What does “jihad” mean to you?

Concerned that many people misunderstand the term — and have negative stereotypes of Muslims — the Council on American-Islamic Relations has launched a an advertising campaign on San Francisco buses.

A "My Jihad" bus advertisement. (Council on American-Islamic Relations)

The ads offer various examples of personal jihads, such as “My Jihad is to build friendships across the aisle. What’s yours?”

Zahra Billoo, CAIR’s San Francisco Chapter executive director told KQED’s Lauren Benichou that it is too early to measure the impact of the campaign.

“What we are trying to explain to our fellow Americans is that Jihad or holy struggle is a very nuanced concept,” she said. “It is a part of Islam and it includes everything from bettering oneself to bettering one’s community, to self-defense.”

CAIR started the advertising partly to counter an earlier bus advertising campaign by Pamela Geller, an activist and author known for her negative views of Islam. “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel,” said Geller’s ads. “Defeat jihad.”

“Frequently, what we hear from the right wing media is a one-sided and very narrow definition of Jihad that focuses on self-defense and armed struggle when in reality, that is not the Jihad of most Muslims, and most of all and more importantly, not the Jihad of American Muslims,” said Billoo.

Muni began running Geller’s ads in August after a federal judge ruled that New York City had to accept them on public transit there. The San Francisco agency later posted its own ads on the same buses explaining that Muni disavowed Geller’s message.

The CAIR campaign began last week in San Francisco, and as of Jan. 3 ads were displayed on the sides of 35 Muni buses, according to the media release. It extends a similar campaign that began Dec. 11 in Chicago.

The understanding of “jihad” in English seems to be evolving.

The 1895 book “A Dictionary of Islam” by Thomas Patrick Hughes gives this definition:

Lit. “An effort, or a striving.” A religious war with those who are unbelievers in the mission of Muhammad. It is an incumbent religious duty, established in the Qur’an and in the Traditions as a divine institution, and enjoined specially for the purpose of advancing Islam and of repelling evil from Muslims.

The 1971 edition of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary similarly defines jihad as “A religious war of Mohammedans against nonbelievers in Islam, inculcated as a duty by the Koran and traditions.”

But according to the 2010 book “Essential Islam: A Comprehensive Guide to Belief and Practice” by Diane Morgan, “jihad” has long been used within the religion both to mean an internal struggle and a fight against the enemies of Islam.

And the Free Online Dictionary gives three definitions:

1. Islam An individual’s striving for spiritual self-perfection.

2. Islam A Muslim holy war or spiritual struggle against infidels.

3. A crusade or struggle: “The war against smoking is turning into a jihad against people who smoke” (Fortune).

Here’s how the current campaign started, according to a CAIR media release:

Volunteers working on the campaign include activists and students, but the crux of the volunteers have been a group of working moms who are disturbed by the prospects of their children growing up in an environment of gross misinformation about Islam that sometimes spills into outright hatred such as with the recent anti-Islam ads sponsored by Pamela Geller.

The CAIR campaign has a website and extends to Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, where users are asked to tweet about their own jihad #MyJihad hashtag.

Many tweets follow the spirit of the CAIR campaign, such as this one:

But others tweets are taking a more critical tone, including this one from Pamela Geller:

Geller has announced plans for a new bus ad campaign satirizing the “My Jihad” ads in Chicago and San Francisco. Paul Rose, a spokesman for Muni says the agency has not seen her application for the new ads.

‘My Jihad’ Ad Campaign Launched on SF Buses 4 January,2013Laird Harrison

  • el Greco

    Sorry, this is like saying the N-word is just a friendly way for Southerners to greet blacks.

  • Ron

    The word may be being used in its violent connotation because of the way we’ve learned it being used violently by ‘jihadis’ of the al-Quaeda persuasion. It’s actions that count, not being offended by people’s perceptions of violence.

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