Archive for January, 2016

Sicilian terrorism? Islamic mafia?

January 22, 2016

In preparing for an upcoming trip to Sicily, I have been struck by number of places in the island — streets, squares, schools, stadiums even the Palermo airport — that are named for Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the magistrates who so bravely prosecuted the leaders of the Sicilian Mafia and who were killed in what can be justly called acts of terroristm: Falcone by a motorway explosion, Borsellino by a car bomb.

Once upon a time it was not necessary to modify “Mafia” with “Sicilian.” Mafia-like organizations in other parts of Italy had their own traditional names — Camorra, Ndrangheta — and those in other countries had designations of their own (e.g. “the Mob” in the US, with its specifically Italian-originated segment also known as “la Cosa Nostra”). But these days one hears so much of Russian, Albanian and other “mafias” that it does become necessary to say “Sicilian Mafia.”

But I’ve never heard any objection to this designation as being somehow insulting to the Sicilian people, or to Sicily as a place. It is well known that most of the Mafia’s victims have been Sicilians, including the aforementioned Falcone and Borsellino.

It seems strange, then, that many well-meaning people object to the term “Islamic Terrorism” as insulting to Muslims or to Islam.

In fact, criminal gangs like al-Qaida, Daesh (aka IS, ISIL or ISIS), al-Shobab, the Taliban and Boko Haram — who may at times be in conflict with one another but pursue the same cause — are reminiscent of the various “families” (cosche) that make up the Mafia. They are motivated by (Sunni) Islamic fundamentalism in the face of the West and other forms of Islam, similarly to the way the cosche were originally motivated by Sicilian patriotism in the face of the centralized Italian state and those Sicilians who favored it. And in both cases the ideology has served as a cover for the recruitment of criminal-minded young men with predictable results.

So let’s not shrink from calling Islamic terrorism what it is.


(Saudi?) Arabia

January 7, 2016

Saudi Arabia has been in the news a lot lately. And what I hear in oral news reports is, first, a variety of pronunciations of “Saudi” (/sɔːdiː)/, /’sdi:/, /sa’u:di:/) and, second, a certain laziness in giving the kingdom its full name, so that one hears “the Saudis” or just “Saudi”, which is actually an adjective. It reminds me of the time when Madagascar was officially called République Malgache (as a calque of République Française), which was translated into English as “Malagasy Republic” and led American journalists to call the country “Malagasy”.

Why is the name of the ruling dynasty an integral part of the country’s name? Shouldn’t the UK, then, be called the United Windsor Kingdom? Well, dynasties change, don’t they?

Jordan is officially the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, but we don’t call it “Hashemite Jordan”. In fact, the Arabic names of the two Arab kingdoms are exactly parallel: Jordan is Al-Mamlakah al-Urduniyah al-Hashimiyah and Saudi Arabia is Al-Mamlakah al-‘Arabiyah as-Sa’ūdiyah, which is officially translated as “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” but could just as well be “Saudi Kingdom of Arabia”. So why don’t we just call it “Arabia”?

A possible answer may that the kingdom does not occupy the whole land known as the Arabian Peninsula, or simply Arabia. But, as I have written before, the name of a state — especially when preceded by “Republic (or Kingdom or United States or Grand Duchy) of…” — is often the same as that of a larger territory that it’s a part of (a usage known as synecdoche). The Republic of Ireland (which officially often calls itself simply “Ireland”) does not occupy all of the island of Ireland, only a large part thereof (five-sixths), just as Saudi Arabia occupies a large part (two-thirds) of the peninsula. The Republic of Macedonia (pace the Greeks) occupies only a small part of historic Macedonia, and of course the United States of America is a small part of what is geographically known as America, which has been pluralized to “the Americas” in order to differentiate it from “America” as a synonym for the US. (In Dutch, going the other way, de Nederlanden (the Netherlands) was singularized to Nederland when Belgium split off.) There are a good many other examples.

Besides, the Arabian Peninsula is rarely, nowadays, referred to as Arabia, anyway. If necessary, it could also be called “the Arabias”, since in Roman days the peninsula was divided into three regions: Arabia Deserta, Arabia Felix, and Arabia Petraea, and there are many historical references to “the three Arabias”.

So, for myself, I will henceforth refer to what is now the Saudi kingdom (but may in the future be transformed into another, hopefully better, regime) as Arabia. My decision will probably influence people no more than does my calling the Czech Republic simply Czechia, though I’m far from alone in this last regard.


Birtherism reborn?

January 6, 2016

For some time now I have wondered why the “birthers” of recent years — those who questioned Barack Obama’s birth in the United States and hence his eligibility for the presidency — did not apply the same criterion to Ted Cruz, about whose birth in Canada there is no doubt. Cruz’s status as a “natural-born citizen of the United States” is based on the American citizenship of his mother. But then, to my knowledge, no one ever questioned the citizenship of Ann Dunham, Obama’s mother, so that, by the standard applied to Cruz, Obama’s hypothetical birth in Kenya should be irrelevant.

Well, leave it to Donald Trump. According to a headline in the Washington Post, “Trump says Cruz’s Canadian birth could be ‘very precarious’ for GOP.” In his usual weaselly way, “Trump said he was providing a candid assessment of his leading opponent rather than initiating a personal attack and reviving the ‘birther’ debate that he once led against President Obama. He repeatedly said he is hearing chatter on the topic among voices on the right. ‘People are bringing it up,’ he said.”

We’ll see where this goes.


January 4, 2016

Yesterday’s game between Everton and Tottenham, last weekend’s final EPL match, was an exciting (enthralling, the commentators said) contest that ended in a 1-1 draw. After the game the camera lingered on the many friendly handshakes and hugs between members of the opposing teams, and especially on the long arm-on-arm walk off the field by Everton’s Romelu Lukaku and the Spurs’ Jan Vertonghen. It so happens that they are both Flemish-speaking Belgians and teammates on Belgium’s national team. But it’s the whole post-game show of friendship, with hugs and jersey exchanges, and the sportsmanlike behavior during the game, with friendly pats following fouls and helping hands for getting opponents up from the ground, that makes soccer such an endearing spectacle.

All that is unthinkable in American sports, and especially football. Here opponents are enemies, not friends, even if professional players on opposing teams had been teammates in college. The gridiron is not a playing field but a battlefield. The quarterback is often referred to as a field general. The University of Miami’s tight end Kellen Winslow II was famously quoted as saying, when he stood above an injured opponent, “I’m a fucking soldier.”

While soccer fans sing, a capella, such songs as You’ll Never Walk Alone or When the Saints Go Marching In, American football fans sing “fights songs” accompanied by military-style marching bands. Texas A&M’s song is actually called War Hymn, and other fight songs urge the teams to “fight on for ol’ SC” or to “march into the fray” or to “mow ’em down”.

The militaristic nature of American football, especially the NFL, is well known and has been copiously commented on; for a few examples, see here, here, and here. It is one of the reasons why I have come to dislike the game.