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Weaponizing language: How the meaning of ‘Allahu akbar’ has been distorted

Last week, after a man drove a truck into a crowded bike path in Manhattan, killing eight people and injuring 12, he jumped out of the cab and shouted “Allahu akbar.” It was the latest in a string of attacks punctuated with this exclamation.

The Arabic phrase simply means “God is greater,” but it has been wielded by those who carried out the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, as well as by those who ran down a British soldier near a military barracks in 2013.

The result, for many, is a phrase—and more broadly, a language—that has nearly become synonymous with visions of religious extremism and violence. Last year, for example, a student was removed from a flight after another passenger overheard him saying “inshallah,” a phrase meaning “God willing.”

“Much of the success of Islamic fundamentalism is based in ignorance or in manipulating other peoples’ ignorance of what the religion is and what the Quran says.”

Shakir Mustafa Teaching professor of Arabic

Shakir Mustafa, teaching professor of Arabic at Northeastern, said part of the problem is that religious extremists in Middle Eastern countries have coopted the phrase as a rallying cry, falsely referencing the Quran to claim Islamic superiority over all other religions.

“Much of the success of Islamic fundamentalism is based in ignorance or in manipulating other peoples’ ignorance of what the religion is and what the Quran says,” Mustafa said. “The phrase ‘Allahu akbar,’ in the form that these extremists are using it, simply does not appear in the Quran.”

Rather, a similar phrase appears three times in other, very specific contexts, Mustafa said, and with very different sentence syntax. In each instance, “God” is not the grammatical subject, Mustafa said, but instead appears as a direct or indirect object.

“There’s no statement that generically or in any absolutist terms states that God is greater than other religions the way it’s been hijacked here, to make people think Islam should be the one best religion,” Mustafa said.

Heather Littlefield, professor of linguistics at Northeastern, echoed Mustafa’s sentiment, noting that it’s not the words themselves that are weapons, but rather that they’re being manipulated to mean something they don’t.

“All words are just tools, and like any tool, humans can use or abuse them,” she said. “Here, we happen to have a bad person using that phrase and therefore tainting it through a false connection. In New York, the attacker was using a car as the weapon, not the words. The words were just self-expression. The weaponizing is coming from us.”

Indeed, “Allahu akbar” is “one of the nicest things a Muslim community can say in welcoming others,” Mustafa said.

“Where I was growing up, people would say that phrase to express admiration for anything—if you saw a really nice car: ‘Allahu akbar.’ If you heard beautiful music: ‘Allahu akbar.’ Islamic fundamentalists realized the kind of reverence the phrase has for Muslims, and they’ve tried to manipulate it.”

Compounding the problem is a growing fear among non-Arabic speakers over the intent and meaning of the phrase.

Littlefield drew similarities to the treatment of Japanese and German languages during World War II, noting that the U.S. villainized the Japanese language during the war and then accepted it afterward. There were sociocultural factors at play then and now, said Littlefield. According to her, the onus to strip the language of negative associations is on the culture making those assumptions.

“The Arab world will never be able to prop up the language and dispel these misconceptions if the outsider culture never chooses to change its mind,” she said. “Our responsibility as a culture is to educate ourselves.”