Last night I was on Alan Colmes’ radio show. Colmes has me on, of course, hoping that I will play Washington Generals to his Harlem Globetrotters, but I do what I can in between his multitudinous interruptions. Last night he asked me about Talib Abu Salam Ibn Shareef, aka Derrick Shareef. Colmes said he considered this an isolated incident that had nothing to do with Islam. He said that the real difficulty after incidents like this was that people like me starting pointing to Islam as the problem, fueling hatred and intolerance. I responded, of course, to the effect that it had everything to do with Islam, and that Colmes himself was carrying water for the jihadists by diverting attention onto people like me who report honestly about such incidents, and away from the work that needed to be done by peaceful Muslims to prevent this sort of thing from happening by, among other things, teaching against the jihad ideology.
And here is a variant of the same phenonomenon that Colmes represents. In “Jihad: A word that represents a lot of miscommunication,” Pat Cunningham in the Rockford Register Star scratches his head over the meaning of jihad and suggests that Talib Abu Salam Ibn Shareef has it wrong when he thinks that it means violence against unbelievers. He does have a few — Neuhaus, Pipes — who get it right, but then has Maher Hathout whining that non-Muslims are defining Islam for Muslims. This gives the impression that it is only wicked Islamophobes and crazed Misunderstanders Of Islam (i.e., Al-Qaeda) who believe jihad involves violence.
Well, heck, Pat, I could have gotten you a hundred definitions of jihad written by Muslims for Muslims that support Talib Abu Salam Ibn Shareef’s idea that it involves violence. Then it might have been a good idea for Cunningham to start asking Chicago-area Muslims where they thought Talib Abu Salam Ibn Shareef might have gotten the idea that jihad involved violence, and what they proposed to do to make sure that such teachings did not spread further among their community. And if they had no such plans, that itself would have been news, wouldn’t it?
But I guess it is easy to purvey pabulum about “misconceptions.”
The Arabic word “jihad,” which Rockford terror suspect Derrick Shareef used in conversations with an undercover FBI source, is not an easy term to define.
More to the point, the definition of jihad depends on whom you ask. Western news media usually equate jihad with “holy war,” but some Islamists and Middle East scholars dispute that definition as too simplistic.
Brian Handwerk, writing for National Geographic News in 2003, said jihad “is a loaded term and a concept that illustrates a deep gulf of miscommunication between Islam and the West.”
Handwerk said the Arabic meaning of the word is “exerted effort.”
“In the Quran,” notes Handwerk, “it’s projected as exerting effort to change oneself, and also in certain situations physically standing against oppressors, if that’s the only way.”
Handwerk argues, however, that “the concept of jihad as a struggle for self-improvement is little known among non-believers.”
True jihad, says Harvard professor David Mitten, a faculty adviser to the school’s Islamic Society, is “the constant struggle of Muslims to conquer their inner base instincts, to follow the path to God and to do good in society.”
But the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent Catholic intellectual, wrote in Time magazine last month that such jihadist groups as al-Qaida believe “their religion mandates the use of any means necessary, including suicide bombers and the mass killing of civilians, to bring about the world’s submission to Islam.”
Daniel Pipes, who has a doctorate in early Islamic history from Harvard and is director of the Middle East Forum, wrote recently that jihad “is an elastic term” that has changed over time and among different Islamic groups.
“In premodern times,” he wrote, “jihad meant mainly one thing among Sunni Muslims, then as now the Islamic majority. It meant the legal, compulsory, communal effort to expand the territories ruled by Muslims … at the expense of territories ruled by non-Muslims.”
Maher Hathout, author of “Jihad vs. Terrorism,” complained in his book that “everyone is defining us except us, everyone is explaining jihad except for Muslims.”
If different Muslims ascribe different meanings to jihad, Islam is like other religions in which adherents differ on the meanings of vice and virtue, sinfulness and saintliness.
Shareef, the suspect in the Rockford case, made a videotape last week on which he mentioned jihad.
According to federal authorities, Shareef said he wanted to let Muslims know “that the time for jihad is now. … Be strong, oh brothers who want to fight for jihad.”
The implied definition of jihad in that context clearly is at odds with the meaning embraced by countless Muslims.
In Brian Handwerk’s essay for National Geographic, he quoted Sheik Jaafar Idris of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington to the effect that there are “two kinds of jihad, because there are two kinds of violations of justice: jihad with words against false beliefs, and jihad with the sword against acts of injustice.”
The jihad of the sword, Handwerk wrote, “has received the lion’s share of global attention” in recent years.
Gee, Handwerk, why do you think that might be so?