'Inshallah': Biden praised by Muslim Americans but accused of cultural appropriation for using Arabic phrase

Joe Biden stirred up both praise and criticism on social media after using the Arabic and Farsi phrase
Joe Biden stirred up both praise and criticism on social media after using the Arabic and Farsi phrase

One of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's most well-known character traits is his colourful way of speaking; sometimes he's telling stories about being a teenager at a swimming pool, sometimes he's reminiscing about how his dad used to drive cars, sometimes he's putting his foot in his mouth, and sometimes he's resurrecting decades old words like "malarkey" and plastering them across buses.

During Tuesday night's debates, he added a new phrase to his ever shifting lexicon - "Inshallah."

Mr Biden deployed the phrase in a testy exchange with Donald Trump regarding his still-unreleased tax returns.

"Millions of dollars, and you'll get to see it," Mr Trump said, when asked how much he paid in taxes.

"When?" Mr Biden replied. "Inshallah?"

The invocation of the Arabic phrase by the 77-year-old, white, Roman Catholic man from Pennsylvania, did not go unnoticed on social media.

Mr Biden's campaign confirmed later on Tuesday that yes, he did use inshallah to respond to Mr Trump about his tax returns.

The phrase means "God willing" in Arabic and Farsi, but is used more colloquially as a non-committal response, akin to "not going to happen", "if it ever happens," or as writer Wajahat Ali put it, the "Arabic version of fuggedaboudit."

Reaction to his use of the phrase was mixed. Some found it endearing that a political candidate was using Arab American colloquialisms on the national stage, while others criticised his use, likening it to transparent and insulting pandering, or, worse, as disrespectful to Mulsims.

Sahid Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a contributing writer at The Atlantic, was pleased with Mr Biden's use of the phrase.

"If my parents had told me when I was growing up that a major presidential candidate would one day say the words 'inshallah' in a nationally televised debate, I would have assumed they were crazy. But anything is possible in 2020," he wrote.

Bas, a rapper in Queens, New York who is French with Sudanese heritage, praised Mr Biden as well.

“Did Biden just hit him with a ‘inshallah’? That's all I needed to hear!!" he wrote.

On the other side, some users were already imagining the meandering op-eds explaining how an elderly white man using an Arabic phrase counts as representation.

“Whoever’s writing that op-ed about feeling seen because Biden said ‘inshallah,’ I urge you to spare your community the embarrassment please,” Asad Dandia, a Columbia University graduate student, tweeted.

Meriam Masmoudi, a political activist, likened the phrase to table scraps being tossed to the American Muslim community at a time when violence against them has been increasing throughout the country.

"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 an offhand, completely inappropriately applied 'inshallah' in the debate," she wrote.

Though the US Muslim population is relatively small - only about 1 per cent of the US electorate - they account for large populations in swing states like Michigan, Ohio and Florida.

Over the summer, Mr Biden held a virtual meeting with more than 3,000 Muslim leaders through the Emgage Action advocacy group.

During the meeting, he said he wished public schools did more to educate students on the Islamic faith.

"One of the things that I think is important: I wish, I wish we taught more in our schools about the Islamic faith," Mr Biden said. "What people don't realise is ... we all come from the same root here, in terms of our fundamental basic beliefs."

He has also pledged to end Mr Trump's controversial "Muslim ban" on the first day of his presidency.

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