Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The War of Words:

What American Speech Reveals about the perception of Islam in the U.S. Today

by John Heit

I'd like to suggest an experiment: type jihad into an internet search engine and see what you get. When I tried using Google, I got 3,020,000 hits in 0.22 seconds. I suggest using the internet for this experiment because of the readily quantifiable results. You can just as easily watch television, read newspapers or magazines, or listen to the radio--each medium will produce the same result: jihad is used daily in today's public discourse. After sifting through some of the language, I think there's a revealing message hidden in those words.

Some of the Common Uses of Jihad

Three of the most common usages of jihad I encounter are 1) terrorists (of one sort or another) waging a jihad, declaring a holy war, 2) "jihadists," a term I believe refers to people who are either engaged in or calling for a jihad, and 3) "don't go jihad on me!" Terms one and two appear daily in newspapers, magazines, television broadcasts, and radio programs. The third example arises most often out of print (except on the internet) in more colloquial interaction and dialogue. It is also more illustrative than exact; I have heard different phrases (i.e. "jimmy jihad") expressing the same general sentiment of "don't go jihad on me!" but the essential point is clear enough: don't be fanatical like those violent Muslim terrorists!

What We Say & What They Hear

Due to the United States' economic, political, and cultural status, our nation's public discourse is actually a domestic discourse with the world listening. Consequently, I think it's worth examining how what Americans say in the U.S. is actually heard abroad; what do the peoples of the Middle East (and elsewhere) actually hear when Americans use jihad in these three ways?

Before going any further, we must know what jihad means if this dialogue is to make any sense. To summarize a very complicated idea in a few sentences, jihad is the Arabic word for "struggle" or "effort". In the context of the Holy Qur'an, jihad is a struggle or effort to strive "in the path of God" (22:78). Scholar James Turner Johnson says it this way: "the concept of jihad…fundamentally denotes striving or effort expended by the individual Muslim to walk in the path of God" (Johnson 19). Jihad is the effort to purify oneself from within, to purify oneself of selfish appetites--the intention behind the action is important to the action itself. Jihad does also refer to a holy war, but this is considered the "lesser jihad" as opposed to the greater jihad described above (for a slightly more detailed discussion, see What Is Jihad?).

Ok, so if jihad refers to either an inner struggle of purification or a holy war, what are Americans actually saying when a media outlets says that Osama bin Laden is waging jihad on the United States? Obviously, this is not a reference to the greater jihad of personal purification but is saying that Osama bin Laden is fighting a holy war against the United States. Think about that sentence for a moment. Osama bin Laden is fighting a holy war against the United States--a HOLY WAR! Please note the use of the word holy, as in a God directed, Grace guided, rightful and just use of force. Jihad has come to have such a negative connotation in the American discourse that we've missed the simple fact that each time CNN tells the world that Osama bin Laden is waging his jihad against the U.S., we are acting as bin Laden's own PR firm telling the Muslim world that yes, this is a holy war being fought against the U.S. Americans understand each other as saying what bin Laden calls for is in every sense unholy, but that is not what is being broadcast.

Likewise, when newspapers, etc. refer to radical militants as "jihadists", the same mistake is being made (NB: I'm pretty sure the word "jihadist" is an American creation that may not translate well into Arabic--I'll have to check on that). Instead of this careless use of jihad, we should refer to terrorist activities (i.e. killing of innocents, civilians) as acts of an unholy war (I'll have to get back to you on the Arabic word for this).

Let's return to the third term/phrase, "don't go jihad on me!" Since this sort of use normally occurs in more informal exchanges (or at least I haven't come across it in any printed or broadcast media) we don’t have to worry so much about the question of how such a statement labels an action as part of a holy war. However, such usage does reveal something in a similar vein: American ignorance and fear of Islam. Like the Cold War generation and the Red Communists, Islam has become "the other" against which Americans identify themselves. While one may even expect there to be abuse in such juxtaposition, the abuse is not justified merely by commonness of occurrence. Even here in tolerant and educated Northern California where I write, jihad is cast about carelessly, defining that which is other from us without concern for what is actually being said--bestowing on despicable acts the title of a holy struggle.

When it is understood what someone means by "jimmy jihad is coming after you!" it's a sad commentary on our tolerance. Do we care to see that perspective? Do we care to assess what we are saying about Islam and jihad in the U.S.?

I fear that what we've already said may reveal the answer.


Johnson, James Turner. The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions. Pennsylvania University Press: Pennsylvania, 2002.


John Heit was an SCU senior and Hackworth Fellow in 2004-05. Posted June 2005.

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