The Doomed Attempt To Rebrand The Word, “Jihad”

Its no secret that Muslims in the West face a certain amount of discrimination and are often stereotyped as outsiders or even terrorists. There are many attempt to reduce bigotry towards Muslims, but a new one has caught the attention of many people. is attempting a rebranding campaign, of the word “jihad” itself. They feature, among other things, adverts like this one:


The purpose of these is to, according to the organization’s about page:

MyJihad is a public education campaign that seeks to share the proper meaning of Jihad as believed and practiced by the majority of Muslims.

Jihad is a central tenet of the Islamic creed which means “struggling in the way of God“. The way of God, being goodness, justice, passion, compassion, etc (not forcible conversion as wrongly claimed by some).

As Muslims, we are taught to put forth a concerted and noble effort against injustice, hate, misunderstanding, war, violence, poverty, hunger, abuse or whatever challenge big or small we face in daily life, with the purpose of getting to  a better place.

While the struggle for justice may be physical (as a last resort, and even then it ought to be a just struggle that goes above and beyond observing the universal code of conduct and rules of engagement), the greatest Jihad is that of the self, a fact often ignored by, or unknown to, many.  In more than one sense, Jihad is more about peace and education than anything else. The highest form of scholarly pursuit (the complex, tiring but important scholarly work of Muslims to decipher their faith and its relation to the world around them) is referred to in Islam as ijtehad which by no coincidence is derived from the same root word as Jihad (jahada meaning “to exert effort.”)

Jihad is a personal commitment to service, patience, determination, and taking the higher road, as such, it tasks us with confronting our own weaknesses, vices, and shortcomings; it is about taking personal responsibility.

While I applaud efforts to reduce bigotry towards Muslims, I must say that this effort was doomed from the start. Jihad is ingrained in our collective consciousness as a negative. The word conjures a visceral negative reaction in me, no matter how you define it (or in this case, redefine). Whether it means, “struggle,” or “holy war,” or “love and kisses,” it will remain a negative no matter how this group chooses to spin it.

In my opinion, this group would be better served by picking their battles more carefully. It would be far easier to simply portray Muslims as they are: as “one of you.” Many, many groups that were looked at as outsiders successfully assimilated into American culture. My Italian and Irish ancestors had to endure prejudice, but once they became, “one of us,” they became just another bunch of Americans. Isn’t that a better goal than to re-define jihad in all of Western (and some of Muslim) culture? It’s certainly more likely to succeed.

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6 Responses to The Doomed Attempt To Rebrand The Word, “Jihad”

  1. rjrock says:

    Well, I appreciate that the meaning is set for you. However, the last 50 years of communication scholars see meaning as an always-becoming, where language is the contested terrain of meaning with real implications for the social world. Might check out Barthes, Sauserre, Focault, and Hall. Ultimately, we all have the agency to contest dominant meanings to change our social world.

    • That’s a very good point. I don’t mean to suggest the definition is set for me personally, but in the West more generally. Because of that, I don’t see the attempt to re-define the word as a likely to succeed. The good thing is, just like with Italians and the word ‘mafia,’ Muslims do not need to re-define ‘jihad’ to be fully accepted in the West.

      I do completely agree that the meaning of words change over time, and ‘jihad’ might eventually mean something different in the West. I just think it will be long after Muslims are perceived to be just like any other ethnic group, whether Italian, Irish, Korean, or what have you.

      Thanks again for commenting. I love these discussions.

  2. Pingback: The Effort To Save The Language Jesus Spoke | Reason and Politics

  3. rjrock says:

    I enjoyed the post and equally, the question of who gets to define the meaning of Jihad? If we consider meaning-making a relational process between people, then any term is really contested ground and largely cultural. Indeed, the term Jihad likely has very different cultural connotations in societies around the world. In post-9/11 America, there is little doubt that the primary connotation is one of holy war against the west, as opposed to meanings found elsewhere in the world like a commitment to hard work, achieving one’s goals in life, struggling to achieve a noble cause, promoting peace, harmony or cooperation, and assisting others, or living the principles of Islam.

    Accordingly, the primary question is who gets to decide what Jihad means in America? Do a handful of Muslim extremists get to define the meaning of Jihad through acts of terrorism, or the millions of Muslims living in the United States, through daily acts of Jihad with positive connotations and consequences for American society?

    I humbly suggest that the meaning of Jihad should be contested terrain in the United States, if for no other reason than to deny extremists the ability to define an entire culture and people in the minds of Americans. Rather, Muslims should contest the American popular conception of Jihad through achievement, peace, nobility, and service; behaviors, that over time, can win back ideological terrain lost in the last twenty years. I agree that you cannot simply rebrand jihad, rather it must be taken back, one behavior at a time.

    • Thanks for the comment. I think ‘Jihad’ is pretty much defined in the West, and Muslims are wasting precious time and effort with any attempt to redefine it. There’s simply no need to.

      I’m Italian-American, but I don’t go around trying to redefine ‘Mafia’ to make it sound nice. The definition is set, but no one is prejudiced towards Italians anymore. Acceptance does not require redefining negative words that are associated with that group.

      Thanks again for reading.

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