LONDON, Sept. 18, 2006 -- Three words suddenly have a lot of Westerners worried and, it must be said, likely making some wrong assumptions about modern Islam. "Yaum al Ghadab" is Arabic for "Day of Rage."
When the Qatari Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi called for a Day of Rage this Friday in response to Pope Benedict XVI's remarks about Muslims, it might have sounded like a call for street violence.
But if there is trouble Friday, and there could well be, it will not be because of language but because of what some people choose to do after they have answered the call for "Yaum al Ghadab."
Political manipulation of protest crowds is not a uniquely Islamic idea. It happens in the West, as well.
But why do Islamic leaders use what many Westerners regard as inflammatory language?
Because it is not inflammatory, at least not in the context of Islamic culture. "We must not try to interpret Islamic terms and cultural signals by using our Western ideas," said Fawaz Gerges, a professor in the department of international affairs and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College, and an ABC News consultant. Gerges pointed out that in Islamic culture "ghadab" means anger or frustration. A day of rage does not mean a day of jihad (war), added Gerges.
Mimi Daher, a Muslim woman working in the ABC Jerusalem bureau, explained that the Grand Multi in Jerusalem reflected this cultural mindset today when he said, "Muslims have to express their anger. Was the pope expecting Muslims to clap their hands to him while hurting their faith and prophet? Of course not. We call on Muslims throughout the world to react in a disciplined manner, according to our Islamic faith."
"Disciplined manner" is a repeated theme among Islamic moderate leaders who encourage people to protest. As Gerges reminded me, when the cleric al-Qaradawi called for a day of rage, he stressed repeatedly that it should be civilized, urging Muslims to behave with civility and dignity. "We must show the world that we are still civilized even when we are aggrieved," he said.
Even so, shouldn't Westerners be worried about the use of words like "rage"? As an ABC News Muslim colleague of mine in Egypt, Hala Abukhatwa, put it, "'Yaum al Ghadab' means 'come to the streets,' 'protest,' maybe 'burn a flag.' But it doesn't mean hurt someone. In our culture, expressions are usually in black and white, not nuanced like in the West," she continued. "We are either happy or we are sad, glad or angry. We don't say 'come to the streets and be ambivalent.'"
She went on to say that the concept of public protest is a relatively new, and a very Western, idea. In the Islamic world, historically, autocratic rulers suppressed public protests, not because they were Islamic leaders but because they were repressive. If you took to the streets in those days, you had to be pretty darn angry, or enraged, to risk the backlash of a repressive regime.
So a day of rage, as a term, is deeply rooted. Freedom of expression, freedom to protest peacefully, has improved in parts of the Islamic world, but the old words, the old terms of reference, are so deeply rooted in the language that "Yaum al Ghadab" is still used.
And what about the brittleness of Muslims over criticism of the Prophet Mohammed? Many in the West have a hard time getting their head around the idea that any leader is above ridicule.
There are at least two important reasons why Muslims react with such passion when the Prophet is called into question. First, to Muslims, Mohammed represents an absolutism. His is the absolute prophecy. To question that is to challenge the foundation of their belief system. As for Westerners making jokes about Christ, or movies that question the teachings of the church, many devout Muslims will ask, "Why don't the Christians defend their prophet more vigorously? Just because some of you Christians don't stick up for your Christ, don't ridicule us for sticking up for Mohammed."
A second important factor is a widespread perception in the Islamic world that Muslims and, by extension, Islam, are being targeted by the West. Gerges said Muslims hear the pope's words in that broader context. "Many believe that the pope has given Christian religious cover to a Western onslaught led by the U.S. government, and President Bush in particular."
The fact that Washington denies this widespread Muslim perception of a modern day "crusade" against Islam in the name of a war on terror does not seem to cut a lot of mustard on the Islamic street.
When a cleric calls for 'Yaum al Ghadab,' it is heard far and wide.