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The subtexts of "Allah"

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  January 22, 2007 07:04 PM

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In a post at the Guardian's opinion weblog, Comment Is Free, Brian Whitaker argues that the English-language press is subverting accuracy and promoting divisiveness by its overuse of the word "Allah":

There is no logical reason for this. Why use an Arabic word in English-language news reports when there is a perfectly good English word that means exactly the same thing?
Various Arabic words -- jihad and sheikh, for example -- have crept into everyday usage because no precise equivalent exists in English, but "Allah" is not of that type. It is simply the normal word that Arabic speakers use for "God" -- whether they are Muslims or not. Arab Christians worship "Allah" too, and the first verse of the Arabic Bible informs us that "In the beginning Allah created heaven and earth."

I've never heard a style directive on the God-Allah question, and in practice it seems to be up to individual reporters and editors. Some accounts of Saddam Hussein's hanging, for instance, translate his last words as "there is no god but God"; others quote it as "there is no god but Allah."

For Whitaker, the indiscriminate use of "Allah" is "yet another example of the subtle ways that news organisations can influence people's attitudes, perhaps unintentionally."

By opting for "Allah" they are aligning themselves, in effect, with those who view international politics in terms of a clash of civilizations.

Some of the many commenters on the blog beg strenuously to disagree, on political or theological grounds or both. Still, it's hard to deny that "There is no god but Allah" sounds like a very different sentiment if you translate it as "There is no deity but God."

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