Vancouver Observer: #MyJihad: How a hashtag aims to reintroduce Muslims to Canada and US

A #MyJihad activist tells Vancouver Observer about a US-based movement against Islamophobia, crossing the border into Canada.

The rise of Islamophobia in Canada and the West is not only a tangible reality for Western Muslims, but in many ways, a deliberate movement — #MyJihad acts as a countermovement.

At a time when degrading anti-Muslim bus ads are lining New York subways#MyJihad aims to beat bigots at their own game.

#MyJihad is a hashtag. It’s bus ads. But it’s also a lot more — #MyJihad is a cultural movement slated to promote interfaith understanding in the US, Canada and beyond, at a time when hate is all too prevalent.

Islamophobia — a clear and present ‘area of concern’

In 2011, Islamophobia was deemed by The United National Alliance of Civilizations and the League of Arab States as “an important area of concern.” And, though a Gallup study ranks US and Canadian Muslims as most integrated into society — meaning they actively seek to learn about others and other faiths — compared to Muslims in other countries, unfavorable public opinion still exists. The causes are primarily due to misinformation, lack of information or simply put, not personally knowing and interacting with Muslims. Add to this, the growing Islamophobia network, particularly in the US, actively spreading fear and misinformation.

Bayan Khatib, a Toronto settlement worker and Syrian Revolution activist, qualifies Islamophobia as unfounded fear of and hostility towards Islam.

“These negative feelings toward Islam often come from ignorant viewpoints,” she said. “I find that people with a well-rounded education are less likely to foster hostile feelings towards others who are different from them. Also, contributing to Islamophobia is the media’s negative representation of Islam and it’s constant connection to terrorism.”

Though not as pervasive as in the United States, Khatib reflects on the state of Islamophobia in Canada.

“Canada is generally a multi-cultural country with people of various religions and cultures living together peacefully, and so Islamophobia is not a huge problem. However, it does exist.”

When Pamela Geller, whose organization, Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA) — designated as a hate group by renowned anti-hate-mongering organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) — purchased ads in New York City’s subway, relegating Muslims to the “savage” among us and urging others to “stop Jihad,” a group of activists in Chicago started their own grass-roots campaign called #MyJihad ( which aims to “take back Islam” from both Muslim and anti-Muslim extremists.

The #MyJihad campaign idea, sparked by Ahmed Rehab, Executive Director of CAIR-Chicago (Council of American Islamic Relations,) quickly gained a following of people of all denominations. Citizen activists, suburban moms, students- all came forward to jump start Rehab’s idea into motion. This grass roots movement officially kicked off in December of last year with a very different campaign than one might expect- starting with ads placed on Chicago area buses. The news quickly spread across the country and all over the world. Articles were featured in U.S.A. TodayThe Washington Post, and overseas in France, Lithuania, Turkey, and as far as China and Australia.

Re-defining jihad

Imam Senad Agic, Phd., of the American Islamic Center in Chicago and Head Imam of Bosniaks of North America, explains the term.

“The familiar term jihad, often translated as holy war, literally means struggle. Many Muslims emphasize that Jihad is about struggling against evil desires (greater Jihad) and, if necessary, defending one’s homeland and religious heritage (Lesser Jihad).” But he makes it clear that this lesser jihad is only in the case of self-defense. “Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love the aggressors.” (Qur’an 2:190-192) [Note: Qur’anic quotes from N.J.Dawood’s English translation (The Koran, Penguin Books, UK, 1993)].

Imam Senad explains that moderation is the essence of Islamic teaching.

“A favorite verse of moderate Muslims is 2:256, which says: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion. True guidance is now distinct from error.’” And he explains that Qur’an contains scores of similar verses.

So how do the volunteers creatively express their personal Jihads or struggles through the #MyJihad Campaign? By being themselves and expressing their everyday struggles in life.

One bus ad shows a #MyJihad Campaign volunteer with her 3 surviving children and a picture of her child who tragically passed away due to complications from Hunter’s Syndrome. The ad reads:

“My Jihad is marching on despite losing my son. What’s yours?”

Another ad shows two friends, a Muslim man and Jewish man, leaning on one another. And another, two friends, a Christian and hijab (headscarf)-clad Muslim woman smiling. The ad reads:

“My Jihad is to build friendships across the aisle. What’s yours?”

The campaign has a Facebook following of more than 6,000 and a feverish Twitter campaign that is seemingly non-stop. Twitter users are using the hashtag #MyJihad to express their personal struggles, facts about Islam and Muslims, favorite quotes and personal goals and dreams. The hashtag is also flooded with opposition. Islamophobes wishing to hijack the Twitter campaign tweet as well, but that doesn’t stop the campaign volunteers.

“The increased hate means we are doing something right,” says Angie Emara, #MyJihad Campaign Volunteer and the mother featured on the bus ad. “Until now, we were silent and they had free reign. But we never bother to dignify their lies with direct responses. We simply keep presenting the facts and truth and let people choose between us and hate.”

The campaign rolls out new surprises as it moves along. A San Francisco bus ad campaign followed the Chicago one with more cities to follow. Student groups and individuals post their Jihads on the Official Facebook page along with amateur videos and pictures expressing their realities.

#MyJihad even has its own YouTube channel, MyJihadTv, where the latest video has gone viral. The video entitled, “#MyJihad: This Video Will Renew Your Faith in Humanity,” features an Imam in Egypt offering a moving speech at an Egyptian church on Christmas and, well, watch for yourself to see what happens.

#MyJihad is not meant to be a US project, but belongs to Canada and the world. #MyJihad is here and builds momentum every day. It will continue as long as people anywhere and everywhere in the world share their struggles via social media, and as long as they will express their truths and set the facts straight about Islam.

It is not meant to be a debate with Islamophobes or a disregard for extremists who commit crimes in the name of Islam, which represent a minority of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today. #MyJihad is an opportunity for Muslims and non-Muslims to take back the word Jihad, a central tenet of Islam, and to take back Islam itself from the irrational and extremist distortions, and into a realm of moderate dialogue and reality that dates back 1400 years.

Muslims will no longer be victims to either extreme’s misrepresentation of their faith. #MyJihad provides the perfect platform for all to express their daily realities of Jihad and all other Islamic tenets in a professional, peaceful and proactive way while allowing people to come to their own conclusions.

As an Imam who learned of the campaign early on explained it, “Put a clean glass of water next to a dirty one. And let people choose for themselves.”