So what does jihad actually mean? Well, like terrorism, there is no one single definition. The word applies to a number of meanings and is used in a number of different contexts. Jihad is intrinsically linked to Islam; it is therefore incredibly complex and open to various interpretations.
Jihad will be interpreted based on the person who is using it and the justification in which they are seeking for implementing their version of it. For instance, extremist, fundamentalists, scriptural, traditionalist, reformist traditionalists, and secularist Muslims will have their own understanding of the concept which demands a different adherence from each of them based on their personal belief structure.
At one end of the spectrum, extremists will advocate the spreading of Islam by force, as well as the creation of a global caliphate by any violent means necessary. How the Islamic State is going about business is a perfect example of this. On the other end of that continuum, traditionalists may see jihad as something as simple as a struggle for self improvement. This same continuum can have jihad interpreted as anything from a moral journey or moral improvement, to a personal struggle, a spiritual development, or simply as an historical phenomena.
It is not a far stretch of the imagination to see the negative effect that oversimplifying and vilifying the term jihad can have on counter radicalisation strategies. The number of ways it can be interpreted and the number of people who use it simply do not allow for a one-size-fits all application. In fact, the sheer number of interpretations of jihad should not actually be a disadvantage; rather, the openness of it should be cast in an advantageous way because those writing policy and strategy have a large left and right of arc to work within. It would actually be much simpler for the media and government if jihad could only be interpreted as the narrow, ultra-extremist definition that they paint the concept in. If this were the case, then labeling every terrorist attack as the work of jihadis would be accurate and acceptable.
But it’s not. By lumping the work of extremists in the same basket as traditionalists and painting all of those who practice moderate versions of jihad as terrorists, it is marginalizing those who sit at the end of the continuum that we need on our side. If, say, a practicing traditionalist sought moral improvement or spiritual development through committing to something like charitable causes, and he referred to this as his own personal jihad, then the consistent rhetoric surrounding “jihadi terrorists” would no doubt start to evoke certain feelings of resentment. This type of person is the type cast moderate that governments actively target to help them in their fight against radicalism. Why would someone like this want to work with those who tar what they believe is a personal and sacred practice which reflects their own interpretation?
Let us look at this from a different and more familiar perspective. I enjoy recreational shooting. I like shooting with my friends in a variety of different settings and in a variety of different locations. I find the sport to be relaxing, immensely enjoyable, and could easily equate it to the personal development one could expect through the practice of any recreational sport.
If the media and government decided to one day carte blanch replace “recreational shooter” or “hunter” with “killer” or “murderer”, then it would not only be inaccurate but it would be highly offensive. If they lumped all of us responsible members of the public who buy, own, and use firearms for recreational purposes in the same basket as the maniacs who commit mass murder and other various crimes, then I’m sure our resentment toward the media and government would continue to grow with time.
Now, whilst a lot of people may argue that this already happens to some degree, let’s pretend that there was a “War on Gun Crime” declared by the federal government with the fictitious aim of minimizing gun-related violence. Let’s assume that the government adopted strategies similar to those of counter radicalisation where the help of moderates was sought to assist them in their fight against extremists.
Now, say this government turned to us responsible gun owners and asked for our assistance after years and years of labeling us indirectly as murderers and killers. How receptive and willing would I be in helping them? Would I be skeptical that they are just wanting to use us to further their own means and that once they had achieved their goal go back to demonizing us? Of course I would.
What I am trying to do with this hypothetical – as I do with all of my work – is look at things from a perspective that I can both understand and relate to. The realm of counter terrorism and counter radicalisation is an extremely complex one, and trying to figure out what motivates people to take an extremist path – as well as what has the potential to stop them – is essentially the holy grail of this particular field.
There is no silver-bullet solution to this problem; a simultaneous focus on a number of different approaches is undoubtedly needed. Strategic communications is an example of one of these approaches and which the Department of Defense defines as those “efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of [government] interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power.” It is a “whole-of-government approach, driven by interagency processes and integration that are focused upon effectively communicating national strategy.”
So how does this translate into the issue I presented in regards to the indiscriminate use of the word jihad? How does one replace this word with another that is factually correct, deprives the extremists of their “Islamic” justification for violence, and does not marginalize moderates into thinking that the War on Terrorism is synonymous with a war against Islam?
In his book War of Ideas, Peter Waller suggests the simplest and most appropriate word to replace jihad: hirabah. Layla Sein of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists explains this concept further:
“Since the concept of jihad comes from the root word jahada (to strive or struggle for self-betterment from an ethical-moral perspective) and that of hirabah comes from the root word hariba (to fight, to go to war or become enraged or angry), an etymological and theological examination of these words provides a valid framework through which the religious legitimacy of suicide bombings in today’s global community can be analyzed…”
“To delve into a comparative study of these Islamic concepts is to expose how hirabah is being paraded by terrorist groups as jihad. By defining hirabah as jihad, such terrorist groups as al Qaeda and others promote their terrorist agendas by misleading young, religiously motivated and impressionable Muslims to believe that killing unarmed and non-combatant civilians are activities of jihad, and hence a ticket to paradise…”
“If activities of fear and terror associated with hirabah are used to define the meaning of jihad in hopes of recruiting Muslim youth to undertake suicide bombings and other criminal activities, Muslim theologians need to define the nature of what is happening to stop the hijacking of Islam by terrorists.”
It is quite easy then to see how the word jihad is not only inaccurate but has a much more suitable replacement. Governments must understand this and focus on devising accurate communications strategies in order to reclaim the vocabulary which is currently being used to report on terrorism. A strategy might be brilliant in design, but as I have highlighted, the incorrect use of a single word might be enough to render it entirely ineffective. Replacing jihad with the more appropriate hirabah has the potential to diminish the high level of regard and appeal that extremist groups like the Islamic State are currently enjoying.
In order to achieve this, governments must assemble teams of academics from a number of different disciplines. Those who specialise in areas of expertise such as security and counter terrorism will need the invaluable input from scholars of Islam and Arab culture to ensure strategic compatibility.
These strategies may then need to be crafted by those who come from advertising and marketing backgrounds to ensure maximum audience receptiveness. This suggestion is a low cost, common sense approach which will ultimately prove to be an incredibly effective and complimentary aspect of any counter radicalisation effort. With the right guidance, we can hopefully start to take back the vocabulary in which terrorism is being reported on and use it to our full advantage.
(Featured Image Courtesy: JihadWatch.org)