North by Northwestern: Behind the My Jihad campaign

On the Feb. 7 edition of Hannity, a program on the Fox News Channel, conservative pundit and show host Sean Hannity raised concerns over allegedly controversial comments made by CIA Director nominee John Brennan in 2009. Hannity’s issue, however, did not relate to Brennan’s prominent role in the CIA’s use of drone strikes, a controversially aggressive assassination campaign against terror suspects. Rather, he questioned Brennan’s commitment to fighting terrorism based in part on his assertion that President Obama and the United States were not in a war against jihad.

“Describing terrorists in this way using a legitimate term, jihad, which means to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal, risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve,” Brennan says in the clip. Hannity proceeds to question how the Senate could consider confirming a man as CIA Director who believes that jihad is “a legitimate tenet of Islam.”

Someone like Hannity, then, might be concerned about a recent Northwestern student campaign that revolves around jihad. But the movement is far from the promotion of radicalism that Hannity might criticize on his show. It’s a campaign designed to combat the idea that the word “jihad” somehow implies terrorism.

The Northwestern University Muslim-cultural Students Association has launched a campaign seeking to reclaim the true meaning of jihad: “to strive” or “struggle.” The campaign, officially called #MyJihadNU, aims to promote the actual definition of jihad – the concept of personal struggle – rather than its negative connotations. The movement enlisted a number of campus leaders and prominent figures to volunteer their own personal jihads.

Weinberg sophomore Peter Cleary was one of the individuals solicited by the McSA, though he said he’s not entirely sure why the organization approached him to participate in the campaign. Cleary is on the executive board of Rainbow Alliance, a group for undergraduate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and allies. “I’m a big advocate of trying to change negative stereotypes about groups of people,” he said. “So I thought it was a cool thing. I think Islamophobia is bad obviously, so it’s good to try and repurpose terms that have come to mean something negative.”

Prior to the campaign, Cleary did not realize that jihad’s negative connotations did not represent the true meaning of the word. Cleary’s personal jihad was to “celebrate all kinds of love.” He showed up to the photoshoot in a “Legalize Gay” T-shirt.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations originally developed the My Jihad campaign earlier this year. Their version of the campaign launched on the sides of San Francisco buses, which featured My Jihad advertisements on the outside of the vehicle. CAIR’s campaign had a similar message to McSA’s: reclaiming a word that had been mischaracterized by many in America.

McSA decided to bring My Jihad to Northwestern both to promote Discover Islam Week, which began this past Monday, as well as to accomplish the larger goal of redefining jihad. “When it does come up in the media or it does come up in someone’s head, there are very negative connotations, and I think fixing that and trying to make those connotations a little more clear is a real goal here,” said Ali Falouji, Director of Public Relations for McSA.

Northwestern’s My Jihad campaign featured 34 total participants on 29 posters, with each poster including a photo of the participant (or participants) and a line of text proclaiming each party’s personal or group jihad. ASG Senate Speaker Ani Ajith’s jihad, for example, is “achieving a work-life balance.” Alianza co-president Lucia Leon’s jihad is “uplifting and empowering my community.” Dance Marathon emcee Demetrios Elias’s jihad is “dancing for NU…and the kids!” The participants are both Muslim and non-Muslim, and the jihads range from the personal to the religious to the community-based. It’s a broad campaign designed to touch all corners of Northwestern. “I think it helps to have all kinds of people representing this sort of thing,” Cleary said. “So like me, as a white non-Muslim person, showing solidarity with a group of people who are often discriminated against is good.”

Falouji stresses that although jihad is considered to be the “sixth pillar” of Islam, it isn’t just about religion.

“We just kind of want to bring it to campus and show not only is it not necessarily a religious thing, but that it’s a very personal thing for anyone on campus,” Falouji said. “My jihad is to redefine jihad,” he said with a laugh.