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Lost in translation: Australia’s top cleric

By Abe Ata - posted Friday, 17 November 2006

The storm surrounding Sheik al Hilali’s recent comments about women may abate. However it will not disappear.

It has become clear that this debate is not structured by a religious and cultural divide separating non-Muslim mainstream Australians from Australian Muslims. Letters in this and other papers show that many Muslims condemned al Hilali’s comments; other Australians, including Muslims, said that singling him out is evidence of a double standard.

Those who wanted the cleric gone blame him for being out of touch with Australian values: in contrast, those who make apologies for him blame it on the translation, or rather mistranslation, of Arabic into English.


What then is the place of the Arabic language in all this?

Arab social scientists say that Arabic is more than a secular tongue; it is the language of Islam as chosen by God to speak to his creation. It influences how a person views the world and expresses reality.

In contrast, non-speakers of Arabic and a minority of Arab thinkers tend to be somewhat sceptical of such claims. They acknowledge the importance of Arabic and appreciate its profound connections to the Islamic faith, but find it hard to believe that Arabic is so consequential.

Fuoad Ajami, a US based Lebanese Muslim academic, says that the intellectual output of Arabs for the past 800 years has been "dead stuff written in a dead language".

“This shallow, pompous, and stilted Arabic language, a language that has become an aim in and of itself (rather than a means of communication), has provided both ablution and excuses for the Arabs, allowing them both to ward off their impotence and run away from it,” he concludes.

Ajami may find it easy to locate the root cause but he fails to provide a remedy. Others, like Nizar Qabbani, a Syrian diplomat, poet and publisher, go a step further. He calls the Arabic language “the language of abuse and insults”.


Hence (it is argued), and in contrast to English, the Arabic language, its rhythms, its metaphors and its nuances, has become an instrument of entertainment rather than a medium for transmitting thought and information.

Al Hilali may not have spoken faultless textbook English but his imagery may equally be shared by many westernised local members of the community.

One psychologist posed this question recently. He asked: Could it be that Westernised Arab intellectuals who embrace Islam and reject the West as the great Satan are tormented by the dilemma that they have gone far - but not deep - into an alien culture to which they suddenly realise they can never belong, and are now drawn back to an Arab culture to which they can never return?

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About the Author

Abe W Ata was a temporary delegate to the UN in 1970 and has lived and worked in the Middle East, America and Australia. Dr Ata is a Senior Fellow Institute for the Advancement of Research, and lectures in Psychology at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne). Dr Ata is a 9th generation Christian Palestinian academic born in Bethlehem.

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