The Struggle to Reclaim the Word Jihad

Friday, February 08, 2013


For many people in the West, the word 'jihad' conjures up images of a violence and terror. WNYC Reporter Arun Venugopal investigates a campaign which aims to remind people that for most in the Islamic world, jihad means 'internal struggle.' Venugopal speaks with Ahmed Rehab, the man behind the campaign, as well as Columbia University Professor Adam Galinsky, and conservative pollster Frank Luntz.


Adam Galinsky, Frank Luntz and Ahmed Rehab


Arun Venugopal

Comments [19]

Will Caxton

"I really expect more from you as in doing your home work and the proper way to research such word as jihad is to look up what it really means in an Arabic/Arabic dictionary and elmaany is a good start and here is the link ..."

Or you could use any of several other dictionaries, which provide broader definitions, like this: "struggle, campaign against something; holy war undertaken by Muslims against those that do not believe in Islam".

Or you could read the article on Wikipedia, which has a much more extensive and nuanced discussion: "In Arabic, the word jihad translates as a noun meaning 'struggle'. Jihad appears 41 times in the Quran and frequently in the idiomatic expression 'striving in the way of God (al-jihad fi sabil Allah)'. ... In Modern Standard Arabic, jihad is one of the correct terms for a struggle for any cause, violent or not, religious or secular .... For instance, Mahatma Gandhi's satyagraha struggle for Indian independence is called a 'jihad' in Modern Standard Arabic (as well as many other dialects of Arabic); the terminology is also applied to the fight for women's liberation."

As far as non-Arabic Americans are concerned, of course, the meaning of a word is whatever they see on TV; so if the people on TV keep saying that "jihad" means "holy war", then that's what it means -- as far as that audience is concerned. Trying to tell people their understanding of the meaning of a word is wrong is good for getting into arguments but not good for much else.

Apr. 14 2013 03:39 PM
fred from usa

The problem is that its kind of like addressing a scratch on a car that is totaled in a crash. When antisemitism and irrationality and general oppression and hatred is pervasive in the muslim world, fixating on a word like jihad just kind of is symptomatic of the problem with that religion.

Mar. 14 2013 03:06 AM

Neal says that a historically one-sided presentation is wrong, why is that? Does everyone agree with this standard? Is it an absolute standard for everyone? why?

There is also the matter of his duty to call out people on religious violence, why is that important? What's wrong with that? I think again it is an appeal to a standard that he assumes exists and should be lived by but no mention of where it comes from and whether it is to followed.

Why debate if everyone can believe whatever they want? Why debate is right and wrong is subjective?

Feb. 14 2013 03:57 PM

It was interesting that in the discussion of the word "jihad" there was no mention of the instances when Mohammed practiced jihad in military way. Is it important to look at the Mohammed's view and practice of jihad important? If the founder means something by jihad and practices jihad a certain way, then it changes the nature of the discussion, doesn't it?

There were statements made that there should be a change the way discussion is pursued about Islam, but why? Based on what standard? Where does this standard come from?

Feb. 14 2013 03:49 PM
Seamus Riley

"Officer, I didn't steal anything...I merely conducted an undocumented purchase."

'Undocumented Citizen' may sound less offensive than "illegal alien", if you have only one definition in your vocabulary for "alien" and that is someone of the green persuasion, but it is not only a sneaky way to legitimize crime (yes, it's a crime to enter and settle in most countries without undergoing their immigration procedures), it's not even accurate.

Thanks for stretching the truth again, On The Media. I wonder when someone is going to feel it is necessary to make another show called "On On The Media" exposing you.

Feb. 11 2013 08:10 PM

Named Jihad? Change your name. There were plenty of people named Hitler before Adolph. He ruined that name probably forever. Osama and other terrorists have finished jihad as "struggle". It's over. It means Kill Americans now. Really. That's your name. Change it.

-- Change it to "kampf."

