When I was growing up in the Chicagoland area, my father would tell me stories when we went shopping, scanning the produce aisle for the perfect bag of green grapes. On one of those trips, he told me that Neil Armstrong was a Muslim. According to my father, the American astronaut converted to Islam after hearing “Allahu Akbar,” or God is Greater, and the Islamic call to prayer when he took his first steps on the moon. It turns out my father, like many Muslims around the world, fell for an urban legend.
Despite the repetition of a widely-circulated myth, I have grown to appreciate my father’s effort to instill a sense of pride in us, and to normalize our Muslim identity. It was his personal struggle, or jihad, to raise his two daughters with a solid understanding of our Islamic history as our family lived in a country suspicious of us.
My parents were hyper-aware of how much Muslims were feared, unnecessarily, in America: The town where our family’s business had once been was under one of the biggest counterterrorism surveillance programs in the United States: Operation Vulgar Betrayal. So while Armstrong was not Muslim, the moral of my father’s story was simple: “Allahu Akbar” isn’t something we should be afraid of saying, because after all God is greater than anyone and all of us.
And yet, conservatives and anti-Muslim polemicists insist on characterizing “Allahu Akbar” as an Islamic battle cry. In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s Manhattan attack, self-proclaimed Christian and right-wing commentators unleashed a (by now routine) assault on God. Michelle Malkin lamented the expression, referring it to “Allahu Akbar-itis.” On Wednesday, Sean Hannity and Sean Gorka went after CNN’s Jake Tapper for saying the Arabic expression is “beautiful.” (Tapper said that “Allahu Akbar” is “used under the most beautiful circumstances,” which is an indisputable fact.)
Tapper later backtracked on this statement. He accused Fox News of lying and tweeted that he, in fact, had never said Allahu Akbar is a “beautiful phrase,” as if it is wrong to think so. While Tapper might be well-intentioned with his tweet, he inadvertently perpetuates this Islamophobic notion that the Arabic expression is something worthy of suspicion.
Tapper would’ve been better off mentioning that while conservative media misquoted him, the news that came out of his initial comments shouldn’t even have been considered controversial. Because “Allahu Akbar” is—or can be—a beautiful phrase.
“Allahu Akbar” unites over 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, who all speak different dialects and languages, as well as Arab Greek Orthodox and Christians who use the expression. It’s a versatile, humble phrase, said about 100 times a day during our five daily prayers. It’s whispered into a newborn’s ear. It’s muttered as the last words before one’s death. It’s said at the sight of a beautiful sunset or a starry night, and roared during moments of chaos and strife. It’s a reminder that no matter how invincible or vulnerable we feel, God—the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful—is greater than all other powers and has always sought out the best for us.
When it comes to certain Arabic phrases, we’ve seen Islamophobic reactions from other liberals and centrists before; Tapper’s comments are just the most recent example. Just look at Family Guy with their detonated Palestinian alarm clock scene. (The alarm clock screams “Allahu Akbar!” before blowing up the Griffin family home.) More concerning, however, are the liberal or left-leaning publications offering their platforms to allow noted anti-Muslim fanatics to criminalize Arabic expressions.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a favorite among some white feminists, has weaponized “Allahu Akbar” to advocate revoking the First Amendment rights of Muslims in the United States. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, Asra Nomani—a self-proclaimed “lifelong liberal”—wrote in the Washington Post that “Inshallah,” or “God willing” in Arabic, is a “red flag.” And of course, Bill Maher, an atheist liberal who thought the N-word was a “comedian thing,” had something to say: “Every time some bomb goes off, before it goes off, somebody yells ‘Allahu Akbar!’” Maher said during his HBO “Real Time” panel in March. “I never hear anybody go ‘Merry Christmas! This one’s for the flying nun!”
The grim irony is that Christian fanatics and white supremacists do have their own version of “Allahu Akbar.” It’s just that liberals—like Nomani and Maher—refuse to acknowledge it. “Deus Vult,” the Latin Phrase for “God wills it,” was first said by Pope Urban II in 1095 at the start of the First Crusade.
And while “Allahu Akbar” was never intended as a battle cry, “Deus Vult” was used as justification to slaughter Muslims and Jews in the Holy Land. Today “Deus Vult” is a common hashtag used among the far-right. It is used to strike fear in the hearts of Muslims in the U.S., whether that’s at a college campus in Maine or at a mosque in Arkansas. The “Deus Vult” mentality also led three white men who called themselves “the Crusaders” to plot a bombing at a Somali mosque and housing complex in Kansas. White terrorists chanted phrases like “you will not replace us,” “white culture,” “white lives matter,” and “heritage” before they physically assaulted people of color, on the day one killed Heather Heyer, a counter protester at a Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But, unfortunately, the onus falls on Muslims too. We shouldn’t allow the stigma surrounding “Allahu Akbar” to victimize us or force us to whisper the expression quietly. Our concern shouldn’t be about making white liberals feel comfortable, but to ensure that the criminalization of our speech won’t hinder our civil liberties—like in Italy, where a Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro said anyone who shouts “Allahu Akbar” will get shot. In our fight for free expression, we should look to none other than the most beloved American Muslim that ever lived: Muhammad Ali.
In my room, hanging on the wall across my bed, is a framed poster of Ali holding a copy of Muhammad Speaks, once the official journal for the Nation of Islam, with a headline that reads “Allah is the Greatest.” It serves as a reminder every time I wake up in the morning that even Ali—who, at the boiling point of the Civil Rights Era, convinced America that a black man was “the greatest” and also submitted to one God. He was never afraid to shout “Allahu Akbar.” Ali was proud to say it and the world loved him for it.
Sarah Harvard is a Muslim-American journalist based in New York City primarily covering religion, race, and its intersection with politics.