What does Lashkar-e-Taiba mean?

India ShootingWhen covering foreign affairs (or even religion news), journalists often end up needing to mention the names of documents, institutions or groups — in the original language. Readers get used to seeing this.

For example, the Los Angeles Times recently ran an essay that referred to Pope Benedict XVI’s “just-released encyclical, ‘Caritas in Veritate’ (Love in Truth).” The logic is that some readers might know the meaning of that Latin phrase, but not many.

Over time, journalists assume that the meaning of certain foreign language phrases sink in at street level. It’s rare, for example, to see a translation these days of the 1968 papal encyclical, “Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life).”

I thought about this principle the other day while reading mainstream coverage of the trial of Ajmal Kasab, 21, the only surviving gunman from the Mumbai massacre. Kasab recently shocked Indian authorities by offering a full and very detailed confession about the crime and, it appears, his motives. Here is a chunk of the best story that I could find about that, by reporters Vikas Bajaj and Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times:

“I don’t think I am innocent,” he said, speaking in subdued Hindi. “My request is that we end the trial and be sentenced.”

For the better part of a day he held the courtroom spellbound: he portrayed himself as a poor Pakistani who joined the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba only for money. But in the end, the mission was martyrdom, inflicting the greatest amount of death and chaos along the way. He told the court how he and his partner had assembled a bomb in a public bathroom at a train station, then planted another bomb in a taxi.

What sets the Times story apart from other mainstream coverage is that it does not appear that the editors set out to scrub all religious language and information from the long and vivid testimony of the gunman.

Compare this Times report, for example, with this stunningly faith-free story from the Los Angeles Times. This report provides quite a bit of information about what the gunmen did, while saying absolutely nothing about what Kasab — as well as evidence from hours of taped telephone calls — revealed about their motivations.

This really hits home for me these days. While I was in India a few weeks ago, I heard Indian journalists make a powerful case for their own self-censorship, when it comes to reporting gritty details about the role that religion plays in their complex culture. The bottom line: Talking about religion can start riots and people may die. You can see the effects of this unstated rule in coverage of Kasab’s testimony, such as this Times of India story.

While I struggle to understand the journalistic realities of India, I have no idea why religion seems to be out of bounds in Los Angeles and other major U.S. media hubs, when covering this kind of story. It’s hard to carve the religious element out of the events in Mumbai.

Here is another strong passage from the New York Times report:

It is clear from the electronic record that the attackers seemed unworldly tools of their handlers. … A handler instructed a gunman, “For your mission to end successfully you must be killed.”

In the last recorded call just as the siege was about to end with an attack by Indian soldiers, a handler told one of the attackers at the Jewish community center: “Brother, you have to fight. This is a matter of the prestige of Islam.”

As one of the fighters lay bleeding, he told his handler: “I am shot, pray for me.” And then: “Pray that God will accept my martyrdom.”

I do, however, have one final question about these reports, in general. Simply stated: What does Lashkar-e-Taiba mean? Can journalists assume that readers know the meaning of this phrase?

I realize that there is some question about the proper translation of this term. Is it “Army of the good” or “Army of the pure”? Still, it would be harder to ignore the religious element of this ongoing story, and the tensions between India and Pakistan about it, if journalists defined this phrase and then explained it. This would help readers to understand a complex story, which is a public service that journalism is supposed to provide.

Honest. You can look it up.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    A couple of notes: First, this shows that to condemn any particular outlet, such as the NY Times, is a mistake. I think we’re better served by evaluating stories on their own merit. Sometimes, for example, I’ll even cite a Fox news story, strange though that might seem to some on my side of the political spectrum.

    Second, translation is an iffy business. I was kidding around with someone about his use of German by running it through google translate the other day. On a lark, I ran “I like you” through google translate. For Arabic, translating it to and from, I wound up with “love you” So good versus pure is an interesting question of meaning. I don’t know the language, but I can think of situations where pure and good are two sides of the same coin.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I hope your first note is to other readers of this blog, not to me. I praise the NYTs as much as I criticize it.

    You’re absolutely right on the second note. However, it is not an argument for no information on the question at all, is it?

  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina

    For example, the Los Angeles Times recently ran an essay that referred to Pope Benedict XVI’s “just-released encyclical, ‘Caritas in Veritate’ (Love in Truth).”

    The LA Times got it wrong then, since the translation of the encyclical’s title is Charity in Truth.”

  • Jerry

    Terry, yes, my comment was intended to refer to other posters on the blog not you nor your collegues. I should have been more explicit.

    Untangling your double negative, my point was that we should use caution in translation. Having ready access to top notch translators would be really useful in cases like this.

  • Jerry

    (Love in Truth).”

    The LA Times got it wrong then, since the translation of the encyclical’s title is Charity in Truth.”

    Even English can be tricky:-)

    Charity came into English from Latin and Old French, meaning love and care for our neighbours, benevolence for all. It has the same roots as “care” and “caress”. In the traditions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, charity is how we best express our love of God, by bestowing that love on our fellows, God’s creations.


  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina


    Absolutely right about “Caritas.” In fact, the Pope’s second encyclical on the nature of love, “Deus Caritas Est” is translated “God is Love.” The problem is that by not using the official English translation of the third encyclical, the LA Times ends up unintentionally conflating the two encyclicals for its readers.

  • Dave

    I struggle to understand the journalistic realities of India

    We just don’t have general topics here in the USA whose mere coverage can trigger lethal riots, despite the supposedly deep divisions in our society.