(CNSNews.com) - In his interview with al-Arabiya on Tuesday, President Obama said he intended to send a message that America is willing to forge a new partnership with the Arab world.
“(W)hat I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I've come to understand is that regardless of your faith -- and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers -- regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams,” Obama told Hisham Melhem, the Washington Bureau Chief for al-Arabiya.
But mentioning “non-believers” to a Muslim audience was dicey, according to some experts on Arabic and Arab culture, given the fact that to some Muslims and nations, “non-believer” is synonymous with “infidel.”
Dr. Walid Phares, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert on Islamism, told CNSNews.com that the typical word Arabic translators would use for the term “non-believer” is “kaffir” – a word which means “atheist” or “infidel.”
The Obama interview was in English, and for broadcast in the Arab world, the Dubai-based, Saudi-owned Arabic TV network chose not to interpret “non-believer” to mean “atheist.” That term would not have endeared him to the Muslim world, Phares said.
“The Arabic translation avoided the use of kaffir, they translated it ‘non-believer’ -- “ghayr al-mu’meen,” Phares said. “This (was) to be politically correct. In Islamic thinking, non-believers are infidels, but they (al-Arabiya)did not put ‘infidel’ -- they put ‘non-believer.’ They didn’t want to use that other term.”
Had someone else but the president of the United States used the word “non-believer,” the term would likely have been translated differently, Phares posited.
Dr. Ahmad Dallal, a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, said he believes the TV network was simply reflecting the “diversity” of opinions on religious belief that is currently found in the Arab world.
“The attitude of Muslims in the Middle East toward belief is as diverse as you would find anywhere else,” Dallal told CNSNews.com. “It’s not exactly the same as it is here, but there are Muslims who are cultural Muslims but are not practicing, there are Muslims who are born Muslims, but who really don’t care much about religion – so you have the whole spectrum. You have people who are a little observant but are tolerant of others who aren’t – and you have people who are very conservative and observant and who wouldn’t like non-believers.”
Even if translators had used “kaffir,” Dallal said he doesn’t think it would have triggered calls for violence.
But Phares, author of “Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies Against America,” said Obama shouldn’t kid himself – despite the fact that al-Arabiya was being “helpful,” his words are going to be translated in many different ways all over the Middle East.
“This is the Mideast, mot the Midwest,” Phares said. “Obama is speaking in English, but it is going to be translated -- and it’s in the hands of those who are translating it.
“He may be speaking to al-Arabiya, but he will be followed by dozens of talking heads, and commentators and analysts, and the majority of those commentators are not going to be pro-American. Most of them, especially in the region, are very critical of the United States – some sympathetic to jihadist propaganda.”
According to the 9/11 Commission report, followers of extremist Islamist groups like Osama bin Laden’s al-Qai’da consider themselves to be “takfiri” – “those who define others as unbelievers” and who are prepared to demonize and murder unbelievers.
Calls to Al-Arabiya's Hisham Melham were not returned.