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Many articles have been written concerning Obama’s speech in Cairo in the past day since the speech was delivered, including some very insightful editorial commentary. Unfortunately, these interpretations analyses have fallen into the same trap that dominates the interactions of the U.S. and the West with the Arab world.
That trap is almost all Western attempts to interpret our relations with the Arab world are based solely upon the English language portion of our interactions. Unfortunately, this is fatally incomplete, as this only encompasses what Western speakers say in our half of the conversation to our people and what Arab speakers want us to hear of their half of the conversation.
What is missing is the other half: what the Arab speakers are saying in their language to their people, and what our Arab audience is actually hearing of our portion of the conversation. And whether what the leaders are saying (in Arabic) is the same text as what their peoples are being told is being said.
Without knowing what is said in both languages, we cannot know whether what we say is what our audience in hearing – and vice versa. And more critically, we need to know whether the two are substantially different – and if so whether this difference is a mistranslation (in which case we need to correct the translation) or more seriously whether the difference is intentional – to mislead or misdirect the English-speaking and/or Arabic speaking audiences.
In brief, what we in the U.S. are hearing and reading in English is what our leaders and the Arab leaders want us (the English-speaking audience) to hear and think is what is really going on. But unless we know the Arabic words – and get an accurate translation thereof, we don’t know what the Arab-speaking leaders want their Arab-speaking audience to hear – and whether there is a deliberate ambiguity or even deception in place in which both sides of the language divide are being told different things in their language.
That is, we need to have answers to the following questions:
1) How were Obama’s words translated in Arabic to the assembled audience?
2) What official text or texts in Arabic have been released by the White House (or other official U.S. agency) or by other countries?
3) What Arabic texts are being published in Arab papers or transmitted on Arab radio stations?
4) What are the English translations of these various texts and what are the implications, especially in terms of possible Arabic/Muslim “code words”?
5) If these Arabic versions vary among themselves, are the differences substantive – and what is the significance of such differences?
6) (Most critically) If the English and Arabic versions vary – what is the significance of these differences?
I am particularly concerned about upon certain curious phrasings in Obama’s words that may be open to varying interpretations depending on how they are translated. Here are some examples just from my parsing of the English side. Others more expert in nuance may be able to identify other possible trouble areas.
And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear…That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it…
Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we protect it. For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That is why I am committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat. Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.
The Pope is the “defender of the Christian faith”. The Saudi government considers itself to be the “defender (protector, guardian) of the Islamic faith”. Obama here is coming close to identifying himself also as a protector of the Islamic faith – but not of the Christian faith (or other religions). Does the Arabic version use language for Obama that parallels how the Saudis describe their defender/protector role?
[As an aside note, why does Obama multiple times in his speech single out defending Muslim’s women’s clothing – an issue that is a particular sore point in Europe as well as a few cases in the U.S. and a key issues for those seeking equality of women – and title opposition to such as “hostility to religion”.
Also, Robert Spencer has an excellent refutation here of Obama’s comment that pursuit of equality for women equates with “hostility towards [Islam] behind the pretence of liberalism”]
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps…They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation.
Although not totally airtight, it juxtaposition of sentences at least strongly implies that Obama is talking about a 60-year “occupation” of Palestinian land, in which case Obama is essentially denying the legitimacy of Israel by echoing the language or Hamas and others who deny the right of Israel to exist. It thus would be interesting to know how “dislocation” and “occupation” particularly are translated and whether they match the language/code words of the Arab rejectionists
The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.
This appears to go beyond earlier calls to simple halt construction but actually appears to call for the dismantling of all Israel settlements, overturning previous understandings. In any case, the call for a halt to all construction here and earlier calls in the past few days bear a similarity to laws in other Muslim nations concerning other religious communities (dhimmis) that bar construction of their structures and impede natural growth of those communities. Again, Arab translations of these statements (including the speech) could be enlightening.
4) Finally, there are Obama’s earlier repeated statements that America is not a “Christian nation” followed by his statement on June 1st that “if you actually took the number of Muslims Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world”. While Obama technically does not actually call America a Muslim nation, it is quite remarkable that he would even voice this phrase even in the hypothetical, given his previous efforts to avoid titling America as any religion’s nation.
However, my bigger concern is how this was translated to the Arabic world, especially how “Muslim country” was translated – as which “house” Obama’s “Muslim country” belongs to – in order to know how this statement was heard in the Arab world.
To conclude, it’s not enough to parse Obama’s Cairo speech and his other earlier pronouncements on Islam in English – we need to know the Arab versions as well.
(cross-posted at And Rightly So!)