Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Jihad On Jihad?

When Sydney’s Imam Hilali was leaving for Iraq on his mission to free Australian hostage, he was criticised by his former adviser Keysar Trad for using the term “jihad” to describe his support for Iraqi opposition to continued American occupation. It was not the first time Imam Hilali has been criticised for using this term.

Mr Trad had a point. Yes, many Muslims agree that the Americans should leave Iraq as soon as possible (perhaps one of the few times they agree on anything). But by using the term “jihad”, Imam Hilali opened himself to accusations that he was supporting the methods of Wood’s kidnappers.

As someone who has spent the last decade dealing with mainstream media, Mr Trad understood well that the term “jihad” is regarded as being akin to terrorism. He would have been similarly concerned when reading the headline appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 2 2005 – “Raided men defend their part in jihad”.

The story was based on interviews with four “Middle Eastern men” whose homes had been the subject of ASIO raids. These men claimed to be following a “pure” form of Islam as practised by the Taleban in Afghanistan.

Yet their idea of jihad would have been enough to send shivers down the spines of security officials. This kind of jihad was precisely what we are fighting against in our war on terror. Emulating the Taleban meant following in the footsteps of Usama bin Ladin.

Following the coordinated terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 2001, a new phrase entered the hallowed hall of political correctness. Ironically, this time the phrase was one invented by the right of the political spectrum.

Thus far, we had been used to sacred cows like ‘reconciliation’ and ‘multiculturalism’ emerging from left of centre field. But on this occasion, it was a key player who kicked the political ball from the right wing and straight into the back of the net.

George W Bush, one of America’s most conservative presidents and a darling of the Arab/Muslim voters of North America, had coined a new phrase. He had declared the beginning of the “war on terror”.

We were all carried away with the emotional fervour following September 11. At an Islamic school located in the geographical heart of Sydney, a reception and prayer service was held for the American ambassador to Australia. Ironically, this school was heavily funded and supported by Saudi Arabia, a country many blame as being the biggest financier of terrorism. It was also the country from which the majority of the September 11 hijackers hailed from.

Later, Mr Bush described his new war as a “crusade”. He was later forced to retract his statement after being advised of the negative connotations this word would have in the minds of the American Muslim voters who pushed him over the line in Florida and other key states.

Yet many of Bush’s supporters and neo-Conservative fellow-travellers regard the war as a crusade, a civilisational war on Muslims in general. Some, like Franklin Graham, seem to have openly declared war on Islam. Others, like Daniel Pipes, have been a bit more subtle and sophisticated in expressing their hatred for Islam.

Political correctness also spawns its opposites. And perhaps the most politically incorrect word in the entire terrorism debate is jihad. Yet despite its maligned usage, the term jihad is quite benign.

Jihad is typically translated as “holy war”. The Arabic word for holy is “quddus”. Hence, Arab Christians describe the Holy Spirit as “Ruh al-Quddus” (literally “the Spirit of the Holy”). Holy war would be most closely translated as “harb al-quddus”. Sounds nothing like jihad.

So what is jihad? It is related to another word called “ijtihad”. This word represents a basic element of Islamic intellectual and social traditions described by writers across the spectrum of Muslim thought, from Ayatollah Khomeini to Irshad Manji.

Ijtihad and jihad are both about struggle and effort. Ijtihad is an intellectual struggle to find solutions to new problems using ancient religious texts. It describes the ongoing process of legal evolution, not dissimilar to the common law tradition.

Jihad is the general notion of struggle, of the search for truth and justice. It is a word used in many contexts – religious, legal, commercial, intellectual and political. In the military context, it refers to a just war. In other words, what a crusade should be.

Yet today’s neo-Conservative crusaders regard the war on terror as a crusade on jihad. They are assisted by ignorant journalists who continue to translate a benign religious term as some seditious plot. Sadly, the rhetoric and behaviour of a small minority of Muslims assists in this process of misunderstanding.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005