Well, it looks as if Arafat’s at it again. At the very moment when more than 150,000 Israelis are rallying for withdrawal from Gaza, Arafat is speaking on Palestinian TV, urging Palestinians to commit acts of terror against them. I know that, because I’ve just read the Voice of America summary of Arafat’s speech which, just to spell it out for us, they entitle : Arafat Calls on Palestinians to 'Terrorize the Enemy' on Anniversary of Israel's Founding.
Even as I read that headline, it struck me that that would be a bit of a strange thing for Arafat to say. Firstly, because he knows that his words are going to be translated into English and, as the US and Israel have spent the last two-and-a-half years deliberately conflating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with the "War on Terror", the last thing Arafat needs is to publicly speak out in favor of terror. Secondly, it sounds a little odd for him to use the word "terrorize" to describe Palestinian violence, because Palestinians don't regard fighting the Occupation as "terror" in the first place.
Voice of America gives only a small hint of the context for the words it ascribes to Arafat, noting: Quoting from the Muslim holy book, the Koran, he told his supporters to "find what strength you have to terrorize your enemy and the enemy of God."
OK, so now we know that Arafat isn't randomly exhorting the Palestinians to go out and blow up Israelis, he's actually finishing his speech with a quote from the Qur'an. (Though that verb "terrorize" is a very 21st century/War on Terror kind of vocabulary to find in the Qur'an, isn't it?). Now, here's the strange thing: I tried to look up that quote in the Qur'an, to see the whole verse in context so that I might get a better idea of what Arafat was saying by citing it. I was pretty sure I would find it quickly by searching for that damning verb "terrorize", but when I looked it up in four of the most popular English translations (Yusuf Ali, Pickthall, Khan and Shakir), I couldn't find a single instance of the word "terrorize" appearing anywhere in the Qur'an. So finding the verse in context wasn't as easy as I thought.
There was a little more detail in the Associated Press version of the story entitled, as provocatively as the VOA version, Arafat Makes Call to 'Terrorize' Enemy . AP gives a little more of the alleged Quranic quote:
"Find what strength you have to terrorize your enemy and the enemy of God," he said. "And if they want peace, then let's have peace."
(Fancy that, VOA clipped off the end part of the quote, the part that refers to a willingness to make peace. Surely an oversight on their part?)
Now, I should start off by saying that I am absolutely NOT any kind of Quranic scholar. But from the additional snippets of the quote that the AP version provides, I am quite sure that the quotation that Arafat concluded his speech with is verses 60-61 of the Qur'an's eighth chapter, which describes how the faithful should respond to the pagan armies threatening to wipe out the nascent Muslim community in Medina. These two verses are generally interpreted today not as a call for Muslims to make war on anyone, but as an exhortation for them to remain strong under difficult circumstances, and they read:
And make ready against them all you can of power, including steeds of war to threaten the enemy of Allah and your enemy, and others besides whom, you may not know but whom Allah does know. And whatever you shall spend in the cause of Allah shall be repaid unto you, and you shall not be treated unjustly.
But if they incline to peace, you also incline to it, and put your trust in Allah. Verily, He is the All-Hearer, the All-Knower.
(From the English translation of Dr. Muhammad al-Hilali & Dr. Muhammad Khan, which I chose because it happens to be the version on my bookshelf. The phrase that AP renders as "to terrorize your enemy" appears in this translation as "to threaten the enemy". Hmmmm....).
So Arafat apparently finished his speech with a Quranic quote that says, essentially, "When your enemies come up against you, show them you are prepared to fight with absolutely everything you can muster, in the hope that this will frighten them off. But if they’re willing to make peace, you must make peace with them". That's not really an unexpected sentiment coming from Arafat. It is quite consistent with what Arafat and, for that matter, Palestinian public opinion (e.g. here) have repeatedly said over the last couple of years, i.e. as long as Israel carries out assassinations and incursions against us, we will fight them, but if they really want peace, that's what we prefer.
That's not quite the interpretation that that AP and VOA suggest is it, by the way they chose to render that quote?
Of course, there are various ways to translate the Qur'an, and none of them is exactly correct. The only "authentic" Qur'an for Muslims is the Arabic version, and foreign translations are really approximations of the sense of the original. For example, you can see all kinds of variations if you compare how those two Quranic verses are rendered in the leading English translations (I have bolded in the following quotes the verb that AP translates as "to terrorize"):
Prepare any [military] strength you can muster against them, and any cavalry posts with which you can overawe God's enemy and your own enemy as well, plus others besides them whom you do not know. God however knows them! Anything you spend for God's sake will be repaid you, and you will not be harmed.
If they should incline to peace, then incline to it too and rely on God.
