‘In Sha Allah,’ which translates to ‘God willing,’ is one of the most common phrases in Arabic. The phrase was originally meant as a qualifier to an intention. As a Saudi once explained it to me, “you are supposed to try your hardest to fulfill your stated goals, and saying ‘in sha allah’ is an acknowledgment of the fact that God’s will could always alter events.” However, I feel that in modern times the phrase has become a partial substitute for personal responsibility. It is a way of saying that “if something goes wrong, it won’t necessarily be my fault.” It is no wonder that ‘in sha allah’ has also been described as the “most dangerous phrase in Arabic.”
This phrase can be both amusing and frustrating (depending on the context) because it can signal that whatever is intended may not get done. I do not take issue with the phrase itself, the problem is that it embodies a fairly systemic lack of personally responsibility. It could also be seen as a manifestation of the fatalism that repressive Arab regimes have fostered among the citizens. Either way, it is not a coincidence that this mentality has taken root, as it is a logical response to feeling like you do not control your own destiny.
The phrase “in sha allah” is pervasive in the same way that the word “like” has become a staple of the English language. In my time in the Arab world, and Egypt in particular, I have heard ‘in sha allah’ in pretty much all contexts, and have been guilty of abusing the phrase myself. One of my favorite examples was when I asked a taxi driver if we had arrived at our destination, and he said “in sha allah.” Clearly the answer was either “yes” or “no,” but somehow he found an ambiguous middle ground. Among my personal habits was responding “in sha allah” when the teacher would announce the due dates for homework. Remarkably, I only once got called out for abusing the phrase.
The use of the phrase had more serious implications as well. When I talked to people about systemic societal problems like unemployment, the education system, poverty, etc., I was rarely given a concrete suggestion for solving the problems. However, I frequently encountered phrases like “it will get better, in sha allah.” The sense of personal powerlessness was infectious. The newfound sense of pride that emerged during the revolution changed all of that.
It has been amazing to hear the Egyptian voice finally come through over the last few weeks. As Dr. Nehad Heliel, the director of the Middle East school abroad put it, “there used to be a lot of apathy. People have come back to their pride, their dignity, and their sense of duty. People are now proud to give out their full names and citing their opinions. Anonymity is no longer so prevalent.”
Now that the “cycle of fear,” as one Egyptian put it, has been broken across the Middle East, the next step is to alter the ‘in sha allah’ mentality. If people want to achieve the goals that they dream about in the embedded video, there needs to be greater personal responsibility for larger societal problems. Luckily, there are signs that this shift has already starting to happen. I heard more solutions for the future in my last six days in Egypt than I had in the previous five months.
There have been more tangible benefits as well. Ordinary citizens have come out to clean up trash, direct traffic, form neighborhood watches, and provide assistance in any way that they can. All of this has been going on despite the personal uncertainty that people feel about their own futures. In Alexandria, there are reports that students are out repainting the city and collecting money to help fuel similar projects. They are not alone in their efforts. Karim, a student at the American University in Cairo explains why he was helping out with the clean-up efforts:
“I’ve been busy along with everyone else over here demonstrating and cleaning up Tahrir square! For many of us here, it is the first time in our lives to be truly proud to be Egyptians.”
Egyptians have even started voting on the social priorities for the democracy that will hopefully take shape. Hany Rashwan, a 20-year-old Egyptian studying Computer Science at The Ohio State University, has started a website (Kolena.org) that asks Egyptians the question “What do you wish for?” Users are then able to vote on their favorite ideas. The top choice right now is “Paying off the National Debt with Mubarak’s Assets.”
From Morocco to Bahrain, Arabs have been fighting for control over their own future. My advice to them is to remember that for this process to be successful in the long-term, it must also include a personal responsibility for creating change and the consequences that it might entail. The combination of political and personal change could be an unstoppable force for good in the region.
One potential shift that I could envision is the rise of environmentalism. As people become more proud of the land that they live on, they may be inclined to take better care of it. For example, in Egypt there have been reports that the culture of littering and throwing trash in the streets is already beginning to change. Along the same lines, we might see an expansion of social entrepreneurialism. The 22 men and women who have been identified as Arab World Social Innovators represent just the tip of the iceberg. These are just a couple of the infinite number of potential benefits.
Altering the “in sha allah” mentality could bring about previously unimaginable possibilities and personal responsibility will be the cornerstone of any long lasting democracy in the Middle East. The future of the region is in the Arabs’ hands, and theirs alone, but I am confident that they will continue to be an inspiration to us all.
Written by Tik Root a student at Middlebury College who was studying at the C.V. Starr Middlebury School Abroad in Alexandria from September until the revolution broke out.