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 – one separating non-Muslim mainstream Australians from Australian Muslims. Many Muslims condemned al-Hilali’s comments.
Those who wanted the cleric gone blame him for being out of touch with Australian values.
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.
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.
Al-Hilali may not have spoken faultless textbook English but his imagery may equally be shared by many Westernised members of the community.
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?
I could not pretend to have a ready answer, if there is one.
All the same, al-Hilali made me realise that language is largely an understanding between members of a community that they share the meanings assigned to certain symbols.
When the community does not like the symbols they can change them because they are the ones that created them.
Like English, Arabic can be whatever its speakers want it to be. It is mostly a reflection on the state of mind of its people.
Australian Muslims and others have said that leaders in al-Hilali’s position must have a good command of English.
It could also be recommended that they command an Arabic adapted to the ways of a new world – more concrete, with fewer flourishes, subtle but not evasive, shaped to a different sensibility.
In this it would be true to its own history – an intellectual and social instrument which encountered many worlds and mastered them.
Of those worlds Australia could be the latest, and not the last.
Abe W. Ata was a temporary delegate to the UN in 1970 and has lived and worked in the Middle East, United States and Australia. He founded the Victorians for Racial Equality and is a senior fellow/associate professor at the Institute for the Advancement of Research at Australian Catholic University.
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