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The effectiveness of my colleague Pamela Geller in raising awareness of the issues surrounding the mega-mosque at Ground Zero and Islamic supremacism in general is proven by the fury of the mainstream media attacks on her. The New York Times has been pursuing her for weeks, culminating in a lengthy and slyly contemptuous profile that ran last Sunday. And now Jeffrey Goldberg has attacked her in his October 13 blog in The Atlantic, conscripting neocon Middle East expert Reuel Gerecht as an expert witness to remedy his own ignorance about the issues he raises.
Goldberg assaults Geller for having “leveled serious charges against Islam” in the recent Times interview, chief among them that “Muslims curse Jews and Christians during their five-times-a day prayer” and that “the Qur’an has never been properly translated,” which Goldberg claims amounts to “insinuating that it contains dark secrets about Muslims and their religious responsibilities.” Adds Goldberg: “This last bit struck me as outrageous, because, as a Jew, Geller should know that anti-Semites have spent nearly two thousand years insinuating that the Talmud contains secret instructions guiding the alleged Jewish attempt to dominate the world. To make the same unsupported charge against Islam is egregious.”
Yet in reality it is Goldberg, not Geller, who is talking about Muslims having “secret instructions” directing them to try to “dominate the world.” All that Geller has said is that the Qur’an hasn’t been properly translated; Goldberg invents what she was “insinuating.” He obviously doesn’t feel he has the intellectual bona fides to close the deal, and so calls on Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and expert on Islam, for a little help. Gerecht, who admits to “an embarrassing ignorance about Pamela Geller,” should have ignored Goldberg’s invitation to pile on.
Gerecht admits that Geller’s concern about the harm that Islamic jihadists can do is “estimable,” but validates Goldberg’s criticism of her by going on to say that this concern “is no excuse for agitprop and what amounts to a slur against some of the greatest scholars of the twentieth century.” What slur? He is referring here to Geller’s comments to the Times about the accuracy of translations of the Qur’an and what Muslims pray about, jumping to the conclusion that in noting the inaccuracy of many Qur’an translations, Geller was intending to insult the scholars who produced those translations.
Gerecht says somewhat snidely that since Geller doesn’t know Arabic, she must be assuming that there is some sort of “scholarly conspiracy” on the part of Qur’an translators to hide the truth about Islam in their translations of the Qur’an. And he adds:
One has to ask whether Ms. Geller has perused the translation masterpiece by Cambridge’s late great A.J. Arberry or my personal favorite, the awesomely erudite, more literal translation and commentary by Edinburgh’s late great Richard Bell? Both gentlemen are flag-waving members of Edward Said’s most detested species–Orientalists. Now if you look at these translations–especially if you look at Bell’s, which is blessed with exhaustive notes in a somewhat complicated formatting–even the uninitiated can get an idea that Muhammad had trouble with Christians and especially Jews during his life. If you look at the Qur’anic commentary by Edinburgh’s late great William Montgomery Watt (another Orientalist), who was always attentive to Muslim sensibilities in his writings, you can also fine [sic] in clear English Muhammad’s unpleasant ruminations about Christians and Jews.
A.J. Arberry’s is indeed an outstanding and accurate translation. Arberry, however, was not a Muslim, and accordingly his translation is not often used by Muslims, and when a non-Muslim cites it or other translations written by non-Muslims (such as N. J. Dawood’s excellent edition for Penguin), Islamic apologists tend to dismiss it with the palpably false mystification that a non-Muslim cannot be trusted to render the Qur’an accurately or adequately. Thus in order to take that rhetorical weapon out of their hands, I generally use translations written by Muslims and for Muslims in my work, and these are the ones generally also used and cited by Muslims themselves.
Pamela Geller only told The New York Times interviewer that “a true translation, an accurate translation of the Koran, is really not available in English, according to many of the Islamic scholars that I’ve spoken to.” No dark conspiracy theories about hidden content. That was all she said. And she’s generally correct. In fact, some of the translations by Muslims are particularly flawed. The widely read Qur’an rendered by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, for instance, is at some points a transparently apologetic whitewash. In 4:34, the verse enjoining the beating of disobedient women, he has “beat them (lightly),” although “lightly” does not appear in the Arabic. Ali and another popular Muslim translation, that of Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, both use a stilted pseudo-King James Bible English, moreover, that frequently cloaks in obscurity passages that are hair-raising in Arabic. (Indicating their popularity is the fact that Ali and Pickthall are two of the three translations available on the popular and useful University of Southern California Muslim Students Association Islamic reference website.)
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