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Daily Jihad in the United States
by John Heit
Recently, I hosted a forum on jihad and ethics at Santa Clara University. For the first twenty minutes of the event, I gave a brief outline of the history and meaning of jihad (for more detail see "What Is Jihad?"). Once I finished presenting, the people at the forum engaged in a discussion around jihad. Aida, a woman originally from Yemen but now living in Silicon Valley, explained that as a Muslim woman in the United States she feels that every day is a jihad. Aida painted a brief picture in which each day she is stuck between radical terrorists on one side, and between an American prejudices on the other. Her devotion to her faith is an essential and central aspect of her life, of her identity. But her traditional and conservative dress (obviously inspired by her faith) makes her easily identifiable as a Muslim woman, bringing suspicious stares and comments from her American surroundings. The result, she said, was a clash of her religion and the American culture resulting in a fight for survival--a daily jihad or struggle to strive "in the path of God" (Holy Qur'an 22:78).
Aida's daily jihad can serve as a portal into the American consciousness, into the subtleties of the American perception of Islam and jihad.
A glaring disconnect exists between Islam and the American public discourse. The Islam present in the American media is not the Islam lived by most Muslims in the United States and elsewhere. The misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims in the media is central in creating the struggle for spiritual survival experienced by Aida and countless others. That is quite an indictment to make, so we better look at it piece by piece.
While public discussion and debate regarding Islam and jihad occurs in variety of venues (schools, community forums, etc.), the primary discourse takes place in the American media (TV, radio, newspapers/magazines). This makes sense. Although it seems to be secondary to entertainment or even "infotainment", the media has the means and design for a public discussion of important issues. The media is not only the place of discourse, but it is (I assume) most Americans' primary source of information about Islam and jihad. The media has become the vehicle for discussing and analyzing Islam, jihad, and by extension, Muslims themselves. That is an enormous responsibility, and one that has been shirked.
The American media fuels prejudice against Islam and Muslims in three ways: the context it uses, the words it uses, and the coverage it provides. First, the context in which Islam (particularly jihad) arises in the media is often linked to terrorism. Scholar James Turner Johnson points out:
"In the contemporary period jihad has also been the war cry of revolutionary movements in the Arab world, movements whose methods have often been those of terrorism directed at the West [Consequently, the Western] contemporary perception for practical purposes tends to reduce it [jihad] to terrorism" (Johnson 19).
The continual media connection between jihad and terrorism creates an equal association in the American mind (particularly after the events of September 11, 2001) of jihad as terrorism. The danger is that jihad is not terrorism, but rather an internal, personal struggle to strive "in the path of God" (Holy Qur'an 22:78) (for more information see "What Is Jihad?"). In addition to morphing the meaning of jihad, this association with terrorism creates a negative reaction to jihad and by extension, Muslims in general. Americans see the graphic and disturbing events often reported as jihad in the news (i.e. suicide bombings, beheadings, etc.) and react with a sort of revulsion. The violence is repulsive and that reaction becomes associated with jihad, Islam, and Muslims like Aida.
The second method of fueling prejudice against Islam is in the words used to describe and discuss Islam. In attempts to condense the complicated matter jihad down to memorable sound bites, jihad is discussed as a "holy war" and an "Islamic crusade". First and foremost, jihad does not equal "holy war". The Jihad of the Sword (Holy War) is the "lesser jihad" as opposed to the "greater jihad" consisting of the effort to purify oneself from within, to purify oneself of selfish appetites and nature. Secondly, the term "Islamic crusade" is problematic for two reasons: 1) linguistically it makes no sense; a "crusade" is a holy war fought by "cross-bearers" or Christians. 2) Referring to jihad as an "Islamic crusade" associates jihad with the Crusades of the 11th-13th centuries, events that are generally remembered as reminders of the potentially bloody consequences of mixing religious motivations with political power.
Finally, the coverage of Islam, Muslims, and jihad provided by the media is emblematic of the American prejudice. Major news networks and newspapers cover the most extreme elements of Islam (i.e. terrorists claiming to wage jihad against America). A videotape of Osama bin Laden threatening the United States is newsworthy to say the least. However, when there is no coverage of the efforts of mainstream moderate Muslim groups to challenge radical Muslims like Al Qaeda, Hizbollah, trouble begins. During our forum, several students wanted to know what was the stance of other Muslims on jihad and why hadn't the moderate Muslims publicly decried bin Laden and company? Well, they did--the media just never covered their efforts. The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C. provides almost daily news briefs, and numerous press releases condemning the use of Islam by terrorists and citing the good works and efforts of mainstream Muslims.
Indeed, it is extremely difficult for moderate Muslims like Aida to challenge the American prejudice against Muslims when the media fuels anti-Islamic sentiment. Each day, Aida faces the challenges to her faith: "why don't Muslims stand up to bin Laden?" " Why is Islam so violent?" Each day Aida struggles to live her faith in a country she loves where the means of public discourse sustains and inflames an American prejudice against her faith.
Johnson, James Turner. The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic
Traditions. Pennsylvania University Press: Pennsylvania, 2002.