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The Meaning of Jihad By: John Perazzo
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, November 25, 2002

During the months following the 9-11 attacks – while the smoldering rubble left behind by the jihad warriors was still being sifted for human remains – the American public was reminded daily, by a multitude of purported experts, not only about Islam’s status as a “religion of peace,” but more particularly about the supposedly amiable nature of true jihad as well.

Churches and religious organizations were among the most passionate in promoting the idea of peaceful jihad. Just days after 9-11, the Presbyterian News Service issued a press release explaining that for most Muslims, “jihad refers primarily to the inner struggle of being a person of virtue and submission to Allah in all aspects of life. This is sometimes described as ‘jihad of the heart.’ ” Along these lines, the Reverend Stephen Van Kuiken of Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati asserted,  “The term jihad is often distorted to mean ‘holy war,’ but it has a deeper meaning. . . . the struggle with our own selves. Literally, it means, ‘exertion’ or ‘to struggle.’ It means spiritual warfare, to battle with one’s own demons in order to give ourselves over to God, in order to place ourselves in ‘the arms of the wind.’ ”

Similarly, the United Church of Christ in Vancouver, Washington produced a publication stating that jihad means “to strive or to exert oneself,” and that equating it with “holy war” is to “distort its spiritual significance and connotation.”  Jihad’s intent, the piece continued, is to establish “equilibrium within the inner being of man as well as in the human society in which that person functions.” In its essence, jihad is “a reflection of Divine Justice and a necessary condition for peace in the human domain.”

The National Council of Churches weighed in by explaining that “jihad means struggle or exertion in the way of God. The ‘greater jihad’ is the struggle against temptation and evil within oneself. The ‘lesser jihad’ is working against injustice or oppression in society.”

Religious scholar and professor Dr. John Kaltner, who authored the 1999 book Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur'an for Bible Readers, said he was troubled by “the manner in which many non-Muslims understand the term jihad.” The word, he said, “comes from an Arabic root whose primary sense refers to the act of putting forth effort to achieve some objective, [such as] the effort each person must exert in order to live his or her life as a good Muslim and avoid the temptation to sin.” The only circumstances under which jihad permits open warfare, he said, is “when it is a defensive response to an attack.” This definition was echoed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ depiction of jihad as “the struggle against evil inclinations within oneself [and] the quality of life in society” – a struggle that may be taken to the battlefield solely for purposes of self-defense.

The axiom that jihad resorts to violence only to ward off aggressors suggests, of course, that it is rooted in a desire to maintain a state of justice or peace that is being threatened by external forces; in short, that it stems from an impulse to protect what is good, rather than from hateful bigotry or the ambition to overrun others. In this view, evil rests not in the violence of jihadists, but in whoever allegedly caused them to become violent. Proceeding from that premise, the executive director of the Alliance of Baptists asserted that the environment leading to the 9-11 attacks was created by American foreign policy – most notably its support for Israeli “violence.”

Similarly, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church’s College of Bishops attributed the attacks to American “foreign policies around the world.”  The organization Catholics for a Peaceful End to Terrorism likewise saw the attacks as responses to US policies rather than as manifestations of Islamic aggression, and thus cautioned against military action that would only “[sow] the seeds of more hatred and deeper resentment.” The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) stated, “The people who planned these suicide attacks were able to draw volunteers from a growing number of people around the world who harbor deep resentment and anger toward the US. It is important that we in the US try to hear and understand the sources of this anger.” Implicit in each of the foregoing statements is the idea that some form of American aggression triggered the jihadists’ impulse to defend themselves, rather than vice versa. 

The views of these religious organizations were echoed widely throughout academia as well. Harvard dean Michael Shinagel, for instance, publicly stated that jihad – far from having militant connotations – denotes instead one’s personal quest “to promote justice and understanding in ourselves and in our society.” As Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes points out, Shinagel’s benign depiction of jihad “reflect[s] the consensus of Islamic specialists” at universities all over this country. Pipes’ careful study of the public statements of these professors shows that they view jihad largely as a “struggle without arms” – to do God’s will, to improve one’s own character, to resist worldly temptations, and to work for social justice.

Obviously many organizations – among them al-Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, the Islamic Salvation Front, the Group Islamic Army, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the International Islamic Front for the Jihad Against Jews and Crusade[rs] – haven’t yet been enlightened by the likes of American religious and academic experts, who presumably could set them straight about jihad’s “true, peaceful nature” that rejects violence except where absolutely necessary. How many slaughtered innocents might still be alive today, if only such warriors had understood jihad to mean what our priests, ministers, and professors claim it means?

