< The Struggle to Reclaim the Word Jihad


Friday, February 08, 2013

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone, with a few words about words. Many political pundits say the recent election marks a turning point for Democrats and Republicans, and new times call for new vocabulary. For instance, Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says her organization has decided to drop the phrase “pro-choice.” She told WNYC's Brian Lehrer recently that polls suggest the once potent term now just muddies the waters, especially for Republicans who are pro-ch – I mean, in favor of abortion rights.

CECILE RICHARDS:  What we have found – it’s, actually, fascinating – stronger support in this country than ever for the Roe decision, for women to be able to make their own decisions about their pregnancies but just less affinity for a label that, frankly, is a political label that was created decades ago.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Maybe the activists of the Roe v. Wade generation needed a rallying cry, but Richards says that the young people, they don’t like labels; labels are political. They hurt the cause.

CECILE RICHARDS:  Whether it’s, you know, pro-choice, pro-life, whether it is sexuality, sexual preference, sexual identity, and I think this is more recognition that just these, these sort of shorthand labels don't necessarily reflect how people talk about and think about issues that are very important.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  When asked for an alternative shorthand she didn't have one. Instead, she offered a full sentence stating the Planned Parenthood position. Maybe this heralds a new day, but it's hard to imagine that political phrase-making is dead, especially since re-branding is in full and furious swing.

Last fall, we spoke to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist José Antonio Vargas, who recently came out as an undocumented immigrant. He's suffered the consequences, but he's also found a cause, stamping out the phrase, “illegal alien.”

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS:  As if I just landed there from Mars. Can you think of any other instance that we refer to a group of people as “illegal” in this country? Actions are illegal, not people.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Eliminating the phrase won't eliminate injustice, won’t ensure civil rights for people like him. But it’s powerfully symbolic, and the media, he says, have to know that.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS:  This one word comes with this kind of journalistic question of how can we be as accurate and as descriptive as possible? And I’m sorry to say this, as far as I’m concerned, “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” are neither of those things.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  What he is, what most Americans were when they first got here, is an immigrant, in his case, without papers, an “undocumented immigrant,” a person with a problem.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS:  I’m not what you think I am. We are not who you think we are. We’re not the other people. We’re actually one of you. That’s why this is not just word play, this is actually at the heart of this conversation. What we’re called and why we’re called what we’re called.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Which brings us to the last in our series of tendentious terminology:  This week, a 21-year-old student from Bangladesh pled guilty to attempting to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank in lower Manhattan, as part of an FBI sting. He wrote that he wanted to destroy America. Agents of the Joint Terrorism Task Force wrote that he wanted to advance the goals of jihad. “Jihad” – that tells us all we need to know, right? Actually, a growing number of Muslims are trying to reclaim the word, return it to its original nonviolent definition, attempting, if you will, to rebrand it. WNYC's Arun Venugopal reports on the struggle to reappropriate jihad.

ARUN VENUGOPAL:  A long, long, long time ago when I was in college, I hung out with some friends who were in the Muslim Students Association, the MSA, and one day they had a mixer of sorts with one of the Christian student groups of which there were several, this being Texas. And one of the first things the Christians asked the Muslims about was jihad. They wanted to know what that was all about because clearly they’d heard a thing or two. And almost as if on cue, the Muslims are all, “Great question, and hey, we’ve got the perfect person to answer for you, and, as a matter of fact, get this, his name is Jihad. And all eyes turned to Jihad, this perfectly earnest, gentle, 18-year-old boy, a freshman with a big sweet smile. Jihad delivers this mini-lecture about his name, about jihad and how it's an internal struggle that can sometimes manifest itself as a physical struggle or an act of self-defense.

I was the only Hindu in the room. I don’t remember much of what he said because for me the fascinating thing was watching this exchange. I remember thinking that the Christians did not appear entirely convinced. For these kids, jihad had different associations, in countless movies like “True Lies” from 1994.


SALIM ABU AZIZ:  Unless you, America pull all military forces out of the Persian Gulf area, immediately, and forever, Crimson Jihad will rain fire on one major U.S. city each week, until our demands are met.



ARUN VENUGOPAL:  For any American, this is what jihad meant.


Ahmed Rehab is a Muslim American activist in Chicago. His day job is running the local chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations or CAIR. He got so tired of the overwhelmingly violent image of Jihad that he started a campaign to, as he said, reclaim the word, not just from Muslim extremists but from Western Islamophobes. He first turned to friends on Facebook and asked them to join him on Twitter. He wanted everyone to share their greatest dreams with the rest of the world and their most intensely personal struggles, the kind of things they grapple with on a daily basis. And he came up with the hashtag #MyJihad.

