Last month Luigi Brugnaro, the mayor of Venice, warned that anyone who yelled Allahu Akbar (‘God is the greatest’) in his city was liable to be shot dead by a police sniper. A bit harsh you might think, but it’s weird how tricky it’s become to use the world’s fifth most spoken language in Europe, let alone invoke the Arabic name for God.
Three days after the London Bridge attacks, a trio of Muslim women attacked a female nursery worker on Wanstead High Street in north-east London. One of her colleagues told the Daily Mail they were ‘chanting the Quran, and invoking Allah’.
I doubt — though I may well be wrong — that the victim’s co-worker spoke Arabic, let alone was familiar with the verses, or ayat, of the Quran (if she did, surely she’d be more specific about the content of the alleged rant), and I would wager her testimony was based on the knee-jerk assumption that any excitable activity with an Arabic commentary must be religious and bloodthirsty.
But what people forget amid the mistrust is that Allah is not, as many believe, the Muslim god. Allah is Arabic for the monotheist God and is used by all Arabs; Muslim, Christian and Jew. If Jacob Rees-Mogg were a Lebanese Catholic, he would offer his devotions to Allah.
And while Arabic may be the language of Islam, the fact remains that Arabs regularly invoke ‘Allah’ for reasons other than the spreading of mayhem and death.
I’m a Lebanese Maronite, a kind of Eastern Catholic if you like, and we say ‘Allah’ or ‘Rubb’ when we speak of God, as do Lebanon’s other half-dozen or so other Christian sects. Arabic-speaking Jews, especially the Mizrahis, do the same.
We will say Wahyet Allah when we want you to believe that we are being serious or telling the truth, and we might exclaim ‘Allah!’ when we see someone trip or lose their balance. My wife does this a lot and has told me she is scared people will think it heralds something cataclysmic. She or I might say ‘Ya Allah’ out of exasperation, when the kids fill the sink with unwashed dishes or drink all the milk. This might sound quite alarming, but it simply means: ‘Oh God.’
And there are a whole host of ways we can declare our amazement. There is of course Allahu Akbar, but these days that is more likely to get you escorted off a plane, or — if you’re in Signor Brugnaro’s manor — shot dead by a Carabinieri marksman. But the phrase is, in and of itself, harmless. Then there is bismillah (‘in the name of God’) and mashallah (‘God has willed it’), which is what I exclaimed to a Harrow-educated Iraqi friend when a pretty barmaid hove into view as I waited to be served in a pub in West Sussex the other week.
Those of us who have another language to draw on should surely be forgiven, in our more puerile moments, for using it when we want to be discreet — but next to us, three men, waiting for refills, instantly and noticeably tensed up. This wasn’t what they expected to hear in their local boozer. So we quickly reverted to foreign-looking, middle-aged hoorays. Drama over.
Later, in the dining room, my Iraqi friend replied to something I said by saying ‘inshallah’, literally ‘God willing’, but basically ‘I hope so’. The woman at an adjacent table turned to look at us as if someone had just let out an enormous burp.
Inshallah is something of a throwaway word. It can be used sincerely as in ‘I hope I get that job’ or sarcastically as in ‘I won’t hold my breath.’ It is not exclusive to the jihadist lexicon. So spare a thought for poor old Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, the Iraqi student from Berkeley, who was booted off a Southwest Airlines plane in Los Angeles last year when a fellow passenger got spooked after hearing him end a phone call with inshallah.
It’s funny — and it’s not — this reflex terror of Arabic speakers. Last July Faizah Shaheen, a psychotherapist from Leeds, was detained by police at Doncaster Sheffield Airport (no, me neither) on her return from Turkey. The reason? A Thomson Airways cabin-crew member had spotted her, two weeks earlier on the outbound flight, reading Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, published by the respected London-based Saqi Books.
What to do? A satirical online magazine, The National Profiler – ‘Muslim news you can use’ – recently created a spoof advert in which Southwest advertised ‘Arabic Select’, an upgrade for passengers who want to ‘fly with confidence knowing your language choices won’t arouse suspicion that you’re a terrorist’. It’s not an entirely bad idea.