The Confusing Concept of Jihad
Jihad – meaning ‘just war’. To the West, a terrifying concept associated with terrorist extremism: to the East, a source of division amongst Muslims around Islam’s ethics of war and peace. It is also an idea ill-judged by Westerners who do not fully comprehend it, and if you compare it to the parallel Western terms, ‘just war’ or ‘crusade’, we judge it unfairly.
Evidently, it is hypocritical of the West to condemn Muslim extremists for using such propaganda when Western leaders are treading the same dangerous line in the use of their own emotive language.
Take, for example, George W. Bush’s apparently calamitous errors in the events leading up to the Iraq War following 9/11. In his speech he professed: “this crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.” His use of such language gave Osama bin Laden licence to accuse the West, of anti-Islamic, ‘crusader’ policies.
For the most part, this is attributable to the history of the term “crusade”. Although there was no contemporary definition for the crusades while they were taking place, the word “crusades” has since been used to describe the holy wars that took place in medieval times. First preached by Pope Urban II in 1095, the crusade came to describe the religiously-motivated military campaigns that Western Christian princes undertook in the Middle East in order to free Christian prisoners, regain Christian lands or in some cases to attempt to forcibly convert Muslims to Christianity.
For this reason the term now derives negative connotations in the East. Very similarly to Christianity, there is some confusion in Muslim faith as to whether God permits holy war, or ‘jihad’, for the ‘right’ reasons. Just as there is confusion in the Bible, the Qu’ran can be interpreted differently because of the presence of conflicting verses inciting both violence and peace. There seems however to be some consensus among Muslims that fighting in defence of their faith is acceptable, but the forcible conversion of non-Muslims to Islam is not.
Perhaps the problem is how both the definitions of “crusade” and “jihad” have been diluted over time. Both originated from a religious context that has since either been lost or abused. When Bush labelled the Iraq war a “crusade” it was taken out of context as the reasons for intervention were not founded on religious grounds, just as terrorists using “jihad” as an excuse to bomb trains, planes and market squares and thereby kill innocent people are equally abusing the true meaning of that term.
There is still an on-going debate about the definition of both the concepts of “crusades” and “jihad”, which is why it is very hard to justify the use of either in political propaganda. These words are at least emotive, if not politically explosive, and without proper forethought, they can seriously backfire, as Bush found out to the detriment of his political popularity. Whether there will ever be consensus on the definition of either term is hard to discern, but until there is, it is probably wise to leave both terms in the past where they belong, and refrain from transplanting them into a future context, which could be uncertain and potentially inflammatory.