Language is Power

Dr Mohammed Ateek


Dr Mohammed Ateek teaches applied linguistics and languages at the University of Leicester and has worked with Cara since 2018. He believes that both linguistic and non-linguistic gestures make up communication and that taken together, linguistics and semiotics are significations of ideas and identities, codes and forms of power: “I’ve always looked at language beyond the borders of communication,” he pauses, “for me, it is very powerful. When George Bush said, ‘I declare war on terrorism!’ It is in fact, the movement of armies and people displaced! This use of language has real implications on all our lives. I think this aspect of how language works affects us…how it is used to construct our identities. I’ve always considered languages and language a driving force for societies.”  

In the last 10-15 years, Ateek has worked on some of the most pressing questions facing Syrians in this most recent diaspora, caused by civil war. He has collaborated on many different projects in many places: in Britain, researching resilience among refugees in Jordan and Turkey with the British Council, and at the University of Reading, where he lectured for one year, Ateek has been invited to provide expert opinions to courts in the UK on behalf of refugees because of discriminatory language policies in the UK. In Greece, he did a stint interpreting for Syrian American doctors in the Idomeni camp on the Greek Macedonian border. In Turkey, alongside other Cara academics, he worked on research projects on how Syrian families are faring against a rise in hostility towards them. He also worked on a research project about displaced learners in Jordan and, discovered in Kurdistan and Lebanon the importance of translanguaging, semiotic gestures and psychosocial support for successful language learning for refugees. 

Ateek grew up in Idlib, Syria, speaking Arabic but discovered his aptitude for languages by learning to speak English fluently at an early age. At 14, he happened upon Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea and, after reading it, gradually decided to learn more. Ateek studied English Language and Literature for his bachelor’s degree, then Applied Linguistics for his master’s degree, gaining distinction in the course at the University of Aleppo. “These were the happiest moments in my life so far,” he grins. “I have travelled a lot and worked in different organisations and spaces, but when I remember my days studying at Aleppo, I am always filled with joy. A smile comes to my face.” 

Perhaps he grew up being aware of Syria’s cosmopolitanism, its diversity of languages kept alive by different sects, tribal groups and religions. But it was at the University of Aleppo, as a young student, that Ateek first came into contact with Kurdish, Syriac, Assyrian, Circassian, and Armenian languages and histories of cultures born from migratory flows over centuries. “Syria is a multicultural and multilingual country”, Ateek explains, “unfortunately, there were not many spaces for celebrating these different cultures. Universities are rare places where this happens, where you will meet people from all over Syria.” 

Civil spaces for ideological difference and dissent were rare, and the Syrian government was transparent in their disdain for specific languages. Teaching Kurdish was forbidden precisely to pre-empt any political challenge. “My Kurdish friends were not allowed to celebrate Nawroz, the celebration of Spring!” he says, “Imagine! I tell you I want to celebrate Spring, life and hope, and I am told that if I do, I will be taken to jail. Kurdish was officially repressed. Some people didn’t have IDs or rights. This changed after the revolution because the regime wanted the Kurdish people on their side, so they began to teach Kurdish in different universities in Syria. So, you can see how language is used for political purposes or to repress people, and how governments use language and allow multilingualism in the country.” Syrian histories are littered with references to sectarian cleavages, and the rural/urban divide is a familiar trope, but Ateek explains far less is written about how language policies divided people from one another. It strikes him that recent scholarship in applied linguistics challenges the idea of homogeneity and stability in language as the norm and as fiction in a cosmopolitan society.  

After graduating from university, he worked as a TV journalist and was involved in different investigative reports on contemporary international stories and researching emerging news stories, but in 2012, he left life in Syria behind. “It wasn’t my plan to leave, but the regime detained me twice. The second time was a horrific experience, so fearing for my life, I left for Jordan in August 2012. I stayed there for a few months and taught English there, then I came to do my PhD at Anglia Ruskin University in 2013.” Armed with a degree in applied linguistics and intercultural communication, he started his academic life as a Teaching Fellow in English Language and Applied Linguistics at the University of Reading, followed by a post as a Lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London.

In the UK, he has been active in challenging what he calls “horrendous and inhumane immigration laws” and has written about the language and analysis for determination of Origin (LADO) tests that the Home Office uses to assess the nationality of asylum seekers when they apply for asylum: “When they say there is a lack of evidence for where this person comes from, we use this language as a piece of evidence.” He did a research project on this and was consulted by several law firms on cases that went to the court concerning LADO. 

He believes that when attention is paid to making learning environments for displaced learners feel safe rather than stressful, we move closer to reconstructing and rehabilitating a person’s life. “Refugees are already vulnerable, suffering traumas that host countries do not always understand. Some host countries expect refugees and asylum seekers to adapt to enforced language learning. Others remain unprepared. Some make special efforts. Countries should let them use their languages to lower their anxiety because languages are one of people’s greatest assets. Imagine vulnerable students coming to learn and being deprived of one of their greatest assets, their mother tongue.” He admits that sometimes people who have experienced trauma might retreat from communicating altogether or choose to live somewhere where they can be left alone. Others might find learning a new language as one way to escape the memory of a particular experience of persecution that they would prefer to forget. But what is known is that in a hostile environment that agitates against migrants, bullying policies used to speed assimilation or marginalise the importance of language, sometimes even depriving people of its use, is anathema to him. “There are really compassionate people who work for refugees and work for their rights. But unfortunately, the reality is that countries, mainly politicians, use refugees, asylum seekers and migrants for political scores. They use scapegoating and blame their internal failures in economics and politics on these groups, which are easy targets. Moreover, with the rise of the populist media, the right-wing and politicians brainwash many people about migrants who are seen as a threat to our identity, Britishness, and values. It is this narrative, this discourse, that we need to fight against and push back.”

Wanting to be of service, he contacted Cara in 2018. As a result, he began to partner with fellow Syrian academics on research, completing last year two Cara-sponsored research projects with academics based both in Turkey and in the UK: “Cara is an initiative and organisation that is much needed in our lives as academics, especially in the current circumstances, where fewer and fewer resources are available to refugees and asylum seekers. One of the most important things is to push for knowledge and research to help and support refugee academics. Cara mobilises people, businesses, universities and academic institutions. They are doing a great job connecting all these networks and fostering collaboration between academics in exile and those settled in universities in the UK and elsewhere.” 

The first project examined the online teaching of Arabic as a foreign language in Turkish Universities during the Pandemic and how it differed from in-person teaching against a broader background of academic cutbacks in Arabic language teaching. The second, which is forthcoming, focuses on how refugee families negotiate the use of languages in Turkey. Has the tense socio-political atmosphere towards migrants there affected their linguistic choices? For example, did people deliberately avoid using Arabic out of fear of societal backlash? “We were not shocked,” he said, “but we were sad when we learned that children avoided using Arabic, especially in public or schools. There is a stigma around refugees and Syrians in Turkey, so they avoided it deliberately and consciously. They avoid using their mother tongue language, which is really important for their identity. The children suppress their identities because, of course, they are conscious of nationalist ideologies.” 

It was a valuable piece of research drawing attention to an issue close to his heart with researchers he was proud to work with. “Academics build their capacity, continue with their research skills and collaborate with other academics in Europe and elsewhere, but it is also important for the countries they have come from, their countries of origin. When circumstances allow them to return to their countries, these skills will help build a new society and country, and education is on the top list of any country that wishes to rebuild.”