Biden Drops Arabic Phrase, Insha’Allah, to Mock Trump on his Tax Returns, Lighting up Arab Twitter—Is it Praiseworthy or Pandering?
By: John Mason/ Arab America Contributing Writer
Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s usage of the phrase Insha’Allah during a chaotic debate with President Trump lit up Arab Twitter. For those who recognized the Arabic phrase during the debate, its usage implied any number of different meanings, good, bad, and indifferent. Since Insha’Allah is a heavily freighted phrase, we will untangle some of its complexities.
What Biden’s use of Insha’Allah Means and Doesn’t Mean
In a heated moment during the Biden-Trump chaotic presidential debate last week, Joe Biden chided Donald Trump on his statement that he would release his tax returns, retorting “when, Insha’Allah?” Given Biden’s tendency to guffaw, it was not initially clear that he was using one of the most ubiquitous phrases in Arabic. Meaning “God-willing,” Insha’Allah, Biden did indeed intend to convey one of that phrase’s meanings: “it’ll never happen.” That is an ironic, even sarcastic use of an otherwise holy phrase term in Arabic, used by both Muslims and Arab Christians to say that God wills that an event will occur. Many Arab Americans heard or got word of Biden’s use of the phrase and some believed it had a significance that Biden was favoring Arab and Muslim Americans and that it was, in one way or another, historic.
Most Arabic Twitter sources suggested that Biden’s use of Insha’Allah was neither historic nor praiseworthy, but that, if anything, it was perhaps “pandering to Islam.” According to The Washington Post, National Public Radio confirmed with the Biden campaign that the candidate had, indeed, used the Arabic term. Thus, his use of Insha’Allah fit the appropriate sarcastic usage of the phrase. Some Arab American critics characterized the usage as “derogatory” and “insulting.” Others thought it was, perhaps, a clever way for Biden to confuse Trump further by throwing in a foreign word. Not everyone heard the phrase in the same way, and some thought they heard “in July or “enchilada!”
The Post quoted one commentator as suggesting, generously, “Biden’s use of the sarcastic, colloquial form marked a kind of cultural fluency that stands in stark contrast to his rival.” Going even further, one writer, at Tablet magazine, averred, “The fact that Biden just casually tosses off an unplanned Insha’Allah reflects who he talks to and what he’s picked up from them. Trump never does anything like this, because he doesn’t learn from people who are different than him.” Such a comment differentiates Biden from Trump, who has banned all Muslims from entering the U.S., and who falsely claimed that “Islam hates us” and whose policy has been extensively anti-Muslim. This anti-Muslim, anti-Arab sentiment on Trump’s watch has spread way beyond policy to such arenas as airline flights, where an Arab American who, after speaking in Arabic on his phone, in a conversation ending with Insha’Allah, was reported, then thrown off his flight.
Traditional use of the Phrase Insha’Allah (إِنْ شَاءَ ٱللَّٰهُ)
Insha’Allah is a phrase in the Arabic language that, literally, is comprised of three Arabic words (In sha’ Allah), which translate as, “if God wills it.” The term occurs in the Quran and is used therein as part of a command to fulfill a future event. It is used by Muslims, Arab Christians, and Arabic speakers of other religions to meet a command regarding some event foreseen to occur. Insha’Allah denotes the idea that nothing happens without God’s will. What this signifies is that God’s will is omnipotent and supersedes all human will. Another way of putting this is, it embodies the faithful’s submission to Allah’s will.
As noted earlier, this phrase has an ironic twist, implying that an event may never happen, as in the case of Biden’s use of it to suggest that we will never see Trump’s tax returns, as long as Trump, as President, has anything to do with it. In other cases, the phrase may be used as a way of smoothing over a social situation, as in the case of someone gently declining an invitation by responding “Insha’Allah,” rather than replying, for example, “for sure, we’ll see you there.” Even following that last response, as a more uncertain response mode, one could add, “God wiling.” In other words, its use is all situational.
On a personal note, as a social anthropologist living in a small, traditional Saharan Desert oasis community for a year to absorb its history, economy, society, and religion, I learned how the residents used the phrase, Insha’Allah. There, the people used the phrase in its literal sense, “Allah willing.” In this challenging desert setting, the community was faced with forces of climate and history that were often beyond its control. Their dependence on a religion that is all-encompassing and a God that is omnipotent and omnipresent seemed very fitting. Thus, Insha’Allah became a natural response to many of the events that were foreseen, and the people usually meant what they said.
It was only once I moved into larger communities, such as Cairo, that I began to learn some of the more subtle, ironic, and sarcastic meanings of the phrase. I had a to shift my head from a traditional to a more complex setting, in splitting hairs between, for example, “thank you for your invitation to your sister’s wedding, I’ll be there, Insha’Allah, to “thank you for your invitation to see you in London this summer, I’ll try to make it happen, Insha’Allah (I hope so, but it might not happen”). Biden’s use of the phrase is a bit more cynical than these two examples, but we must appreciate the conditions under which the response occurred—Biden and Trump were fighting for their political lives and Biden’s use of the phrase was completely lost on his opponent and, perhaps, most of the debate audience. I only wish that he had used the phrase as a way of endearing himself to Arab Americans, but that would be wishful thinking, Insha’Allah.
Other Perspectives on the use of Insha’Allah
According to CNN interviews, different people saw Biden’s usage of Insha’Allah quite differently. “Many saw Biden’s use of the phrase as a nod to their own experiences, others saw it as derogatory and drawing on cultural stereotypes about the Muslim and Arab world. For many in the Muslim and Arab world, the phrase retains its original spiritual purpose. Far from providing a license for fickle behavior, “inshallah” represents a relinquishment of control over the uncontrollable. It is an acknowledgment that while one will try to fulfill their goal, there could be God-like circumstances that may get in the way. To many, the utterance of the phrase is an exercise in humility.”
Furthermore, in getting right to the punch, one interviewee noted, “It’s so disheartening that the best thing the Biden campaign seems to be able to offer Muslim Americans in the midst of an uptick in Islamophobic violence is offhand, completely inappropriately applied ‘inshallah’ in the debate.” Another news source, Forbes, reported that Biden’s use of Insha’Allah “rubbed some viewers the wrong way, seeing it as pandering or were critical of Biden’s pronunciation, while others thought it displayed a cultural awareness in Biden that Trump, to them, does not possess.”
“‘Inshallah’: The Arabic ‘fuggedaboudit’ Biden dropped to blast Trump on tax returns, The Washington Post, 9/30/2020
“Biden uses ‘inshallah’ in response to Trump during the debate, lighting up Twitter,” CNN, 9/30/2020
“Biden uses Arabic phrase “Inshallah” to mock Trump over his tax returns during the debate,” CBS, 9/30/2020
‘When? Inshallah?’: Here’s The Arabic Word Biden Used During The Presidential Debate,” Forbes, 9/30/2020
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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