March 12, 2004

Terrorism and the Language of the Devil

Geoff Pullum has already debunked Professor Fred Halliday's ridiculous claim that Basque nationalists are particularly wild and intransigent because they "speak a language that no one can learn". But there's more to this story. We may not expect a professor of international relations to know much about languages, but you'd think that an expert on terrorism ought to know something about the politics of the places that breed terrorism, including sociological information about language use and attitudes where that is part of the political situation.

In the same BBC World Service discussion, as an illustration of the intransigence of the Basque and the role of language in Basque separatism, he claimed that one can't even get service in a post office in the Basque country without speaking Basque. In point of fact, only about 30% of the population of the Basque region can speak Basque. Are we expected to believe that post offices, which are operated by the national government, hire only Basque speakers, and that they refuse to serve their fellow non-Basque-speaking Basques? I have never been to the post office in the Basque country, but I have been to the post office in Catalonia. The problem that I encountered on several occasions was that post office employees sometimes insisted on speaking Spanish when I addressed them in Catalan.

Even in the institutions of the Basque Autonomous Community the use of Basque is not required. The government of the Basque Autonomous Community has a very informative web site, which includes full details of the national and regional laws and regulations governing language use and of the government's efforts to promote the Basque language. And don't worry if you can't read Basque: the web site is also available in Spanish, English, French, and German. A few documents are available only in Basque, but almost all are available in both Basque and Spanish, most in Basque, Spanish, and French.

As to the politics of Euzkadi Ta Eskatasuna, the organization on which the Spanish government is trying to pin the Madrid bombing, from Professor Halliday's comments you'd think that it was a politically and intellectually isolated organization whose positions and actions were comprehensible only in the special Basque linguistic and cultural context, like the Oriental cults in Sax-Roehmer's Fu Manchu stories. This is hardly the case. If you want to get a good idea of the position of ETA, a lengthy interview was published on February 22nd in the newspaper Gara. You can read it here in Basque and here in Spanish translation. It reveals that ETA is a Marxist organization whose leadership is well aware of the political situation around the world and in other parts of Spain and which makes fine distinctions among the policies and behavior of the various Spanish political parties, the national government, and the regional governments. You may or may not agree with ETA's positions, but they are hardly those of some strange and isolated cult.

An understanding of ETA's position also brings out the poltiical divisions among the Basque and the fact that ETA represents a small minority of the population. Although the Spanish Inquisition used to call Basque "the language of the devil", the Basque are traditionally devout Catholics and have their own story about how the Devil was unable to tempt them because he was unable to learn Basque. Modern Basque nationalism as propounded by Sabino Arana (1865-1903), the founder of the Basque National Party (PNV), which is now the ruling party in the Basque Autonomous Community, was a racist, extreme Catholic movement. Arana wanted to protect the Basque country against what he considered to be the depraved Spanish. The PNV is now a Christian Democratic organization. The racism and extreme Catholicism have been toned down, but even so, mainstream Basque nationalism is far from the revolutionary Marxism of ETA.

It's bad enough that the BBC seems to be doing so poorly, but if this is the level of expertise of experts on terrorism, God help us.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 12, 2004 02:33 AM