I read a full-page letter/advertisement from the nation of Turkey in the New York Times the other day in which the writers were committing themselves to continuing friendship and support for the people of Syria. In the midst of the letter the authors used the word fitna as if to say that this support would exist in spite of the fitna and turbulence of the Syrian situation. At first I thought it might be a typo and tried to figure out what it was meant to be.
Then, I admit as a secondary thought, I went to the resources and discovered that there really is a word fitna. I should have known better. A paid-for, full page ad in the Times doesn’t come inexpensively, and one would surely employ editors. They did.
It turns out that fitna is an Arabic word. Let me share a piece I found on the Internet which does as good a job as anything else I found in describing the word and its genesis.
Fitna (also transliteratedfitnah or in the genitive casefitnat ; Arabic: فتنة, “sedition“) is an Arabic word with connotations of secession, upheaval, and chaos. It is widely used in Arabic daily language as an adjective which refers to “causing problems between people” or attempting to create a chaotic situation that tests one’s faith. The exact translation of this word is often ambiguous for non-Arabic speakers. The word fitna also has several similarities with the idea of tribulation in Christian belief.*
I can appreciate the fact that people in the Arab world need a word such as fitna. Life in the Middle East is chaotic, with few signs that the chaos will be over soon. There are whole generations of Middle Eastern people who have spent their whole lives in the midst of chaos and know no other way of life. The children of the current citizens of Middle Eastern nations are doomed to the same fate, I fear. The meaning of the term is illustrated in the apocalyptic literature by people under extreme moral and psychological stress to compromise an element of their faith in return for worldly gain, and sometimes in return for their lives. They are made to choose, often not knowing exactly what is good and what is evil.*
This explains the phenomenon which tends to escape Western thinkers. People in Muslim society are willing to sacrifice their lives for their beliefs. Suicide bombers and those engaged in futile battles regularly die, their dying words being statements of faith in Allah and his protection throughout eternity. Their adherence to a principle of government or social behavior is unswerving, even in the face of death. Westerners are baffled by this, and it stands in the face of conventional warfare.
One contributor to the research suggests that fitna is best employed when applied to the divisions that are caused within Islam. It is the war that is waged for orthodoxy and purity of the religion. My sense, however, is that this is but one, rather restrictive, definition, although it is certainly consistent with others.
My suggestion is that this word be used discreetly, only in application to chaos and unsettled situations in which Islamic or Middle Eastern peoples are engaged. I fail to see its value in other applications.
Photo Credit: Muslims