Self-deception and wishful thinking will not save us. The bromides of American intellectuals wishing to sanitize jihad’s grotesque, barbarous reality will not save the life of a single potential victim. For sadly, their platitudes have nothing remotely to do with reality. As Dr. Pipes explains, “the way the [militant] jihadists understand the term is in keeping with its usage through fourteen centuries of Islamic history” – during which it has meant the compulsory effort to forcibly expand Muslim territory and influence. “The goal is boldly offensive,” says Pipes, “and its ultimate intent is nothing less than to achieve Muslim dominion over the entire world.” Indeed the scholar Bat Ye’or explains that historically jihad has meant “war, dispossession, slavery, and death” for its victims. This is a far cry from the purported, noble struggle to “give oneself over to God.”

If we wish to understand the true nature of jihad, we can learn a great deal from listening to the manner in which its actual practitioners and mouthpieces use the word, rather than the smiley-faced version that our religious leaders and college professors paint for us. For instance, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reports that during a November 8, 2002 sermon in a Baghdad mosque, an Iraqi cleric made the following remarks, which were broadcast by Iraqi TV: “We challenge [President Bush and the Americans] with our words, before challenging [them] with our weapons. . . . We are patient . . . and we will fight them with all kinds of weapons. Jihad, Jihad, Jihad, Jihad. . . . Jihad for the cause of Allah . . . . Jihad has become an obligation of every individual Muslim.” He then exhorted all Muslims to “welcome death, welcome martyrdom for the cause for Allah.”


“Oh Allah,” the same cleric continued, “let the infidels fight each other, and dry their blood in their veins. Send Your soldiers against them . . . . destroy their fleet and their weapons; fight their soldiers . . . make them prey to the Muslims; Allah avenge Muslims’ blood from them. . . . Oh Allah, for Thee we fight, we kill and are killed.” This hardly sounds like a “struggle without arms.” 


According to MEMRI, a recent issue of the online magazine Al-Ansar, which has ties to al-Qaeda, wrote that “the importance of the human effort to annihilate the infidels . . . is what Allah sought to teach the Muslims. . . . Jihad is the way of torturing [the infidels] at our hands. . . with killing.” Presumably the publishers of such rhetoric have not been fortunate enough to hear, as we Americans have, that jihad is in fact a peaceful pursuit. Equally unfortunate is the imam of the Great Mosque at King Saud University in Al-Riyadh, who lauds jihad as “the industry of death” taught by the prophet Muhammad. 
MEMRI reports many additional Middle Eastern rantings about a jihad that looks nothing like the one in our apologists’ fairy tales. The Saudi ambassador to London, for example, praises jihadists who become suicide bombers – on the grounds that “in the Koran . . . it is written that anyone who dies for the sake of Allah is a martyr.” “The day of jihad,” he says, “is the day of blood.” A columnist for the Saudi government-controlled daily Al-Jazirah applauds suicide bombers for their “willingness to [wage] jihad.” The foremost Egyptian cleric of Al­ Azhar University recently exhorted Palestinians to intensify their suicide attacks against Israeli women and children, characterizing such acts as the highest form of jihad operations.


In a similar spirit, Egypt’s new mufti, Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al­ Tayyeb, asserts that the solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict “lies in a proliferation of [martyrdom] attacks that strike horror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah.” The chairman of the Arab Psychiatrists Association says, “When the martyr dies a martyr’s death, he attains the height of bliss.” “The message to Israel,” he adds, “is that we will not cease . . . . As long as there is even a single Palestinian left, the war will not end. . . . This is not a conflict over land alone. . . . Either we will exist or we will not exist. Either the Israelis or the Palestinians - there is no third option. . . . There is no middle ground. Coexistence is total nonsense.”

This is the jihad from which Western intellectuals wish to shield us with their cheerful tales of people struggling “to promote justice and understanding.” This is the authentic, hideous face of jihad recognized throughout the Islamic world – and preached passionately by many of its most eminent religious leaders. Because such clerics embrace and endorse the concept of militant jihad, it is not surprising that ever-greater numbers of young Arabs are volunteering to become “holy warriors” – that is, suicide bombers. According to MEMRI, the Israeli Arab weekly Kul Al ­Arab recently reported that in Alexandria, enrollment had begun for “volunteers for martyrdom [operations]” against Israel. Almost immediately, said the report, “two thousand students from the University of Alexandria signed up to die a martyr’s death.”

And so it goes, as aspiring jihadists line up for an opportunity to murder and thereby glorify God – not only making a mockery of our politically correct definitions of jihad, but more importantly, preventing us from truly understanding the enemy we face.

John Perazzo is the Managing Editor of DiscoverTheNetworks and is the author of The Myths That Divide Us: How Lies Have Poisoned American Race Relations. For more information on his book, click here. E-mail him at WorldStudiesBooks@gmail.com

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