The ancients believed that to be able to name something was to take control of it. So, for instance, the exorcist had to force a demon to yield up its name before he could command it to be off. And cults issued secret names to members to keep them from harm. There is a real basis to this primitive magical belief. The most empowering technology that a human ever learns is language, the ability to name and describe things. It confers the uniquely human power to control the world. If you’ve seen how a baby’s mastery over its environment increases as it learns to speak, you have seen this magic at work.
But we lose power over things when we misname or mislabel them. Which is why we are doing some rather peculiar things these days, as we come to terms with an unfamiliar world. The real world, as distinct from the world of spin in which we live.
This week, the passage of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal was read as ‘provocative’, because it happened against the backdrop of the Jasmine Revolution. In retaliation, Israel sent two warships of its own through the Canal. However, the Iranian ships were on an unarmed training mission, which was cleared with the Egyptian authorities months ago. Meanwhile, some Tunisian kids lit the fuse, the spark of revolt spread across the desert, and everyone now thinks that the Iranians are doing it on purpose, flexing Muslim revolutionary muscle.
To believe that, you would have to believe in the power of a name: the ‘Arab world’. It’s a name coined elsewhere, in some place which thinks that ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ are fuzzily identical. Which is all right, of course, because none of us gets to name ourselves, barring pseudonymous writers. But Iranians are not Arab. They are Persian. The only common factor is a Muslim identity. And even within the Arab region, consider the vast differences. The cultural and political roots of Tunisia and Libya differ from those of Egypt, which differ from those of Yemen. And standing apart from them all is Bahrain, the cosmopolitan Lebanon of the Gulf. And yet, the revolution has visited all of them and is forcing regime change.
‘Regime change’, another power word coined elsewhere, which confers control over the destiny of the ‘Arab world’. London, Paris and Washington legitimately undergo changes of government. Less fortunate capitals from Tunis to Kabul suffer cataclysmic ‘regime change’ attended by assault rifle fire. Because by definition, democracy can’t take root in Arab or Muslim lands. But this time, there is a twist in the tale. The Arabs forcing ‘regime change’ are not wannabe dictators but votaries of an approved magical word: democracy. And along with their despots, they are exorcising another magical term: the ‘clash of civilisations’.
And so the new coinage: ‘smooth transition’. Now, the western powers must help the ‘Arab world’ to transit from Western-supported dictatorship to Western-style self-determination without disturbing the peace established by the West. It’s complicated. Much more complicated than the clean break the Arabs want. But when you misname a thing and lose the plot, you must cook up new names to regain control.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine, firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed by the author are personal