What Does 'Jihad' Really Mean? Is it a compliment or a criticism? Until recently, the word "jihad" was a regular part of the Bush administration's lexicon in condemning terrorist attacks. But in the Muslim world, jihad has very positive connotations.
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What Does 'Jihad' Really Mean?

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What Does 'Jihad' Really Mean?

What Does 'Jihad' Really Mean?

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Here's a word that may have come up at the religious summit in Madrid, and that word is jihad. It's a word that's found its way into popular media.

Unidentified Woman: Jihadists are pretending to be American.

Unidentified Man #1: Pakistan has becoming jihad central.

Unidentified Man #2: …and that he wanted to wage a jihad or active holy war against civilians.

Unidentified Man #3: It's a hot war all the same, on a battlefield called jihad.com.

AMOS: The Bush administration has decided to rethink the way the U.S. government uses the word jihad. It's a recognition that in the Muslim world, the meaning is a bit more complicated than holy war or terrorism. NPR's Jamie Tarabay has this report.

JAMIE TARABAY: It's not just in the news media the word pops up in a violent context. Here's a recent scene from the show "Desperate Housewives." One of the housewives, Lynette, is in her yard trying to root out a possum with a pellet gun. Her husband is horrified.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Desperate Housewives")

Mr. DOUG SAVANT (Actor): (As Tom) Lynette, I think you should come inside and lie down for a little while.

Ms. FELICITY HUFFMAN (Actor): (As Lynette): No way. He's here, Tom. I can tell.

Mr. SAVANT: (As Tom) Okay. Now you're scaring me.

Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Lynette) Why?

Mr. SAVANT: (As Tom) Look at yourself. You've declared jihad on a possum.

Ms. ANI ZONNEVELD (Singer-Songwriter): I laughed, but it was, it was like, oh, great.

TARABAY: That's singer-songwriter Ani Zonneveld. It was at that moment, she says, she realized just how entrenched the idea of jihad equaling violence was.

Ms. ZONNEVELD: If Hollywood takes that meaning the way - in the sense of violence, it's just about over. It's over. Game's over.

TARABAY: But it may not be game over just yet. After all this time, the Bush administration has realized the word has very positive connotations to Muslims, and officials should stop using it.

Mr. DUNCAN MacINNES (Counterterrorism Communications Center, State Department): It's like saying thank you. It's like a very positive thing to call somebody.

TARABAY: Duncan MacInnes is a spokesman for the State Department's Counterterrorism Communications Center.

Mr. MacINNES: Just like you wouldn't call Joseph Stalin hero of the revolution and people's savior, whatever, you know, you don't want to call bin Laden a jihadist. He loves it.

TARABAY: The center put out a memo in January, similar to that issued previously by the British government. It advises employees to stop using Islamic references whenever they condemn terrorists.

Mr. MacINNES: Our vocabulary has to work in ways that don't reinforce the message that bin Laden and Zawahiri and others are trying to promote.

TARABAY: So what does it actually mean? Jihad is considered to be a religious duty, a struggle, what's called striving in the path of God. A quest to quit smoking or drinking can be a jihad. So is resisting an occupying force or fighting someone who's preventing you from practicing your religion.

Mohamed Magid is imam of ADAMS Center, a collective of seven mosques in Virginia. He says when officials criticize jihad, they offend Muslims.

Mr. MOHAMED MAGID (Imam, ADAMS Center): You isolate so many people by using that. We need to discredit terrorism.

TARABAY: But critics of the policy change argue the West had it right. Tawfik Hamid is known for once belonging to Egypt's Jemaah Islamiyah, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and other governments. He's now an outspoken critic of Islamic fundamentalism. He says some Islamic legal books still continue to define jihad in its most violent contexts.

Mr. TAWFIK HAMID (Former Member, Jemaah Islamiyah): So what I am seeing is that when these books changes the meaning of jihad into a pure, peaceful meaning and stop the other violent ones, then and only then the Western countries should say jihad is only peaceful.

TARABAY: Meanwhile, other Muslims are trying to show that jihad can be peaceful.

(Soundbite of movie, "Jihad for Love")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) Jihad is not a holy war. It's a struggle, and a love jihad is the struggle with the self.

TARABAY: That's from a documentary by Parvez Sharma, an Indian who spent six years in 12 different countries filming gay and lesbian Muslims. He called the film "A Jihad for Love."

Mr. PARVEZ SHARMA (Filmmaker): For me, it's a really powerful tool, if you will, and a very conscious deliberate political tool to take that word back and to apply it in the context of Islam's most unlikely storytellers, which are gay and lesbian Muslims.

TARABAY: He sees jihad as a Muslim's internal struggle to become a better person.

(Soundbite of song, "Ummah Wake Up")

Ms. ZONNEVELD: (Singing) Ummah will help those who help themselves.

TARABAY: And then there's Ani Zonneveld. Her song is called "Ummah Wake Up."

(Soundbite of song, "Ummah Wake Up")

Ms. ZONNEVELD: (Singing) People of the world, no matter who you are.

Ummah means community. And I use a song as a way to encourage people to do the right thing and to have that jihad to do the right thing.

TARABAY: When she performs the song, often in mixed-faith gatherings, the response isn't always enthusiastic.

Ms. ZONNEVELD: People cringe. I can see that when they're sitting down, and they'll still cringe at the word jihad. But once I start singing, and then once they really understand what it means, then they actually, you know, clap along and sing along.

TARABAY: Zonneveld says she'll keep singing her songs until there's less cringing and more clapping. Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.

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