Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Jihad or hirabah? Do the words matter?

We in the West have co-opted the term jihad and jihadist when the very use of those words may be causing our own goals to become murky even among those who aren't supporters of armed struggle with non-Muslims. Some prefer the terms hirabah and hirabi in lieu of jihad and jihadist.

Here's an interesting bit from NPR on the subject:
Professor Douglas Streusand says that's why U.S. officials should stop using the term altogether. Streusand is an Arabic and Farsi speaker with a doctorate from the University of Chicago. He teaches Islamic history at the Marine Corps Staff College in Quantico, Va. In a paper written for and circulated among top military brass in the Pentagon, Streusand argues that describing Islamist militants and insurgents in Iraq as "jihadists" is hurting U.S. policy.

Why? Because according to Streusand, "for a Muslim, jihad is a good thing. It literally means striving in the path of God." By describing insurgents or terrorists as "jihadists," he argues, we imply we are fighting meritorious Muslims. To make the point clearer, he says it would be as if al-Qaida called its enemies "freedom."

His suggestion? Use Islamic legal language. The term he suggests is "hirabah" —literally, an unjust form of warfare.
Yeah, calling bin Laden and his minions jihadists seems like the wrong tact if we just end up inadvertently praising them as "strivers in the path of God." The best parallel with Christianity I could think of was someone trying to bash those among the Christian faithful for their support of the War on Terror by calling them "Christian soldiers." Well, that simply would not have the negative ring that was intended, would it?

Calling them hirabi (committers of hirabah) would be much more fitting to Muslim audiences as it rolled off the tongue of President Obama or UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon: they're a bunch of unjust fighters, pirates, and spreaders of disorder, a serious punishment in the Qur'an. This would underscore the fatwa against acts of terror by Muslim scholars.

If nothing else, I would like to see hirabah/hirabi replace jihad/jihadist in our rhetoric about these murderers and would-be murderers. It may end up making little difference to the people already in these groups, but to people on the sidelines, it might underscore the bad-faith acts of these killers and bringers of mayhem, bringing a clearer perspective to why it is that their actions are wrong even though they are of the same faith.

[Note: This post was originally a lengthy footnote at the bottom of a February 2009 post on racial profiling, "Nanas in wheelchairs."]


  1. Very well wrote.
    Here is Muslims demonstrating against these hirabahs.


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