Friday, December 06, 2013

Propaganda and grammatical gender

I try my best to avoid reading products of the propaganda wars currently raging in the Middle East, but today I found that they had managed to leak into the usually apolitical world of linguistics blogging. In a recent post about the way grammatical gender affects how we imagine anthropomorphic characters, Asya Pereltsvaig alludes to a fatwa supposedly arguing that "the word for ‘sea’ is grammatically masculine in Arabic, and so when a woman goes swimming and “the water touches the woman’s private parts, she becomes an ‘adulteress’ and should be punished”." This is sourced to an article in India Today, based on Al Masry Al Youm, which in turn cites a report by Dr. Sayyid Zayed of Al-Azhar titled "The Errant Fatwas of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis" (الفتوى الضالة عن الإخوان والسلفيين). This report is not online, and none of the links identify the author of the fatwa in question, but Google provides an answer - an article from 17 September 2012 gives a screenshot of a Tweet allegedly posted on 11/5/2011 by @AliAlirabieeii saying "It is one of the greatest sins for a woman to go down into the sea, even covered, since the sea is masculine, and when the water goes into her private parts she thus becomes an adulterer and liable to the stipulated punishment." There is in fact a Dr. Ali Al-Rabiei, a vocal Saudi imam, and he does have a Twitter account - @DrAliAlrabieei. On this Twitter account, he tweeted on 28 May 2012 that "The Shia are counterfeiting a sixth fake account in my name - @AliAlirabieeii - to display smears and fakery; we call upon you to inform about it and get it closed."

In some ways, this brief odyssey through the sad world of Twitter warfare was superfluous. The slightest knowledge of Middle Eastern politics should be enough to tell anyone that a story run by Al Masry Al Youm, or a report by Al Azhar, published not long after the ouster of Morsy and explaining how the Brotherhood are completely crazy, might need to be taken with a pinch of salt. In the current political battles of the Middle East, attributing horrifying fake quotes to leaders from the other side has become a rather popular tactic. I don't know what the background is for the Iraqi fatwa cited later in the same post (a slightly different account is sourced by the Daily Telegraph to the observations of a Sunni leader from Anbar), but common sense tells us it's more likely to be hostile propaganda than to be anybody's actual belief, no matter how crazy. Salafis are known for being especially strict about the need to separate men and women; whoever was behind these stories must have decided that the idea of extending this to separating grammatically masculine things from feminine things would be just plausible enough to fool ordinary people while at the same time ridiculous enough to horrify them. Apparently, he was right.

[Addendum: Looking at this post again, it occurs to me that it's missing the human dimension; you can probably reconstruct it from the facts, but just in case, here are the basics. The Twitter accounts were very likely intended as satire, notwithstanding Alrabieei's furious response – and he may well have deserved satire, if his positions on the Shia are as extremist as they seem to be. The fact that a number of sketchy Arabic news sources picked it up as if it were real might be an honest mistake, but much more likely was simply because they were looking for any opportunity, honest or dishonest, to embarrass someone on the opposite side of the current culture wars. The Egyptian media then picked it up because what they wanted to do was paint opponents of the current government as insane fanatics, but left out his name and identity because he's Saudi, and the Saudi government is strongly on the side of the current Egyptian government. That's dishonesty any way you spin it.]