Losing the Meaning of Jihad: Terrorism and the US Media

Stimson Spotlight

Losing the Meaning of Jihad: Terrorism and the US Media

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 years. 

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 organizations. 



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