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Taking back the word “jihad” won’t help American Muslims

For a term as controversial as “jihad,” it’s meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Why is it dangerous for peaceful Muslims to take back this term? (AP Photo)

Last week, it was reported that Muslim activist Linda Sarsour was inciting American Muslims to wage “jihad” against Donald Trump and his administration.

A lot of conservative outlets took her words out of context, assuming that she meant violent jihad rather than speaking truth to power. If you watch her full speech, you’d know she meant speaking truth to power.

“Our beloved Prophet said to him, ‘A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad.'” Sarsour said during the 54th annual ISNA convention. “And I hope, that when we stand up to those who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts from us that as a form of jihad.”

Sarsour wrote in a follow up op-ed in the Washington Post that anti-Muslim xenophobes are trying “to silence and discredit [her] because [she is] an effective leader for progress, a Palestinian American and Brooklyn-born Muslim woman.”

The brunt of her article is that she will not be silenced and that the term “jihad” has been hijacked by brutal terrorists who use it to justify their horrific actions.

I’m not disagreeing with her on the latter point. Terrorists have hijacked the term. However, the problem I run into is when Sarsour and other Muslim American leaders believe we need to take back that positive meaning of “jihad” by using the word as much as we can.

There’s nothing wrong with educating others on what jihad is. That should be our goal. The problem is that the constant use of the term to evoke political activism or action is driving a wedge further between our communities, which could produce more animosity and possibly violence.

Despite the fact that “jihad” doesn’t mean “holy war,” there are plenty of people who unwittingly believe otherwise. Many critics of Islam, who think that the religion is a political ideology meant to wage war and eventually dominate the world, believe the distorted version of “jihad” parroted by terrorists. And if you try to convince the critics that this version is not in fact true, they can claim you’re practicing “taqiyya” (precautionary dissimulation or denial of religious belief and practice in the face of persecution) to discredit your argument.

I understand the sentiment to restore neutrality to the word, but the fact of the matter is, words matter. In the same token that President Trump can say something as damaging as “Islam hates us” or calling to ban all Muslims from entering the country, Sarsour and her allies need to come to the realization that this is a two-way street. If they’re looking to be accepted in American society and have their voices heard across partisan lines, you need to engage the other side and not cram your ideas and rhetoric down their throat.

It’s imperative that American Muslims re-learn the lessons that we were so adamant about teaching Donald Trump when he was running for president. If we don’t practice what we preach, then we’re just as much to blame for the further polarization of this country.


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