By Shajuti Hossain
One must think twice, maybe three times, before using religious terminology. Words that are commonly used in the media to describe “religiously motivated” acts of violence are of special concern.
I recently got an email with the subject, “Environmental Jihad?” from the League of Conservation Voters, a nonprofit that promotes pro-environment policies. It said, “Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson just called our climate action campaign ‘an environmental jihad.’ We need every LCV supporter to help us push back. Tell him to apologize for his offensive rhetoric and stop blocking congressional action on climate change now.”
Upon reading this email, I laughed with disgust. Not because I am an environmentalist (although I am quite a fervent one), but because I am a Muslim. I and every other Muslim I have spoken to have always learned that “jihad” is “the struggle to please God.” Examples included giving charity even when money is tight and visiting the sick even when time is short. These are the acts of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) that Muslims must follow.
Muslims frequently and contentedly hop on this struggle bus when our intention is to please God. Helping a friend move out even though we haven’t gotten much sleep is jihad, because God says to use our resources for the benefit of others. Waking up at 6:00 a.m. on weekdays to work out is jihad, because God says to take care of our bodies. Visiting our parents on weekends even when college life begs us to stay on campus is jihad, because God said to be dutiful to our parents.
My career goal is to be an environmental policy-maker and that is jihad, because I am struggling to protect human beings from the devastating effects of environmental degradation. Jihad is not committing acts of terror, suicide or corruption, even if the Muslims with the loudest voices these days say so. Since they do not understand the concept of jihad, the rest of us, whether Muslim or not, must educate ourselves and others of its true meaning before we use it as a negative term or as an insult.
It is unfortunate to hear Sen. Johnson, like the mainstream media, use the word “jihad” negatively. One cannot blame him, because the media has accepted and spread a distorted definition of the word. Then again, one cannot put the entire blame on the media either, because people with Muslim names are propagating a misinterpreted definition through their actions. Regardless of the blame, those of us who want to use the term “jihad” must make sure we use it appropriately to avoid turning a spiritual, self-reflective and inspirational word into a word that implies intolerance and hate.
Other phrases in the news, such as “Islamist” or “Islamic extremist” or “Islamic fundamentalist” also have negative associations, even though they actually have positive meanings. Did the journalists and politicians who use these phrases even stop to think what these phrases really mean? “Islam,” which literally means “submission,” comes from the word “salaam” which means “peace.” Do journalists and politicians know that they’re condemning “pacifists” and “submission-ists?” Granted, there are some people out there who call themselves Muslim and say they are killing in the name of Islam, but they are ruining the peaceful message that Muhammad brought to us from God. Why can’t we call these terrorists “apostates” or “heretics” or just leave religion out of the equation?
Muhammad always emphasized taking the middle, or moderate, path and to stay away from any kind of extreme. So a true Islamic extremist is actually moderate.
Politicians, the media and those who strive to think and speak more intelligently must think about the true definitions of jihad and Islam in order to do justice to these beautiful terms. The general public expects politicians to lead with respect and expects the media to provide accurate information. If policy-makers and journalists want to stay true to their work, they must do their research. They can begin by substituting “pacifist” or “moderate” for “Islamist,” “Islamic extremist” or “Islamic fundamentalist” and think about how that sounds. That will prompt them to use a more appropriate phrase to describe those who tarnish the image of a religion that emphasizes peace, unity, tolerance, self-improvement, knowledge, helping others and trusting God. They can thereby use religious terminology more carefully and appropriately while educating themselves and others.