As It Happens

Why this man wants to take the words 'Allahu akbar' back from terrorists

When reports surfaced that the man who killed eight people near in New York City on Tuesday yelled "Allahu akbar," Wajahat Ali felt a familiar pang of dread.
Wajahat Ali is a writer, lawyer and playwright who says it's time to take the words ‘Allahu akbar’ back from the extremists. (Submitted by Wajahat Ali/Huffington Post )

Story transcript

When reports first surfaced that the man who mowed down pedestrians and cyclists near the World Trade Center memorial in New York City on Tuesday yelled "Allahu akbar" afterward, Wajahat Ali felt a familiar pang of dread.

"The entire framing now will be about Muslims and Islam and terrorism and a common expression that I use like a hundred times a day, which literally means 'God is greatest,' which we use in prayer,'" the Virgina playwright and lawyer told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"And also innocuous stuff. Like, after I eat a tasty meal, I say Allahu akbar. After I watch a sporting event and my team wins, I say Allahu akbar. This now —  just like my religion, like my identity, my entire being — is synonymous with terrorism. And here we go again."

The phrase, Ali argues, has been hijacked by extremists, who use it as a rallying cry after committing acts of violence. He wrote in the New York Times that he wants to take it back. 

Ali spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about what those two loaded words mean to him. Here is part of that conversation.

When you heard news stories, as we did on Tuesday, that the New York City attacker shouted "Allahu akbar" after police apprehended him, how does that affect you?

It's Groundhog Day for Muslims after 9/11, because you sit there and you do something called the Muslim drill, which is a drill that many people of colour do. It's a prayer: "Please don't let it be a Muslim. Please don't let it be a black guy. Please don't let it be an Asian. Let it just be a white dude."

Because if it's a white dude, you know, white people — some of my best friends are white people — they will not be indicted, interrogated, investigated, convicted and sentenced by a nameless judge, jury and executioner and held accountable for the criminal actions of a few. 

Sayfullah Saipov, who allegedly killed eight people in New York City on Tuesday, yelled 'Allahu akbar' after the attack, witnesses say. (AFP/Getty Images)

It's in the same breath that it's said that he was a terrorist ... so these are synonymous things in the public mind, aren't they?

Exactly, and you said the same breath. It was the same headline. Because I was watching the rolling coverage.

In [Las Vegas], a month ago, Stephen Paddock, a white man, killed 58 people, injured 500. He's still seen as a lone radical. We're talking about mental health, and no one's called him a terrorist. But what we know now is that if he had simply said "Allahu akbar," it would have changed the whole conversation.

And in Charlottesville, same exact type of terrorism —  man drives a car through a crowd, killing a woman — it took Donald Trump, our president, a few days to kind of condemn it, then he blamed both sides, said there were some very nice people. Still hasn't called it an act of domestic terrorism. It was a white supremacist. But we know if he had said "Allahu akbar," it would have changed everything.

It seems like if a suspect is white, President Trump is utterly neutered in his response and can't advocate any policy change. But if the suspect says "Allahu akbar," within hours he said we're going to do extreme vetting and then he also said we're going to end the Diversity Lottery Visa that brought the individual here.

But it goes beyond that, doesn't it? I mean, you heard all the comments, the discussions on media over the past days since Tuesday referring to, well, what they say "Aloo akbar" in some cases, which I believe means something entirely different, doesn't it?

Aloo akbar means potatoes are great. And yes they are. So I think all Americans and Canadians can agree , if you can's agree with Allahu akbar, God is greatest, maybe we can all agree with that aloo akbar, potatoes are great. Some of my best meals have potatoes in them.

The title of your opinion piece in the New York Times is "I want 'Alluha akbar' back." What do you mean by that?

Extremists on all sides not only hijack religion and identity and narratives, they also hijack language to rationalize their violent ideology and their violent actions. I want to take it back and say, "No. Allahu akbar means God is great. I use it in prayer."

And if it takes me a little bit of work to explain it to be people, it's worth it — for myself and for my kids and for the future of America. Because I'll be damned if I let anyone hijack my religion for their nefarious deeds or use and abuse my religion to divide fellow Americans. And I refuse to live in fear and ignorance. 

Muslim worshippers use the phrase 'Allahu akbar' during prayer. It means 'God is greatest.' (Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our conversation with Wajahat Ali.