WASHINGTON -- Ever since Osama bin Laden used the word “jihad” to describe the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the ancient Arabic word has been saddled with its darkest possible meaning.
In the decade since, “jihad” has come into widespread use by non-Muslims and Muslims alike as shorthand for Islamic war against the West.
Ahmed Rehab says his jihad is to take that word back.
With his own money and donations from supporters, the director of the Chicago office of the Council on Arab Islamic Relations has launched an ad campaign that promotes a lesser-known meaning -- one he says is to “struggle to get to a better place, to improve one’s life and the lives of others, to do what’s right and not what’s easy.”
The ads, which are displayed on buses and trains in Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., feature images of smiling Muslim-Americans.
“My jihad is to stay fit despite my busy schedule,” says a hijab-wearing woman holding a dumbbell. “My jihad is to march on despite losing my son,” says a mother holding a framed photograph of a child. “My jihad is to never settle short of my best effort,” says a bearded businessman.
The ads reflect Rehab’s understanding of the word, which he learned from his grandmother -- a woman who was paralyzed and bedridden for much of his childhood.
“When I asked her, ‘How do you deal with this?’ She simply said, ‘My son, it’s my jihad,’” he remembers. “And this was so powerful as I grew up because it was an acknowledgment from her that it’s a test, a barrier, a challenge.”
'Taking Back Islam'
Rehab says his campaign is aimed both at Muslims who have all but surrendered the word to extremists and non-Muslims who are unaware that “religious war” is only one narrow definition. The campaign’s slogan is, “Taking back Islam from Muslim and anti-Muslim extremists alike.”
He laments the fact that moderate Muslims “have been sitting out the debate” and allowed it to be hijacked by two extremes who have defined how the West should see Islam and how Muslims should see the West.
“To us, it’s time we fought against the dumbing down of the conversation,” he says. “There is no inherent schism, there is no inherent conflict, and here am I, as living witness to this -- an American Muslim who very much loves America and very much practices my faith and actually sees jihad as something I would do to make America a better place.”
Ahmed al-Rahim, an assistant professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Virginia, says the Muslim extremists the ad campaign refers to are jihadi Salafis -- Sunni Muslims who believe violence is justified to achieve their political objectives.
This subgroup “takes a particular puritanical interpretation of Islam -- and they emphasize the jihad that is here, the holy war aspect," he says. "They are emphasizing the violent, war-like nature of the term, as it’s used [today], and for them, that is also an attempt to reclaim what they think is the original meaning.”
In that sense, he adds, “there is a kind of jihad for reclaiming or redefining the term ‘jihad’ among Muslims.”
The other group of extremists is represented by people like Pamela Geller, who eagerly embraces the word's most violent meaning.
Geller, who leads an anti-Islamic group called the American Freedom Defense Initiative, even promoted it in controversial ads she ran in New York City last year and this year in Chicago, in response to the “My Jihad” campaign.
Rehab and his supporters, she says, “are sanitizing and whitewashing ‘jihad’ and, in effect, disarming the American people in what is clearly the greatest national security threat that this nation faces.”
Geller insists that her group “doesn’t editorialize” to make its point because it doesn’t have to. “Our ad campaign that uses the texts and the teachings of Islam to justify violence and supremacism uses actual quotes by Islamic supremacists and jihadists,” she says, “including the prime minister of Turkey, [former Al-Qaeda-leader] Osama bin Laden, and the Times Square bomber” Faisal Shahzad.
But Jamal Elias, a professor of Islamic thought at the University of Pennsylvania, says -- strictly grammatically speaking -- the ads err because they reduce the meaning of "jihad" to one definition, when it actually has many.
“It’s defined in several different ways. It’s a term that actually means ‘struggle’ or ‘striving,’ and the longer term is actually ‘striving in the path of God,’” he explains. “So in a most literal sense, it is not -- as people sometimes wrongly assume -- an explicit reference to some form of violence, whether justified or unjustified. It’s a very loose definition which can fit a lot of things within it.”
In a political context, he admits, the word is widely understood to mean some form of armed activity. But he adds that “generally when Muslims have used the term -- and this is historically true -- they’ve frequently used it as a struggle for self-improvement at a personal level.”
Al-Rahim says plenty of medieval Islamic legal texts refer to jihad as a religiously sanctioned, or holy, war, but he also points out that the Koran tells how the Prophet Muhammad once told his fighters after a battle that they had “achieved the minor jihad.”
When his followers asked why their battle against infidels and pagans was only minor, al-Rahim says Muhammad replied, "The greater jihad is that against the lower self, or the purging of the self or the soul of evil intention, a kind of spiritual struggle."
Rehab’s campaign -- which he plans to take abroad -- may have begun with a disagreement over a word, but it’s landed him squarely in the larger debate over who speaks for Islam.
It’s a role he sounds happy to take on. “It is a huge loss to humanity if we live on believing that these extremists are the only voices,” he says. “In fact they’re not. In fact, they’re a minority.”