In A Nutshell
When you hear the word “jihad,” what do you see? Chances are it involves explosions and angry imams screaming about spilling the infidel’s blood. The word is now associated almost exclusively with Islamic terrorism, to the extent that anti-Muslim groups call themselves things like “jihad watch.”
In reality, “jihad” literally means “struggling in the way of God.” While that can be interpreted as waging Holy War, it can also be applied to far more peaceful things. After a decade and a half of jihadist terrorism, liberal Muslims are now trying to reclaim the word.
The Whole Bushel
On the surface, Imam Sarr sounds like Donald Trump’s worst nightmare. A Senegalese preacher, the devout Muslim has been calling for fellow believers to involve themselves in global jihad. Only his goal isn’t to smash planes into towers or establish a brutal caliphate. It’s to protect the environment.
For anyone who only knows the word “jihad” in conjunction with terrorism, this might seem a little odd. But jihad has never exclusively referred to Holy War. Literally interpreted, it means “struggling in the way of God.” For ISIS and other extremists, that’s synonymous with murdering innocent people. But for the world’s liberal Muslims, it means something else entirely. And they’re so disgusted by ISIS’s version that they’re trying to reclaim the word for the public good.
Chief among these is Ibrahim Saidy. A Norwegian imam, he was the one who came up with the idea of waging a war against climate change. For a year now, he’s been promoting his “green jihad” on a global scale, even taking part in the Paris global warming talks in December 2015. The stated goal of his jihad is “to protect and save lives.” In other words, the opposite of what ISIS is doing.
It may sound strange to Western ears, but it’s worth bearing in mind that “jihad” is a neutral word in Arabic. In the same way that presidents can launch a “war” on cancer without bombing anyone or charities can start a “crusade” against gambling without invading the Holy Land, so can Muslim groups use “jihad” in a positive sense.
In the USA, this has led to the #MyJihad campaign. A deliberate attempt to reclaim the word from extremists, it focuses on encouraging Muslims to launch jihads against society’s ills. In Chicago alone, it has led to a jihad against poverty, a jihad against domestic violence, a jihad against discrimination, and even (bizarrely) a “Jihad against expensive and inaccessible health care.”
While it might seem unlikely that a word as loaded as “jihad” can ever be uncoupled from its negative associations, it’s worth bearing in mind that similar things have happened before. Throughout the 20th century, “socialism” was one of the dirtiest words in American politics, reminiscent of Stalin and Red Peril and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fast-forward to 2015 and Bernie Sanders is now able to poll remarkably well in the Democratic primaries, despite openly referring to himself as a socialist. (There are obviously plenty of people on the other side of the aisle who still find the term repugnant.) Supporters are clearly attempting to rehabilitate the term.
If doing so with “jihad” can weaken ISIS’s claim to power, that can only be a good thing.