretation of the holy scripture, let us see what notorious thinkers say about language and the relationship between it and religion that could be of any help to our project.


Ibn Khaldoun defines language as  » one of the two facets of thought, so if we do not have a complete relevant language, we will not have a complete relevant thought. »


Wilhelm  Humboldt , as to him, writes that “language is a prerequisite to the materialization of thought” (5).


Obviously, for any Islamic nation the word “thought” in both Ibn Khaldoun and Humboldt cannot bear a meaning that is devoid of religious thought.


Noam Chomsky, although unwittingly, provides us with countless items showcasing the existence of a strong complicity between language and religion. It is when he gives evidence that the study of why we speak and what part language plays as a biological feature can lead up to a better understanding of human nature and subsequently to the building up of a social doctrine for which solidarity is the password. Isn’t social bliss one major goal of religion, too? What is more, he has made it clear that « the sciences do instil habits of honesty, creativity and co-operation » (6). This implies that linguistics, which is a 21st leading science, bears this moral and religious drive.


Then it is chiefly Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jurgen Habermas that showcase such a tight bond existing between religion and language. Even if they do not set any similarities between the two registers, the fact of judging that language should be implemented to express ideas stemming from the religious is sufficient evidence to make us admit the complicity between the two, one which can be grasped throughout the two German scholars’ respective methods. In Gadamer’s work, meta-scientific knowledge, including the religious, is considered to be part and parcel of the resources needed for a relevant understanding of human existence (textual and non-textual hermeneutics); and  » Being that can be understood is language » (7). As for Habermas, the emphasis is placed on the need to « translate » religious knowledge into what he calls « meta-secular » political language in a bid to underline what he names « The power of religion in the public sphere”.  « What raises us out of nature is the only thing whose nature we can know: language » (8). In a word, both language and religion are intertwined in both Gadamer’s and Habermas’ works; both are transcendental; both are liberating.


This will enlighten us on how to bring language and Islam into alignment with each other in order for intellectuals, academics and politicians to better understand the existence of 21st century globe dwellers namely that of Arab-Muslim nations given the paramount position Islam occupies in Muslims’ lives. The compatibility language/Islam is likely to facilitate the transfer of Islamic ideas into a rhetoric acceptable by the pious and the non-pious alike. This undertaking could screen off misinterpretation, misunderstanding and abuse, and generate righteous ideas. It could resolve the multitude of issues revolving round a many-century-old divide between reason and soul, reality and metaphysics. It could put an end to the duality between past and present, religion and modernity, heritage and contemporary life. In other words, a novel tradition born from an appropriate language pragmatics could allow the individual and the community to envision the world in a novel way.


To sum up, a renewed worldview fuelled needs to be fuelled by linguistic innovation. Then the ball is in the court of Tunisian educationists, who should set up a suitable language strategy that will place society’s mind on track, as « reforming thinking », to use Edgar Morin’s phrasing, is the target of any comprehensive school reformation, put the mind on the track of invigorating the Arabic language so that it becomes science-producing, the track of being ourselves and behaving accordingly.


The Outcomes:


The present model of practice is meant to bring about the following results:

  1. Triggering horizontal commentaries on the Koran and Sunna, thus upholding the rethinking of the content of religion as a school subject.
  2. Religious obscurantism losing its reason of being.
  3. Establishing mutual understanding between Islamic and Occidental thoughts on a cross-cutting basis.
  4. Reformatting the political system and notion of state with a re-tailored view of politics and democracy.
  5. Setting up cross-cutting, multi-lingual and multi-culural education, with PEDAGO as a model (9).
  6. Boosting language teaching in a bid to make it more relevant to the learner’s cultural and real-life backgrounds, with TOENSA (10), a brand of ELT, as a model.
  7. Translating scientific texts not being anymore the only resort for nations needing to catch up in the scientific and technological fields, the substitute being direct transfer of knowledge via the language.
  8. A change of paradigm allowing a new scope for envisioning novel social and economic models.


In a nutshell, we need to be able to understand our existence well and to express it as well in order to improve it no less well.


  1. In “Democracy and Democracies in Crisis”
  2. In “The New World Order’s Onslaught on Islam”
  3. In “The Acceleration of History” , an essay by Nader Hashemi.
  4. In “Materialism and religion”
  5. Askan 1992
  6. In “Politics and Science”
  7. In “Truth and Method (1960) p.470.
  8. In Lassen Thomassen’s article « Habermas: A Guide for the Perplexed ».
  9. Personal Development And Global Opportunity; my vision of language teaching.
  10. The Teaching of English to Speakers of Arabic; my approach of ELT/TEFL.

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