I met Kaitlyn Allen in the spring of 2008 while she was volunteering in ISP's community building project in one of the large apartment projects in the Alief suburb of Houston. I was struck then by Kaitlyn’s maturity, keen intellect, and obvious empathy as I observed her in dialogue with women from diverse cultures. Kaitlyn is now a graduate student at Georgetown University studying international conflict resolution. She recently shared an essay with me that she wrote for one of her courses. After reading it, I asked her if she would contribute it as a blog on our website. I was so pleased that, after obtaining permission of the author of the book she references, she agreed to contribute the essay as a blog on our website. After you read it, I am sure you will understand why. (Randall Butler)
Words matter. Words can give and take away legitimacy, power, and energy. The Arabic word jihad has generally come to mean “terrorism” or “religious war” in the English-speaking world; however, it has multiple, positive meanings in Arabic—talk about “lost in translation.” Unfortunately, by using a single word with multiple, positive meanings to describe one specifically negative thing like terrorism, we actually can end up legitimizing the very thing we wish to condemn. How can we overcome this grave miscommunication?
Please find the following link to information on Crescent and Dove: Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam, a book published recently by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP): http://www.usip.org/crescent-and-dove/crescent-and-dove-questions-and-answers. The editor is Qamar-ul Huda, who is a visiting professor in the Conflict Resolution program at Georgetown University where I am a graduate student. I wish to bring it to your attention because I learned something important at the October 2010 book launch at USIP, something simple that everyone can do to take legitimacy away from those terrorists who unreasonably justify their actions using religious rhetoric. The book contains many worthwhile articles for those interested in Islam, peace, and conflict resolution, and I decided to write about Waleed El-Ansary’s essay because his point struck me as so ingeniously obvious that it made me wonder, “Why has this not yet caught on?” El-Ansary presents a "new" alternative for the word jihad (as used to describe terrorism) in order to strip those who call themselves “jihadis” of their self-proclaimed legitimacy. Coming from Shaykh ‘Ali Goma’a, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, this term originates from within Islam’s religious authority. The term is irjaf (“ear – jeff”) for terrorism, and irjafi (ear – jeffy’) for terrorist.
Those who study or speak Arabic already know that the word jihad has multiple meanings. The highest form of jihad is the internal struggle to become one with God, to overcome one's own carnal passions in favor of living purely with God—a positive goal by the standards of all monotheistic religions, including Christianity. Many pious Christians, Muslims, Jews, and members of other faith groups practice this form of jihad, as translated here, in our personal struggles to overcome egotistical and physical desires and to enter into communion with our God. (It’s important to remember here that all three of these religions worship the same God, the God of Abraham; this is why they are referred to as “Abrahamic religions” in scholarly studies of religion). Because of this positive and pious connotation, extremists can use jihad as a term of empowerment. They can say “yes, we are most certainly engaged in jihad—we are pious and holy warriors in the struggle for good over evil.” Consequently, it is not in the interest of people to use the word jihad to describe extreme Islamic terrorists.
The book chapter by Waleed El-Ansary, entitled Revisiting the Qur’anic Basis for the Use of War Language, proposes an alternative word, approved and vetted by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, to use instead of jihad, with the purpose of "eliminating the necessary intellectual conditions behind violent forms of extremism." (El-Ansary, 2010).
The word, again, is irjaf (“ear – jeff”) for terrorism, and irjafi (ear – jeffy’) for terrorist. It comes from the root word rajafa, meaning "to cause quaking, emotion; to cause quaking in the hearts and in the cities." In the Qur'an, the penalty for rajafa is death and condemnation to hell. It is more appropriate to describe terrorists and terrorism because it connotes eternal damnification rather than a positive internal struggle against the carnal passions.
Another word discussed was irhab/i, currently used colloquially to mean 'terrorist.' This is also problematic because in classical Arabic, irhabi can mean a peaceful and God-fearing monk who strikes fear in the enemy in order to deter attacks, as an act of self-defense. Bin Laden can thus say (I paraphrase) "Yes, I am certainly an irhabi. I practice the commendable type of irhab because I am defending God.” Therefore, the use of jihad or irhab to describe terrorism can provide the right intellectual conditions for the justification of terrorism.
I asked El-Ansary and Dr. Huda if we could begin using the new term right away, and they strongly approved, saying that because this initially came from the Grand Mufti, we can and should begin to use the term. The goal is to propel this semantic change throughout society (and, I take it, especially the media). Per the authors' instruction, do begin talking about "irjaf," and guide people gently away from using "jihad" and "irhab." It is expected that this will “suffocate the necessary intellectual conditions for justifying violent forms of extremism,” taking away legitimacy from extremists who call themselves "jihadis.”
By Randall Butler | Posted in: | Permalink