Feb. 11 2013 12:43 PM

Named Jihad? Change your name. There were plenty of people named Hitler before Adolph. He ruined that name probably forever. Osama and other terrorists have finished jihad as "struggle". It's over. It means Kill Americans now. Really. That's your name. Change it.

Feb. 10 2013 09:46 PM
JC Harris from Seattle

The piece juxtaposes a bit about getting rid of the term 'Pro-Choice' because younger people dislike 'politicising' (spin?) words. Makes sense. Just call it what it is.

But then you have the the next guy who wants to get rid of the term 'Illegal Alien.' You say, 'they're just -people- with a problem.' No, 'Alien' is a term of art meaming someone not a citizen. You can be here legally or illegally. It's not disparaging at all. It's just a fact. You're here illegally. You may not like the way it sounds, but these are not people who simply don't have papers. It's not like Lenny Bruce might say 'Oops! I left my papers in my other slacks.' No, they are people who are here because of a conscious decision to break the law... either their own or their parents. I'm in favour of 'Amnesty'. But I call it what it is: amnesty for illegal aliens. I don't try to change people's thinking by giving it a 'kinder/gentler' name. It is what it is.

Prevcious posters are correct: a LOT of NPR stations are starting to use the term 'undocumented american' and that -is- a political decision which has no place in the newsroom.

Feb. 10 2013 09:39 PM
deserthackberry from Texas

So let me get this straight: Mr Vargas' Filipino parents sent him into this country illegally as a child, then he chose to stay here illegally, working and attending school using fraudulent documents, and now he thinks that not only gives him the right to stay without legal sanction, but to tell us how we Americans should refer to him?

Wow, that's pretty arrogant, but I guess it's no surprise, given his upbringing and the apparent sense of entitlement it has engendered. Perhaps the term "illegal invaders" would be more appropriate? Illegal intruders? Illegal trespassers? Illegal aggressors?

On the other hand, "jihad" is an Arabic word. Since I don't speak Arabic, I guess I'll have to take the word of Arabic speakers that it doesn't necessarily mean "Holy War". Frankly, I don't have a problem with that. In fact, it's kind of nice to know.

Feb. 10 2013 05:56 PM
Brim Stone from Tampa

What is going own? Why is every single program on public radio in all its forms running pro-illegal alien pieces? Is someone holding some kind of hammer over everyone's heads? How can the public be overwhelming against another amnesty for illegal aliens and public radio be so slanted in favor of it? What is going on?

Vargas is not an immigrant.

"n. person who moves to a country to take up permanent residence, one who settles in a new country."

Vargas has no legal right whatsoever to remain here permanently and it is only matter of time before he is properly deported to his own country. By labeling all of the criminals who snuck into or stayed in America illegally "immigrants' you are trying to confer to them a legitimacy they are not entitled to.

The term 'illegal alien' is exactly correct and is perfectly descriptive. Which is exactly why it is the exact term codified in law. It is when you try and dissuade use of the term that you are attempting to bend the conversation away from truth. Tell the truth.

Feb. 10 2013 05:16 PM
luke theone from New York

I really expect more from you as in doing your home work and the proper way to research such word as jihad is to look up what it really means in an Arabic/Arabic dictionary and elmaany is a good start and here is the link
And let me help you: It really means unconditional holy war as per Q2:216 a

I'm not the one who is saying that it is an Arabic dictionary and in this case it is either that Mr Rehab does not know his Arabic or he is making things up

Feb. 10 2013 04:50 PM
Sharon Azar

since the Prophet Mohammed himself converted by the sword then the word 'jihad' is not only an inner struggle but an outer one as well. How can this word be sanitized?

Feb. 10 2013 11:12 AM
Pat from nyc

when will we will apply sensitivity and reason to stigmatize of the b-word to reference women as we do the n-word ? John Lennon rightly sang, "women are the n"s of the world"

Feb. 10 2013 07:20 AM

How can you do a segment on reclaiming the word "jihad" without one mention of the word "crusade?"

