Taking Back 'Allahu Akbar'

Nov 4, 2017
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Allahu akbar means God is greatest. It's a phrase uttered by Muslims many times a day in prayers, in greetings. But Allahu akbar has often been shouted by terrorists, too, as they committed crimes, including the driver of the truck that killed people in lower Manhattan.

Playwright Wajahat Ali wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times in which he says he does not want this vital phrase to become just the property of terrorists. Mr. Ali joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

WAJAHAT ALI: Thank you. And that was an excellent pronunciation of Allahu akbar. Well done, sir.

SIMON: Thank you very much. Well, I had the advantage of an expert teacher.

ALI: The last two days, we have heard allu (ph) akbar. And for your listeners, that means potatoes are the greatest.

SIMON: (Laughter).

ALI: And I think we agree. Indeed, allu akbar.

SIMON: Help us understand the significance of this phrase.

ALI: Yes. Allahu akbar - and I joked about this, but I was serious. I say it about 100 times a day. And the reason I came to that number is because Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day, but most of us don't. But in each prayer when we raise our hands, we say Allahu akbar. God is greatest. And in each cycle of prayer, you say it multiple times.

But also, Muslims are a quirky people. We say it in the vernacular. So literally, when my beloved Golden State Warriors beat the Spurs in a comeback, I said Allahu akbar. Two days ago, on my birthday when I bit into a succulent halal kabob at Ravi Kabob, I said Allahu akbar.

And so it's important to know the overwhelming majority of Muslims for 1,400 years have said it in prayer or to express gratitude. Only a fraction of a percent, unfortunately, have hijacked it before or after an act of violence.

SIMON: And just to state this plainly, it has nothing whatsoever religiously, historically, philosophically to do with terrorism.

ALI: Nothing. It has to do with prayer.

SIMON: Have you been tempted in recent weeks, in recent years to not use that phrase in one circumstance or another?

ALI: You know, that's a very good question. And someone asked me earlier today as a Muslim living in a post-9/11 America, do you self-police? And many of us unconsciously have had to do that because, listen, we're just like, I'm an exhausted dad. I work. I want to come home. Do I want to say Allahu akbar while standing in line before the TSA and then have people freak out knowing full well that people have been kicked off of planes in America in the past two years for saying Arabic? And for me, you know, I say no because why should I seed ground to fear and ignorance?

And instead, if I can take the opportunity to explain to people what Allahu akbar is, even though it requires more work and I'm forced to be a walking Muslim Wikipedia entry since 9/11 on all things Muslims-y (ph), including Allahu akbar, halal kabobs, inshallah, Zayn Malik - if it can make the world a bit better and more informed, sure, I will.

But, you know, a lot of my friends have. And I'll say one thing, which is very sober - and I wrote about this also - is many American-Muslims born and raised in this country in the past five years - the young parents, such as ourselves, they say, maybe I should give my son or daughter a American-sounding name because I'm afraid if I name them something Arabic sounding, it'll make their life harder.

We used to be able to pray openly, even after 9/11. And now people say, maybe I shouldn't pray in a public park because people might think I'm doing something scary and frightening. Maybe I shouldn't say inshallah Allahu akbar. But if you cede what is such a beautiful, benign phrase to fear and ignorance, and if you let extremists on both sides hijack it, I think you're seeding the ground.

And instead, I'm trying to reclaim it because, look, Muslims don't need to reclaim this word for Muslims. We know what it is. But in mainstream news, Scott, a fascinating study came out in March, 2017, from Georgia State University that when the suspect of a terror attack is Muslim, there is four and a half times more coverage. And I could tell you as a Muslim that the utility and value narratives of Islam and Muslims, unfortunately, after 9/11, have been shaped singularly by terrorism in America. And if you stay silent that will be the only story when that is only an extreme minority story and not the story of me and my family and my mom who makes biryani while rooting for the Warriors against the dastardly Cavs.

SIMON: Are your children growing up? Do you think hearing that phrase - will they use it?

ALI: I hope if they choose to use it, they say it with pride, with decency, with love, with dignity. I'd never want them to be afraid of who they are. And I deliberately named my son Ibrahim and my daughter Musaeva (ph). My wife and I made a decision because we don't want to live in fear.

I don't want to live in an America where my kids have to self-police themselves for simply being and existing based on their religion or race. That's not the America that was envisioned. And that's not the America I'm going to help build for future generations.

SIMON: Playwright and lawyer Wajahat Ali. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALI: Thank you, sir. Potatoes are indeed the greatest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAXON SHORE'S "ANGELS AND BROTHERLY LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.