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The Hamburg Cell: close reading

[ by Charles Cameron -- a poorly subtitled movie, the ease of misreading & need for mindfulness in information gathering, a real world problem example, full quotation of one verse from the Qur'an, and changes in teaching the concept of jihad in Saudi ]
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I know, I know: it’s only a movie.

But it also offers us a glimpse into how easily we humans misread or mishear what’s in front of us. In this case, the film — about the cell in Hamburg that brought us Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Ziad Jarrah — gets the soundtrack right, but is misheard by whoever is doing the subtitles. And so the words “our Prophet, Muhammad Ibn Abdullah” are confused by the subtitle writer with the name of the 9/11 facilitator who is being introduced in white text at that point in the film — giving the seriously mangled transcription “our Prophet, Mohammed bin al-Shibh”…

Just a minute or two earlier in the film, the Qur’anic verse (9.5, spoken in the Yusuf Ali translation):

… fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)…

had been clearly enunciated on the soundtrack, and became:

Seize them, believe in them, and lie in wait for them, this is strategy in war.

in the subtitles. Believe in the pagans? Really? In the Qur’an? Or does beleaguer them make just a little more sense?

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I know, I know: it’s only a movie.

But do you remember the incident I mentioned in January, in a piece on the (needless) bombing of the (historic, not to mention consecrated) Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino?

The bombing appears to have been authorized on the basis of a mistranslation. An intelligence intercept of the question “Ist Abt in Kloster?” — “is the Abbot in the Monastery” — was translated by the US as though Abt was short for Abteil, “Is the HQ in the Abbey?” The recorder answer “Ja” then led to the bombing.

As it turned out later, “Until the moment of the destruction of the Monte Cassino abbey there was within the area … neither a German soldier, nor any German weapon, nor any German military installation.”

So here’s my main point:

It takes extraordinary human diligence to give oneself a decent chance to avoid human error…

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But I’m not done yet.

For what it is worth, the Qur’anic verse 9.5 cited above begins with a qualification that’s applicable only to the world of the Prophet’s time, in which certain months were considered sacred, and warfare prohibited — not only by the Prophet and his Companions, but by all the surrounding tribes.

A literal reading of the text, therefore, gives quite a different and more historically focused and geographically circumscribed impression to the one given by the jihadist instructor in the film:

But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

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It’s worth noting that Saudi Arabia is about to introduce the concept of jihad, properly understood, to younger (“intermediate level”) school children. The article in Arab News today discussing this change is headed:

Concept of jihad to be made clear to younger students

and begins:

In a move likely to be welcomed by parents and educationists, the Ministry of Education has decided to introduce the concept of jihad in Islamic jurisprudence textbooks at the intermediate school level.

Abdullah Al-Dukhaini, a spokesman for the Education Ministry, told Arab News that the ministry decided to move the teaching of jihad from the high school level to intermediate school because intermediate students are prepared to learn the “correct concept of jihad” before “erroneous concepts” reach them.

One has to read almost of the bottom of the longish piece, though, to find out what this “correct concept of jihad” might be — here’s their version:

Al-Dukhaini said the ministry wants to teach students that jihad is only permissible when defending against aggressors, and with the approval of the country’s ruler and parents.

Textbooks include a warning to pupils that the only one entitled to “raising the banner of Jihad” is the ruler and no one else. No individual Muslim or a Muslim group is permitted to do so.

Once the appropriate textbooks have been published, it will be interesting to see the various translations offered for the relevant passages and the kinds of interpretation they call forth from different points of the compass…

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h/t for the Saudi education pointer, John Burgess at Crossroads Arabia.

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2 Responses to “The Hamburg Cell: close reading”

  1. Kumail Says:

    This verse is clearly tactical advice for Muhammad and his followers, not a general principle. But in the end it doesn’t matter, people will always take from religion what they want to in a particular situation. 
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    The Saudis don’t seem to mind fueling jihad against the ruler of Syria. I think this is more about preempting domestic threats to the kingdom than it is about a genuine desire to prune the implications of jihad in the Muslim World. Still, good move for them. 

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’d hoped to respond at greater length, but time presses on.  Thanks for this comment, Kumail — I suspect you’re right on all counts.


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