-- Dr T B Irving Translation
And make ready for them who fight you whatever you can of armed force and of mounted pickets at the frontier, whereby you may frighten the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them whom you know not, but Allah knows them. And whatever you spend in the way of Allah, it shall be paid back to you in full and you shall not be wronged.
And if they incline towards peace, incline thou also towards it, and put thy trust in Allah. Surely, it is HE Who is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.
Hence, make ready against them whatever force and war mounts you are able to muster, so that you might deter thereby the enemies of God, who are your enemies as well, and others besides them of whom you may be unaware, [but] of whom God is aware; and whatever you may expend in God's cause shall be repaid to you in full, and you shall not be wronged.
But if they incline to peace, incline thou to it as well, and place thy trust in God: verily, He alone is all-hearing, all-knowing!
Mobilize your (defensive) force as much as you can to frighten the enemies of God and your own enemies. This also will frighten those who are behind them whom you do not know but God knows well. Whatever you spend for the cause of God, He will give you sufficient recompense with due justice.
If they (the unbelievers) propose peace, accept it and trust in God. God is All-hearing and All-knowing.
Make ready for them all thou canst of (armed) force and of horses tethered, that thereby ye may dismay the enemy of Allah and your enemy, and others beside them whom ye know not. Allah knoweth them. Whatsoever ye spend in the way of Allah it will be repaid to you in full, and ye will not be wronged.
And if they incline to peace, incline thou also to it, and trust in Allah. Lo! He, even He, is the Hearer, the Knower.
And prepare against them what force you can and horses tied at the frontier, to frighten thereby the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them, whom you do not know (but) Allah knows them; and whatever thing you will spend in Allah's way, it will be paid back to you fully and you shall not be dealt with unjustly.
And if they incline to peace, then incline to it and trust in Allah; surely He is the Hearing, the Knowing.
-- M H Shakir.
Prepare ye against them what force and companies of horse ye can, to make the enemies of God, and your enemies, and others beside them, in dread thereof. Ye do not know them, but God knows them! and whatever ye expend in God’s way He will repay you; and ye shall not be wronged.
But if they incline to peace, incline thou to it too, and rely upon God; verily, He both hears and knows.
-- E H Palmer
and finally, one that actually mentions the "terrorize" word (almost)
Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know. Whatever ye shall spend in the cause of Allah, shall be repaid unto you, and ye shall not be treated unjustly.
But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou (also) incline towards peace, and trust in Allah. for He is One that heareth and knoweth (all things).
(Though the coincidental use of the word "terror" here does not change the fact that the verse in which it occurs simply does not call for the acts of violence that the AP must have known its 21st century readers would assume from the way that it translated the quote and entitled the article. Furthermore, it is a bit of a stretch to suggest that the word "terror" here carries any of the modern "terrorist" connotations that AP implies, seeing as the Yusuf Ali translation actually dates back to 1934).
So there might be all sorts of verbs you could use in translating the verses that Arafat quoted. But the interesting fact is that AP chose to render that Quranic citation using a verb that is extremely inflammatory, that demonizes Arafat by falsely implying that he is calling for terrorist acts against Israel, and that doesn't seem to actually appear in any of the major English translations of the Qur'an.
AP acknowledges in its story that Arafat's words are a quote from the Qur'an. So, if the AP wanted to directly quote those words for an English-speaking audience, why not just consult any of the many respected English translations of the Qur'an, and use the wording therein? The words that AP attributes to Arafat are not really a quote, they are a rendition or interpretation of the original Arabic, and an unnecessarily inflammatory one at that. If an AP translator wants to interpret for an English-speaking audience the Quranic verses that Arafat used, and present them as a call to terrorism, then that interpretation should not be appearing in quotes as if it were a translation. If on the other hand AP wanted to use the quotation marks, there are plenty of reputable English translations of those verses that it could have quoted. But as the report stands, AP is presenting the most divisive and inflammatory interpretation of those two verses as being an actual quotation, when in reality that interpretation is not supported in any English-language version of the Qur'an, except possibly the Daniel Pipes version.
Update, 2:00pm 16 May. MSNBC is reporting Secretary of State Powell's reaction to Arafat's speech, with Powell suggesting that Arafat's statements are an impediment to peace. Surprisingly - to me at least - MSNBC acknowledges that Arafat's words do not actually have the inflammatory connotation that is being attached to them, pointing out: Arafat, whom Israel accuses of supporting militant groups, did not appear to be calling for new attacks on Israel. The passage in the Quran refers to the early Muslims' wars against pagans and is frequently invoked by Islamic leaders today to encourage strength in times of conflict.
Unfortunately, as a Google search of current news shows that almost 800 news outlets have picked up the AP story, with it's "Arafat calls for terrorism" slant, attempts by MSNBC (or anyone else) to correct the false impression generated by the AP's report is certainly too little too late.