The New York Times is often guilty of bias by commission and omission in its Arab-Israeli coverage. In the March 11, 2014, print edition (as well as the online edition), Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren (“Jordanian Judge Killed by Israeli Soldiers at Border Crossing”) quoted Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Col. Yaron Beit-On, who oversees Israeli forces in the Jordan Valley, concerning what seems to have been either a terrorist jihadist incident or a man gone berserk:
“He shouted, ‘Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar,’” or “God is great,” Colonel Beit-On said. “When the soldiers understood they had no way to handle him, they used a gun and they shot him. They were in danger.”
Rudoren’s rendering is problematic. First, she leads readers to believe that the colonel provided the translation of the Arabic phrase (“God is great).” This is unlikely, since Israeli authorities don’t normally attempt such a translation. An official IDF blog reported the incident without the attempt at translation:
“The terrorist attacked IDF forces with a pole, tried to steal a soldier’s weapon, and then attempted to strangle another soldier at the scene. A preliminary IDF investigation concluded that a terrorist attacked Israeli soldiers Monday at the Allenby Bridge crossing on Israel’s border with Jordan. The terrorist charged forces with a metal pole while shouting ‘Allahu Akbar,’ and then attempted to seize one soldier’s weapon.”
Likewise, an Israeli report quoting from a Kol Israel (Voice of Israel public radio) broadcast about what the IDF said about the incident lacked a translation of the Arabic phrase:
“[He] was on his way to carry out a terror attack. He struck out at the soldiers with a metal rod, shouted ‘Allahu akbar’ and attempted to snatch a weapon from one of them, they said.”
Therefore, for the sake of accuracy, Rudoren—in order to show that it’s her translation, not the colonel’s—should have placed the translation attempt within parentheses or brackets.
But that is not the only problem. The translation itself in Rudoren’s article is problematic. “Allahu akbar” is commonly mistranslated as “God is great.” But shouldn’t a higher standard of accuracy be expected of the “newspaper of record” in the United States, as the Timesis widely known? First, the generic word for “god” in Arabic is “ilah,” while the proper name (or unique name) for Islam’s god is “Allah.” Thus, the god referred to in “Allahu akbar” is the god defined in the Quran (or Koran) and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). In jihadist ideology, if not Islamic theology, the difference between “ilah” and “Allah” holds more significance than press accounts like Rudoren’s infer. The God defined in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament is not synonymous with “Allah.” Second, the word for “great” is “kebir” (not “akbar”) in Arabic—“akbar” means greater/greatest.
Lane’s Lexicon, the respected Arabic-English dictionary, states, “‘Allahu Akbar’ refers to Allah being greater.”
The question may be, greater than what? Is Allah greater than the gods of other religions, or simply, is the universal God greater than anything else? The non-interchangeability of “ilah” with “Allah” suggests the former.
What is the attitude of a Muslim society about this issue? Do Muslims believe that Allah is the same god worshipped by Christians and Jews? Consider the behavior of the Islamic government of Malaysia, a country with a Muslim majority and a sizeable Christian minority. In October 2009, CNN reported, “Authorities in Malaysia have seized more than 20,000 Bibles in recent months because they refer to God as ‘Allah,’ Christian leaders said. … Use of the word ‘Allah’ in Christian publications may confuse Muslims and draw them to Christianity, the government says.”
So, in this Islamic society, and also presumably in essentially all of the dozens of Islamic countries, “Allah” refers only to the deity of Muslims. It is not the generic word for God so it is incorrect to translate it as “God” in an English-language phrase.
The phrase “Allahu Akbar” is accurately translated as “Allah is greater,” conveying the meaning that Allah is greater than any non-Muslim object of worship.
Why does this matter?
The upshot of all this is that the jihadist’s intention in shouting “Allahu akbar” is to inspire and justify the terrorist attack being committed in the name of “Allah.” The politically correct mistranslation of “Allahu akbar,” obscuring the truth of the jihadist’s war cry, does the public no favor.
The media’s intentional incorrect rendering of “Allahu akbar” seems to be indicative of a mindset that justifies this dishonesty by some humanistic rationale, and/or by one considering it necessary in order to avoid arousing ire within Muslim society as well as among jihadists.
Another such case is the media’s virtual omission of coverage of the Palestinian Arab societal chronic brainwashing of its populace to believe that Jews are not a people, do not deserve a state, and have no historical ties to the land of Israel. The hatred is fueled by a steady stream of anti-Semitic, anti-Israel incitement from Palestinian media, mosques, and schools that underlies the conflict with Israel.
This pervasive cradle-to-grave brainwashing is reflected in opinion polling through the years. For example, media reports on joint Israeli/Arab polls, in USA Today in September 2004 and the Jerusalem Post in July 2011, showed that a majority of Palestinian adults in the West Bank and Gaza support suicide bombings against Jews in Israel and agree with a quote from the Hamas charter (and the Hadith) about the need to “kill Jews hiding behind stones and trees.”
But the media have essentially withheld from the American public information about this Palestinian Arab brainwashing and its inevitable disastrous consequences. Sometimes, it is necessary for the media to shed its political correctness, if only temporarily, in order to inform the people about these critically important matters.
Myron Kaplan is a media analyst specializing in coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict.