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What Does Jihad Mean? In US Political Discourse, It Doesn’t Really Matter

Within the racialized politics of empire, it makes no difference how often and how clearly you define what jihad means.

Within the racialized politics of empire, it makes no difference how often and how clearly you define what jihad means. (Photo: omairhq / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

“Holy war.” That’s what jihad means, at least to most of the students on the first day of my “Race & Islam in the US” class. By the end of the semester, they’ve discovered that jihad doesn’t mean holy war. They learn that it has been interpreted many ways, each of them relating to spiritual struggle. Jihad can mean speaking against a tyrant. It can mean fighting one’s own unjust urges. And yes, it can mean armed struggle; in other words, holy war.

The average American didn’t know what jihad meant until it became politically relevant. Jihad entered the US lexicon with hijacked planes and falling towers and suicide attacks. It entered US vocabulary with the media spectacle that has made Islamic fundamentalist terrorism the quintessential threat in the US imagination. Most Americans didn’t know Sunnis and Shi’ites existed, either, until these divisions became critical for US military strategy. Understanding the significance of the hijab or of Ramadan, or knowing the meaning of “salaam” are all a matter of instrumentality — a product of our political moment — rather than any burning desire on the part of the general public to understand Islam better.

So, on July 1, when Linda Sarsour asked Muslims to engage in jihad against the tyranny of the Trump administration, two distinct poles of public debate immediately emerged. On one end, perhaps the most obvious, was outrage, fear and disgust. Was Sarsour calling for armed insurrection? For holy war? For terrorism?

On the other end of the spectrum, liberals and leftists groaned at the ignorant, bigoted misunderstanding of the fundamental principle of jihad. Scholar and journalist Marc Lamont Hill tweeted, “The people disagreeing with @lsarsour clearly don’t understand what jihad means.”

And he’s right. Haven’t they heard the Muslim representatives who, for over a decade, have written op-eds, appeared on the news, and have been preaching to their congregations: Jihad means struggle. Jihad means fighting oppression. Jihad means building a better society. These refrains have been on repeat by earnest Muslim students at “Islam awareness” events on college campuses, by Muslim speakers at interfaith dialogues and by imams at their Friday sermons. And in spite of all these hackneyed refrains, the message seems lost on the masses. To those who flew into a frenzy upon hearing Sarsour’s words, none of those defensive reminders worked.

Because here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter what jihad means.

Toni Morrison tells us,

… the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend 20 years proving you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you get scientists working on the fact that it is.

Somebody says that jihad means killing infidels, so you dredge up proof that it doesn’t.

In this moment, producing a whole library of theological and historical evidence on the meaning of jihad simply doesn’t matter. Showing the public the diverse ways the concept of jihad has been interpreted by Muslims also doesn’t matter.

The overblown threat of an “enemy” — especially a racialized one — has always worked terrifically as a diversion. The “alien threat” effectively turns our eyes away from more immediate ones. Today’s “Muslim threat” looms large in the public imagination, towering over fears of stifling debt, climate catastrophe, and of course, homegrown white supremacist terrorism.

Yet this “Islamodiversion,” as Yasser Louati calls it, isn’t always Islamophobic. Even those eager to defend and protect Muslims deploy Islamodiversionary strategies.

Reminding non-Muslims of Islam’s tenets will not end assassinations that single out Muslims for extrajudicial death. It will not sway the Supreme Court’s ruling on the travel ban. It will not end the US-sponsored war in Yemen. It will not bring down an arms industry that profits off of devastating Muslim-majority countries. It will not dissuade an armed terrorist from assaulting a Muslim woman in a hijab.

Let’s remain focused on what Islamophobia is — a racialized politics of empire, not cultural ignorance — lest we end up with another decade of useless reminders that jihad just means “struggle.”

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