Op-ed: Allahu Akbar Allahu Akbar by George Merrill


Everyone wants to be somebody. Strictly speaking, everyone is a somebody. For a few, however, just being a somebody doesn’t quite do it. They perform spectacular acts that assure they will gain attention. They are typically apprehended or die but not before leaving a legacy, something by which they’ll be remembered. On Halloween this year in New York City one young man left a legacy of heartache.

On Halloween, Sayfullo Saipov, 29, a native of Uzbekistan, drove a van into a bike path in lower Manhattan and killed eight people. He was heard to have shouted “Allahu akbar,” before being shot and apprehended.

Muslim-American lawyer and playwright, Wajhat Ali writes in the New York Times how he himself says these words routinely, as do most Muslims everywhere, as many as a hundred times a day in devotional life. The phrase means “God is greatest,” a term of gratitude, and it’s part of Muslim piety, the way a Christian might say, “Thank you Jesus.”

Before or after any violent act, Ali believes any Muslim shouting Allahu akbar would be profane. I take it that in the broad view of Muslim practice and piety, such a cry would be as profane as Christians calling out “Thank you Jesus” after  bombing Hiroshima. Ali laments how “two simple words so close to our hearts” have so quickly become the code word for terrorist atrocities. As a practicing Muslim, it hurts Ali how witnesses, “hearing Allahu akbar instantly shaped the entire news coverage and the president’s response.”

When a long and rich spiritual tradition is put into the service of hate and arrogance, it brings nothing but violence and suffering. The Christian crusades and the persecution of heretics are cases in point. Shakespeare wrote about this kind of spirituality gone toxic: “Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.”
Ali writes his piece as a plea to Americans not to stereotype the Muslim community for the acts of a fanatical group. As we attempt to do justice, hopefully the spirit of wisdom and discernment will guide us, not the kind of mob mentality that feeds on bigotry and gets votes while it distorts reality.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.








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