The recasting of the word “jihad” is one of the greatest propaganda triumphs of the 21st century. The contemporary spiritualizing of the word to mean merely something akin to an inner struggle would have been news to the half of the known world who were conquered by Islamic armies in the 7th , 8th and 9th centuries across southern Europe.
(For a fascinating treatment of what jihad was like in medieval Spain as it was being sacked by Muslim armies in the 8th century, you must read “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise,” a new book out by Dario Fernandez-Morera).
Thus, it’s no surprise that the use of the j-word by a Muslim activist caused quite a ruckus recently. As the Washington Post reported:
Linda Sarsour, a lead organizer of the Women’s March on Washington and one of the most high-profile Muslim activists in the country, gave an impassioned speech last weekend that at first gained little attention.
Speaking to a predominately Muslim crowd at the annual Islamic Society of North America convention in suburban Chicago, Sarsour urged her fellow Muslims to speak out against oppression.
In her speech, Sarsour told a story from Islamic scripture about a man who once asked Muhammad, the founder of Islam, “What is the best form of jihad, or struggle?
“And our beloved prophet … said to him, ‘A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad,'” Sarsour said.
“I hope that … when we stand up to those who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts from us that as a form of jihad, that we are struggling against tyrants and rulers not only abroad in the Middle East or on the other side of the world, but here in these United States of America, where you have fascists and white supremacists and Islamophobes reigning in the White House.”
I agree that one should be allowed to speak frankly to one’s own group, but Sarsour is smart enough to know that the word “jihad” carries a lot of baggage. Like this exchange on FoxNews shows, the anchor asks the same question about Sarsour’s wisdom in using that word.
On her Facebook page, Sarsour lauded the panelist who defended her with this:
Thank you Hassan for going in to the lion's den to defend me but moreso our community to reclaim our religious terms and speak freely to our people. We have every right to. While some are more worried about making folks feel comfortable and submitting to willful ignorance & bigotry, we will remain unapologetic Muslims.
Elsewhere on the same page, Sarsour said the issue was about "reclaiming our religion on our terms with our definitions." Sarsour was well aware of the doctrinal associations of the word.
Think about it. I'm curious what word she'd employ for what ISIS leaders believe they have been doing for the past three years. If not jihad, then what word would they use? No redefinition is going to pretty up that situation. Who gets to define the word for public use?
Perhaps if Sarsour had called for jihad against another entity, the fallout would not be so bad, but she employed the term against the Trump White House. The Post added that Sarsour, in a separate interview, vowed that she was only talking about peaceful dissent. It did question Sarsour’s judgment a tad further down in the piece.
Some on social media argued that by using the word “jihad” Sarsour should have known the general public would interpret it as a violent term connected to Islamic extremism.
“Jihad, while co-opted means something very specific to a lot of people,” writer Yashar Ali said on Twitter. “If you want to use it … expect the blow back.”
What I disliked was what came near the end of the piece:
Jihad is a central concept in Islam, and the Arabic word literally translates as “struggle” or “striving.” While the word is indeed used by some to refer to a physical military struggle to defend Islam, most Muslims use it to refer to a personal, spiritual effort to follow God, live out one’s faith and strive to be a better person.
Over the years, Muslim advocacy groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations have taken out ad campaigns and other efforts to promote a peaceful interpretation of the word jihad and denounce its connections to violent Islamist extremism.
Who is defining the term "most Muslims"? Is that in America? In the world as a whole?
If a reporter is forced to use such boilerplate, at least add something to the effect that “jihad” is also the term used to describe the butchering of Syrian and Iraqi Yezidi civilians, the crucifixion of hapless Christians and the destruction of world-renowned historic sites ranging from Palmyra to Bamiyan.
Other than Time.com’s reaction story compiling the pro-and con-Sarsour remarks, there’s been little MSM coverage of the Sarsour speech. I wonder if some of them simply didn't want to get into the what-does-jihad-mean tangle. The most intelligent assessment came via The Tablet, which said in part:
Indeed, Sarsour was no more calling for Trump’s death than Kathy Griffin was when she posed for a picture with a mask of the president’s decapitated head. And just like the comedienne, Sarsour wanted to have it both ways -- get lots of attention for having done something sensational, and then play the role of victim when some of the attention invariably turned critical.
Sixteen years after 9/11, the writer added, we are still skirmishing over the word “jihad.”
The reality is that the debate over Islamic semantics has already been resolved—not in American newsrooms or the partisan halls of US politics, but on the killing fields of the Middle East. The people who are cutting each other’s heads off on both sides of the sectarian divide across Syria and Iraq, crucifying civilians, making sex slaves of women and children, and indulging in other inhuman depredations, have justified the murder of their co-religionists and others according to the logic of jihad. By all means, feel free to challenge that particular interpretation of the word, but at least have the decency to acknowledge your intervention comes in the context of nearly half a million dead.
That’s the place at which I wish more media would arrive. Credit peaceful jihad for its aspirations but admit that the last 14 centuries of it have been anything but.