Charles Cameron, who has appeared here before, is the former Senior Analyst with The Arlington Institute and Principal Researcher with the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. He specializes in forensic theology, with a deep interest in millennial, eschatological and apocalyptic religious sects of all stripes.
Charles will be doing a new series of posts here at Zenpundit that will drill down into the important but often elusive religious-cultural connections that impact American national security and foreign policy issues.
Very pleased to have him aboard:
SPEAK THE LANGUAGES, KNOW THE MODES OF THOUGHT:
by Charles Cameron
SSgt. David Flaherty, currently deployed as the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team’s public information officer, is to be congratulated on speaking Pashto. But Wired‘s Danger Room comment, “The fact that this is considered newsworthy and exceptional — a U.S. military officer speaks one of the official languages of Afghanistan! — doesn’t reflect well on the national commitment to Afghanistan” is also to the point.
A couple of other recent items in the news about languages and translation at home and abroad should concern us.A report from the US Department of Justice on the FBI’s Translation Project was less than enthusiastic, not only finding that significant quantities of material collected in the Bureau’s highest-priority counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence collection categories were never evaluated, but that the number of translators inn the FBI pool had diminished since a 2005 audit, that in 2008 the FBI met its hiring goals for linguists in only 2 of its 14 critical languages, that security clearance and language proficiency training for a new linguist took 19 months before hiring could take place, and that 70 percent of the FBI’s own linguists in the field offices tested did not attend the FBIs required training course.
And retired and renowned Marine colonel Thomas X. Hammes was quoted in a recent piece on CBC News about allegations of “botched” translations in the Afghan theater leading NATO troops to faulty conclusions as saying, “We’re willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make sure ice cream and steak is there, and I would trade all of that for my entire tour if I could have one decent translator. Many times I’d trade body armor for a translator.”I want to suggest, though, that there is another aspect to this business. I was reminded of it when reading the FBI complaint against Luqman Ameen Abdullah and others connected with the recent events in Detroit. The complaint includes the phrase, “Abdullah also said that thegovernment plots and plans against them so they need to plot and plan in return”. The complaint doesn’t mention it, but that’s an echo of the words of the Qur’an, 8.30:
“And when those who disbelieve plot against thee (O Muhammad) to wound thee fatally, or to kill thee or to drive thee forth; they plot, but Allah (also) plotteth; and Allah is the best of plotters.”
What this suggests to me is that we need to be able to speak / read not only spoken or written languages of our sources, suspects, informants and opponents — but also the language or underlying logic of their thought. A close reading of the Detroit complaint’s text in association with that of the Qur’an gives us an understanding that Abdullah views his plotting as aligned with Allah’s. This in itself may not seems surprising, but it suggests a manner of reading that may prove fruitful in other occasions, and that’s the point I want to make.
Whatever the merits of the particular case of Luqman Abdullah — and I note that some respected analysts have their questions about that — it will be found to hold true in general that jihadist thought moves along Qur’anic pathways as surely as jihadist behavior parallels the behavior of Mohammed. A keen awareness of both will thus allow us to understand where the touching of familiar chords is most apt to stir the hearts of fellow believers, and hence strengthen the bonds of community and dedication between them.
When bin Laden retreated to the caves of Tora Bora, he was following in his Prophet’s footsteps, as Lawrence Wright masterfully showed in *The Looming Tower*. His spoken words often follow Qur’anic precedent in much the same way.Bin Laden’s address to the US just before the 2004 elections was a case in point for me. I read three translations (CNN, MEMRI, Al-Jazeera), none of which included the Qur’anic citation that headed the whole thing, and figured out what it must be from the repeated echoes in the text, notably “and just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours”.
That put me very strongly in mind of Qur’an 2.194:
“For the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.”
Okay, I could figure out that bin Laden had this passage in mind as I read the transcripts of his address — but it wasn’t until I saw ABC’s transcript that I could confirm that Bin laden did indeed reference that verse directly.
Which powerfully reinforces the idea that bin Laden views his jihad against the US in terms of measured reciprocity — a notion which should give us pause every time we take an action which we would not choose to have taken against us…
And how good are we at this kind of “reading in parallel” — both abroadand at home?
To return to the Detroit affair, as UCLA’s Jean Rosenfeld pointed out, the NYT report on the event contained the phrase “a faction of a group called the Ummah, meaning the Brotherhood” — a completely misleading
translation which might suggest ties with the Egyptian “Muslim Brotherhood” — when the plain meaning of “Ummah” is the transnational community of Muslims. The New York Times is our newspaper of record.
The Times, in turn, was likely paraphrasing the FBI’s own press release, which speaks of “part of a group which calls themselves Ummah (‘the brotherhood’)”. It’s notable, though, that there is no mention of the
“brotherhood” in the entire 45 pages of the actual FBI complaint, written by those more closely involved with the investigation.
What the complaint itself does say is that the name “Ummah” was used as a cover for the movement’s real name, the “Dar-ul-Islam Movement“.
Okay, that’s a beginning…
And still our transcriptions of jihadist messages all too often omit religious content. Indeed, when the Joint Forces Command asked Jim Lacey to edit abu Musab al-Suri’s massive Call to Global Islamic Resistance for publication in English translation, he (rightly) produced a condensed version, but (wrongly, IMO) “also removed most of the repetitive theological justifications undergirding” al-Suri’s project.
[ Zen ed. Note: copy released to general public as A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad: Deciphering Abu Musab al-Suri’s Islamic Jihad Manifesto by Jim Lacey]
Lacey’s work is still a significant contribution, as I intend to detail in an upcoming review. But the omission of almost all trace of al-Suri’s significant messianic-Mahdist content, as you’d expect, leaves me wincing.
We need to be able to “read” jihad — this really shouldn’t need saying, eight years after 9/11, ten after Nairobi and Dar — against its Islamic background.