US Foreign Policy

Losing the Meaning of Jihad: Terrorism and the US Media

in Program

By Allie Kirchner – During his trip to India, President
Barack Obama visited St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, where he answered a
student’s question about jihad: “I think all of us recognize that this great
religion in the hands of a few extremists has been distorted to justify
violence toward innocent people that is never justified.”  However, this distinction is not clear for
many Americans, who still equate Islam with violence.  Propagating that the United States is at war
with Islam is of strategic interest for organizations like al Qaeda who frame
their image as defenders of the Muslim world under attack from the West.  To advance this scheme, terrorists
deliberately use the word jihad to describe their extremist agenda.  Through their use of the word jihad, U.S.
media outlets have unwittingly abetted terrorists in this strategy. 

The word jihad literally means
“strive” or “struggle.”  Of the five
dimensions of jihad discussed in the Quran, the most emphasized is an individual’s
internal struggle for self-restraint and piety. 
The Quran also uses the word jihad in connection with charity and, to a
lesser extent, academic achievement, societal reform and defensive war.  In verse 15 of Surat al-Hujurat, the Quran
reveals that true believers “strive hard in Allah’s cause with their
possessions and their lives.” 

Terrorists have exploited the word
jihad to create the false impression that the text of the Quran supports their
violent crimes.  As with any religious
text, a scholar can selectively extract and interpret verses from the Quran to
support opposing arguments; yet according to Quranic scholar Sheikh Dr.
Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, of the 35 verses in which the Quran mentions jihad, 31
make no allusion to fighting either in the text or the context.  The remaining four verses instruct Muslims to
take up arms only to defend themselves against an aggressor.  For example verse 39 of Surat al-Hajj grants
permission to fight to those who have been attacked.  Similarly in verse 190 of Surat al-Baqarah,
the Quran reveals, “fight in the cause of Allah those that fight you, but do
not aggress because Allah does not love the aggressor.” 

Because terrorists depict violence
against civilians as jihad, the majority of American media attention constricts
its application of the term to descriptions of violence.  Since 2001, the U.S. press has referenced
jihad between approximately 6,000 and nearly 12,000 times per year; television
and radio programs mention jihad an average of 6,000 times per year. In
contrast to the way the U.S. media has publicized violent jihad, internal jihad
has been largely ignored, with a mere 56 combined total references from 2001 to
the present.  The media referenced both internal
and violent jihad a total of 55 times in the aggregation of those same

By focusing on the narrow concept of
jihad used by terrorists, the U.S. media has inadvertently reinforced the link
between terrorism and Islam within the American consciousness and contributed
to the negative perception of Islam held by an increasing percentage of the
American public.  Thirty-eight percent of
Americans polled by the Pew Research Center in August 2010 expressed an
unfavorable opinion of Islam; thirty-five percent believed Islam encourages violence
more than other religions.  This adverse
impression of Islam held by more than one-third of the American public
undermines the ability of the United States to strengthen its partnerships with
predominantly Muslim countries. 

Terrorists have a strategic interest
in propagating the belief that Islam and the West are at war.  The degree to which terrorists can succeed in
credibly convincing Muslim populations that the United States is not really
fighting a war on terrorism, but instead waging a war against Islam, is
directly correlated to the prevalence of anti-Americanism within Muslim
societies.  The U.S. media could instead
discredit al Qaeda and its affiliates by highlighting the differences between
the Quran’s injunctions on internal jihad and the terrorist perversion of jihad
as defensive war.  This modification
would prove especially significant at a time when the killing of innocent
Muslims in Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and elsewhere has caused a
backlash within the Muslim community against these terrorist



Photo Credit: A hair salon in Jounieh, Lebaon in 2005 (Austinevan).

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