As the horrific news broke Tuesday that the driver of a Home Depot rental truck in New York City had mowed over pedestrians and bike riders, “terrorism” naturally came to the minds of most Americans.
When reports began circulating that witnesses heard the perpetrator yell “Allahu akbar,” even law enforcement officials typically reluctant to apply the terrorism label to such incidents acknowledged they were looking at something more than a tragic accident.
“Allahu akbar” is an Arabic phrase that has become significant in this post-9/11 era, yet in the aftermath of the attack Tuesday in which eight people were killed and a dozen injured, official after official and news outlet after news outlet mistranslated it, insisting it means “God is great.”
An accurate translation – and even Google Translate affirms it – is “Allah is the greatest” or, literally, “Allah is greater,” as in the god Allah is greater than all other gods.
The interpretation is important, contends Islam expert Robert Spencer, because it makes clear that the threat Western Civilization faces is rooted in a historic dogma of global conquest.
“‘God is great’ is a bland statement of piety. ‘Allah is greater’ is a declaration of supremacism and superiority, and of victory over the infidels,” Spencer told WND.
“The former is just an expression, the latter a declaration of war and of victory in that war,” said Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch and the author of 17 books about Islam.
Aware of the fear “Allah akbar” strikes in Americans, the New York Times ran a story Thursday headlined “‘Allahu Akbar!’ An Everyday Phrase, Tarnished by Attacks.”
Times reporter Eric Nagourney typically mistranslated the phrase, writing: “The Arabic phrase, which means simply ‘God is great,’ has, it sometimes seems, become intertwined with terrorism.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper mistranslated it in the aftermath of the attack Tuesday when he commented “Allahu akbar” is “sometimes is said under the most beautiful of circumstances.”
Tapper, who got into a Twitter battle with Fox News host Sean Hannity over his comment, said to a guest on his show “The Lead”: “The Arabic chant ‘Allahu akbar,’ God is great, sometimes is said under the most beautiful of circumstances. And too often, we hear it being said in moments like this.”
The Times’ Nagourney noted recent examples of terrorists shouting “Allahu akbar” during attacks, including suspect Sayfullo Saipov on Tuesday. But he wrote that for the average Muslim, “Allahu akbar is so commonplace a saying as to be utterly unworthy of note.’
He quoted a scholar of religion and politics in the Arab world, H.A. Hellyer, who said, “It’s quite an innocuous expression.”
Hellyer, based in London, said that when he’s out walking with his family, strangers sometimes approach him and declare, “Allahu akbar!”
Nagourney observed: “Many Westerners may find it hard to believe these days, but Mr. Hellyer does not recoil in fear.”
“I’ll be walking out with my kids,” Hellyer said, “and someone will say: ‘Oh, they’re so cute. Allahu akbar.’ And I’ll joke: ‘Thank you – now stop talking to my kids.'”
Spencer explained to WND why establishment media outlets such as the New York Times get away with continuing to publish mistranslations of the phrase.
“They can count on the ignorance of most of their readers, the tacit approval of Muslim leaders who want the real meaning of the phrase obscured, and the assurance that none of their peers will hold them accountable for this inaccuracy, because the truth would be ‘Islamophobic,'” he said.
Asked whether or not there were any Muslim leaders or scholars the Times could interview who could set the record straight, Spencer replied, “Not that I know of.”
Leaders of American Islamic organizations, such as the prominent Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, have made declarations of Islamic supremacy. WND found substantial evidence to back up a reporter’s claim that CAIR co-founder Omar Ahmad told Muslims at a meeting in the San Francisco Bay area that Islam “isn’t in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant,” and the Quran “should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on Earth.” And CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said in a 2003 interview with Michael Medved: “If Muslims ever become a majority in the United States, it would be safe to assume that they would want to replace the U.S. Constitution with Islamic law, as most Muslims believe that God’s law is superior to man-made law.”
