A few months ago, the #MyJihad ads aired on buses in major American cities and mustered a positive conversation in the online community. The #MyJihad campaign seeks to educate the public on the true meaning of the word “jihad,” which to a practicing Muslim such as this author, means “internal struggle”. This is a very savvy way to seize back the narrative of Islam in America that has, for the most part, been defined by bigots in the news punditry and even on Capitol Hill. While I think these ads are in good spirit and ruffle some stereotypes, I think that their effect is marginal, at best. American Muslims need to be investing time and money in the deeper, more pressing problems facing our community. And in my view, the battle over the word “jihad” was lost a long, long time ago.
If you listen to any Middle East commentator from any think tank, media outlet, university, or government post, from the most expert of them to the most ignorant, “jihad” or “jihadist” is what is used to describe the terrorism practiced by Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, homegrown terrorists, etc. Let us say for the purpose of this debate that the I agree that the American Muslim community should not allow others (even if they are practicing Muslims) to define our religion for us. Fine. But talk to someone in a Muslim majority country, and to them the word “jihad” almost always describes fighting in some way, be it against Americans or as prominent voices such as Egyptian Sunni cleric Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi or Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi have advocated for against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Yes, there is bigotry out there on the airwaves in the form of Islamophobia and fear-mongering, especially after incidents like the Boston marathon bombings, which were orchestrated by the Tsarnaev brothers, who come from a Chechen Muslim family. Yes, we can send Pew polls to the Muslim listservs all we want that show that only 19% of American Muslims find terrorism justifiable. That is 19% far too high. And, quite frankly, percentages do not capture the real internal conflict we have as a community.
The salient issue is that many young American Muslims have an identity crisis. To start, in as cliché of a fashion as possible, many are lost on various facets of U.S. foreign policy. What they see as decades-long oppression and occupation against the Palestinians, American drone strikes’ collateral damage in Yemen and Pakistan, a brutal Assad regime murdering the Syrian people and American president doing very little to stop it, severely complicates the picture they have of themselves as both Americans and Muslims. The groupthink in the broader community is this: “imperialist America is the oppressor, and an Israeli lobby runs American policy against the Muslims and is trying to pit Sunnis and Shi’ites against each other.” The community has not been convinced that anything has changed. That does not mean that we get to sit on our hands and wait for the next catastrophe.
Online radicalization is a real problem. Even further on the radar, and potentially contributing to future radicalization, we know that sectarianism will be an even bigger problem for the entire Islamic World, as the war in Syria engulfs its neighbors. With imams in the U.S. and abroad becoming enablers, through their rhetoric, of deep sectarianism, this is not something to be brushed aside.The American Muslim community should not be afraid to admit that these are issues — issues much more consequential than Islamophobia or the semantics of “jihad” — that need to be addressed.
The American Muslim community needs active, relevant mosques, community centers, and local organizations creating dialogue about these complex problems. They need American imams and leaders who can relate to the young people (not just on a superficial level), with the knowledge and courage to confront the issues and encourage both an honest conversation and proper Islamic education to prevent radical fringe propaganda from infiltrating youth groups. We cannot simply point a finger at entrapment and foreign policy when the next 16-year-old gets in deep trouble for connecting with the wrong people online. Needless to say, this begins at home.
Perhaps the community has not been willing to talk about gender relations, pornography, drinking, and a score of other social issues. But if there was ever a pivotal moment for an internal conversation within the American Muslim community, it should be now. We have the opportunity, for example, to nip the possibility of the sectarian conflict playing out in our community in the bud. This is not just about preventive measures — this is about finding peace with ourselves and paving the way for a healthier, more dynamic American Muslim generation.
If we want to prevent having an internally displaced generation of American Muslims, let us not have any illusions and keep barking up the wrong tree.
#MyJihad is to fry the bigger fish.