AHMED REHAB:  I began by explaining that as a young boy I remember my grandmother, who was quadriplegic and diabetic, who had been bedridden for seven years plus, and I remember feeling very sorry for her and wondering how she could deal with this challenge for so long, and I asked her, Grandma, how is it that you put through with this? And her answer really made me think. She said, “Well, my son, it’s my jihad.”

AHMED REHAB:  The My Jihad campaign started rolling out ads on the sides of buses in Chicago a few months ago, followed by San Francisco and then Washington DC. So you might see an image of a girl in a hijab lifting up a dumbbell and the words, “My jihad is to stay fit, despite my busy schedule,” or a young mom who says, “My Jihad is to march on, despite losing my son.”

ARUN VENUGOPAL:  Rehab thinks of his campaign as a kind of icebreaker for the community, one that'll make it easier for Muslims to use this word without fear.

AHMED REHAB:  Muslims were intimidated because of what they hear in the public sphere, in the media included, of this constant bashing of jihad and this constant mis-definition of the term that was rendered exclusively to represent criminals.

ARUN VENUGOPAL:  By which he means terrorists who operate in the name of Islam. But in the 1980s, Americans saw things differently. That's when thousands of men flocked to Afghanistan to serve as holy warriors against the Soviets. They were known as the Mujahideen. They were celebrated by the US, as was their notion of jihad. But then, as Time Magazine’s world editor Bobby Ghosh noted in a recent TED talk, Osama bin Laden emerged.

BOBBY GHOSH:  And the things he did in the pursuit of this jihad were so monstrous and had such great impact that his definition was the one that stuck. We didn’t know any better. We just assumed that if this insane man and his psychopathic followers were calling what they did jihad, then that’s what jihad must mean. But it wasn’t just us. Even in the Muslim world, his definition of jihad began to gain acceptance.

ARUN VENUGOPAL:  Is there any precedent for beating back a stigmatized word? I turned to the academic world.

ADAM GALINSKY:  My name is Adam Galinsky. I’m a professor at Columbia University.

ARUN VENUGOPAL:  He studied the reappropriation of stigmatizing labels. The two most famous examples of this are the black community’s use of the N-word and the word “queer.”

ADAM GALINSKY:  When “queer nation” came into being, their particular purpose was to reclaim the use of the word and give it sort of a new meaning and a new value.

ARUN VENUGOPAL:  Words like “queer” represent identity, which those who have been labeled have worked to redefine and ultimately own. Jihad, however, is an act. How do you redefine an act?

ADAM GALINSKY:  If you want to make something about self-discovery or self-improvement, you’ve got to make it easy for  people then to incorporate that into their everyday language. If it’s too self-conscious, it doesn’t work. You know, if you want it to be about self-improvement, you could say, you know, it’s like this year on New Year’s Eve I’m going on my jihad with my resolutions.

ARUN VENUGOPAL:  A dietary jihad, followed by a makeover or style jihad. Galinsky is skeptical about the chances for jihad crossing over into the mainstream, unless it goes casual. Think lipstick feminism.

But is that possible without sacrificing the word’s spiritual essence? Would Muslims take that tradeoff and, if so, would it even work? I asked Frank Luntz, Republican political consultant, famous for rebranding the estate tax as a death tax, among other semantic feats, how would he respond to the job of repositioning jihad?

FRANK LUNTZ:   My response would be are you nuts? No! Trying to make people feel better about jihad, trying to make people feel better about a holy war? Jihad is a violent, destructive, murderous word, and no campaign and no amount of money is going to change that.

ARUN VENUGOPAL:  Nevertheless, Rehab says his campaign is catching on in the Muslim community, and Muslims in Norway and Australia and elsewhere also want to give it a try.

Naeem Baig, the head of the Islamic Circle of North America said Rehab and the others are taking a very American approach to the problem, openly confronting something that's clearly got some serious baggage, and he seems to approve. But this isn’t just a campaign about a word. Rehab says he wants to draw ordinary Muslims out of the shadows, to get them to speak up for Islam and ultimately drown out the haters and extremists.

AHMED REHAB:  When we talk about Sharia, it’s chopping of hands. When we talk about Islam, it’s about marrying four women, it’s about blowing things up and then getting 72 virgins in heaven. It’s a caricature. But when it comes to Islam, we are in a dumbed down sphere. We need to come out of that. This is what this campaign will do. It will help us get to this rational conversation.

ARUN VENUGOPAL:  Creating a rational conversation about Islam is going to take a lot more than tweets and bus ads, but it all starts with a single word. For On the Media, I'm Arun Venugopal. 


Adam Galinsky, Frank Luntz and Ahmed Rehab


Arun Venugopal