I know I’m a little late to offer my two cents on the Mona Eltahawy incident that occurred at the end of September, but it’s all for the best anyway. Enough people (including Mona herself) create enough Eltahawy buzz as it is, so I’d humbly propose a that we focus here on jihad.
The subway advertisement that provoked Mona’s graffiti protest reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” If we render Pamela Geller‘s ad, couched in unapologetically colonialist language, into some tidy GRE-style analogies, we’ve got civilized man : savage :: Israel : jihad. Not the neatest equivalency as, on the one side, you have a nation-state and on the other you have, well, what do you have? What is jihad?
I’m not about to obscure that the word jihad has military connotations. Jihad does indeed mean, in many cases, a holy war, an armed struggle against unbelievers in Islam. This is not some novel meaning, not primarily a semantic hijacking by extremists (though they have done their fair share to bloody up the concept). But neither is the “greater” or “inner jihad” a recent attempt at softening the starkness and violence of that connotation. The word jihad comes from the triliteral root j-h-d which means “to strive” or “to struggle” and the greater or inner jihad is an internal struggle, a striving to live out one’s faith.
And, to wade into a bit more etymology, jihad has a leg up on the word for ‘holy war’ in my own religious tradition. Crusade comes from medieval Latin cruciata meaning “crossed, marked with the cross”, signifying the Papal blessing under which European Christians marched to the Holy Land to slaughter and maim on behalf of God. It is, all these centuries later, still a fraught word, not having much to do with actual good for centuries when it became used figuratively in the late 1700s (per the Oxford English Dictionary) to mean a fight against things like ignorance and evil. The moral ambiguity and dark history of the word crusade made George Bush’s use of the word vis-à-vis fighting terrorism cringeworthy. Campus Crusade, in a bid to dissociate itself from the baggage of their name, became simply Cru last year.
I bring up ‘our’ holy wars to give context to ‘their’ holy wars and the discourse surrounding them. It would do us well to think of two jihads here, akin to our ‘taking up the cross’ and waging war under the sign of the cross. Jihad’s civilizedness or savageness depends on the mujahid (the person carrying out jihad). Ms. Geller’s Manichean subway ad foists unhelpful dichotomies on us. Not only is jihad what you make of it, but so is religion and, for that matter, so is Israel. What Israel is depends on who Israelis are. And, of course, who they are is defined by what they do.
Let me end, then, by calling you to jihad. If you are a non-Muslim, take into account that Islam does not speak with one voice and realize that by having knee-jerk reactions about Islam, Muslims, the Qur’an, jihad – associating them with ‘evildoers’ and terrorism, you are handicapping Muslims trying to define Islam for themselves. You are silencing important voices, you are shrinking an entire religion down to a violent caricature of itself. The non-Muslim jihad is to struggle to remain open to the individual Muslim, to strive to find the good in Islam, and, yes, at the same time, to reject violent extremism in all its forms without blindly believing that’s all Islam is. Let us also heed a version of Ms. Geller’s exhortation, let us stand with those many Israelis who are fighting for peace, for human rights, who manage to fight through existential fears to see the value and the humanness of the Other.