Let’s rescue a once-beautiful word from its captors
The Star Ledger, Wednesday, December 29, 2004
BY ANISA MEHDI
I’m picky about words. Maybe it’s because I’m the daughter of an English teacher. Maybe because I went to journalism school. Or maybe it’s because I’ve always wanted to show Henry Higgins he doesn’t have a corner on the English language.
Words are powerful. They can save lives or destroy them; make truth of falsehood and weave tapestries about our society, our safety (remember weapons of mass destruction?) and who our enemies are.
Words can hurt, too. Almost as badly as sticks and stones.
I remember in 11th grade an English teacher at the High School of Music and Art in New York began shouting hysterically in the hallway at a Jewish friend and me: “She’s an A-rab! An A-rab!” The message was to my friend: Get away from her. We both exited. Shocked. Stung. My heart hurt for a long while after that.
Years later I worked on a CBS News magazine team looking at American involvement in Lebanon in the 1980s and the attack on the Marine barracks in’83. One version of the script called it a “terrorist attack.” I argued that the attack was against soldiers, not civilians. As journalists, it’s our job to clarify, and we must distinguish terrorism from acts of war. Besides, Arab- American kids had it tough enough already, with the words “terrorist” and Arab virtually synonymous in our media. It wasn’t fair that an attack on the military should be called terrorism just because Arabs committed it. Eventually the script line was changed to “surprise attack.”
But 20 years later not much else has changed. Except now we abuse even more words, foreign words, that we don’t understand.
As a Muslim of Arab descent, I feel the wrath of one particularly abused word every day: jihad. News reports about “jihad” or “holy war,” bear the unspoken insinuation that because of my background I am connected with the terrorism that abounds; that my way of worshipping God is a threat to our national security; that it’s okay to go after others with my background—before they come after us.
So let me clarify. I’m not. It isn’t. And it’s not okay.
For me growing up, “jihad” was a beautiful word. Jihad was the effort you made to do your best in school; your struggle to polish the talents God gave you; how you strived to live up to your parents’ and your own highest expectations; to lead a life acceptable to the Almighty.
So, people flying planes into buildings, beheading hostages in Iraq and fomenting hatred against people of other religions—that’s not jihad!
According to the Qur’an, the holy text of Islam, the Almighty does not reward the murder of innocent people. Nor does the Creator condone suicide—as in suicide bombings. Terrorism is sociopathic. In secular terms, it is criminal behavior. In religious terms, it is blasphemy to claim cold-blooded murder in the name of God. It is not jihad.
What’s a journalist to do? The good news is we can call a spade a spade. There is an Arabic word for these crimes against individuals and crimes against humanity, and the word is “hiraba.” War against society.
People who are following God or practicing jihad do not join war against society. Terrorists serve Satan, if anything. They are bad people, criminals in a secular sense and blasphemers in the sacred. Just because they think they’re on God’s side doesn’t mean the American media and our government PR folks need concur! But by parroting their misuse of the word “jihad,” that’s just what we’re doing.
There is nothing “holy” about war. There is no jihad in terrorism. Only hiraba.
So what happens if we call a spade a spade? Think of the disincentive to young, hungry, cynical Muslims—angry at their own governments and angry at ours for bolstering theirs. If they heard “hiraba” instead of “jihad,” if they heard “murder” instead of “martyr,” if they heard they were bound for hell not heaven, they might not be so quick to sign up to kill themselves and a handful of so-called “infidels” along the way.
We know words are powerful. After all, we attacked Iraq for a mere acronym: WMD. So those of us concerned with accuracy should use our mightier-than- the-sword pens and keyboards and get the word “hiraba” out there.
Someday, I hope, “jihad” will find its way back into our lexicon, used properly, in sentences like “she’s on a jihad to achieve the American dream.”
In the meantime, people like me, performing jihad in our own ways—being patient with our kids, volunteering in our communities, practicing our professions to the best of our abilities, can walk free of guilt by association with those engaged in hiraba.
Anisa Mehdi is a documentary filmmaker and journalist based in New Jersey. This article first appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger on December 29, 2004. Her commentary on this subject aired on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered on January 7, 2005. To hear the broadcast go to www.anisamehdi.com and click on “Resources.” Anisa Mehdi is producer/director of the National Geographic Special “Inside Mecca.”
This article is reprinted with permission of the author.