The Arab Spring Is Lost in Translation: Why We Need a New Breed of Arabists

17/12/2012 10:48 GMT | Updated 13/02/2013 10:12 GMT

A recent Observer article quoted the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, as saying "we don't kill Jews because they are Jews. We kill the Zionists because they are conquerors..." Ali Abunimah from Electronic Intifada called it "a blatant mistranslation". The correct translation as anyone who knows even rudimentary Arabic will tell you is: "we don't fight Jews because they are Jews. We fight Zionists because they are conquerors..." Either the Observer was blatantly insincere, used Google translate, or made a genuine slip up. Assuming that it was the latter since they amended the article pretty quickly, it shows how such a blunder changes the whole thrust of Meshal's speech and moreover misrepresents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, the slip up also raises important questions about the need for competent Arabists with an understanding of the cultural milieu that Arabic stems from. This is especially important in the light of the Arab Spring where Islamists like Rashid Ghannouchi with a background in philosophy can move from Western political thought to Islamic political discourse with ease. It is for the Arabists to temper sensationalist newspaper headlines about the Syrian government preparing for "the mother of all battles". It is the Arabists who should explain to policy makers that this form of posturing is a common rhetorical and literary device in Arabic and does not necessarily mean Armageddon or a clash of civilizations.

This sort of expertise is essential in diplomacy. For instance in a BBC Radio Five interview Zaytuna College director, Hamza Yusuf Hanson, who spent many years in the Arab world, recalls how he was able to dissuade the Bush administration from calling their military operation Infinite Justice. The name would pretty much offend Arab Muslim and Christian sensibilities in the Middle East because taking on the attribute of the 'Infinite' in Arabic is reserved for God alone. One hopes that the last thing the US wants to do as it drops its bombs is to rub salt into the wounds by committing sacrilege as well.

"The need for culturally sensitive Arabists is vital in the current climate" says Dr. Stefan Sperl senior lecturer of Arabic at SOAS. This is also confirmed by a Brookings paper entitled 'Reformulating the Battle of Ideas'. It suggests that the US should engage the Muslim world more and would actually improve their counterterrorism measures if they were better versed in the classical Islamic tradition. For instance, demanding that Islamists run by a secular government may bring about defiant resistance since the separation of religion and state may be an alien concept. But change the language slightly and propose that the religious elite should not tinker with the state's prerogatives and instead form a consultative body and you might receive a favourable response. In fact, the Brookings paper even recommends incorporating the Muslim community as well as Islamic scholars in developing policies that reflect a more nuanced understanding that avoids dangerous oversimplification.

If the West had a better understanding of the parties it is dealing with in Syria, it would not support just moderate secular elements in the FSA and marginalize fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra for instance. Not only does it go against the advice of Mouaz al-Khatib, leader of the opposition, but it completely ignores religious currents that drive many men to join these groups. In many ways some, especially the foreign fighters, are moved by similar idealistic sentiments that made George Orwell, Laurie Lee and others go to Spain to fight in the 1930s.

However, if the West betrays and refuses to recognize this idealistic tendency in societies who still view the world through a religious lens you will have blow back. Abdul Bari Atwan, one of the few journalists who met Bin Laden, told me that one of the reasons that Bin Laden had such a vendetta against the US was because he felt betrayed by them. The best way to deal with these type of groups is through engagement. The fact that the West is making the same mistake it did in Afghanistan is telling of this lack of cultural nuance.

One of the reasons for this shortage of cultural understanding is because of the way universities offer their courses and the way students approach a language whose etymology is religion. Dr. Stefan Sperl points out that it is difficult to achieve a balance due to Arabic being so vast and complicated. Sperl says that "Modern course modules are torn between classical and the more communicative Modern Standard Arabic... the fact that courses are modular is a good thing, but can result in students emerging out of an Arabic degree with significant blanks so essential in understanding the Arab world".

Moreover many university students do not deal with the language of religion effectively enough because they come from societies that do not give religion much weight. In Middle Eastern society religion is ingrained. Consequently, Arabic cannot be taught in isolation from the culture that it stems from.

If one of the West's leading Arabist and historian Patricia Crone was lambasted by the late Professor of Arabic R.B Serjeant for her poor mastery of Arabic, what of those who have none of her experience? Relying on unqualified experts and poor translators can only lead to deep misunderstanding. The Orientalists of the early 20th century might not have the attitude conducive to the current climate but they certainly gave the phenomenally hard language its due - this is why Penrice, Wright, Arberry and others are still part of the canon of study and still found in Beiruti and Damascene bookshops.

Sir Gerald Howarth, a former MoD minister told me that "we need to invest in good Arabists in the UK so we know who the good and the bad guys are". The assessment might be somewhat simplistic but there is some truth to it. There is a dire need to invest in Arabists and rethink our university courses so the West is geared towards engaging with the new dynamic in the Middle East.