The Most Tantalizing One-Word Mystery of the Presidential Debate

At least if you’re Muslim, or a right-wing blogger.

Joe Biden pointing at the camera with two hands during the first presidential debate.
Joe Biden speaking at the first presidential debate in Cleveland on Tuesday. Jim Watson/Getty Images

OK. I was not sure Joe Biden said it, but it sounded like he did. To a lot of us.

In the first presidential debate, there was the refusal to disavow white supremacy, and the “Just shut up, man”–style zingers, but if you are Muslim, you were totally distracted by this moment right here:

The moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, had cornered Donald Trump, forcing him to answer for what the New York Times found in his tax returns. Trump lied about how much he paid in federal taxes for 2016 and 2017, and said he’ll release his taxes eventually.

Biden and Trump were talking at the same time, and then it sounded like Biden said: “When? Inshallah?”

Arabic Twitter lit up immediately. Enough of us tilted our heads, unsure if we heard him say one of our most common phrases. Nobody could say for sure that he said it, but they wanted to believe.

If he did say it, he used it perfectly. Inshallah is an Arabic phrase that means “God willing.” A Muslim would say this as often as a typical white American might say “I hope,” but Arab Christians are known to use it too. If you grew up Muslim, Arabic speaking or not, you’d know it best as the thing your parents say like a gentle-sneaky no. You’d ask your parents to buy you a skateboard or a guitar, and not taking you seriously, they’d say Inshallah. They’re telling you eventually or, in most cases, never. It’s amorphous in this way, and really changes in meaning the way you say it. I’d say it fits pretty well in Biden’s purported use.

Could Biden have said something else? Yes. I saw multiple possibilities from naysayers. Did it seem likely he said something else? Maybe. But Muslims on Twitter chose to believe it because it was funny to. He tacked it on to the end of his dig at Trump the same way my parents would if I asked about that guitar: “When? Inshallah?

Far-right media also seems to have believed it too. Breitbart immediately blogged Biden’s supposed turn of phrase, quoting one writer saying there’s no reason to “fear” the term. The top comment on the site’s post when I checked it said Biden was “pandering to Islam.” I wish.

I reached out to the Biden camp to ask whether or not he really said it. Not too long after, I saw Asma Khalid of NPR had the scoop:

This raises only more questions—who taught him!? But as terrible as this debate night was, at least a few of us had this moment.

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