NY Daily News: War of words: Muslim activists trying to wrestle ‘jihad’ away from extremists and critics


“My Jihad” is a campaign to reclaim the word “jihad.” It began as a reaction to ads placed in New York City subways that connected the term to violence and terror. Here, Saleha Jabeen (right) poses with her friend in a #MyJihad advertisement.

A group of Muslim activists is fighting a battle of words to reclaim “jihad” from Muslim extremists and critics who they say have wrongly used the term to justify violence and discrimination.

Organizers of the “My Jihad” campaign say that jihad is about personal struggle — a constant, private striving to be good, just, and passionate human beings. Campaigners have promoted this definition of “jihad” through social media and through transit ads running on buses and trains in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. But along with thousands of positive responses, the effort has drawn the disapproval of anti-jihadists, including Pamela Geller, a conservative blogger who has launched a counter-campaign.

The “My Jihad” movement was born in December as a reaction to ads that Geller placed New York City subways with the support of the American Freedom Defense Initiative. One of the ads read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

Geller’s ad campaign, especially its use of the word “savage,” prompted an immediate response from the Muslim community across America. Ahmed Rehab, the executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Chicago), took to Facebook and asked fellow Muslims to share their personal struggles — their personal jihads. Attracting volunteers, he received an overwhelming response and fueled a donor-funded ad campaign.

In one of the ads released by “My Jihad,” 26-year-old Saleha Jabeen poses with her friend Dannis Matteson, a fellow grad student at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. Jabeen’s ad reads, “My Jihad is to build friendships across the aisle” and speaks to her life’s calling. She’s studying interreligious dialogue.

“Jihad is not only a Muslim thing,” Jabeen, an intern for CAIR-Chicago, told the Daily News. “Me and my Christian friend, when we try to do the right thing for peace, humanity, morality — we’re doing jihad. We all do it every day.”

The campaign has encouraged a heavy volume of responses on Twitter from those who share what the word means to them.

The “#myjihad” hashtag has encouraged thousands of Twitter users to share their personal jihads with the world.

The “My Jihad” campaign has placed ads in the transit systems of Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; and Chicago.

“#MyJihad is to promote Islamic non-violent solutions to conflict,” tweeted @r_yurtsever.

“#MyJihad is to raise my kids as critical thinkers,” tweeted @uhani_m.

But it’s also prompted a backlash from people who interpret the word very differently.

Angie Emara lost her child to Hunter’s Syndrome in 2009. She’s turned her private grief into a public declaration.

Geller and her supporters define “jihad” as a religious war against people who don’t believe in Islam. Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries bolster that viewpoint, listing jihad as a “holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty” before offering a second definition of “jihad” as a “personal struggle.”

Geller has released images from a planned counter-campaign. Geller’s ads quote Osama bin Laden and the failed Times Square car bomber Faisal Shazad. The website myjihad.us redirects to the American Freedom Defense Initiative’s website. Geller has also adopted the “#myjihad” hashtag.

“#MyJihad in Turkey: Christian woman repeatedly stabbed, a crucifix carved onto her naked corpse: The horror,” she tweeted.

Statements like this are exactly what prompted Jabeen to volunteer.

“All these people are defining what they think jihad is all about. But it gets to a point where enough is enough. I can speak for myself,” she said.

Wrestling the word back from extremists will be an “uphill” battle, Rehab told CNN. But it’s a necessary one.

“The majority of Muslims did not step in to say, ‘No, this is our faith, and we are going to claim it,’” Rehab told CNN. “You are trying to undo accumulation of misperception and mispractice — misperception by non-Muslims and mispractice by some Muslims.”