The Misrepresentation of Jihad

The first forum event organized by ConnectJustice was a response to the need to create a safe space for communities and stakeholders to share knowledge and identify innovative practices around key issues relating to social justice.

For this event, Ms. Bayan Al Shabani of the University of Warwick started the discussion by a presentation on “The misrepresentation of jihad in public and academic discourse and its impact on the integration of multi-faith society”. This tackled the (false) conflation of jihad with terrorism, and what is held as a legitimate use of force by different parties. The meaning of jihad is actually ‘striving and struggling’: terrorism was clearly classified as hirabah – unlawful warfare – and baghi – unjustified rebellion – within the Islamic framework. The group were invited to examine and discuss images from the media and book covers – and the accompanying print – as well as texts from speeches by politicians and representatives of organisations. The continual bracketing of Islam with terrorism meant a potential criminalization of all Muslims, and a strengthening of divisive discourses including islamophobic and extremist narratives.

The discussion following the presentation and exercises brought up the following issues:

  • Understandings: Not everyone knew the difference between jihad, holy war and terrorism, and even Muslims get confused. The 4 schools and different versions of Islam also complicate the wider context, while different meanings assigned to terms can create tension, such as the hijacking of the the term ‘Salafi’. This is further exacerbated by the practical reality of correcting misunderstandings – does the public care?
  • Responses: The reaction to discourse is shaped by who you are and how you perceive the speaker or writer. Communities will therefore respond differently depending on what the speaker represents. Can only those people who have been violent extremists, or those who openly espouse non-violent extremism, really be accepted by ‘IS’ sympathisers, for example? Here a proper Islamic education is central, but does this have to come from someone who shares similar outlooks or experiences?
  • The value of research: There were questions around whether and how academic research was of value for policy makers and practitioners. This research was seen to fit into concerns about narratives and counter-narratives, and how knowledge forms – but could it also be used by others in a less positive way? There needs to be a bridge between the ‘academic’ side and the grassroots. Instead of talking about ideology, understanding and acknowledging anger and grievance remains paramount. It was suggested history can remind us of the diversity of established, legitimate Islamic states, including their treatment of minorities, including the welcoming of Jews who were persecuted elsewhere.
  • The far right: there was an urgent need to include far right extremism in all the discussions. There is evidence of the closeness between the two sorts of extremism in terms of reasons for becoming radicalized. The experience of former far right extremists is very important educationally. Emphasis on the far right also acts usefully to add nuance to the issues, and reduce the sense that Muslims are the only ‘problem’.
  • Work in schools: Prevent does ask for dialogue in schools about extremism, but teachers can be scared or confused about simultaneously having to spot ‘signs of radicalisation’. The tendency to conflate increased religiosity with radicalization was raised as problematic and counter to analyses which have found in-depth understanding of religion as a protective factor against violent radicalisaton. Discussion has to be without fear. There can be learning from Northern Ireland, where it was young people who played a key part in the peace process, by talking to each other. Dialogue has to be sustainable, not just a single visit or exchange.
  • Change and reform: Can the term ‘jihad’ be reclaimed? It was thought that whole discourses cannot be changed, but one can start on a small, human rather than structural level. One participant said she would go back to start examining the use of language in official documentation in her workplace. One community group in Bristol was reported as successfully reclaiming language, with a video to come out soon. One participant had a friend whose parents had named him ‘Jihad’ – he spent his life explaining his name and its positive connotations. There was also a concern about the call for ‘reform’ in Islam. Islam itself cannot be reformed, only jurisprudence and interpretations.

Outcomes & ideas

  • Future project ideas: respond to the concerns of those teachers and design a syllabus or guide
  • Reclaiming ‘jihad’ on social media
  • More safe spaces for youth to discuss intersections of political, social and personal

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9/11: The Al Qaeda attacks on New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Washington on 11th September 2001, which triggered President George W Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ and the  wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

7/7: The co-ordinated bomb attacks on London by four young British men in the name of Al Qaeda, on 7th July 2005, which killed 52 people.

Al Qaeda: Terrorist group founded in 1988 by Osama Bin Laden, which committed the 9/11 attacks.

Islamic State (Daesh/IS/ISIS/ISIL): Terrorist group formed after the fall of Saddam Hussain in Iraq and the civil war in Syria. It is the most prominent recruiter of Westerners to its mission to establish its own state.

CONTEST & the ‘4 Ps’: The British Government’s Counter Terrorism strategy initiated in 2006, revised in 2011, consisting of 4 strands: Prepare, Protect, Prevent and Pursue.

Prevent: Aiming to stop (prevent) individuals from supporting terrorism or becoming terrorists.