On Monday, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Fox News radio that he associates the oft-recited Arabic phrase “Allahu Akbar” with a “war chant,” and that when he hears it said in the Middle East, he runs and ducks for cover.
The expression is commonly translated into English as “God is great” (though in Arabic its actually closer to “greater”) and Muslims use it much the way Christians or Jews would use the word “Hallelujah”—as an exhortation of praise.
There are a thousand things wrong with Graham’s comment and likely, in the coming days, the quip will garner an appropriate amount of public shaming that hits all of the easy targets: he isn’t an Arabic speaker; he’s needlessly disparaging Muslims; he’s saber rattling about “war chants” to make a case for military intervention in Syria or Iran; or he’s intentionally trying to distinguish himself from his pal John McCain who seems willing to differentiate between extremist Muslims and the mainstream faithful.
Those are important points, but they all overlook what is, perhaps, the most troubling aspect of this mini-scandal: it fits within a growing pattern of elite non-Muslims misappropriating Islamic phrases and insisting that the most extreme interpretations or uses are the correct ones.
Think about the term “jihad.” It’s one of the most abused and misused terms of its kind. The vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims understand the concept in a non-violent way; it’s a struggle, they say, to live a pious life in the face of challenges. Writes Asma Afsaruddin here in RD:
“If we put on our historical glasses, a considerably different picture emerges. The earliest connotations of jihad had to do with patient forbearance in the face of harm and stoic, nonviolent resistance to wrongdoing.”
Terrorists like al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman Zawahiri, however, see jihad as a holy war. Just last week, the nefarious Egyptian doctor posted “general guidelines for jihad” on several online forums, as if he, of all people, is the authoritative voice for defining such things.
Absurdly, for many people on the right, he is, the authoritative voice. Graham and others employ the term precisely in a way that legitimizes that understanding and gives currency to such usage in discourses about Muslims. For them, Zawahiri’s jihad is more correct than the jihad of the father who picks up an extra job to support his family, or the other billion-and-a-half non-violent Muslims in the world.
“Sharia” has also become a buzzword that many pundits and politicians have hijacked. Likely, they don’t know (or care) that the term in Arabic means “way” or “path,” as in: “on the right path of religion.” While it does refer to Islamic moral code, it’s hardly a formal or well-defined set of rules and is often the source of much disagreement and debate amongst the most revered legal scholars. The Michele Bachmanns and Louis Ghomerts of the world, however, have convinced many people that Sharia is epitomized by rare instances of hand chopping, hangings, and other gory punishments. It’s doubtful that the governors of the seven states that have banned it know much beyond their fantasies that Muslims are coming, they’re bringing Sharia, and that bad things will happen.
Violent perpetrators who misuse these terms have allies in people like Lindsey Graham, who buy into their twisted interpretations, turning one of the most fundamental phrases of the Islamic faith into a “war chant” simply because a few yahoos run around shouting it after some ghastly act.
When the Westboro Baptist Church says “Thank God for 9/11” and “Praise the Lord for dead US soldiers” few would argue that “Thank God” or “Praise the Lord” are somehow inextricably linked to fundamentalists.
By controlling the way we talk about Islam, the powerful and ideologically driven elites in our society influence the way we think about Islam, which can have the effect of justifying wars in the Middle East, torture in Guantanamo, or illegal surveillance of law-abiding American Muslim citizens in the Big Apple.
This piece originally appeared at Religion Dispatches on September 24, 2013.