In a recent media foray commemorating 9/11 in New York, Tony Blair decided to further blur the lines between the terrorist violence currently rocking the Middle East and the various communities of Muslims across the globe: “the conspiracy theories which illuminate much of the jihadi writings have significant support even amongst parts of the mainstream population of some Muslim countries”. He hardly needed have troubled himself. The insidious amalgamation of the terrorist and the Muslim is well-rooted in the public consciousness. The most common such instance is the use of the terms ‘jihad’ and ‘jihadists’ to describe the actions of individuals who identify as Muslims and engage in acts of political violence.
There are perhaps two key reasons this label is so attractive. It simplifies the enemy, plastering over sociological differences that exist within and between terrorist groups. Thus, bombs placed by groups in southern Thailand, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the printing of currency by Daesh in the Levant, the attack on a gas plant in Algeria, and the Charlie Hebdo murders in France can all be neatly pigeon-holed in the media as jihad. The term also appears exotic to the western public. This reinforces the notion that the enemy cannot be understood within our cultural framework, which is worrying because the enemy is inherently irrational, but also reassuring in so far as it places the burden of responsibility for modern terrorism outside the western cultural sphere. Even when s/he is British or French or Dutch, the jihadist is either an ethnic import or has been infected by an imported ideology.
Language has a role in human society: to help us understand the world, communicate ideas, and work collaboratively. The misuse of language hampers these fundamental social functions. If a doctor uses the word ‘scalpel’ to designate every piece of surgical equipment in the operating room, the result is a bloody mess. Referring to Muslim terrorists as ‘jihadists’, and to political violence enacted by Muslims as ‘jihad’ is similarly dangerous: using broad labels for an assortment of distinct events serves to fence off further knowledge, amalgamate diversity within a single word, and simplify complexity. It does not help us understand these movements, nor to discuss them in a rational manner, nor to work collaboratively to combat them. It just makes us shifty when we get on the train next to a bearded man. It makes us prejudiced in the etymological sense of the word: a judgment made prior to the acquisition of knowledge.
There’s another reason that the language of jihad in reference to contemporary political violence is misguided. Many of these violent groups and individuals like to think of themselves as Muslim warriors engaged in holy war. But they’re not – or rather, there is no valid justification for recognising them as such. They’re angry men and women using the veneer of religion to justify their violence. To his credit, Tony Blair has made this point and it would be helpful for him to use his prominent platform to focus on that message rather than co-opting the internal language of the Islamic faith.
It is an intellectual capitulation on the part of the media and public figures to acquiesce to that mis-use of Islamic language. There is a plethora of publications on the Islamic tradition of jihad and its various interpretations within the faith. The topic raises challenging questions about how to live as a person of faith in society and the just role of violence.1 Millions of Muslims consider themselves to be actively engaged in jihad and are not violent and not terrorists. If the media want to report on violent interpretations of jihad, then it is incumbent upon them to also report on how the majority of people of faith understand and live this duty. If they want to report on political violence, then they should use the language of politics. But people who engage in acts of terror should not be setting the agenda of how Islam is portrayed in the Western media.
1 An excellent historical case study of this debate: Babou, Cheikh Anta. Fighting the Greater Jihad : Amadu Bamba and the Founding of the Muridiyya of Senegal, 1853-1913. Athens, Ohio University Press (“New African Histories Series”), 2007.
Alexis Artaud de La Ferrière is a post-doctoral fellow at the Groupe Sociétés, Religions, Laïcités (CNRS) in Paris. He is currently working on an ethnographic study of Christian-Muslim relations in the context of faith-based migrant support initiatives in France. Previously, Alexis conducted his doctoral research on the sociology of education in Algeria at the University of Cambridge, and has also worked in Tunisia and Afghanistan.