by Skip Conover Copyright 2010 Donald L. Conover (Twitter: @skip_conover)
It’s time to dial down the rhetoric on both sides of the confrontation between Islam and the West. All of us may think negative things about other people, but our public face is different. This is common in the human experience. We all must be careful about how we say or write things, so as not to cause unintended consequences.
Last week Rev.(?) Terry Jones nearly caused Armageddon by threatening to burn the Koran. He was quickly silenced and stopped by leaders all over the World: Muslims, Christians, and millions of others concerned with bringing the World to an Age of Peace. That’s why I was startled when I read an Arabic comment that called it a “Victory for Islam!” I quickly retorted, “You mean a ‘Victory for Civilization’ don’t you?”
Google Translate® is a game changer! In that moment I realized that it will cause a major change in the discourse between Islam and the West. This is, of course, from my point of view, being a native English speaker, who does not speak, read or write Arabic.
Until now, the rest of the World has had relatively total visibility on our discourse in the West, because many people read English as a second language. As a result, when some “crazy” like Terry Jones decides to raise money for his church by committing blasphemy everyone in the World hears about it in every language in the World.
The same has not been true in the other direction. Though I speak and read two Asian languages, Japanese and Chinese, I rarely look at anything in those languages. I know I would have to spend hours with my dictionary. That problem is now solved! In the last few days, I have translated this blog into Arabic, Urdu, Malay, and Turkish. I would use Farsi as well, but that is not one of the 57 languages that allow this instant approach. No, the translations are not always perfect, but they are certainly far better than I could achieve using my dictionary, even if I had a Ph.D. in the relevant target language.
The implications of this “Aha!” moment are both good and bad. I have known that much of the discourse in the Muslim World has been relatively inflammatory toward the West. This is true of both blogs and newspapers, to name only two sources of information. Nonetheless, Muslims have essentially not been called on their rhetoric because few of us could read it. That is all changed now, for better or worse.
My wife suggested that I not write this piece, for fear I will be blamed for lighting off a storm of criticism of Muslim discourse from the West. My view is that the storm is coming, so I might as well offer a warning to my many Muslim friends, so that they can start to temper their rhetoric, both in their own homes, and in the media at large.
I have always regarded Arab News as an instrument of moderation and fair reporting. I thought its editorial of September 11, 2010, “A threat to us all,” was quite sensible, as usual. Its online version received an immediate comment, however. One N. Frank commented as follows: “… instead of speaking the language of PEACE, instead of speaking about reconciliation, instead of thanking and appreciating all those responsible for defusing this explosive situation, instead of advising those Muslims, who are still protesting, ignorant of the end of this problem, who ever wrote the editorial is bent upon creating a war between the Muslims and the non Muslims, specially the christians. I pray to Allah to give you the wisdom to speak of peace instead of war.” I am sure “speaking of war” was not the intent of the author of the editorial, but nonetheless, nerves are frayed and too many of us are wearing our religion on our sleeves.
Such comments can cause writers to reexamine their approach to a story or editorial, and perhaps use a different approach the next time. I regard that as quite positive, and an appropriate part of the process of having common understanding. It is the very essence of our 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which causes a noisy and messy discourse in the United States, but has produced a very strong country, like tempering steel—the process of pounding out the imperfections. I am sure the editor was not offended by the comment.
I am sure I need not go into vivid detail about how positive criticism can easily devolve into something far worse. This was my wife’s immediate intuition and concern.
I call on everyone who can read this to take greater pains in how you say and write things, wherever you are in the World. The World may be listening and watching for insult.