Religion News Service: Muslims Campaign to Reclaim 'Jihad' from Extremists

The end to Ani Zonneveld’s “jihad” on “jihad” came during an episode of “Desperate Housewives,” when Lynette (Felicity Huffman) discovers she has cancer and throws a stone at a possum.

“Look at yourself,” replies her husband, Tom. “You’ve declared jihad on a possum.”

“At that point,” said Zonneveld, the co-director of the advocacy group Muslims for Progressive Values, “I think it is too late to redefine the true meaning of jihad.”

Strictly speaking, “jihad” is supposed to mean an inner struggle toward holiness. But for many Americans, the term connotes holy war, especially when militant groups like al-Qaida vow to wage jihad against the United States.

Zonneveld’s frustration with how “jihad” has come to be associated with violence reflects a broader concern among many Muslim Americans who believe various Islamic terms are being misused by the media and politicians, and co-opted by Muslim extremists and anti-Muslim critics.

Not only does such misuse disparage the faith and undercut moderate followers, they say, it also unwittingly gives legitimacy to Muslim extremists.

“The real key is not to afford (terrorists) the name of Islam and not legitimize them that way,” said Ahmed Rehab, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, stressing that terrorists represented only a tiny fraction of the Muslim world.

“By calling terrorists Islamic, we’re saying that this tiny contingency is the one whose interpretation of Islam is Islam, and everyone else doesn’t matter.”

While Muslim Americans have made this argument for years, U.S. government officials have only recently adopted it. In March, the National Counterterrorism Center drafted a memo for the State Department urging diplomats to drop words like “jihadists” or “mujahedeen” (those engaged in jihad) when describing terrorists because it “unintentionally legitimizes their actions.” The Department of Homeland Security issued similar recommendations in January.

“We should not concede the terrorists’ claim that they are legitimate adherents of Islam,” said the report, which has not been made public but was obtained by the Associated Press.

Rehab suggested an alternative: “neo-Kharajite,” an Arabic term that means “outlaw.” It was used to describe an uprising against (and ultimate assasination of) the Fourth Caliph Ali in the seventh century. Like al-Qaida and other modern terrorist groups, Rehab said, the Kharajites held rigid, literalist interpretations of Islam and reserved the right of “takfir” — judging someone as having abandoned the faith and deserving of death.

Many Muslim Americans worry that critics of Islam have purposefully misused Islamic terms in a way that incites suspicion and hostility. The word “madrassa,” for example, simply means school. But to many Americans, madrassa denotes a religious school, and one that produces extremists bent on martyrdom. Critics have used madrassa to attack the school that Sen. Barack Obama attended as a child in Indonesia.

Other terms that Muslim Americans feel have been misused include:

— Taqqiya: The word means “dissimulation,” and refers to a dispensation allowing Muslims to conceal their faith when threatened. Critics say the taqqiya concept encourages Muslims to lie for the cause of Islam, and is cited as an example of alleged Muslim deceitfulness.

— Dhimmi: The word means protected subject and refers to non-Muslims living under Muslim rule. Critics say the word means subjugated subject, and warn that Muslims intend to turn all non-Muslims into second-class citizens.

— Taliban: The plural form of talib, or student, the word to most Americans evokes the militant political-religious Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

While few Americans know the meaning of such words, even well-known expressions can be used to evoke hostility or make Muslims seem less American. The Arabic word Allah, for example, simply translates into God, but is used by critics of Islam instead of “God” to refer to the deity worshipped by Muslims.

“People think that somehow giving God a different name makes it a different God, other than a Jewish or a Christian God,” said Becky Schulthies, a linguistics expert at Brigham Young University who has lived in Morocco and Lebanon. “Instead of praying to God, people see Muslims praying to Allah. It’s an othering process.”

It’s unclear whether the government’s lexicon changes will be actually be adopted by government officials. Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, for one, has defended his campaign’s use of the term “Islamic terrorist.” His campaign did not reply to a calls from a reporter.

The recommended lexicon changes have been derided by their critics as bowing to political correctness. Former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum argued in the Philadelphia Inquirer recently that using “terrorist” without “Islamic” was “misleading.”

“We are at war only with terrorists motivated by Islam who view themselves as true followers, as self-described holy warriors,” said Santorum, now a senior fellow at a Washington think tank.

Muslim Americans have generally welcomed the proposed language changes, but many are also taking matters into their own hands.

Shabir Mansuri, a longtime Muslim activist in southern California, started the Council on Islamic Education nearly 20 years ago to help schools more accurately teach about Islam. Among other lessons on its Web site, Mansuri’s group says a better alternative to jihad is “harabah,” which means unlawful violence. Because Muslims view jihad as something that can only be good, calling terrorists “jihadists” is akin to calling them heroes.

Other Muslims have taken their lexicon battle onto YouTube. In one eight-minute video, two Muslims address misunderstandings of the words madrassa, talib, and kaffir, which refers to “unbelievers.”

Still other Muslims, citing what they say is increasing anti-Muslim sentiment in America, have come to view such efforts as useless.

“The fight over the word `jihad’ was over a long time ago,” wrote Manan Ahmed of Chicago in an e-mail. “The fight is now over the word Muslim.”

Copyright © 2008 The Religion News Service