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Sycophantic Sykes

Israel Insider brings us this email exchange between a BBC listener and news executive on the use of the word inshallah (Arabic for “God willing”)  by Hugh Sykes, BBC Mideast reporter on the station’s Radio Four’s PM program.

Dear BBC,

Please find below copies of the e-mails I have exchanged with Roger Sawyer of the PM programme regarding Hugh Sykes’s casual use of inshallah in a report to his British audience on March 23, 2007.

I find it extraordinary that a reporter for the BBC can so casually use inshallah as an equivalent for ‘God willing’ or ‘with any luck’ when addressing a British audience. Why should he do this? As a special effort at empathy? You must remember that many of those hoping to kill British and American soldiers, as well as innocent Iraqis, will be using the same expression regularly, and with religious intent. I have heard such fanatics do the same when interviewed by the BBC.

Using inshallah to show empathy to Muslim Iraqis is something, I suspect, that is quite lost on Sykes’s British audience, who will not hear it as a simple bonjour or ‘goodbye’ as Mr Sawyer asserts, but rather as a devout wish by a believer in Islam.

Sykes’s inshallah is an example of cultural cringe, or sycophancy, or simply adopting the psychology of the adversary – a mental strategy well-known in times of stress – but to be avoided, especially when, for example, a young student at Clare College, Cambridge, remains in hiding for fear of his life because he dared crack a joke about Islam in his college paper…

His head will still be on his neck in the months to come, inshallah!

Yours Sincerely
Brian Gilbert

The correspondence follows:

Dear PM,

Did I hear correctly – did Hugh Sykes in his report from Baghdad on Friday 23.3.07 say inshallah, personally, and not as a quotation? Has he converted to Islam? I think we should know. Or is he using inshallah casually as one might the English phrase ‘God willing’ which in contemporary usage has little religious content? Can inshallah be so used – drained of religious content? Or does Sykes intend it piously?

It is shocking to hear BBC reporters, who have a duty of impartiality, using religious phrases as their own from faiths they do not in fact share. Is it to become the fashion for non-Muslim reporters (many of whom may be atheists), to say ‘The Prophet, Peace be upon him’? The BBC should be clear to its listeners about this. If there is to be a mouthing of religious phrases in an effort at cultural ingratiation this should be a declared policy, and you should inform your listeners about it.

Yours sincerely
Brian Gilbert

Dear Mr Gilbert,

Thank you for your email. I don’t agree that Hugh’s use of inshallah was shocking. As I am sure you are aware, the phrase is used constantly, very often fatalistically, as an expression of hope that a certain course of events comes to pass and is not necessarily religiously loaded. It was not inappropriate for Hugh to use it.

If you wish to take your complaint further, details of how to do so can be found at: www.bbc.co.uk/complaints

Yours sincerely,
Roger Sawyer

Dear Roger,

When I hear reporters on Al Jazeera using ‘For Jesus Christ’s sake’ or Deo volente or Shalom I might begin to regard inshallah as value neutral. Until then, you’re kidding yourself and your listeners – and poor old sentimental, lugubrious Hugh Sykes has, in the old unfortunate phrase, ‘gone native’ …

Sincerely
Brian Gilbert

Dear Mr Gilbert,

I’ve heard Hugh say Shalom to someone during an interview. It’s about empathy and has no more significance than his using bonjour in a piece from France. Or indeed, a foreign reporter saying ‘goodbye’ in English, meaning as it does ‘God be with you’.

As I mentioned in my first email, there is a mechanism for you to escalate your complaint.

Yours sincerely,
Roger Sawyer

Dear Roger,

Thanks for your reply. Empathy is good, although in this case Hugh was not speaking to his Iraqi but to his Radio 4 audience. Let’s hope Al Jazeera’s reporters show similar cultural empathy in their dealings….

Best wishes
Brian Gilbert

As Israel Insider notes:

It might be uncontroversial for a BBC journalist to say inshallah to his Arab friends when having a chat, though BBC reporters in Israel don’t tend to say baruch hashem, the Hebrew equivalent, to Israeli Jews.

It is completely different, however, when a BBC reporter uses inshallah as part of an English language broadcast to BBC listeners broadcast throughout England. BBC journalists would never say baruch hashem on the BBC in England.

G-d save the Queen Britain.

About the author

Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
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