Crusade is a close relative of jihad both in its meaning and history of different interpretations and reactions among different cultures. Looking at the hundreds of years of the use and evolution of "crusade" would perhaps provide a much deeper insight into the challenge of evolving the interpretation of "jihad" in the English speaking world than looking at words like "queer." I wonder how that same group of students explaining "jihad" to their friends would have expressed how they think about "crusade."

Feb. 09 2013 04:49 PM

In keeping with technical accuracy and historical sensitivity, "Japanese internment camps" should be described as American internment camps imprisoning innocent people of Japanese descent in the 1940's.
Apparently for now we can still say Japanese restaurant with the understanding it is not owned by the Japanese government but by US citizens.
Another example of the political pitfalls of the English language and American culture?

Feb. 09 2013 11:49 AM

The semantics of using a word in a technically correct way but with a different cultural significance is often a thinly disguised political cudgel.

Do journalists have great fun describing autocratic and oppressive Iranian mullahs as "conservative" while that word also applies to US Constitution quoting Americans trying to limit the power of the government and increase personal liberty for all citizens?

Japanese internment camps are described as "concentration camps" which is technically accurate but at that same moment in Europe the term would forever carry a far more horrific weight.

Will "jihad" be the new "blitz"?
Were there any calls for education, sensitivity and understanding with "My Crusade" t-shirts or was that considered an inappropriate word in polite discourse?

Feb. 09 2013 11:08 AM
Neal Gallagher from Fairfax, Virginia

I was driving home from work this morning, and I heard your piece on "Reclaiming Jihad". As a fellow journalist, as a libertarian, as an atheist, as a secular Westerner, I was offended on all levels. The one-sided, historical inaccuracy of the presentation of the piece, the deliberate ignorance of the contemporary impact of the word, the comparison of a Muslim woman lifting weights to the world-wide movement of a religious fascist movement, was all nonsensical and frankly, bad journalism. It was especially telling when Mr. Venugopal, who identifies himself early in the piece as a Hindu, makes no mention in the rest of the piece of the continuing attacks between Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, including the bombing of shrines and trains.

I am a journalist for a subsidiary of the Washington Examiner, and I feel it my duty, not only as a Western secular, but as an acquaintance of Christopher Hitchens, to call you out on your piece, not only for its historical ignorance, but for its apologetic stance on a religion of violence. I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to discuss, or debate,with the author of the piece, or any member of CAIR or NPR who would like to, the errors in the piece.

Neal Gallagher

Feb. 09 2013 07:46 AM
Larry Robinson from Arlington, VA

I've studied Islamist insurgencies, including al-Qaida and several of its affiliates, for many years, professionally and on my own. I found Arun's piece on attempts to rebrand "jihad" very interesting, and have great sympathy with frustrated Muslims like Ahmed Rehab, but I'm pretty sure it will be a futile effort. The time for Muslims to reclaim the concept from the terrorists was 20 years ago, after armed jihad had grown so popular in Afghanistan. They didn't do it, and Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri and others effectively trademarked the term -- in the Muslim world every bit as much as in the West. Among non-Muslims, "jihad" will continue to be defined predominantly in negative and violent terms for centuries.

How can I predict this? Because the Arabic word "jihad" is an almost perfect counterpart of the English word "crusade." We in the US think of "crusade" in very positive terms, and not necessarily in military ones -- think "Campus Crusade for Christ." But everywhere I've been in the Muslim world, "crusade" and "crusaders" are terms of abuse -- 800 years after the last clash of swords between Saracens and Crusaders.

This rare congruence of the connotational penumbrae of two words from very different languages is the only way I've found to explain to Muslims what "crusade" really means and to westerners what "jihad really means."

Feb. 09 2013 06:51 AM
Dominic from Saint Louis, Missouri

I would think that given the chance to tell the "king of spin", Frank Luntz, the true definition of a word which he has misused and vehemently continues to do so, the heart of this article would be his reaction TO that definition.

No follow-up, no story.

Feb. 09 2013 06:39 AM

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