The Geneva Centre would like to share with its readers Mr. Idriss Jazaïry’s thoughts about the misuse of the term “jihadist”. It is worth mentioning that Mr. Jazaïry is a former Algerian Ambassador and has extensive knowledge of, and experience in, the UN Human Rights Mechanisms as well as the UN system at large.
The world press is awash nowadays with the threats of “jihadists” and with heinous crimes committed by the “islamist militants” who have joined under the “Islamic State” banner.
Thus, a respected newspaper like the Financial Times in an op. ed. of 2 September 2014 entitled “Nato alliance goes back to the future” refers to “the jihadist group Islamic State” when referring to a terrorist enterprise condemned by the political and religious authorities of Christendom and of the Islamic world with equal force. The Economist of 20 September for its part runs an article entitled “Confronting Islamic State: An improbable alliance” with the sub-title “The many tensions among those preparing to take on jihadists in Iraq and Syria”.
Interestingly, even the President of France, in a speech made at the XXII Conference of Ambassadors in Paris on 28 August 2014 asserted that the President of Syria “was the objective ally of the jihadists of the Islamic State”.
This pervasive form of expression therefore looks as if it is becoming part of contemporary politically correct language in English – as well as in French – speaking circles to refer to terrorist groups in the Arab and Islamic regions. This is leading to a woeful conflation between Islam, of which jihad is a part, and terrorism which is totally alien to it. For the sake of truth and inter-religious understanding, this conflation needs to be deconstructed.
The word “jihadist” is a western neologism whose root “jihad” is taken from Arabic. The use of this term associated to the self-styled “Islamic State” identifies the latter as practicing jihad. But this is a misnomer. “Jihad” comes from the Arabic root of “johd” meaning “exertion” or “effort”. There are two forms of “jihad” in Islam. First is the “greater jihad” also called the “jihad of the soul” which is the moral effort made by believers to overcome their individual failings, temptations or weaknesses such as greed, lust or cowardice, to quote but a few such sins. Amongst these forms of greater jihad, the Holy Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) said: “The greatest jihad is to speak the truth in front of a tyrant”. The “lesser jihad” consists in exerting oneself to defend one’s community in case of outside aggression. Those practicing the lesser jihad are not “jihadists” but “mudjahidin” which is translated by “freedom fighters” that is militants who strain to recover the freedom of their people when it has been confiscated by an external aggressor. It is no other than the universally recognised right to self-defence.
We fail to see how anybody could think that the so-called “Islamic State” was practicing either form of jihad as described above. To most people, the members of this group would be considered as terrorists whose form of criminal behaviour is the very antinomy of both the greater and the lesser jihad. However some may justify using this misnomer by invoking the fact that it is just a repetition of the expression that these terrorists apply to describe themselves. The reason why terrorists invoke the use of the concept of “jihad” is, of course, to claim legitimacy for their criminal deeds in order to influence and win over uneducated masses in their areas of operations. But why should people who have political savvy and an understanding of the illegitimacy of the action of the group in question want to confer to it this aura of legitimacy?
Such a misnomer might have been a benign error that could be attributed to a Euro-centric lack of understanding of Islam, were it not for the fact that by conflating the Islamic concept of jihad with a terrorist enterprise, one ends up unwittingly providing arguments for populist claims equating Islam with terrorism.
This brings to mind the case of the savage terrorist group calling itself “The Lord’s Resistance Army” that committed heinous crimes in Uganda. The fact that its members invoke the Lord does not make them godly nor lead outside political observers to call them Christian militants. In fact, it makes no more sense to conflate Islam and jihad than Christianity to terrorist groups in the Arab or broader Islamic regions on the one hand and in Africa on the other.
Let us apply the old chesnut of “calling a spade a spade” and be done with it.