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Biden Uses Arabic “Inshallah” during Presidential Debate

Language in the News

Responding to President Trump’s unfulfilled promise to release his tax returns, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden remarked, “Inshallah,” a common Arabic expression that can signal sarcasm and doubt, in the Presidential Debate Tuesday evening.

During the presidential debate this week, former vice president and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden made a passing comment that caught the ears of viewers who speak Arabic. As President Trump repeated his long-unfulfilled promise to release his tax returns, Biden asked the president pointedly, “When? Inshallah?”

Biden made the remark in the middle of a heated dispute between debate mediator Chris Wallace Trump, causing many to doubt whether they heard correctly. One notable figure, Fadi Hilani, a linguistics professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey who has researched the use of “inshallah,” believed the term seemed too sophisticated for Biden, who does not speak the language, to use in a presidential debate.

Depending on the context, the common Arabic exclamation may indicate an earnest hope or that the speaker is hopeful for a certain result. However, in colloquial settings, speakers may use the word more sarcastically to show skepticism of an event’s outcome.

“If somebody says talks about passing a test, and you say, ‘inshallah,’ that means you’re hoping they pass,” Hilani said. “But if somebody says that, and you know they’re a lazy student, ‘inshallah’ means you don’t believe them at all.”

Regarding Trump’s tax returns, the vice president’s “inshallah” — spoken in passing and with a smirk — clearly suggested the latter, Hilani said. “He was casting doubt, in a sarcastic way, on Donald Trump saying he would release his tax returns,” he added. “What Trump is saying is too good to be true.”

Encouraged by Biden’s deft use of the word, some believe it signals Biden’s connection to Arabic communities. “The fact that Biden just casually tosses off an unplanned ‘inshallah’ reflects who he talks to and what he’s picked up from them,” wrote Yair Rosenberg, a senior writer at Tablet magazine. “Trump never does anything like this, because he doesn’t learn from people who are different than him.”

While many viewers saw the remark as a breakthrough moment for Arabic representation on the presidential debate stage, others interpreted the remark in a negative light, citing his poor pronunciation and suspecting Biden of “pandering.”

“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,” tweeted political activist Meriam Masmoudi.

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