‘Allah’s supremacy over all other deities’
Translating and understanding “Allahu akbar” as “merely ‘God is great’ strips the phrase of its crucial aspect of Allah’s supremacy over all other deities,” wrote Yigal Carmon of the Middle East Media Research Institute on Wednesday.
Carmon cited MEMRI’s October 2016 analysis of Allahu akbar, which explained how and why the phrase is misunderstood and mistranslated in the West.
The report acknowledged: “Translating concepts from one language into another is a difficult endeavor. Translating concepts that have no equivalent in the target language is even harder. Translating religious concepts for a culture in which religion has ceased to play a central role in the life of the individual and in society is hardest of all.”
One of the reasons for such mistranslations, MEMRI said, “is the fact that in the modern Western world the struggle for supremacy among religions has almost completely ceased, and to the extent that it still exists, it is nonviolent.”
“Therefore, statements of religious faith that embody a continuing historical struggle for divine religious supremacy lack a modern religious/cultural conceptual basis through which to be understood in the West, and consequently lack a linguistic equivalent.”
The American media, MEMRI said, “facing the risk of not being understood in translating these Islamic concepts, prefer to provide an approximate translation, even though these are inherently misleading.”
The report acknowledged that over the centuries “Allahu akbar” has come to be uttered by non-religious Muslims as well, and even by Christian Arabs.
But it has carried a variety of meanings, and a “translation should always reflect the context, the speaker, and his intent.”
What often happens in the U.S. media, MEMRI said, “is that when Allahu akbar is said by a jihadi, it is translated as if said by a non-religious Muslim or a Christian Arab.”
“This is utterly wrong,” the MEMRI report said. “And when such mistranslations occur time and again, whether intentional or out of ignorance, it results in a profoundly apologetic misrepresentation of the concept, and its cultural and religious meaning.”
The term Allahu akbar, said MEMRI, embodies “the fight for the supremacy of Islam, Allah, and the true believers: past, present, and future; actual and symbolic; military, cultural, or by means of forces of nature controlled and directed by Allah.’
“It is the battle cry and the anthem of this fight for supremacy. Victory for Muslims is victory for Islam and for monotheism, and it is Allah’s victory over false gods.”
The Arabic phrase “la ilaha illa Allah” also is often mistranslated by media, which renders it as “There is no god but God” rather than “There is no god but Allah.”
Omitting the declaration of Allah’s supremacy in that phrase produces a logical fallacy, MEMRI obverved, “reminiscent of Carrollian nonsense verses.”
The report recounts the “struggle to establish the supremacy of the monotheistic Islam over the pagan idols of seventh-century Mecca”:
Then it was a struggle for supremacy over other religions, including monotheistic ones, in the Arabian Peninsula, resulting in the expulsion of non-Muslims, as related in the compilation of hadiths on behalf of the Prophet Muhammad: “I shall take out the Jews and the Christians from the Peninsula” – a ban that is in force to this day against non-Muslim religious institutions. Later it was a struggle against other religious empires, such as the Persian and the Byzantine.
‘Little real meaning’
The Times story Thursday said “the phrase – to many Muslims’ distress – has also been seized on by jihadists who claim that Islam justifies their attacks on innocent civilians in the name of God.”
But the Arab scholar Hellyer, the Times reported, “suggested, though, that in the end, it had little real meaning.”
“People may read the headlines about the attack and say: ‘Oh, he said, “Allahu akbar,” so that means something,'” Hellyer said. “Well, it probably means that he thinks it means something – but that shouldn’t mean anyone who says ‘Allahu akbar’ is suddenly about to do some violent act. Far from it.”
Nagourney also spoke to Mohamed Andeel, an Egyptian cartoonist and writer, who, the reporter wrote, “wonders if it is worth trying to teach non-Muslims the real meaning of Allahu akbar.”
Andeel said: “If you tell people not to be afraid of something, they will basically learn to be afraid of something else.”