‘Inshallah’: The Perfect Phrase for 2020

In 2016, the Swet Shop Boys, a rap duo formed by Himanshu Suri and Riz Ahmed, released the song “T5,” which opens with the verse: “Inshallah, mashallah, hopefully no martial law.” The lyric calls attention to the profiling Muslim and Arab Americans face in this country for neutral expressions of their culture. (In 2016, for instance, a UC Berkeley student was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight when a passenger overheard him say “inshallah” in a phone call.)

The following year, those lines became an anthem for protesters of the Trump administration’s travel ban, which prevented people in several Muslim-majority countries from obtaining American visas. Mr. Suri recalled watching a video of demonstrators outside LAX chanting the verse. “It was a cool feeling,” Mr. Suri said. “I think when you make music, you don’t necessarily think of it as protest music, even though that’s what it very clearly is.”

The phrase crops up elsewhere in pop culture, too, including in Drake lyrics and, somewhat imprecisely, on Lindsay Lohan’s Instagram feed. Its overall usage in the English lexicon has more than quadrupled in the last three decades, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer. Its steepest increase corresponded to the years after 9/11, when President George W. Bush declared a global “War on Terror” that would lead to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

From 1998 to 2002, enrollment in Arabic-language courses across the nation nearly doubled. “Back in the day, you would take Arabic because you were a weirdo that was interested in medieval texts, pious texts, maybe modern literature,” said Nader Uthman, a professor of Arabic language and literature in N.Y.U.’s Middle Eastern Studies department. “Generally speaking, classes had two or three people in them,” he said. Nowadays, Mr. Uthman said, his Arabic classes are often filled with students hoping to become journalists, diplomats and aid workers.

The term would also be embraced by the military, whose ranks favored its colloquial meaning as a kind of deferral. “When you talk to U.S. soldiers about the possible success of ‘the surge,’ you’d be surprised how many responded with ‘inshallah,’” an Army officer wrote in 2007 in a note to The Washington Post’s military correspondent Tom Ricks.