After hanging up the phone, I instantly felt the stares on my back; the weight of presumed suspicion descending on me. I realized “Allahu Akbar,” a phrase I so casually used, meant something dramatically different for those who heard it. As a brown and bearded man, “Allahu Akbar” coming from my lips signaled that I was a potential terrorist threat. That familiar feeling of guilt began to set in, even though I knew I did not do or say anything wrong.
“Allahu Akbar” is a core part of every Muslim American’s daily vernacular. It is uttered incessantly by the pious and the not so pious, Arab Muslims and Muslims of every race and nationality. In fact, the saying comes from the mouths of Arab Christians just as frequently as it does Muslims, literally meaning, “God is the greatest.” A proclamation of submission and devotion that also has inter-religious and universal appeal. The phrase was echoed by millions of Muslim Americans celebrating Eid al-Adha across the country, who proclaimed “Allahu Akbar” to declare their submission to God while performing the holiday prayers.
While the Trump administration has ushered in an intense climate of Islamophobia in the United States, the roots that give rise to the conflation of proclamations of God’s greatness with terrorism are centuries old in America. Long before Trump declared that “Islam hates us” or the Supreme Court upheld the executive order widely dubbed the “Muslim ban,” U.S. courts consistently conceived of Islam as an “enemy faith” that was antithetical to American democracy and citizenship.
From state policy to newsprint, television and film, the Arabic language has been inextricably tied to terrorism. Routine phrases such as “Inshallah” (God willing) and greetings such as “Al-Salaamu Alaikum” cause anxiety. Muslims have been ejected from airplanes, targeted by bigots and hate-mongers, and racially profiled at airports and beyond for saying these phrases, which are branded as threatening and cast with guilt. None more than “Allahu Akbar,” which became a fixture in conservative media coverage of the Middle East and domestic national security witch hunts, and just as prominently, Hollywood films. These recurring and overpowering misrepresentations stripped the phrase from its religious and routine meanings, and supplanted it with a popular understanding that “Allahu Akbar” foreshadowed a bomb, an attack or homegrown radicalization.
Eric Nagourney wrote in the New York Times in November that “Allahu Akbar” has “been seized by jihadists who claim that Islam justifies their attacks on innocent civilians in the name of God.” The phrase, Nagourney wrote, is “tarnished by attacks” committed by Muslim terrorists. This may be true in part, but assigning exclusive culpability with Muslim terrorists — real or imagined — without shifting any blame to reactionary policy, mass media and Islamophobia ignores much of the problem. ‘Allahu Akbar’ has been monopolized by the likes of televisions pundits such as Bill O’Reilly and Bill Maher as a symbol of oncoming horror, and featured as a trite yet staple cinematic trope announcing a hijacking or a suicide bomb in films such as “Executive Decision” and “American Sniper,” and a long string of box office hits old and new.
As I stood in the airport, fending off unfriendly looks and the possibility of extra questioning, I wondered whether intentionally abstaining from speaking Arabic was the safest choice. Certainly, refraining from saying “Allahu Akbar” in public spaces, particularly airports, would diminish the suspicious stares that came my way, or worse, the hateful violence it often invites in the United States. Or, do I choose the opposite course and unapologetically assert my Muslim American identity as authentically as possible, as the First Amendment allows me to do? The latter, certainly, felt like the right thing to do and is the position I typically assume. Yet, “Acting Muslim” and voicing its most quintessential proclamation can be dangerous propositions in Trump’s America, especially for immigrant, undocumented or poor segments of the population, and other Muslims who don’t hold a law degree or the ability to defend themselves, like I do.
For Muslims in America, we are existentially connected by having to navigate this tension, pitting the desire to freely be oneself against the wish to protect oneself from harm. Islamophobia restrains the free exercise of religions and stigmatizes speech. But choosing not to submit to it and rebel against it by proclaiming “Allahu Akbar” is both a right and a rising reality among a swelling crop of Muslims confronting the hate head on. I boarded my flight, proud to count myself among them. I will continue to say “Allahu Akbar.”