A Muslim activist referenced jihad and the right freaked out because they don’t know what it means

Religious illiteracy is still a thing.

CREDIT: AP/Henny Ray Abrams
CREDIT: AP/Henny Ray Abrams

Right-wing bloggers and writers are up in arms over recent comments made by Muslim activist Linda Sarsour, saying she called for a “jihad” against the Trump administration.

Her detractors, however, don’t appear to understand what jihad means.

The controversy began on Thursday after news broke that Sarsour, who gained national recognition for helping organizing the Women’s March on Washington, delivered a speech to the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) over the weekend. When describing how she plans to resist Donald Trump’s administration and attacks on the Islamic community, she articulated her activist work in religious terms — using the word jihad.

Below is a transcript of the comments in question, provided for full context.

You can count on me every single day to use my voice to stand up, not only to people outside our community who are oppressing our communities, but those inside our community who aid and abet the oppressors outside our community.

There is a man who once asked our beloved prophet … has said to him, “What is the best form of jihad or struggle?”

And our beloved prophet … said to him, “A word of truth in front of a tyrant or leader, that is the best form of jihad.” I hope, that when we stand up to those who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts us as a form of jihad, that we are struggling against tyrants and rulers not only abroad in the Middle East or the other side of the world, but here in the United States of America, where you have fascists and white supremacists and Islamophobes reigning in the White House.

Sarsour was clearly using the term jihad to promote speaking truth to power. But within hours of the speech, conservative outlets such as Fox News Insider, Conservative Review, and Breitbart began reporting on the speech using headlines that did not contextualize the term, such as “Linda Sarsour calls for Muslims to wage ‘jihad’ against Trump.” Fox News Insider did explain her use of the term as nonviolent, but still categorized its article with the tag “outrageous.” The Conservative Review described her speech as “terrifying,” and labeled its piece with the tag “terror.”

Meanwhile, some called for Sarsour to be deported, and Donald Trump Jr. retweeted the Fox News article on Thursday, saying, “Who in the @DNC will denounce this activist and democrat leader calling for Jihad again trump?”

Sarsour, who has allegedly started to receive death threats, attempted to stifle the controversy by posting the full video of her speech and reiterating her longstanding dedication to nonviolence. She told the Washington Post Friday morning that her remarks were only meant to promote nonviolent dissent.

At the heart of the kerfuffle appears to be a religious literacy issue — namely, a lack of knowledge about the meaning of the term “jihad,” which is sometimes translated “to strive.”

Omid Safi, Director of Duke Islamic Studies Center, told ThinkProgress via email that while the word has long been used by militants to justify murderous means, its origin and everyday usage are not inherently violent.

“In the context of the Qur’an, the term Jihad means struggle,” Safi said. “The Qur’an uses other terms to mean ‘fight’ or engage in warfare. It often calls on the faithful to struggle in God’s path using their souls and possessions, in a way that is not all that different from the Biblical context of Jacob ‘struggling’ with God.”

“This is not the language of violence, but simply mobilizing our faiths to transform our shared world for the good and beautiful.”

Safi noted that the acceptable conditions for violence and warfare in Islam are very specific, none of which have anything “remotely” to do with Sarsour’s speech. Instead, he said, she was using the term “jihad” to discuss “a social struggle against racism, sexism, and xenophobia.” Safi drew parallels between her concept of jihad and nonviolent Christian uses of the word “crusade” — such as how president Lyndon Johnson has been described by academics as leading a “crusade” against poverty, or how he helped to kick off a “cancer crusade.”

“This is not the language of violence, but simply mobilizing our faiths to transform our shared world for the good and beautiful,” Safi said.

Qasim Rashid, an Ahmadiyya Muslim and visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Prince AlWaleed bin Talal School of Islamic Studies, articulated a similar view of jihad in a series of tweets on Thursday evening. And while some observers suggested jihad is a “loaded” term that should be avoided, many Twitter users and Muslim Americans rushed to Sarsour’s defense, using the hashtags #IStandWithLinda and #MyJihad to voice their own personal interpretation of the word.

Despite the controversy, Safi said he’s not convinced that the uproar over Sarsour is entirely about her use of the word jihad. Instead, he argued the outcry is part of a pattern, wherein right-wing publications attempt to silence progressive activists.

“So why is Linda Sarsour being targeted? Simply because she is the most visible and effective Muslim leader who speaks out on racial justice, for women’s rights, on Black Lives Matters, for LGBTQ rights, for the rights of immigrants and refugees, Muslims, and indigenous people,” he said.

“This is very much from the handbook of silencing and intimidating the most effective leaders of People of Color to teach others to stay quiet, submissive, scared, and disorganized,” he added. “And those of us who have been touched by Linda’s example are too unapologetically Muslim to do so.”