Here’s a one-minute experiment you can try on your Internet browser.
Stop reading this article and open up Google image search on two separate tabs. On the first tab, search for “jihad”. On the second tab, type in “terrorist” and hit search. Don’t worry, I’ll wait right here while you do this.
Finished? Chances are, you got pretty much the same images on both tabs. Whether we type jihad or terrorist, Google shows us a bunch of gun-wielding men in black balaclavas. Same guys, same headwear, same AK47s pointed in the air. Every. Single. Time.
Post 9/11, this is the most common perception of jihad and unfortunately, it’s completely wrong. This is what I learnt after attending CommaCon’s interfaith event, Honest Conversations on: Jihad over [email protected] – a dialogue session where Muslims and non-Muslims alike were given an opportunity to clear the air on jihad with the help of experts from different faiths.
Does jihad really mean ‘holy war’?
No, this is a common misconception. Jihad does not mean holy war. In fact, it does not even mean war.
In a literal translation, jihad simply means “to strive” or “to struggle”. According to Ustaz Khalid Rafi, a religious teacher at the Muhajirin Mosque, the person practising jihad is not on a violent crusade, but simply one who is struggling to be a better Muslim.
Wait, so is the media wrong when they say things like ‘jihadi terrorist violence’?
Not entirely. When the Western media talks about jihad, they’re usually talking about jihad of the sword. Yes, as this jihad’s name suggests, it does involve engaging in combat with the enemy.
However, the media usually does not mention that this type of jihad is only justifiable in Islam for self-defence. There is also hardly any mention that this is only one of the four types of jihad that a good Muslim practices.
What are the four types of jihad?
Apart from “jihad of the sword”, there is also:
Jihad of the heart, which is a spiritual struggle against one’s own sinfulness or temptation.
Jihad of the pen, the defending of Islam with one’s word.
Jihad of the hand, which means upholding the principles of Islam through one’s deeds. (Ustaz Khalid stresses that this does not mean becoming a keyboard warrior on social media.)
Although jihad of the sword is probably the last of the four, it has become the only form of jihad that most people recognise in the post-9/11 world, where the term is almost universally associated with violence and atrocity.
So… it is OK to practise jihad?
Not only is jihad OK, it is practically mandatory if you’re anything close to a pious Muslim.
Are the ISIS militants who behead people practising ‘jihad’?
They claim to be jihadists, but we should not believe them.
In Islamic law, the conduct of war is strictly regulated. You cannot be a suicide bomber because suicide is definitely a sin. Collateral damage against non-combatant civilians is also not permissible and neither is the use of biological or chemical warfare because there are strict hadiths against “the poisoning of wells”. A hadith refers to agreed upon reports of the actions, behaviour or habits of the Prophet.
ISIS may claim that it is waging a holy war on behalf of Muslims, but they’re clearly breaking every rule in the book.
On a related issue, what is a martyr?
Contrary to what the American networks love to show, martyrs are NOT suicide bombers.
According to Ustaz Khalid, martyrdom or ‘death in Shahid’ does not only apply to those who have fallen in battle. It also refers to those who have died due to a variety of causes, including plague, drowning, stomach diseases, fire and even childbirth.
In the media, depictions of martyrdom are unfortunately skewed towards violence and terrorism, which is precisely the message that ISIS wants to propagate.
OK, so now I know everything. Why did I believe for so many years that jihad equals violence and all martyrs are terrorists?
We have the media to thank for our widespread and misguided notions about jihad. Although Singapore is a long way from New York or London, we are exposed to a lot of the media’s confused rhetoric regarding islam, jihad and terrorism.
Over the years, journalists and television talking heads have used the words jihad and terrorist so interchangeably that many no longer recognise the difference between a peaceful islamic practice and a modern, violent ideology.
Venerable Chuan Guan explains this with an anecdote: “When I was in a United States Monastery, people look at my attire and ask: ‘So… kungfu?’. They were not being rude, it is just an association that has formed in their mind due to the movies and TV shows they watch. The same thing has happened for jihad and violence.”
What can we do to stop this?
Combating this negative perception of jihad will be a long and difficult journey, but everyone can play a part whenever the parrot cries of ‘jihad, jihad, jihad’ fill the air in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
For non-Muslims, Chuan Guan suggests that they should show their solidarity with the Muslim community by speaking up for Muslims, instead of expecting that they always stand up for themselves in an increasingly hostile environment.
Imran Taib, an interfaith activist, agrees. “Terrorism is an affront to our common humanity. Hence it is a problem that everyone should denounce instead of seeing it as a Muslim problem and asking only Muslims to speak out against it.”
For Muslims, Imran Taib believes that the community needs to confront the violent episodes in Islam’s history and to understand why it happened. This will prevent Muslims from being subject to the extremists’ warped interpretations of history, where they simply implement what happened in the past to our present context.
“Today’s context has changed,” he said. “We need to build new ways of relating to people of other faiths.”
CommaCon Campaign is an initiative by Association of Muslim Professionals in its efforts to promote social cohesion and youth advocacy and activism. For more events, check out the website.