What Americans Don't Get About Jihad

ByChris Looney

America has a problem with jihad, but it’s not what you might think.

As a society we have warped the meaning of the term away from its Qur'anic roots, accepting a definition of the practice put forth by the very terror groups the U.S. seeks to combat. Instead of resisting this extremist ideology, we have embraced it. And by ignoring the complexities and the obligations of jihad — and, by extension, Islam — we are doing nothing more than validating a perverted religious interpretation, echoing it throughout our society, and accepting it as true.

This is how it happens.

It starts when influential pundits like Sean Hannity assert on national television that “there are not really many interpretations [of jihad] — that’s spin. Jihad equals holy war.”

It continues when the mainstream American public accepts this narrow definition, leading even liberal commentators such as Chris Matthews to use the term as a colloquialism synonymous with any form of demonstrated hostility towards the U.S. from the Islamic world.

And it concludes with the formulation of a society that has institutionalized Islamophobia in its culture and politics, normalizing hate crimes such as the 2010 destruction of a Nashville mosque, which took place in the wake of a sensationalized local news broadcast that insinuated without any real evidence that the Muslim community of Dover, Tennessee was a breeding ground for Al-Qaeda. Moreover, by accepting the terminology set forth by terrorist organizations in their attempt to appropriate religion for their own political ends, the U.S. media is legitimizing them by continuing to disseminate this highly distorted snapshot of Islam to the American public.

But hold on. Wait a second. That causal chain seems a bit suspect. How exactly does our misuse of the word “jihad” validate terrorist ideology and lead to hate crimes? That seems a bit extreme, no?

It's not. The term "jihad," which translates to “strive” or “struggle,” is used in the Qur'an 41 times. For the most part, these verses call on Muslims to engage in what is sometimes known as the “greater jihad,” a constant inner struggle to better oneself and live in the manner prescribed by Allah. “The true believers,” the Qur’an tells us, “are the ones who have faith in God and His Messenger and leave all doubt behind, the ones who have struggled with their possessions and their persons in God’s way: they are the ones that are true” (49:15). In this light, jihad is seen as the rejection of carnal and material temptations along with the commitment to both austerity and God. 

Jihad has an external element as well. This is the where fear-mongering pundits like to define jihad in its entirety by quoting lines from the Qur’an saying that “fighting is ordained to you though you dislike it” (2:216). Or maybe they go with “kill them [the infidels] wherever you encounter them” (2:191). Either way, the message is clear — Islam is out to get you, America, so you better watch out.

The problem here is that these quotes are not so cut and dry. Read a little further in the second sura and you will find that fighting is only legitimate “if anyone commits aggression against you” (2:194). “If they withdraw and do not fight you, and offer you peace, then God gives you no way against them” (4:90). This proscription against aggression is repeated throughout the text, sanctioning self-defense but stopping way short of condoning any sort of antagonistic behavior. Thus, we see here a jihad that requires a defense of Islam but emphatically forbids belligerence of any kind.

Of course, this is not the interpretation that all readers choose to accept. To be honest, I can’t even say that my own interpretation flawlessly aligns with the text because truthfully, it doesn’t. I have chosen to disregard some of the less appealing verses that seem to justify a more radical form of jihad in favor of the ones that speak to my own worldview. But is that wrong?

I don’t think so. The Qur’an, specifically in reference to jihad, is hopelessly ambiguous. It can be interpreted in radically different ways and manipulated to suit the preordained desires of the reader. Much like Christians chose to ignore Leviticus 20:13, which sentences homosexuals to death, the overwhelming majority of the Islamic world sees jihad in a much more tempered light than the U.S. media would have us believe. 

Despite this, the image of both Islam and jihad that is transmitted to the American public focuses exclusively on the most extreme interpretations of the religion. It ignores complexities and encourages both ignorance and paranoia. And it promotes an understanding of Islam that is as fundamentalist and extreme as the version embraced by those the U.S. set out to fight as the dust of 9/11 settled.  

This becomes even more problematic as we understand the so-called “war on terror” as a war of rhetoric and ideas. Across the United States, groups such as #MyJihad have sought to “reclaim Islam” from the grips of the terrorists who have hijacked the American public’s perception of the religion since 9/11. Yet in the struggle to define Islam, the U.S. media has taken the side of these very extremists.

The consequences of this are dire. Not only has the media legitimized these extremist ideas as accurate interpretations of the Qur’an, it has conflated Al-Qaeda with jihad and al-Shabaab with Islam. In other words, through this distortion Americans have come to see the “enemy” as Islam just as much as they see it as any specific terrorist organization, creating a culture of Islamophobia that harms Muslims in the U.S. and threatens American values at their very core.

Rectifying this is essential. A positive image of Islam is not somehow going soft on terrorism. Nor is it overblown political correctness. For most who practice the religion, it is simply truth. It is time for Americans to see this.