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World: The True Meaning Of The Islamic Term 'Jihad'

  • Alexandra Poolos

Muslim clerics in Afghanistan are calling for a "jihad," commonly translated as a "holy war," against the United States if it strikes the country in retaliation for last week's terrorist attacks. The clerics' pronouncement succeeds in further linking the word "jihad" with acts of vengeance and terrorism. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos examines the real meaning of jihad in Muslim society.

Prague, 20 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- One in five people in the world is Muslim. Despite the worldwide following of Islam and its significant presence in the United States, the religion continues to suffer from basic misunderstandings. Last week's violent attacks in New York and Washington by suspected Islamic militants succeeded only in intensifying that demonization.

Today, Muslim clerics in Afghanistan rejected international demands to hand over extremist Osama bin Laden, wanted by the United States for his suspected role in last week's attacks, although they did ask him to leave the country. They also called for a jihad if the U.S. retaliates against Afghanistan.

The use of the term "jihad," however, is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Islam. When some Americans picture the word jihad, they imagine a so-called "holy war" by Islamic militants, waging terror against civilians using suicide bombings and other extreme methods.

The Islamic concept of jihad, however, is usually not one of violence.

The Arabic word is often translated as "holy war," but its true meaning is actually "holy struggle." In a religious sense, as described by the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, jihad means striving for the benefit of the community or the restraint of personal sins. It can refer to internal as well as external efforts to be a good Muslim or believer. It primarily refers to efforts to improve oneself.

If a jihad is required to protect the faith against others, peaceful means should be used. Islam does allow the use of force but only in situations of self-defense and not against non-combatants.

There are some nine million Muslims in the United States of every color, background and ethnicity. Ali Abunimah is the vice-president of the Arab-American Action League in the U.S. He spoke with RFE/RL from Chicago about the misuse of the word jihad and misrepresentations of the Muslim faith:

"The word jihad has many, many meanings, only one of which can be interpreted as holy war involving violence. Even then, according to the principles of Islam, war has to be conducted according to just war principles, which means never attacking non-combatants, as in the horrible attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon we saw last week."

But Abunimah says that the definition of jihad takes on a different meaning when used by extremists like bin Laden.

"It very much depends on the context. I think that if someone like Osama bin Laden uses it, it does have a meaning which is very, I think, sinister and which doesn't accord with what most Muslims and Arabs think. But when it's used in everyday language and used in everyday life, it doesn't have that meaning. We might talk about a jihad to end illiteracy, for example."

Unfortunately, the violent interpretation of jihad is what often sticks in the minds of Americans and others. The U.S. entertainment industry, Abunimah says, is partly to blame for this image. Movies and television shows, he says, have laid a basis for these fears by frequently portraying Muslims as extremists:

"The problem comes in that I think for a large part here in the United States at least, the media, particularly the entertainment industry, has for decades misrepresented and defamed not just Muslims but Arabs, and given the impression that each and every Muslim is involved in some kind of holy struggle against the West or against Christianity."

Joyce Davis is deputy foreign editor at the Knight-Ridder News Service. An expert on the Middle East, she is the author of the book "Between Jihad and Salaam: Profiles in Islam." The book is a collection of profiles of leaders in the Islamic community, including many from militant groups.

Davis says that jihad is generally understood in Muslim communities to be a non-violent struggle with either internal or external factors. She likens it to Christian concepts of the struggle between good and evil. But Davis says that fanatics use the term and other Islamic tenets in ways the religion itself never intended.

"Like any religion, from Christianity to Judaism to Islam, there are people who become fanatics and who misinterpret the religion and who take it to extents that were never envisioned. [But] when the term jihad is associated with terrorism -- most of the Islamic leaders around the world have said attacking civilians particularly is completely against Islam and against all teachings that can be any way connected to Islam."

Islamic leaders around the world have condemned the use of terrorism. The attacks in New York and Washington stunned Muslims just as they did members of other religions.

Yet Davis says that, despite their sadness at last week's events, some Muslims do feel a deep sense of frustration with the United States, especially for its policies in the Middle East. It is these frustrations, she says, that may lead to a certain extremism within the religion -- a radical belief in more violent interpretations of the term jihad:

"[Some Muslims say] the United States' policies were radicalizing many of the people in the Islamic world. They were fueling people and making them so angry that they turned to the extremists to express that anger. That young men who couldn't find jobs turned to these Muslims groups to find support, to find self-esteem, to find a mission in life. So what they were saying was that the United States has created or helped to create a monster in the region by not paying attention to how average people were viewing its policies."

Davis says U.S. foreign policy has helped to -- as she put it -- "feed a monster," and now that monster has struck out. She says the only way to combat such misinterpretations about Islam in all parts of the world is through education.