The War on the Word 'Jihad' The word jihad is pervasive in American culture, but the word has changed meaning over the centuries. Some Islamic scholars think the word "jihad" should be abandoned and replaced with a more effective term.
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The War on the Word 'Jihad'

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The War on the Word 'Jihad'

The War on the Word 'Jihad'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

All this week, we're going to examine some of the language that's become part of our everyday vocabulary since September 11, terms such as war on terror and Islamic Fascism.

Today, NPR's Guy Raz begins our series with the various meanings of the word jihad.

GUY RAZ: The thrash metal rock back Slayer has a new single out. It's called Jihad.

(Soundbite of song, “Jihad”)

Mr. TOM ARAYA (Slayer): (Singing) I will see you burned alive, screaming for your God.

RAZ: The lead singer is saying, “I will see you burned alive, screaming for your God.” Not exactly an homage to jihad. A few weeks ago, Professor Douglas Streusand, who teaches Islamic history, recounted this story.

Dr. DOUGLAS STREUSAND (Institute of World Politics): You know, the first time I did a Web search on the word jihad, the first thing that came up was a jihad to remove Barney from television.

(Soundbite of show, “Barney”)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) There are lots of things we can do to be nice, sometimes they're hard to remember.

Dr. STREUSAND: Because that's what the term has come to mean in the West. It means a fanatical struggle.

RAZ: We'll hear more from Douglas Streusand in a few minutes, but first, what jihad actually means. Johns Hopkins University professor Mary Habeck wrote a book called Knowing Thy Enemy. It's about jihadist ideology. And when she describes jihad, she says -

Ms. MARY HABECK (Johns Hopkins University): It definitely had built into it right from the very start this notion of both an internal struggle as well as an attempt to spread the just laws of Islam to other countries through fighting.

RAZ: But how Muslims have interpreted the term over time has changed.

Ms. HABECK: So what it meant back in the seventh century is not the same as it meant in the 12th century, and it's not the same as it means in the 19th or 20th centuries. It's really evolved over time.

RAZ: But today, when radical Islamists describe themselves as jihadists, Mary Habeck says they mean one thing.

Ms. HABECK: Violence and violence alone to attain their ends.

RAZ: Since September 11, Mary Habeck has encouraged government officials to describe Islamic militants as jihadis or jihadists, and many in the government are apparently listening to her suggestion.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Since September 11, it's important for the American people to remember there have been a lot of attacks on a lot of nations by these jihadists.

RAZ: Jihadists who actually identify themselves that way. And in the case of al-Qaida, they don't mean an inner struggle for peace. Reza Aslan is an Islamic historian.

Mr. REZA ASLAN (Islamic Historian): These groups in many ways represent a wholly new sect that has arisen out of Islam, one in which all the multiplicity, the diversity of Islamic thought, and the various pillars upon which this faith and practice have rested for 14 centuries, has been diluted into this one single notion - jihad and nothing else.

RAZ: Aslan says that even though the concept of jihad doesn't figure into the five pillars of Islam, extremist groups like al-Qaida have managed to elevate the importance of violent jihad as a sort of politicized religious duty.

(Soundbite of door)

RAZ: You've got to walk down a long corridor into the basement of the Marine Corps Staff College to find Douglas Streusand's office. He's an expert on Islamic history, and he speaks both Persian and Arabic. Last year, Douglas Streusand submitted a paper to the Pentagon. His basic argument to the military was this, that they should stop using the words jihadis or jihadists when talking about Islamic militants.

Dr. STREUSAND: The term jihad generally means Jihad Fis abu Allah - striving in the path of God. And simply by its very definition, striving in the path of God is a good thing to do. If we are calling them people who strive in the path of God, in other words if we are calling them meritorious Muslims, then we are implying that we are fighting Islam, even if we're saying that we're not.

RAZ: To draw a comparison, Streusand says, it would -

Dr. STREUSAND: - be like calling Germans during the Second World War National Socialist Aryan Heroes. The question is not whether or not jihad is a good thing, because for a Muslim, jihad is a good thing. The question is whether the activity that they are undertaking should be classified as jihad.

RAZ: Because by his account, when U.S. policymakers use the term jihad, they're actually turning off a lot of potential allies in the Islamic world.

Professor KHALED ABU EL FADL (University California Los Angeles): Because if you say we fight jihadists, then you've just offended a billion and a half Muslims.

RAZ: This is Khaled Abu El Fadl. He teaches Islamic law at UCLA. Professor Abu El Fadl is a deeply religious Muslim, but he's also controversial in the Arab world for his bruising missives against Islamic extremists.

Professor ABU EL FADL: When I write articles speaking to extremists and convincing them that they are wrong theologically and morally and legally, I consider myself in a state of jihad. I expect to be rewarded by God.

RAZ: Both Professor Abu El Fadl and Streusand have some very practical advice for those still wishing to insult terrorists. Drop the J word and use the H word instead.

Dr. STREUSAND: The term in Islamic law which best describes the activities of al-Qaida is hirabah, which originally meant brigandage, but has a more general meaning as sinful warfare.

RAZ: If our elected officials started saying this is a war against hirabis, that would be more effective, do you think?

Dr. STREUSAND: It would certainly be better than using the term jihad or jihadis, which is actively harmful.

RAZ: Professor Abu El Fadl believes this kind of language will actually resonate well in the Islamic world.

Professor ABU EL FADL: It would work miracles for Muslims for once to find our officials take their tradition, their legal tradition, their moral tradition, seriously.

RAZ: But then, as author Mary Habeck says, the discussion over terminology is one that ought to happen in the Islamic world. It's up to Muslim leaders, she says, to change the way jihad is understood in the West.

Ms. HABECK: Because they call themselves jihadis, they themselves, through their actions, are vilifying the term jihad. It's not the West that's having to vilify it, it's their own actions of, you know, randomly slaughtering men, women, children and innocent civilians that's vilifying the term jihad.

RAZ: Ten years ago, few people in America had heard the word jihad. It's so common now it has its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. The same can't be said for hirabah, at least not yet, so perhaps presidential speechwriters ought to make a mental note.

Guy Raz, NPR News.

BLOCK: Coming up tomorrow, we'll explore the term Islamic fascism. You can read more about post-9/11 language at our Web site,

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