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‘Allahu akbar’ is a beautiful phrase and we want it back

“Allahu akbar” (God is the greatest) is what New York terrorist, Sayfullo Saipov, reportedly uttered after plowing down innocents on the streets of New York last week. Many other killers have done the same around the world as they killed.

Yet, these are the first words a Muslim newborn hears. I just did this less than three months ago at a hospital in small town Indiana. After every sneeze a Muslim is taught to say “Alhamdulillah” (thanks be to God).

A practicing Muslim will say “Allahu akbar” or variations such as “SubhanaAllah” (praise be to God), “MashaAllah” (as God willed), “InshaAllah” (if God wills it) hundreds of time per day. Muslims are instructed to commence everything they do with Bismllahi Rahmani Raheem (In the name of God the most merciful, the most compassionate). These beautiful expressions praising the lord of mercy and compassion are repeated even by nonobservant Muslims. In fact, even Arab Christians use the same expressions.

Yet today, these expressions meant to relate one to the God of mercy and compassion, or which epitomize spirituality, have become associated with hate. Like the words jihad, sharia and even Islam itself, these words with a sinister connotation have all been hijacked by extremists and by those purportedly fighting Muslim extremism.

Extremists manipulate whatever ideology suits their needs, and Muslim extremists are no exception.

Unfortunately, some of those opposed to Muslim extremists are also driven by ignorance or in some cases even prejudice and bigotry, which extends to all Muslims. The hate is partly fuelled by an irrational and exaggerated fear of an assumed, but nonexistent, monolithic Islam represented only by its most fanatical fringe.

It is exaggerated because it takes the regressive interpretations of the few who employ these religious terms to justify their hateful campaigns and antimodern ideas and project them onto all Muslims. In the process they ignore the diversity of opinion which characterizes Muslims.

It is irrational because it ignores the peaceful interpretations and applications of these terms and practices adopted by the clear majority of Muslims, while authenticating only the extremist views. All 1.6 billion Muslims — except “moderates” — are painted with the extremist brush.

It is not only Muslim fanatics and Islamophobes who have abused these words in advancing their geopolitical and hate objectives. Sadly, even some well-meaning liberals and leftists have — sometimes inadvertently — validated the usurpation of Islamic terms by fanatics.

“Allahu akbar!” blares the alarm clock in Family Guy before blowing up the Griffin home. Funny maybe, but dangerous when most viewers have no exposure to 99.9 per cent of the Muslims who use this expression for worship and not to cause harm.

Liberal darlings, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani, have both been given newsprint and platforms by opinion shapers including the New York Times and the Washington Post to criminalize or create suspicion around Arabic terms and aspects of Muslim culture.

Hirsi Ali has repeatedly focused on “Allahu akbar” as a terrorist battle cry and she has even falsely claimed that jihad is primarily one of the sword. Of course, Muslims who say jihad is more about an inner struggle are lying. She has even outrageously suggested that the First Amendment rights of Muslims in the United States should be revoked. Meanwhile, not to be outdone, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, Nomani argued in the Washington Post that “InshaAllah,” or “God willing” in Arabic, is a potential “red flag.”

These words don’t fall on deaf ears and have real consequences. It should be no surprise then when someone is removed off a flight for uttering “InshaAllah!” or is treated with suspicion when they innocently mutter Arabic phrases in any context.

Why should people have to curb their innocent and peaceful religious practice because of abuse by a tiny fringe? How and why must the misuse of these phrases connected with a merciful God be ceded to terrorists?

Years ago when a woman said she did not trust Obama because he was a Muslim, Senator John McCain was praised when he responded “No ma’am, he’s a decent family man …” When the correct answer, as General Colin Powell pointed out, should have been, “So what if he was?”

Similarly, when Sean Hannity and Sean Gorka went after CNN’s Jake Tapper last week for alleged saying that Allahu akbar was a beautiful phrase. Tapper quickly responded that Fox News was lying and that he never said that Allahu akbar was a “beautiful phrase.” He was justified in setting the record straight, but a better response would have been, “I never said that, but it can be a beautiful phrase.”

Well, they are beautiful phrases when most of us use them, and we want them back.

Faisal Kutty is counsel to KSM Law, an associate professor at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana and an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. @faisalkutty.

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